Alicia Garza, the executive director of POWER, an organization that advocates for working class communities of color, rallied the group’s supporters at a fundraiser Thursday night.
“Not only will we not concede,” Garza said of POWER’s fight for racial and economic justice. “We will win.”
The crowd, there to celebrate the 15-year anniversary of the Mission-based organization whose acronym stands for People Organized to Win Employment Rights, went wild in support, clapping and calling out “that’s right!” in return. Many raised their fists in solidarity and some later pledged to donate up to $1,000 that very night.
Founded on May 1, 1997 by Steven Williams, Pattie Snitzler, Regina Douglas and Brian Russell, the organization’s first project sought change for highly exploited workfare workers, who held city jobs in order to receive welfare. They were underpaid and denied many health and safety benefits available to regular city workers. POWER felt that the best way to transform the system was for workfare workers themselves to organize and protest. In doing so, they were able to win wage increases, free public transit and a bill of rights.
By 2003 the number of workfare workers in San Francisco had decreased by more than 14,000. This led POWER to reevaluate the issues most prevalent to the city’s working class communities, and focus on public housing and development in Bay View, as well as women working in the domestic service industry.
The organization’s current ongoing campaign, Transit to the People, partly aims to secure free Muni passes for youth, which would impact over 40,000 people. In March of 2011, they successfully fought for 12,000 free passes for low-income youth, and are now attempting to expand the program permanently, ideally for all youth in San Francisco.
“[POWER has] done a tremendous job of involving the city’s diverse communities in the area of transportation, which is such an important issue,” said District 9 supervisor David Campos, one of the main sponsors of the proposal. “They really have their finger on the pulse of community in the city.”
Going forward, the organization will continue to pursue free Muni passes for youth, as well as tackle some new issues. At the gala, Garza revealed the organization’s next major initiative, the Black Priorities Project, which in her words will be “an aggressive plan to bring black families back to San Francisco.” Census figures of the city show a 20 percent decrease in the African-American population from 2000 to 2010.
Through every campaign, a key objective of the organization has been to unite all who face oppression. “We brought black and brown communities together,” said Garza proudly explaining POWER’s history in her speech.
Currently, the majority of organization’s campaign volunteers are Latino and African-American, with Latinos in the slight majority at 60 percent.
“We fundamentally believe that the people who are most impacted by the systems of oppression, those people need to be the people who are making decisions about the policies that affect their lives,” said Jaron Browne, POWER’s Communications Director. “They need to be in leadership within the broader social justice movement.”
Manuela Esteva, a Mission resident from Mexico who works in domestic service, says that over the past nine years POWER has helped her understand how to create change.
“They’ve given us leadership training but they’ve also taught us to fight for our rights in the community,” she said. “That’s something I’ve learned from POWER, that I have the same rights as anybody…I deserve the best of the best and also I want the best of the best for all my people.”
Anne Hoffman contributed to this story.