Put People First members marching on Martin Luther King Day with City Councilwoman Helen Gym. / Photo courtesy of Nijmie Dzurinko

Putting People First in Pennsylvania

A conversation with Nijmie Dzurinko

Put People First members marching on Martin Luther King Day with City Councilwoman Helen Gym. / Photo courtesy of Nijmie Dzurinko


Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed, and what is still the same.

Nijmie Dzurinko: My name is Nijmie Dzurinko, a lifelong Pennsylvanian and a black and indigenous woman who grew up in Monessen, PA, in Westmoreland County. I have lived in Philadelphia for over twenty years.

Sarah Jaffe: Shortly after the election, you sent me a piece that one of the members of Put People First Pennsylvania had written about her husband being an almost Trump voter. I still think about this because it was in that moment where there was a lot of panic and distrust and anger and there still is. This was a piece about how somebody goes from being an almost Trump voter to not being a Trump voter through an organization. I wonder if you could talk about that piece and what it says about the organizing philosophy of Put People First.

ND: I think the first thing to know about the piece is that although it does chronicle the story of one of our members, Danelle Morrow and her husband Kevin, from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a place where Trump campaigned heavily in the election, the purpose of the story is not to say that our intention was to turn him from being a Trump voter. That was an outgrowth of the strategy, which is to really build an intersectional working class movement across the state of Pennsylvania that meets people where they are at, sees them for who they are, engages them around where they are hurting, then, moves us all toward a vision of human rights that is inclusive of all people. Including them.

Danelle wrote this piece about her husband. She found Put People First online. She saw us on Facebook. The first contact she ever made with us was jumping in a car with her two daughters and driving about two and a half hours to come to a meeting with a bunch of people she had never met before because she just liked the sound of what we were doing. She then found a place in the organization and has since has become a leader of an organizing committee in Johnstown. What that piece was about, partly, what impacted her husband who is not directly involved, but involved through family, is that Danelle’s mom had been in a senior care center in her community and actually died as a result of not being treated, not being tested, having her care put off for the sake of saving cost by this company.

In Put People First, we have this saying about making the invisible visible. We helped Danelle through the process—she actually did a public vigil about her mom, her mom’s life, and Kevin, her husband, was there and family friends were there. I think that was really a turning point, also, in really understanding the power of what we are doing.

SJ: Part of Put People’s First’s strategy is to organize people as families, in communities. Can you talk about that strategy?

ND: I have learned a lot from international movements, the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil and others, about we have to be organizing whole families because people are a part of their family. When we are organizing people only as individuals, they come and go. We are trying to actually create something that lasts. Similar to the way we are situated in our families, we talk about permanently organized communities. We don’t want to come together around something and then disband.

We need to remove barriers to people who have families being able to participate. That means having childcare, having food, making it open and welcome for children and young people to be present, and also for spouses and significant others and aunties and uncles and grandmas to be part of the process. Being explicit about that has actually really been important. That has meant that people bring in their partners. They bring in the people in their lives that are important to them. Then, when that happens, something shifts because then it is a double commitment. “I am here and I am committed to this, but I am also here with the people I am committed to,” which is a really different kind of thing.

I think it also actually brings love. It is this alignment between what we say about love—we say sometimes in our movements, “We are organizing from a place of love.” How do we really demonstrate that? I think that having family being part of our work is one of the ways that we demonstrate that.

We need to make sure that the most marginalized people in the class are in the center of our work, but we have got to be organizing a working-class movement.

I think that is another aspect of this. Let’s not get comfortable in thinking that, “Because I know something and I am woke, that means that everyone else isn’t.” Right? “I am better now. I know something that other people don’t.” If I enter into this work and enter into community with people that are trying to change the world, I have to be ready to be transformed as much as I am trying to transform others. If I hold myself outside of that and I think, “Well, I am not going to change. Just everyone else is going to change,” that is limiting. That is a really limiting way of looking at it.

