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Black Americans Face Worst of Austerity Campaign

The Real News On Race with Jared Ball talks with Empower DC about the fight for affordable child care

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JARED BALL, ASSOC. PROF., , MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY: And welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball, and we’re continuing our Real News on Race segment. And we’re joined again by Linda Leaks and Parisa Norouzi, cofounders of Empower DC. Parisa, let’s talk about this issue of austerity as it’s been handed down from the president all the way down to our mayor here in Washington, DC, and its impact on the work that you do, particularly around the issue of child care. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

PARISA NOROUZI, EMPOWER DC: Yeah, similar to the affordable housing issue, the availability of quality affordable child care is critical to the livelihoods of district–of residents. Low- and moderate-income DC residents rely upon a program called the Child Care Subsidy Program that is largely funded through federal funds, through the Child Care Development Block Grant that is also being slashed. And this is the program that offsets the cost of child care, which can be $10,000 to $15,000 per year per child, 30 to 50 percent of a family’s income. But our slogan for our campaign is "DC doesn’t work without child care", ’cause we know–I mean, there’s a lot of rhetoric about lifting people out of poverty and putting people to work. However, that’s not possible if we don’t have quality child care. And the issue also links to education and other issues that we work on. In the District of Columbia, the high school dropout rate is over 50 percent of students that are not successfully completing public schools. But this starts in early childhood. And all of the education experts will tell us that every dollar we invest in quality early childhood will return at least $7 per $1 invested in savings long-term, because people will be more successful in school and graduating more successfully. Also, there are some savings in other–the need for other social programs and policing, for instance. So part of what we see here, and because of the power imbalance, because the district is predominantly made up of African-American and immigrant families and we lack the power that we need (and that’s why we seek to organize, so that we can have that power), our needs are not being prioritized. And so there’s all this so-called progress happening that is at the expense of our families, much less benefiting our families. And we see that also in the issue of education and public property. Schools are being shuttered. Child care centers have been shuttered. Under the [Adrian] Fenty administration, the whole child care program at DC Parks and Recreation was abolished, and this was a program that had been in place since the 1970s. So, similar to affordable housing disappearing, child care disappearing, schools being closed, this is the divestment from our neighborhoods of the key functions that support community life. And the quetion then is: then who’s going to benefit from this so-called progress and change? The last couple of administrations in the District of Columbia have stated a goal of 100,000 new residents, but they haven’t taken it as a failure when tens of thousands of residents have been pushed out of the city. So in the last decade we’ve lost at least 30,000 African-American families and we’ve gained 40,000 caucasian residents. And the question is: do we see that as a success? Or is the real success lifting the tax base by investing in the livelihoods of those people who have been here and invested in this city for so long?

BALL: You know, DC became quite well known over the last year or so, primarily because of schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and the whole push to privatize education, develop more charter schools, which the former mayor Adrian Fenty was a strong proponent of. And a lot of people around the country didn’t realize to what extent the racial divide impacted the mayoral race in this city, where a lot of the people who were supportive of Fenty were the white, more affluent residents, and those who wanted Fenty replaced with, now, Vincent Gray, were more working-class and poor black residents. How–or what help could they expect or should they expect in the new mayor, Vincent Gray? Is there any coming? Or are there any major changes? We know Michelle Rhee is gone, but are there any major changes to this school privatization, charter school movement?

NOROUZI: There is no major changes. In fact, many of us would argue that Vince Gray is equally as supportive of Fenty’s school reform policies as Fenty was. But like you stated, 80 percent of African Americans in the District of Columbia voted for Vince Gray; 80 percent of Caucasians in the District of Columbia voted for Mayor Fenty. So there was clearly an idea that there was going to be change. However, in the acceptance speech, Vincent Gray said, we’re going to go reach out to those who did not vote for us. And that’s what he’s been doing. He’s been, you know, working with the Federal City Council and others that represent predominantly white business interests in this city. And I think the feeling already is that the people who elected him are being left out of the conversation.

BALL: That sounds a lot like, actually, what President Obama’s policies have been, reaching out to those who did not vote for him as opposed to the base that elected him. Tell us a little bit about this issue of–tell us about Bruce-Monroe and your campaign around that. I think that’s a good example of some of the impact that this is having on black and brown and working-class district residents. Tell us a little bit about that.

