CPI Executive Director Kyra Greene Interviews Lauren Jacobs
"Moving towards transformative change is about not just reducing harm in the present moment, but also building the structures and institutions that enable us to win and do more in the future."
This August, Lauren Jacobs took the reins as Executive Director of the Partnership for Working Families. Dr. Kyra Greene, Executive Director of the San Diego-based Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), sat down with Lauren to learn more about what brought her to this work and her vision for the network.
What has kept you in this work for 22 years?
What keeps me in this work is the understanding of the structural nature of poverty, state violence against Black people, and displacement and gentrification. Once you know and see it, it’s rather hard to not do something about it.
The first organizing campaign I worked was with a workers center in Portland, OR that was focused on conditions in the hotel industry. I thought the owner of the hotel was a horrible person who cared nothing about his employees. Later I worked on organizing factory workers in Arkansas. Based on that experience I thought, “these factory owners in Arkansas are remarkably cruel.” In another campaign, in Virginia, I had the same thought. But by the time I settled in Chicago and was on my 5th, 6th, 7th campaign at a healthcare facility, a private school bus company, etc., I understood that how low wage work is structured in the U.S. almost always results in humiliation, subsistence pay, constant pressure to place the company above one’s health and family, and constant threat of termination. Work is one of the sites where we learn acquiescence to authoritarian rule.
In all those campaigns, I worked with brave and brilliant people, the workers who would under great personal risk organize, speak up and fight for power. In the 17 years I spent working on SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, through dedicated and strategic struggle, I saw the industry transform. Jobs which were once $5 an hour now pay $17, $18, $20 an hour.
So what keeps me hopeful and in the work is that I know what we can do if we are organized and together. And I know that there are thousands of others struggling for a future where we are all free from harm, want, and the threat of the collapse of our ecosystem. There are people like me who are struggling for a world where we can all be free. That brings me hope.
What’s the best kept secret about the Partnership?
The Partnership has developed and grown the leadership of women and people of color in deep and significant ways. Our board leadership is 66 percent women and 75 percent people of color. Our leaders are accomplished and veteran campaigners; their lived experiences give richness and depth to our work. We understand how race and gender are inextricably tied to economic inequality because we have years of living at the intersection of all three. How we got here is through dedicating resources and focus to leadership development. We supplement the research, campaign development, and training that people receive in their organizations with tools that enable leaders to grow into their most effective selves.
What are you most proud of from your work with the Partnership?
When I came on three years ago, I worked with our board and staff team to strategize how to move the needle much further - it was time for us to take a direct run at outsized corporate power. In the aftermath of 2016, we met as a network and analyzed that our movement needs to not just be against bad things but say what we’re for; we need to organize more people into organizations; and we need to name the corporate actors who have molded the economy to enrich themselves at the expense of workers, the poor, and communities of color. You can see that in the way our infrastructure campaign has developed - we brought together a national coalition to reframe the conversation from the federal discussion of roads, bridges and construction jobs -- we expanded it to include parks, housing, libraries, youth and senior services, clean water - and all with an explicit racial justice lens.
How did you first get involved with the Partnership?
My first connection to the Partnership was through Community Labor United, the Partnership’s affiliate in Boston MA. I was founding coalition member of the organization and was eventually asked to serve on the organization’s board. I was part of a small delegation which attended one of the network’s first summits in Atlanta, Georgia. It was there I learned that this was a national movement of organizations all committed to holding the progressive movement together and using labor and communities’ strength to achieve the transformation of our cities.
What are you most excited to dig into in your new role as ED?
I am excited about the collective political project that the board and staff have jointly undertaken to shape a long term agenda. I am excited for how that work deepens the power building strategies that our affiliates and our national staff team are deploying. I imagine working to support new experiments in democratic structures, worker organizations, housing and land ownership, and expanding the public sector and community ownership. Our network is led by amazingly smart, accomplished community leaders and organizers. This process is a step back in order to step forward and it will unleash some inspiring and transformational breakthroughs.
You have stressed the need to move from incremental change towards a vision of transformative structural change. What do you think that looks like for the Partnership?
Moving from incremental to transformative is about not just reducing harm in the present moment, but also building the structures and institutions that enable us to win and do more in the future.
For the Partnership this means practicing and theorizing simultaneously. While we are running our campaigns to center community-owned and community-driven transit, schools, water, and housing, we are anchored by a long-term vision for change. We are restoring the voice and power of the residents in our cities to set the agenda for the economy and government. What are the additional structures we imagine will support the kind of popular democracy we want? How do labor organizations, community and neighborhood associations bolster democracy? What are the strategies we can deploy that grow and multiply them?
What are you nervous about?
The acceleration at which this White House regime is moving authoritarian policies is frightening. The revoking of the passports of American citizens is a dangerous warning sign. The stakes are high. And there are so many people suffering as a result of the White House but also state legislatures, city governments, and police departments. I worry about how complex and widespread the problems are. I worry that many people believe that this was about one election and one person.
The uncertainty that we all feel in this moment is because we are in the midst of a shift in how government functions and responds and how we talk about that dynamic. It is why we are both witnessing breakthroughs in progressive action we never imagined possible before and why simultaneously the xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, and elite forces in our politics are more vicious and extreme. This is contesting for power. It is why we face incredible risks and incredible opportunities at the same time. So we should all be nervous, but we should be brave and bold. We have to be willing to try strategies and tactics that may not net immediate gains. We have to be brave enough to risk failure in the short term to win in the long run.
How has our network evolved since you first encountered it?
Evolved is a great word for this. This is an incredibly thoughtful network which is reflective on how the steps it has taken previously can lead to new paths and directions that could not previously be accessed. It’s an ambitious network. We truly want to sow the conditions that make justice possible. To achieve that we are reflective on our past work and have been adding new capacities.
Where do you want the Partnership to be in 3 years?
My dreams and hopes are movement wide. In three years, the Partnership will be 15 years old, and I want us to be ready for the next 50 years - what we do now will determine what happens to future generations. I hope that we have expanded the number of people with us who are protesting injustice and we are also setting our hands to build new economies not dependent on exploitation and subjugation and that we have revitalized our democracy. I want the Partnership to be part of leading this transformation with our other movement allies. I want us to look back on the last three years of work and know that it all of it mattered and it advanced us on our journey to justice.
Dr. Kyra Greene is the Executive Director of the Center on Policy Initiatives and a member of the Partnership's Board of Directors.