When we open ourselves up to being transformed and in transforming others, amazing things happen. How do we make that change in each other through our work and then have that spread to others and build our organizations in such a way that they are having influence on people, they are actually moving people?

SJ: We have seen a lot of big mobilizations since Trump was elected and we have also seen the growth of organizing in a lot of places. A lot of people who come out of the movements of the last few years, who had been a bit averse to joining organizations are now doing so. But what is the difference between a long-term organizing strategy and mobilizing and in some ways driving yourself bonkers by trying to get to every protest?

ND: To speak to a long-term organizing strategy, I think we have got to get clear on a few things. One is that my work is still around the idea that we have got to be organizing an intersectional working class movement. That means that we have got to be organizing the folks who are forced to work for wages and particularly folks who are the most marginalized workers and/or folks who can’t work, who are locked out of the system of work, but who need to in order to survive. That group of people is representative of every race, every gender, every status of documentation. That group of people is very broad. We need to make sure that the most marginalized people in the class are in the center of our work, but we have got to be organizing a working class movement.

One of the things we have got to recognize in that sense is that to build a long-term strategy is that the One Percent is not necessarily going to fund the unity of the 99 Percent. The One Percent is pretty comfortable funding segments of that group to fight for their own piece, but not necessarily for the coming together of that class as a class. I think that in terms of long-term strategy, we need to be okay with that. We are going to have to do some things that might not get funded. We are going to have to put in some work that might not get paid. No one wants to hear that necessarily. We are in this moment where there are some dreams about how everyone is going to have a career, everyone is going to be able to do some kind of revolutionary work and get paid really well to do it and that is still a contradiction. It never hasn’t been and it always will be because, again, the One Percent is not going to put their money behind a class struggle that is aiming at them. They might put their money behind a struggle that was aiming at better representation among their class of a certain group of people, but they are not going to put their money behind a unified group of folks that are coming for them.

In terms of the long-term strategy, that is something we have got to be aware of and we have got to be building formations and infrastructure that uses the skills and the talents and the brilliance and the resilience and the time of people that are marginalized by the system, that are locked out of the system to get around. To make a way out of no way. That is what we know how to do. We need to have organizational structures and formations that make the most of our strengths.

SJ: There have been a lot of bad conversations about a lot of these divides since the election, but one of the divides you have been bridging in Put People First is this urban/rural divide—which in the State of Pennsylvania can be really, really stark. What has it meant to actually build a statewide organization in Pennsylvania and bring people together when politicians and others try to play rural Pennsylvania off against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh?

ND: The first thing is that you have to be determined to do that because every single person and narrative and the powers that be will try to get inside your head and say to you, “Why would you do that? It is not worth it. It is a waste of time. Those people, whoever they may be, they are useless. They are worthless.” So, you have to be determined to do it. If you are not determined, in statewide organizing, to get out of that binary and to really look at what is real and take your blinders off, then you will not succeed. You have to build up the determination of other people with you so you are not in isolation.

What we have found is that there are a few critical things that make it possible. One is people actually have to get out of the place where they are comfortable, get out of the place they live, and go somewhere else they have never been and meet some people they have never met and actually be together and be together over the long term. It is not a one-off thing. It is not one meeting where people sort of smile and have a lot of pretense. It is a long-term relationship among people that live in different places and the organization has to facilitate that. Long-term relationship building between people who are actually living in different places and having different experiences but then uniting on the basis of what we have in common.

The second thing is a real leadership development and political education process. We know we have all learned a lot of bullshit, and we all live in a culture and a political and economic system that are extremely exploitative and oppressive. We have all internalized that. No one is free of that. So we all have to be engaged in a process of unlearning that and changing how we see things through looking at history, through study, through learning about oppression and exploitation.

In Put People First, we talk about leadership across difference. We are not trying to erase people’s differences. We actually need leaders who really, deeply understand the sources of where exploitation has come from and also the results and the outcomes on groups of people. Then, also, are very committed to and skilled at uniting people anyway. Which is really the crux. How do we unite people anyway, even despite all that has happened?

