(Based on the Organizing Committee debriefing held by conference call Jan. 18, 2015)
For the seventh year in a row, the Virginia People’s Assembly for Jobs, Peace & Justice succeeded in introducing new and veteran activists to a wide range of issues and struggles, facilitating networking and new alliances across lines of race, sex, gender orientation, age, issues and geography.
The 2015 VPA was held Saturday, Jan. 10, at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, a historically Black congregation in Richmond’s East End.
A total of 188 people registered, 52 of whom had already registered online. A little more than half – 104 people, or 55 percent – came from Richmond. Henrico County, which borders Richmond, had the second largest number, with eight attendees, followed by Blacksburg, with seven. Other attendees came from 15 Virginia cities. There also were eight from Washington, D.C., six from Charlotte, Durham and Greenville in North Carolina and one from Mt. Ranier in Maryland.
A total of 42 organizations were represented, with 34 people – nearly one in five – identifying themselves with labor organizations: 16 from United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400, 16 from Virginia Raise Up and one each from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Our Walmart campaign.
Other groups that were well-represented included the Nation of Gods & Earths, also known as the Five Percenters (14); Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality (10); Wayside Center for Popular Education (7); Virginia Sierra Club (5); Collective X (4); Southerners On New Ground (SONG) (4); and three each from Black Action Now, Blacksburg Coalition for Justice, Rag & Bones Bicycle Cooperative, Richmond Jericho and Richmond Peace Education Center.
Black organizations present included AfroCity Tours, African Awareness, African Film Festival, All as One, Black Action Now, Identity Project, NAACP, Nation of Gods & Earths, Pan African Unity Network, Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged and Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church.
The list of endorsers also showed broad support: 47 endorsers, representing 11 cities & three counties. Ten resolutions were submitted by eight endorsers. All 10 passed unanimously and are now posted on the VPA website.
Starting with a Black Caucus meeting at 8 a.m., the day included eight panel discussions and two plenary sessions. Plans for three workshops and a final plenary were cancelled. (The full program is also posted on the website.)
While all the panels were well-attended, the ones that drew the most people were those on police, labor, prisons and economic development.
The panel “Defending Unions & Organizing the Unorganized” included representatives from Virginia Raise Up and UFCW Local 400, plus the Virginia Education Association, a Walmart worker, a VCU Arawark worker, a leading community supporter and a trans worker of color, who received a standing ovation for his remarks. For the first time, the panel also included a written statement from workers behind bars, representing prisoners at the Buckingham Correctional Center.
Also present in some numbers were activists with the Black Lives Matter movement, including representatives from Blacksburg, Charlottesville and several groups from Richmond.
This year no group organized a panel or workshop devoted to LGBTQ issues, but there was LGBTQ participation on the women’s issues and labor panels.
One Latina speaker presented, on the prison panel. All signs and the day’s program had been translated into Spanish; Spanish-speaking interpreters were available for the plenary sessions; and a non-Latino speaker addressed U.S. military involvement in Latin America on the international issues panel. However, outreach to the Latino/a community was weak, a result of the lack of Spanish-speaking organizers, and also because the immigrant rights groups we have worked with in the past have been weakened by the recession and by anti-immigrant government policies.
Organizationally, things generally went smoothly. Having the voting on resolutions during the second plenary instead of at the end of the day meant more people were present to vote, giving the resolutions more meaning. Scheduling 15 minutes between each session meant a smoother transition between events than in past years. The meals were delicious and plentiful. Day care functioned very well, as usual. And almost everyone showed a lot of patience and respect to each other during a very busy day.
There also were areas in which we were weak. On media, there was only one press release and no media coverage of the event. The final plenary, which was to have included report-backs from the various panels, was canceled as people began to leave after dinner. Plans for a variety of cultural presentations did not materialize, although an evening performance by world-famous, Richmond-based blues artist Corey Harris was very well received.
All this demonstrates the need for more people being involved in the planning and organizing.
Financially, we did very well, taking in about $600 more than we spent. This means that, when the time comes, there will be enough money to launch the 2016 VPA. Meanwhile, the money will be held by Destined & Designed by Faith Ministries, the nonprofit that served as our fiscal agent this year.
Going into 2015, we decided to form a Continuations Committee, made up of the people who were most responsible for organizing the 2015 VPA:
Daniel Breslau – Coalition for Justice (Blacksburg)
Margaret Breslau – Coalition for Justice (Blacksburg)
Ana Edwards – Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project (Richmond)
Weluna Queen Earth – Nation of Gods and Earths (Richmond)
Kat McNeal – Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality; ActiveRVA (Richmond)
Cassandra Shaw – Virginia Raise Up (Richmond)
Phil Wilayto – The Virginia Defender (Richmond)
This committee will be responsible for initiating the organizing of the 2016 VPA and recruiting more people for that effort.
Meanwhile, Margaret and Daniel will be producing a monthly email newsletter for the VPA, promoting and reporting on campaigns that were endorsed on Jan. 10. The committee members also will hold a monthly conference call, organized by Weluna, to discuss how the VPA can further support these campaigns and help grow the progressive movement in Virginia.