NOROUZI: Right. Yeah. To us the story of Bruce-Monroe is a great example of how the city has perfected a strategy for tricking and moving families and communities out of the way so that they can usher in this so-called revitalization to benefit a new class of people.

BALL: And what is Bruce-Monroe?

NOROUZI: Bruce-Monroe is an elementary school on Georgia Avenue that was a very successful school. The building was in bad condition, but the actual students were achieving at high levels. There was a high level of parental involvement. The school was on the list to be closed, and they fought very hard to be taken off of that list. They proved that they had a strong school community and deserved not only to be kept open but to be renovated. And so they won the commitment of a brand new school building. And the city said to them, just move temporarily and we’re going to build you this new school. So those families moved, their school was torn down, and then they were told, the city doesn’t have money to build your new school, we’re going to offer the site to developers. And that is what has happened. The site has been offered to developers. There’s all sorts of plans for condos on the site. Meanwhile, just before the election, they put $2 million into a park on the site to make the neighborhood think fondly of, you know, something that looks a lot better than a pile of rubble. However, folks are being tricked, because that is just a temporary use. The idea is by no means to maintain a community park or a public school. So we are working with predominantly Latino and African-American families that have been displaced from Bruce-Monroe to demand that their school be rebuilt as promised.

BALL: And you’ve done a lot of direct action work. You’ve confronted people in the street, confronted the community meetings, or what was said to be community meetings, which would seem to be more contractor-politician meetings.

NOROUZI: Right.

BALL: How has that gone? And sort of similar to the question I asked Linda earlier, to what extent does the race of the mayor and the leadership impact the response of the people in the community? I mean, do people–does it help get people out? Does it hurt the movement that you’re trying to develop? How does that–does it have any impact at all?

NOROUZI: M’hm. Yeah, I think there’s generally a sense of comfort when we think, okay, the elected official is the same racial background as me or is a Democrat. Let’s say that’s–DC is a heavily Democrat town. I think there’s an unwise level of trust for the Democratic Party that, you know, is not necessarily borne out of real truth to the decisions that have been made. So, yeah, we’ve been forced–essentially, our policy is no permanent friends, no permanent enemies. Elected officials may be great on one issue and terrible on another, and our job is to hold them accountable. So as, you know, Empower DC, our principle is to not take government money and to remain as independent as possible so that we can really reflect, you know, a true, independent community force.

BALL: Let me just ask you both very quickly. A lot has been said about this city being the last colony, the last plantation, and a lot of it has to deal with what we don’t have time to get into right now, with the structure of the government, who controls the budget, which is not in the hands of locally elected officials and so on, there’s no voter representation in Congress, and so on. But there’s also an issue I just wanted to have you touch on just very quickly, and each of you, if possible, this issue of people coming to DC, from all over the world, in fact, to protest and march and rally pretty much against everything but the conditions of people in this city. As DC residents and activists in this city, any response to that that you would care to share?

LEAKS: Well, there have been times when, in terms of housing, there’ve been major kind of demonstration, national demonstration in terms of housing. So that has been good, ’cause we’ve been able to get our folks who are impacted by the national housing budget involved. But other–I haven’t seen other kinds of demonstrations, especially antiwar demonstrations–which we have quite a few in DC–I haven’t seen efforts made to go to the neighborhoods and, you know, get people involved, even though people in DC are just as impacted as other places.

NOROUZI: And I would just add that the progressive movement really should consider whether these national marches on a Sunday, for instance, when the Congress is out of session, whether it’s effective. And I would just argue that investing in the empowerment of local DC residents is one of the most strategic things people could be doing nationwide, ’cause particularly black Washingtonians have played a critical role in every social movement this country has benefited from, from suffrage to abolition to civil rights and beyond, and really a truly empowered District of Columbia, majority people of color, would be beneficial to everybody in the nation.

BALL: Parisa Norouzi, Linda Leaks, thank you for joining us. Thanks for your work with Empower DC. And thank you for watching The Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball, and this has been another segment of The Real News on Race. Please do find one of those donate buttons and click it so that we can continue to bring you this kind of coverage that we know is lacking elsewhere in your media environment. Thank you.

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