You need education and a really, really clear program. Then, you need activities that people are doing together that, in our case the Healthcare is a Human Right campaign. We are working on something, we are invested in it, we are moving together, we are fighting for each other. The relationships have to be there, the education has to be there, and the activity has to be there. It has taken a while, sometimes, for folks to stop going to a very reactive place. It is a habit to think of urban people in a particular way and rural people in a particular way. But people have been able to unlearn those habits.

I have the advantage of having grown up in a small town and having a very different perspective on what that really is. I really encourage everyone who thinks they are a truth-teller and talks about speaking truth to power, my question is: Have you gone out and actually looked at what is true? Have you exposed yourself to some of that truth? I would really encourage people to do that.

SJ: Let’s talk about the Healthcare is a Human Right framework. We are in a moment where healthcare is the most important topic, according to polls, on the minds of most people. You have been working on this, through this particular framework, for several years now.

ND: The premise, again, of our organizing is that basic needs are human rights and that winning some of those needs, that disrupts the logic of the current system. It is transformational, not transactional. We are trying to change what is politically possible. We need a mass movement of people that are not normally known to be together in order to make that happen.

Healthcare is something that, from the beginning, was very clearly on everyone’s mind. Our first membership assembly, which was in Schuylkill County, we had thirty-six people there. We had done a bunch of research on different things that we could possibly take up as a campaign. We chose between healthcare and education. There was a vote and healthcare won.

It continues to be, of course, something that is on everyone’s mind. It is very personal. We all have a relationship to it because we all have a body. We started in 2012. The funny thing was that not very many organizations were talking about healthcare then, because everything had been solved by the ACA. [Laughs] And we got some weird looks for even working on healthcare because some people situated in certain places and in certain organizations felt like there was no problem anymore. But actually, when the ACA was not even being challenged politically in the way that it is now, going out and doorknocking and talking to people, we found there was still a tremendous amount of crisis in the healthcare system.

We all know the system is a patchwork system. The system is built upon the idea that healthcare is a commodity. The ACA did not fundamentally change that. It helped people get access to that commodity. It made the commodity more affordable for people, more accessible to people, and expanded Medicaid which was an amazing achievement in the ACA. But, it also reinforced the idea that healthcare is something that you buy. That there are different levels. That you get different kinds of care depending on how much money you have. There are different tiers. It shored and propped up insurance markets. There was still a tremendous amount of crisis that people were experiencing during that time that we were able to listen to and really fully understand.

If we are building an intersectional working-class movement, how do we undermine the management of our class on the basis of race and gender?

It is part of our theory of change to really hold all power holders accountable and to have independent politics. We are never beholden to some idea that in order to ingratiate ourselves to anyone we have to say, “The problem is solved.” The problem isn’t solved. Now, we are looking at a system that is potentially even more inequitable and even more unfair. But what we have been able to do using these principles of universality, equity, participation, transparency and accountability is to really hold out a belief in a healthcare system that meets those principles, one in which we don’t all have to fight for our piece, but we can all fight together for a different kind of system. That has been actually profound in our work and it has led to winning the first public hearing in the state from the insurance department on rising healthcare costs last year. It is very aligned with our work of building an intersectional working class movement.

SJ: When we look at what the Republicans in Congress are going to try to do, this is not just going to hit people who have Affordable Care Act plans or people who are on the Medicaid expansion. It is going to affect people who have employer-provided plans. It seems like they handed us an issue that affects everybody and Democrats don’t want to campaign on it. I don’t want to spend too much time making you talk about the Democratic Party, but there is a broader question, as you said, of organizations that are expected to sort of toe that line in order to get funding and get support.

ND: I have been talking about the stakes in this last election, with this country still being the most powerful and the richest country in the world. What is at stake in the election of a president who, of course, is not the sole power, but is a figurehead for power? The fact that the Democrats lost this election and in some ways had themselves convinced and had a large portion of their base convinced that they were going to win—the fact that they lost the election, to me, represents one of the biggest tactical errors of a faction of the ruling class in history.

