The Nina Turner Show: Building Collective Power with Nelini Stamp

Working Families Party’s Nelini Stamp talks to Nina Turner about becoming politicized by Obama’s campaign and Occupy Wall Street, the need to build a caring society, and reclaiming elections under a Trump presidency

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Story Transcript

Nina: Joining to me today is Nelini Stamp. She is the National Membership Director for the Working Families Party. She also helped to launch the Dream Defenders and still, to this day, she is defending the dreams of so many Americans. Nelini, it’s such a pleasure to have you here.

Nelini: Thank you for having me, Nina.

Nina: So, let’s talk about what is happening in the world today. I’m not sure where to start, but I think a great place to start is with your activism and your organizing. How does it feel in the organizing involvement right now especially after the election of Mr. Trump? Is it harder? Is it easier? What’s the vibe among organizers right now?

Nelini: Yeah. In a post-Trump world, so many things have happened. One, people, individuals across the country can call for an action and call for a march like we saw with the Women’s March and millions of people globally show up. That’s really beautiful. Folks had called for marches on tax day, scientists called for a science march. So, there’s been a movement that I haven’t seen in my life, my short life, in the streets and at folks’ congressional town halls, at senators’ offices, for people in congress offices. So, that’s really, really beautiful.

There’s a new shift that people are just self-organizing out there, so that’s really amazing and I think we’re seeing the vibrancy of a long-lasting movement. I think on the other hand though, we are also seeing folks who are just mad that democrats lost, aren’t really, I think that there’s a possibility to push folks for a vision that includes a vision that I love, which is a socialist vision that includes free higher education, that includes free and universal health care, that includes making sure that people have a right to housing. I don’t know if we’re there yet, but we always gotta start somewhere.

So, I think that in this post-Trump world, it’s been really exciting. I think the downfall, it’s been it’s really scary. The immigration system has been ripped out underneath a lot of organizers who’ve done immigration organizing in the past. People are going to visits with ICE officers and folks in the department not knowing how to navigate this stuff and not knowing how to organize actions around it. So, for some folks, it’s kind of like, “I’m just gonna pick up the phone and organize an action or pick up social media,” and others are like, “How do we handle that the system, it’s kind of a lawless, the wild wild west in a sense.”

Nina: Every conversation is always “Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.” I mean, is it true that none of the social eels that people are organizing around, did they not exist before Mr. Trump became president? And do you see any dangers or downside to always making him the center of the organizing universe? And I’m not saying that you’re doing that, but there seems to be a pattern where folks were not as engaged, they weren’t as upset as they are right now about the direction of our country.

Nelini: Yeah, I think that you’re right. I think that there are a bunch of people out there who have been organizing for quite some time and are still organizing in the issues that they care about and in the communities that they care about, and I think a bunch of people who woke up feeling oppressed the day after the election day and not oppressed for their lives or other things that have happened in their lives, a lot of folks woke up and were like, “I feel this way now.” Like, “Welcome to the table,” as a Afro-Latina woman in this country, I have felt this a lot of days of my life.

And so, I do think that people are making it solely about Trump, like there’s this whole impeachment narrative out there, “Let’s impeach Trump!” And I’m like, “And get Pence? That’s not a better world for me.” And also, although we had a democratic president, we also had rising economic inequality. I protested Obama when I was Occupying Wall Street six years ago. We had a democratic president and I think that we are in a time where we need to make things about Trump and we also need to grow and change the direction, and I think the reason that we need to do that is because there are a lot of Trump supporters out there, I believe, fundamentally who actually do care about economic populism, but need to have that with the racial justice center, need to have that with caring about racial justice and not that people of color, communities of color, immigrants are the problem but that the system is broken and that’s the problem and it has been broken for quite some time.

Nina: And I’m glad that you bring that up because it has. So, what was the, so you personally got engaged with Occupy, just a baby, ’cause you’re still one now. But you were engaged with Occupy almost six years ago and you had an interview with Bill Moyer and his question to you is “What is the story about our country that you want to tell?” And even though it was six years ago when you said this, it almost feels like you just said this yesterday and you said the following:

Nelini: “The system is broken and it needs to be fixed or it need to be completely changed and radicalized and reformed. Real reforms, and not just the small reforms that we get every day. I think that it is about a social and economic justice movement but also about a cultural shift, too. So, not only are we changing in economic inequalities and changing the narrative, but also a cultural shift in my mind.”

Nina: Do you still feel this way six years later?

Nelini: Yeah. Yes, I do, and I do think that we’ve shifted in those six years, culturally. You have celebrities saying “Black lives matter,” wearing Trayvon Martin hoodies. Obama said 99%, right? That’s a cultural shift. It’s a small, but important cultural shift.

Nina: But he didn’t do anything about the 99.

