Earlier this month, President Biden asked us to “save the soul of America” in a speech he gave at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
“The soul of America is defined by the sacred proposition that all are created equal,” Biden said. “All are entitled to be treated with decency, dignity and respect,” and “democracy makes all these things possible.”
I share Biden’s vision of the dignity of every person. I also agree democracy is our best defense, even if it has not always worked for all of us. So we have to fight to both defend and improve it, so democracy can live up to its full potential.
Right now, right-wing extremists want to take away our power to vote, rather than face losses at the polls. Democracy is literally on the ballot. So I am glad President Biden has finally named this as an existential threat to our way of life.
But there’s something missing from Biden’s speech. How, exactly, are we supposed to save our country’s soul? Especially when we have become so deeply divided?
Biden says we should “Speak out, get engaged, and vote, vote, vote!” But he doesn’t dig into the details. And we all know this is easier said than done, when thousands of people question how this can improve their everyday lives.
This makes me think about what, exactly, we need to do to defend democracy and our rights. What does this moment call for, concretely? What can we do, as community organizers at People’s Action?
The first thing we need to do is heal. Deep wounds won’t heal on their own; if we leave them alone, they will fester and deepen. Those who question democracy, and whether it ever worked for them, or whether we can ever really bring about the change we need, will feel more justified as they retreat into isolation.
What can heal our wounded soul? Community. We must step outside of ourselves, and re-learn to see each other not as enemies, but as neighbors. But this won’t happen on its own. If we want community, we have to build it.
At People’s Action, building community is what we do best. Over the past five years, we have held hundreds of thousands of conversations with people to build a shared understanding around issues like immigration and climate change.
Our Homes Guarantee, Health Care for All and Overdose Crisis organizers engage people from every walk of life who are touched by housing and health insecurity. We work to change hearts and minds around the greatest challenges we face, so we can face them together with the strength we need to enact solutions.
We always listen first. When we do, we build bridges across mistrust with people who may see the world very differently. These bridges start small, but grow to be mighty.
This is what we call “building a bigger we.” At People’s Action, this is not just an idea, or soaring words. We work every day to actively overcome differences. We find opportunities for people to come together so they can relearn to meet each other with trust and generosity, not fear.
Coming together takes strength. In many places this strength has weakened, or has all but disappeared, but we can rebuild it. Because so many of the crises we face right now, and will face in the future, affect us all. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you worry about the same things: the rising cost of groceries and bills, keeping a roof over your head, and being able to offer a better future to your children, and their children.
How can we come together? We organize. No one said this is easy. But I am inspired by Warren Tidwell from Hometown Action in Alabama, who goes into towns devastated by tornadoes to help them recover - because he knows natural disasters open our eyes to the realities of climate change, and how much we need our neighbors.
Of course we need bold federal action to confront our climate, housing and health care emergencies. But to win this, we must also show up on the ground for one another, and boldly build community.
I’m inspired by how Dreama Caldwell from Down Home North Carolina organizes for multiracial democracy in the same rural counties where white supremacy is the strongest. And I'm inspired by how Carrie Santoro from Pennsylvania Stands Up (PASU) worked with State Senator Nikil Saval to win $125 million in American Rescue Plan funds for Pennsylvanians to make basic repairs on their homes.
Nikil is himself a community organizer and cofounder of Reclaim Philadelphia, one of PASU’s original groups. He ran for office after attending a People’s Action training for candidates, and is now committed to working with PASU and other community groups to cogovern in a way that makes a tangible difference in people’s lives.
Carrie, Nikil and PASU took action because they know one in four Pennsylvania families urgently needs a repair. Nearly half, if faced with a crisis at home, could not afford to fix it. This is how organizers help people understand how policies we win can have a direct impact in their everyday lives!
Making sure the more than $1 trillion in resources offered through ARP, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) reach those who need them most also restores our faith that a government with democratically elected leaders can concretely improve our lives. That’s why we’re doubling down to support groups like PASU that are doing this important work.
People like Warren, Dreama, Carrie and Nikil inspire me because they are building a bigger we - day in and day out. They are powerful, fearless, visionary leaders, and at People’s Action, we are proud to support them. They restore our faith in one another.
There’s still so much more to win, but we have to start somewhere. This is no time to stand on the sidelines, or waste precious time debating what we didn’t win, when we can use that time to improve people’s lives.
None of our leaders is perfect, but knowing we’ve done all we can to turn opportunities into tangible results will both calm and inspire us to keep building the power we need to come back for more.
Through our Organizing Revival, we are doing all that we can to spread the skills of community organizing as far and wide as we can. Because the most important thing we can build right now is community, and community starts by investing in one another.
Sulma Arias is Executive Director of People's Action and the People's Action Institute.