I think it is important for people to then recognize, particularly folks that have recently come into activity through some of the new formations that have arisen from those same tacticians—who just experienced a tremendous failure that really should and could have been recognized in advance and prevented—turning around and telling all of the people in their base, “Here is what to do next. Now we are going to teach you about resistance.”

I think it is worth it for folks to really look at that and say, “Hmm. What did they do there?” Instead of focusing our attention on how to prevent something like this from ever happening again, we have been boxed into being told now what to do and deflecting all of the energy and the attention from the mistake that we just made. I think that is a really powerful sleight of hand.

That is not in any way blaming those people that are out there and doing lots of things, but I think it is really worth it to look at where those things come from. What is it doing and what is it purposefully not doing it? Where is it targeting energy and where is it purposefully not doing that?

SJ: The conversation about race and class has been absolutely terrible since this election, on both sides. There are people talking about class in a way that basically means we need to talk to more white people. And there are people saying you can’t do that because Trump voters are inherently racist. When I talk to people like you who are organizing across all sorts of lines and binaries that we normally accept as immutable, I find the conversation on the internet has absolutely nothing to do with people’s realities.

ND: One piece is that talking and thinking about class as sort of a proxy for whiteness is just wrong. The working class is, again, representative of every group of people, every background, every nationality, every ethnicity, every gender, every region and we need to think about it that way.

The strength of white supremacy in this country has always rested on an all-white, all-class unity. Breaking that unity is one of the key factors in changing the country, as well as building the class consciousness of the whole class and unifying the whole class. The actual objective conditions that we are looking at right now are breaking down.

My mentor, Willie Baptist, likes to talk about conditions and consciousness. It is not enough to have consciousness on its own. You also have to have the conditions. As world changers, we have to be really looking at the conditions right now and how we match those conditions with consciousness. I think that it is really about building an intersectional working class movement. The same way that we have a very healthy and important respect for the fact that folks that are talking about race and gender need to be grounded both through lived experience, and also though analysis and strategy, the same is true about class. It is important to not necessarily take seriously folks that are totally dismissive of class when they are not grounded, when they can’t really speak to the subject, but they just dismiss it out of hand.

Everyone is impacted by the economic structure that we live in. No one isn’t. So, the same way that race and gender are not just identities, they are structures, the economic system is a structure that impacts every one of every race and every gender. It is the world that we live in.

To be honest, it is a niche market to be caught up in these debates. It actually produces capital to be on one side or the other or to be caught in an endless war of words around these things. I do think that serves a purpose for certain folks, but for people that don’t want to be part of that and want to do something else, I think there are other ways and other tools and other language that we can use to really think about how we build an intersectional working class movement that doesn’t minimize people’s differences. It is very important to recognize the ways that we have been situated and oppressed and exploited differently based on our race, based on our gender. Also, to recognize the usefulness of that oppression and that exploitation on controlling the whole class.

It was never just about targeting a specific group of people just because we hate them so much. It is about managing the entire class through the hyper-exploitation and the hyper-oppression of people around race and gender. It manages the entire class. The thing that we have to recognize is that if we are building an intersectional working class movement, how do we undermine that management of our class on the basis of race and gender? The only way we can do that is by uniting the whole class and really centering race and gender in building the unity of that class. But, if we give up on uniting that class, if we go “Oh, that is not our project. Our project is not about uniting the class” then we are not actually challenging the system of white supremacy.

SJ: How can people keep up with you and your work?

ND: You can find us at www.putpeoplefirstpa.org. You can find us on Facebook Put People First PA, on Twitter @PPF_PA. If you are in Pennsylvania, you can join. If you are anywhere else, you can support as well.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Nation Institute. Her book, Necessary Trouble, is out from Nation Books.

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Further Reading

 October 10

A masterful narrative of the Greek debt crisis, Varoufakis's Adults in the Room makes a case for the revival of a humane internationalism.