Nelini: Exactly. So, that’s where I still believe that we need to transform, reform what we have, and it can’t be, at the time I didn’t know the term, but it should be non-reformist reforms, right? Where we are actually, the free higher education, free universal healthcare, things that people want.

Nina: But who’s gonna pay for that? Who’s gonna pay for that?

Nelini: The rich and the wealthy.

Nina: That’s what the other side would say, that you guys want pie in the sky, you just want handouts. Who’s going to pay for this stuff?

Nelini: I mean, I think the corporations who skip on millions of billions of dollars of corporate tax loopholes. The wealthy who get tax cuts and Trump wants to give more tax cuts to the wealthy and the rich, right? We should have a financial transaction tax so we can pay for free higher education in this country. There’s a lot of things…

Nina: Something that Senator Sanders was espousing-

Nelini: Absolutely. Senator Sanders, National Nurses United, all these amazing organizations that have been doing the work and it got to a higher platform with Senator Sanders’ presidential campaign. So, I think, for me, that is culture shift that has happened. I don’t know if it wasn’t for all these movements that have happened over the last six to eight years would we be able to have such a vibrant presidential campaign that went all the way to the national DNC.

Nina: That’s right. That’s right.

Nelini: I would never have thought that, if you told that same girl that said that same quote, “Oh, would you think that a democratic socialist would be running for president?”

Nina: 74 years old from Vermont.

Nelini: From Vermont.

Nina: Yeah.

Nelini: Crunchy old dude. Love him, but “would be a celebrity and running for president and being on mainstream to independent media, to all different types of media,” I would have laughed. I would have been like, “My dreams and hopes.”

The good thing about that is that we’ve been having social movements on the streets for so long and he took it to the ballot box. And I think we need to do that on a much more higher level, on a much more larger scale because we need to transform shift and to transform the democratic party so we can shift and move the entire spectrum, and we saw what happened when the Tea Party and these super neo-Conservatives and these Nazis transformed the Republican party.

Nina: I don’t want our side to do what their side did because you bring up a very important point about some of the supporters of Mr. Trump being those economic populists and really believing in a brighter future. The only thing is that future kind of ends with them and their community and in some ways, they’re not willing to embrace the whole. But for you to say that they’re reachable in some ways, I think you believe that. What is the Working Families Party doing, if anything, to try to reach some of those folks who are suffering just the same, but have gotten caught up in some of the rhetoric that’s going on right now?

Nelini: Absolutely. What we’ve been doing is trying to get the electoral process back in the hands of communities across the country. We’ve been training people everywhere from like rural Nevada to Ohio, Columbus Ohio and how to find, recruit, identify and run candidates for office, to work on elections.

And on the Republican side, I don’t think they’re doing deep engagement on that level. So, it’s like, what does it look like to give people the tools and resources who believe in a platform, who believe in a vision for this country, the vision that we’re talking about, a vision of universal public services, the vision of making sure that black children are not afraid to walk down the street because of police officers, a vision where immigrants come to this country and feel that they have a place and don’t feel like they’re just gonna get deported because they’re immigrants even though this country was built on the backs of immigrants and slaves.

And with Democrats, we’re like, “Yeah, we’re gonna rally around a thing that we can all agree on,” which is like immigration because it’s been a Democratic rallying cry for the last-

Nina: But they didn’t do anything about it when they-

Nelini: Not only did anything, but President Obama was the deporter in chief. Let’s not forget that. I will never forget that he deported over two million people. The end, right? And what has happened over the last, I think since Obama honestly has been elected, is that veil has been very slowly removed for Progressives where people are seeing that. The reason I occupied Wall Street is ’cause I was like, “He is gonna do something about Wall Street,” and he didn’t. My mom was bankrupt.

Nina: Were you disappointed?

Nelini: Yeah.

Nina: Yeah?

Nelini: That’s why I slept in a park for three weeks.

Nina: So, your mom went bankrupt. Can you talk to us, share with our viewers a little bit about what happened?

Nelini: Yeah, as much as I can because I don’t want to put out her receipts out there.

Nina: Yeah, only what you feel.

Nelini: Yeah, I mean, my mom was struggling. She had had a partner, they had split, ad she was struggling. She had a job, but she still had to take care of me and I was in this phase I was in. I didn’t believe in hope for my future because I didn’t get financial aid. Because at the time, marriage equality wasn’t legal and my mom and her partner didn’t have a domestic relationship or partnership to file. So, they only saw that my mom was taking care of three people, one was sick and didn’t have a job, and then then the other one was me, so she was taking care of that, spending a lot of money on bills and then in 2008, right near the financial crash, she told me that she couldn’t really help me anymore. And I wasn’t, it wasn’t, I wasn’t asking, I was just like, “Is everything okay?” She just looked and felt a certain way. And at that time, I was trying to go to college. I was trying to go film school that I got into. I was really proud of myself, tried to get loans, none of my family was able to give me a loan or co-sign. A bunch of people were under water, whether it was their mortgages or whether it was some other kind of thing and I was like, and this was like in 2009 I really realized this. And I was like, “It’s only been a year, but I thought things would change,” right? I mean that was, “hope and change” was the campaign message.

