From Detroit to St. Louis: Lessons and Next Steps for a Conference Centering on Racial Justice

When we announced St. Louis as our next location for Netroots Nation 2016, we shared with you our goal to center the conference on racial justice and lift up the work of local activists there. Today I want to share how the past two years have helped prepare us for that task.

Two years ago, we spotlighted local activism in a big way at our conference in Detroit. A few months before Netroots Nation was to take place, the City of Detroit began shutting off water to low-income residents in what United Nations investigators denounced as a human rights violation. We decided to make room in our agenda for a rally in support of local efforts to stop the shutoffs, as well as give local activists space to do a plenary session on the situation there.

For the first time ever, our agenda included direct action and a significant amount of content on local issues. After many of the reporters who came to cover Netroots Nation wrote about the shutoffs, we realized we had a unique opportunity to deliberately make local activism more central to our conference planning.

After Detroit, we decided to double down on our efforts to center the conference on local activism and go even deeper by highlighting key issues there. That meant relying on local activists to tell us what was really happening on the ground.

During an early staff/board trip to Arizona in which some of our local partners took us to the border, we realized that what we knew as a staff about immigration was limited and that we had a lot of listening and learning to do. In the months leading up to the conference, we spent significant time talking with local activists about what issues were most important, how those issues should be framed and how we could help amplify and support their work.

And we learned a ton—not just about immigration and related issues but about the impact our conference can have when it is centered on local activism.

For Netroots Nation 2015, we worked with local partners to create strategic actions and programming leading up to and during the conference. We created and shared videos telling the stories of activists on the ground; we made Puente’s anti-Arpaio march/rally a conference-wide event; and we held a border delegation trip on Wednesday to introduce movement leaders and members of the press to some of the problems in the immigration system.

We worked more deliberately than ever to elevate local voices and stories through panels, trainings and keynotes featuring local activists. We provided 250 conference scholarships—most of them to DREAMers, immigration activists and young organizers of color from Arizona.

While we’re proud of those outcomes, we also understand that we made mistakes last year and that we can do better.

In particular, we could have done more in advance of the conference to create an intersectional narrative about local immigration issues and the cross-sectional issues of police brutality and private prisons that leaders within the Movement for Black Lives were working to foreground at the time, as more and more incidents of police violence were coming to light.

Part of becoming a stronger, more inclusive space is acknowledging criticisms and recognizing mistakes. The Presidential Town Hall and Black Lives Matter protest—and the broader community’s response to it—was a pivotal moment for our staff. We spent weeks after the conference just listening—getting feedback from attendees, community members and movement leaders about how we can better ensure that Netroots Nation is as inclusive and safe a space as possible and that oppressed communities are welcomed and heard.

The progressive movement writ large is wrestling with how to make sure we are standing up when it comes to truly fighting alongside oppressed communities and leaders who are standing up and aggressively questioning the status quo (eg. structural racism, police brutality, the prison pipeline). And we’re asking the same questions internally as well.

How can we better support the fight against systemic inequality and police brutality? How do we leverage Netroots Nation—and the thousands of voices and levers of power that the conference convenes—to support issues like racial justice in a more meaningful way?

We don’t have all the answers yet. What we do know is that we have a role in bringing voices that haven’t been centered in the progressive movement to a place where they can be elevated. We’re discussing programming ideas, direct action opportunities and outreach strategies with activists in the St. Louis area and will continue to do so in the coming months. We’re also tossing around new ideas, like holding some programming in underserved areas of the city, away from the main convention center, in order to truly serve the full local community.

Local organizers are helping us understand the unwarranted and aggressive police action that plagues the area and how the municipal court system oppresses communities there. They’re telling us about the underground Bridgeton fire that threatens nearby communities yet has received little media coverage. They’ll help us pinpoint what issues are most important to highlight next summer, and you’ll get to hear many of their stories firsthand if you attend next July.

Even as we plan to foreground racial justice issues in 2016, we still plan to cover other issues like economic justice and immigration policy. While we will surely make mistakes along the way, our goal is to shine a light on how our communities and issues interconnect and how we become stronger by acting together in the face of interlocking struggles.

We’re also working to improve transparency in our planning process. Sharing some of this background with you is part of that; we’re also tweaking our panel submission process to give you more opportunities to submit, developing ways to get more community feedback on sessions, and working to ensure underrepresented communities hold more ownership of our programming.

