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“Teach me to organize:” confronting neoliberal economics at home and abroad

Celeste Larkin, Chicago Religious Leadership Network I’ve lived in Chicago for the past three years and, in that time, we’ve seen many changes to our local economy. The city, led by Mayor Rahm Emanuel has closed dozens of mental health clinics that served low-income people in need of services; closed 54 public schools, where 90% of students affected were black and in neighborhoods that happen to be seeing a spike in privately managed, mostly non-union charter schools; and promised about $55 million toward a private basketball arena on DePaul’s campus (a private university), as “part of Emanuel’s bigger vision to establish an entertainment district, including a new, 1,200-room hotel at the convention center.”

These are just some of the current events that demonstrate a shift in public policy toward austerity cuts to public projects and social safety nets. Our local government seeks to further rely on private funds and the priorities of the economic elite, claiming this will “lift all boats,” grow the economy, and spur the kind of development the profiteers want to see. But the rest of us aren’t buying it.

Protests against the school closings sparked rage and mobilizations nation-wide with thousands taking to the streets of Chicago in protest. Activists and union leaders are still working against the austerity measures being proposed for public schools and workers’ pensions. Chicagoans set up 24-hour camps outside of mental health clinics slated for closure and stayed there for months until city officials finalized their austerity plans for our friends and neighbors in need of these vital services. After much public outcry and protest, the city and DePaul decided to scratch the plan to pour millions of public dollars into the private sports stadium, though the money was redirected to the construction of high-end hotels in that area.

So I go into work every day with the background of local experience of neoliberalism, a term used to describe economic policies that promote deregulation, privatization, free trade and reduced government spending. I then spend my hours working at the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America (CRLN) in solidarity with communities across the hemisphere struggling at the hands of the same paradigm. But whether folks are struggling against land grabs for African Palm plantations, for the right to clean water in the face of mining concessions, or for decent public education for all children, communities are refusing to take these trends of privatization sitting down and are mobilizing on sometimes massive scales.

Recently, I was at the 2014 Labor Notes Conference hearing workers from all over the world talk about their struggles for dignity and movement building. One workshop dealt with creative strategies that can enhance and deepen our organizing work. The presenter, Ricardo Levins Morales, is an artist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He shared with us a quote that he re-invented to make less patronizing and more empowering. His reclaiming of this truism defines our work ahead: to recreate our idea of what’s possible, refuse the top-down notions of “freedom” and to begin radically organizing and fashioning our own solutions:

“If you give me a fish you have fed me for a day. If you teach me to fish then you have fed me until the river is contaminated or the shoreline seized for development. But if you teach me to organize then whatever the challenge I can join together with my peers and we will fashion our own solution.”


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