Nina: Right. That’s what it was.

Nelini: And that’s what got me into politics, like working into politics, was Obama’s campaign. There was a scan or a survey during Occupy where a lot of people who were in the park, like 24/7 and sleeping in the park in Zuccotti actually worked on Obama’s campaign, whether it was volunteering, or actually had a paid job, and I think that all those people were like, “We were promised something.” And especially for Millennials, I think that we have a clear vision, because we’re the first generation that hasn’t been able to do better than their parents. We’ve been stuck in perpetual war since I was in high school. City University of New York was free in the ’70s. What? Two generations removed and that’s, you know?

Nina: I know elders who went to California, went to college for absolutely free.

Nelini: Yeah, exactly.

Nina: Prestigious colleges and universities.

Nelini: Berkeley.

Nina: Yeah. The professor I’m thinking about, she did. She went to Berkeley. Absolutely..

Nelini: Yeah. One of my mentors was like, “I went to Berkeley for $200.” I was like, “Excuse me?”

Nina: Yeah. She’s in her late sixties, early seventies, but that was a thing.

Nelini: Yeah.

Nina: But is it fair, though, for people to stake all of their hopes and dreams in this thing called government, as individuals? I mean, aren’t people responsible for their own failings?

Nelini: I think that we, I mean for me, when I put, who my stake is in, it’s like I think that government is a problem and then I think people have the solutions and people have the tools. So, I have faith in people to fix it. I have faith in people to fix it and if it doesn’t work, to build our own slowly but surely. So, I think that that’s where the fate lies in people, is that it is our responsibility to change our future, to change this destiny, because destiny says that, for me, if you look at who I am and how I grew up, destiny says I shouldn’t be where I am right now. A high school drop out, I have nothing but a GED. I’m an Afro-Latina from Brooklyn, New York. Working class family. Destiny says I shouldn’t have a job that takes care of me and benefits. I’m a statistic, right?

Nina: I am, too. I get it.

Nelini: So, I just think that we, I believe that individuals, I think that being an individualistic society has hurt us. We have to be a society that cares about the commoners.

Nina: But that’s Utopia, don’t you think? Is that Utopia? Is that fair?

Nelini: I think that, Utopia is a whole nother thing, but I do think that it’s, I think the thing is that if we don’t have, if people don’t have a roof over the head and they have to care about stuff and they become individualistic, because they’re like, “The economy’s growing,” that’s what makes us into this individualistic, not sharing and not being a community with one another. But from the stories that I heard of my grandparents when they immigrated here from Puerto Rico, they were in a tenement. People shared food. They shared their rides to work. So, where did that go?

Nina: They had rent parties.

Nelini: Yeah.

Nina: You know, when somebody couldn’t make the rent, they would have a party, raise the money.

Nelini: Yeah. Oh, my grandmother had the mean parties. It’s not foreign when I hear these stories about my family coming to New York from Puerto Rico. It wasn’t they were welcomed with opening arms. I mean, we all saw West Side Story. So, I just believe that there is a level of humanity that cares about other humans and that cares about each other, and I think that if we had the necessities, if we had our, being able to put food on the table, a roof over our heads, whether that’s like public sector jobs for everyone, whether that’s a universal basic income that’s real and that isn’t something that Silicon Valley can take advantage of, right? If it’s these things that are social needs and social goods, I think we would take better care of each other.

Nina: All the great things that we want to do, whatever someone’s cup of tea is in terms of the issues that they want to fight for, at the foundation of that though, is our climate, is Mother Earth and the leaders that we have, at least on the federal level right now, and in many state, too because you know Republicans control most of the state legislatures and governor’s mansions. They are in denial that climate change is real. How does that impact one’s work for social justice, criminal justice, income and wealth inequality?

Nelini: Yeah, I mean, my fight has to include climate change. It’s the survival of our planet. We are seeing things from the Dakota Access Pipeline fight to super storms. I come from an organization that we lost people in Sandy, very close to us, so it’s actually not a matter of like, it’s a matter of life and death. So, I think that we need to tell those stories and I think that we need to keep fighting. This isn’t a moment to drop climate change just because Trump is so bad. He picked Rex Tillerson. He picked Scott Pruitt.

Nina: Yes, he did.

Nelini: He picked, oh god, Perry. Sorry. He makes me, my skin.

Nina: Governor, yeah.

Nelini: Governor Perry, right, to lead the EPA. It’s, this is, they want to cut the EPA, they want to-

Nina: No regulations.