We’re taking our own education as an organization seriously as well. Between now and July, all Netroots Nation staff will participate in trainings on social justice and structural racism from Race Forward, including sessions on racism and its causes, how to effectively talk about racism and change the conversation, techniques for counteracting unconscious bias, and identifying opportunities for advancing racial justice. Continuing education is important, and broadly it’s something we’re going to focus on more internally so we can better shape our programming. We’re excited to be able to grow our knowledge to support the larger progressive movement as we evolve together.

We’ve still got a lot to do before next summer. We’re excited about how things have evolved but know that it’s an ongoing process and that we can always improve. So if you have ideas about what you want to see at Netroots Nation next summer, drop us an email at We’re here to listen.

The humanitarian crisis in the Arizona desert

Provide water and supplies to a migrant in the desertOver the last 10 years, the number of deaths in the Arizona desert has skyrocketed. Increased militarization of our borders has done nothing to deter people from crossing; it only makes it more treacherous to do so.

There’s a massive humanitarian crisis happening within the boundaries of our own country, but you can do something to help.

Tucson-based No More Deaths (No Más Muertes) is one of several great organizations in Arizona working to mitigate the number of deaths in the desert by placing water and supplies at heavily traveled spots along the way.

For $20, organizers at No More Deaths can deliver 12 gallons of water, six pairs of clean socks and six cans of beans to the desert, likely saving a migrant’s life.

Click here to fund a water and supplies drop for only $20.

Can’t give $20? Click here to give $5.

Because most migrants can only carry a couple of gallons of water with them, they often run out of water with 20 to 30 miles to go on their journey. This leads to thousands of unnecessary deaths each year.

Since 2004, No More Deaths has maintained a humanitarian presence in the 262-square-mile corridor where over half of known migrant deaths in recent years have occurred. They rely heavily on donations to provide these critical resources.

Click here to donate and provide water and other needed supplies to a migrant in need.

Thank you for saving a life.


This action is a part of our #AZDispatch campaign, which aims to expose some of the most unjust practices in our current immigration system and to elevate the stories and voices of local activists fighting back against those practices.

Why we are doing #AZDispatch

Recently, I was sitting with a woman who opens up her home just outside of a detention center in Colorado to families visiting family members in immigration detention. When I asked her why she does this work, her response was, in essence, that there are galvanizing moments people have in their lives, and one of hers was prompted by a trip to the border. The stories of things she saw and people she spoke with there paint a picture illustrating how important it is to bear witness to injustice and how that can forever change the path one is on.

Last year in Detroit, we, the Netroots organizing staff, made a conscious decision to direct media attention toward uplifting our brothers and sisters fighting the water shutoffs and working on other economic issues in Detroit. It was a chance to use our unique position in the movement to shine a light not just on the issues facing Detroit residents, but also the inspiring and powerful activism that was happening there.

So, we encouraged the nearly 3,000 activists, organizers and professionals attending our annual convention to attend the Turn on the Water, DETROIT! Tax Wall Street! March & Rally that was held Friday, July 18, 2014. It was a historic example of the power of intersectional organizing. Members of other movements from across the progressive realm turned out to support who we all feel are our folks on the ground in Detroit—not corporations, not government, but the people.

I had a distinct opportunity to go to Arizona several months in advance of this year’s convention. While I was there I went on a trip to the border with an amazing group called Borderlinks that works to educate groups about the realities of communities on both sides of the U.S. / Mexico border. For me, it was a chance to see what I had no idea I’d see: The harsh realities of the border and how our policies literally and directly affect people’s lives. Other members of our staff and board had this same experience and came away with the same sentiment: Netroots Nation is an amplifier, and as part of that gig, we choose to amplify stories from Arizona that need to be heard.

I went back in March 2015 with several other staff members and a camera crew to capture some of these very stories. The products of that trip include the four videos featured here, as well as much of the other content we’ll be sharing between now and July.

There’s a responsibility in shining a light into dark places that is centered in making sure the light is shone not on ourselves, but on issues and people in the struggle. It’s our honor to uplift and introduce to the Netroots community the strong, dedicated, and hard working grassroots organizers in Arizona and the region who are fighting for progressive things. That’s what the #AZDispatch is all about.

Blue Nation Review Round 1 Scholarship Winners

About a month ago, we announced that Blue Nation Review was sponsoring 100 scholarships to Netroots Nation. Today, we’d like to introduce the first round of winners and tell you a few of their inspiring stories.

