This weekend, the community group I work for attended the 35th annual National People’s Action conference in Washington, D.C. The N.P.A. conference brings together grassroots neighborhood activists from across the country. The issues we collectively work on are as diverse as the conference attendees–predatory financial loans, increased school funding, lack of adequate health care, affordable housing, fighting the expansion of factory farms, immigrant rights and utility costs. The N.P.A. family is black, white, latin@ & asian. We are young, middle age and old. We are rural and urban. We are male and female, gay and straight. We live in neighborhoods whose only real wealth lies in the strength, perseverence and courage of its residents.
For 35 years, N.P.A. has fought for justice–and have celebrated numerous victories. Most importantly, N.P.A. is responsible for the creation of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a law that requires banks receiving government insurance for their deposits make loans in all the neighborhoods they serve. This law, and its companion Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA), has resulted in over $1 trillion worth of mortgage loans in underserved neighborhoods since its passage in 1975.
The N.P.A. conference is an experience. Neighborhood leaders are able to get together informally with other activists to share information on organizing strategy. Workshops are also held by neighborhood leaders to publicize work they have done on an issue or to perhaps negotiate agreements with government and business officials on policy changes beneficial to low income neighborhoods. This year saw the Mortgage Bankers Association agree to work with N.P.A. groups fighting predatory lenders, modern day loan sharks out to steal the equity built up in our homes.
However, there are always government and business officials that refuse to talk with us–either at our conference or in a separate private meeting. These slights are not taken lightly. Hundreds of neighborhood folks jump on yellow school buses and go to the officials’ homes in swanky D.C. area neighborhoods on the Sunday afternoon of the conference. This year, the headline in the Washington Post read: ‘Protesters Swarm HHS Chief’s Home.’ The Chief referred to in the headline is Michael Leavitt, the cabinet Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
If the folks who want to ignore us do not get the message on Sunday afternoon, we go to their place of employment on Monday morning. This year, hundreds of N.P.A. activists ran up nine floors of a D.C. office building to demand that the American Petroleum Institute (A.P.I.) meet with us. A.P.I., the lobbying arm of Big Oil, refused to come to the N.P.A. conference to discuss the high costs of heating oil and natural gas, as well as the pitifully small contributions by big oil companies to weatherization programs in low income communities. After an hour of chanting, whistles and tense negotiations, a meeting was agreed to and will be held within the next 30 days.