Nelini: Regulations, right?

Nina: Don’t need fresh water and clean air.

Nelini: Clean air!

Nina: Or fresh air and clean water.

Nelini: Right. And this is, we’ve seen this from Detroit…

Nina: Yes.

Nelini: To the south in Alabama, to Georgia. When I lived in Atlanta, there was two days where my water was, I couldn’t, we had to boil it. That’s like, people need water.

Nina: For two days, but our sisters and brothers in Flint-

Nelini: Exactly.

Nina: -have endured almost four years of it.

Nelini: Exactly. Exactly. So, we are seeing water crises across the country. California keeps having droughts. So, this is actually a matter of life and death and living and if we don’t start talking about it like that, if we don’t start, I think we need, I think a problem on the movement side is we have to come to it at this level, but we also, the reason why I think the Dakota Access fight resonated with so many people, they said, “Water is life.”

That was real simple. Real simple. And real holy and spiritual.

Nina: And true.

Nelini: And true. So, how do we continue that and continue and not give up on Flint, not give up on Dakota Access Pipeline? People have been divesting their money from these energy companies, it’s been really great. Cities have been divesting their money. And I think we need to continue that, and I think we need to put up that fight and for me it’s like my justice comes with racial justice, economic justice, climate justice. I can’t separate them.

Nina: Without saving Mother Earth, we have none of that. So, where do you see, in your role with the Working Families Party, what’s in line coming up here this year, 2017, where there are many municipal races, but 2018 is our mega mid-term election. What do you see on the horizon? And if there was a candidate, you pretend like I’m a candidate in front of you, I’ve never ran for office before. What are three action items, what are three things you would say to me as someone that you were trying to convince to run for office?

Nelini: Yeah, so in this year and next year of course, we’re getting ready for municipals. We’re an organization and a party that works on a state and local level a lot.

Nina: Are you in all 50 states?

Nelini: No. We’re in about 13 states and we’re growing rapidly every day. So, I think on a state and city level, particularly this year with municipals and county governments, we’re looking for races that have Progressives in states that we might not be in that we can lend resources to, that we can support, that we can uplift, right? And I think that’s a really important and amazing thing to do, to actually put our electoral knowledge and our tour of strength in places where we might not be from, but maybe the campaign could get some knowledge from us. So, we’re looking to do that on a broad level in 2017. We’re also looking to, in certain places where we’re at, make sure that DAs, we have the right DA races. This is really important with, we can’t forget just because Trump is president, we cannot forget that police have been and not being prosecuted because DAs refuse to prosecute them, so we really need to look at what DAs races, with a coalition of folks. So, that’s, I’m really looking forward to that.

If we can get a slate of actual progressive DAs that are gonna say, either special prosecutor, or “We will investigate when police kill individuals in our communities,” That’ll be a really good thing for us. And then setting the stage for people to be motivated to vote, not just this year, but next year. I think that’s a problem that we have is that folks are, you can’t go to somebody’s door two months before an election every two years and say, “Hey, are you gonna vote today?” Where have you been lately?

Nina: That’s right.

Nelini: Where have you been lately? And so how do we actually create and motivate people across the country to vote this year, vote next year, vote in ’19, vote in ’20 and create that trend of voters?

Nina: There’s an election every single year. People tend to forget that.

Nelini: Every single year. Every single year.

Nina: DAs, judges, it’s not just people in the legislature, it’s not just governor’s mansions.

Nelini: Exactly. Exactly.

Nina: But it does matter who your prosecutors are and who your judges are, and oftentimes they get off easy because a lot of people really don’t necessarily keep up with judges, so they go and they vote for the name that they know. So, I’m really glad that you all are engaging in not just the election of individual candidates but also looking at key races.

Nelini: I would actually tell everybody to go to a candidate recruitment training. We’re gonna be doing these across the country.

Nina: Whether they want to run or not.

Nelini: Whether they want to run or not.

Nina: So, how would they, is there a website? Where would people find out about the Working Families Party training?

Nelini: Absolutely. You can go to workingfamilies.org and on the info section, you can request for candidate training and we’ve been filling all of those things to somebody who’s helping us do candidate recruitment trainings across the country.

Nina: Whoa, no way. Really?

Nelini: We had 200 people in Rhode Island the other day.

Nina: 200. Well, thank you so much.

Nelini: Thank you.

Nina: Thank you for all of your work. You are just getting started, and you certainly remind me of the trailblazers of the ’60s. You’re walking in the footsteps of the Freedom Riders and those young people that sat at those lunch counters. You are in there, doing the hard work. You got the faith, the courage and the brilliance.

Nelini: Thank you.

Nina: My god, and we need to spread that all over. I want to thank Nelini so much for joining us, and you are watching the Nina Turner Show on The Real News Network. We’ll see you soon.