“I came out at the age of 15 out of frustration with bullies and subsequently started one of the first gay-straight alliances in a high school in New Orleans. I have been an activist ever since that moment, which has allowed me to learn how to use my voice to advocate for those who are continually marginalized and belittled for who they are.” —Ashton Woods

“I created an online community for GLBTQ autistic adults and allies. For many, it’s the first safe space they have ever had to talk openly about their sexuality, their identity, to be able to ask questions. Three members told me that they were on the verge of suicide before the group started, now they are doing well, happy to be accepted at last, (and) mentoring others.” —Xander McDonald

“Growing up undocumented and coming from a working-class immigrant family informed me of the difficulties I would face in school, at the workplace and in life. That is why, at the age of 18, I helped co-found the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL), a undocumented-youth led organization in Chicago.” —Reyna Wences

Each scholarship winner has a brave, compelling story that will be shared in the coming weeks at Blue Nation Review. We’re thrilled to welcome these new voices to Netroots Nation this summer and hear more about the work they are doing.

The full list of first round winners are:
Jonathan Beebe Giudice
Margarito Blancas
Kim Rescate
Jocelyn “Joz” Wang
Maria Sisa
Mina Farzad
E. Smith
Nasreen Hosein
Devin Murphy
Jesus Gonzalez
Ashton Woods
Cesar Vargas
Johnna Baca
Rosa Velázquez
Michael Angulo
V.J. Bustos
Tamara Johnson
Luis Mora
Xander McDonald
Mitzi Miranda Castro
Maria Castro
Gregory King
Venancio Noya
Alejandra Pablos
Amanda Gonzalez
Henry Silentman
Phoenix Berliner
Reyna Maldonado
Dagoberto Bailon
Lucas Waldron
Michael Levitin
Reyna Wences
Michelle Wright
Kenzo Shibata

Most of these 34 individuals are from Arizona, but we also have a few winners hailing from Georgia, Alabama and beyond. Half identify as LGBTQ and 68% are under the age of 35. This group also represents many communities of color:

Hispanic: 41%
African-American: 18%
Multi-Ethnic/Other: 18%
Asian-Pacific Islander: 12%
Caucasian: 8%
Native American: 3%

We’ll be announcing the remaining winners in the coming weeks. But for now, let’s congratulate and welcome these folks to Netroots Nation 2015!

#NN14: Turn on the Water! Tax Wall Street! March & Rally

One of the most pressing issues locals in Detroit are currently facing is water shutoffs. In lieu of a lunch keynote on Friday, July 18th, we are urging all Netroots Nation 2014 attendees to support local organizing efforts and join the rally asserting that access to water is a basic human right.

If you’d like to read more about Detroit’s water crisis, please read this excellent piece by John Nichols, Against Austerity in Detroit: ‘Water is a Human Right’, on The Nation.


Join National Nurses United as they declare a public health emergency and demand a moratorium be put on the unprecedented water shutoffs in the Motor City.

  Photo credit:

Turn on the Water! Tax Wall Street! March & Rally

When: July 18; 12:30 p.m. (assemble), 1 p.m. (march begins), 1:45 p.m. (rally at 1 Hart Plaza)

Where: Assemble outside the Cobo Center on the Southwest corner of Washington Blvd. and W. Congress St.  Click this link to open the mapped location.

Who: National Nurses United and you!

Special thanks to the following organizations for turning local members out for the event: Communication Workers of America, Democratic Socialists of America, Democracy for America and Progressive Voices.

Stand with Walmart workers this Black Friday

Walmart workers on strike in the Dallas area. (Photo courtesy Making Change at Walmart)


Walmart workers are fighting back against intimidation and disrespect like this:

In an interview, she spoke of her struggle to make ends meet even while working fulltime at Walmart. She earns $11.65 an hour and is her family’s only source of income since her husband was laid off. They and their five children rely on state assistance for housing, food and healthcare.

Walmart spokespeople have said that workers in Washington earn an average wage of $13 an hour. Gilbert said she knew of only a few people who earn that much, and they’ve worked for the company for decades.

Beyond a better wage, Gilbert said she wants to be treated with respect. She decided to speak out about work conditions after her manager came up behind her while she was bent, restocking shelves, and adjusted Gilbert’s pants to cover some exposed skin.

Gilbert said the manager tried to turn it into a laughing matter. Gilbert complained, but she said no action was taken.

“They treat it like it’s a joke, but it’s not a joke to me,” she said.

It’s a simple proposition: people deserve to work with dignity and treated fairly. Walmart is one of the largest and most profitable corporations on the planet, and their workers deserve better.

Netroots Nation is helping OUR Walmart get the word out about workers taking actions across the country between now and Black Friday. The workers are causing a stur, getting a bit of coverage, and they’ve got lots of tools that allow everyone to take part. Here are a few things you can do:

Wherever you are spending this holiday, stand with Walmart workers!