Bertha Lewis Interview Transcript (Raw)
Lewis: Well it was really sort of organic, you know. I didn’t know anything about Saul Alinsky or anything like that. I just—a group of us had answered an ad in the Village Voice newspaper (02:30) that said, “Low rent deal. Be an urban homesteader. Take two apartments, make a live/work space.” And I was in the theater. I was producing original plays at that time. And, of course, we were all up in the Bronx. We’re just like, yes, we’re so earnest and [laughs] but the building that we got lured into, (03:00) no windows, no floors, no plumbing, no heat. You know, we were truly urban homesteaders and that’s where I learned to sweat pipe and do drywall. And we all sort of helped each other. It was very, very romantic and very exciting, but at the time, this was what was affordable to us.
And I remember being at the theater just getting ready to open a play. (03:30) I got a phone call from my neighbor who called the theater and said, “Bertha, there are men here with guns and they say we have to get out.” And I know it sounds dramatic, but I left the theater that day and never returned. And it became the beginning of a battle just to fight for my home. You know, back then in the South Bronx, there were many distressed buildings (04:00) and you had these speculators. They would come and buy them up for—make a deal with the city for taxes. And we were an earnest little group of tenants and we did what everybody told us to do and we actually were two weeks away from having the property sold to us as a group so that we really would be urban homesteaders. And I tell you, (04:30) it was in my life an epic battle to really understand what organizing was about and the political implications and having every single day to fight for your own home. So those are my beginnings and, you know, seven years later (05:00) I didn’t have any job. A guy who had helped us all along the way, his name was Nelson Rodriguez—
Clarke: Wait, wait. Did you keep the house?
Lewis: Well, here’s the thing.
Lewis: Nelson Rodriguez said, “Well, you know, if you don’t have a job, you should come and apply with the organization I’m with called Banana Kelly”. And I said, “To do what?” And he said, “Well, we have an opening for a community organizer”. I said, “Well, what the hell is that?” (05:30) He said, “Well, you really are doing what you’ve already been doing here”. I said, “Do you mean to tell me that people will pay you to fight for justice?” And he’s like, yeah. And that was it. And we did have the eight year battle. It’s very difficult to hang together and stick together and we thought we had lost. I went to work for (06:00) ACORN. 20 years later—and this, again, is bizarre—20 years later, New York ACORN took over possession of that same building, rehabilitated it, and now it houses 40 low-income families. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up. [laughs]
Clarke: Wow. Well, you know, as long as we’ve moved in to that (06:30) ACORN period—and I was interested, too, because I read that in the nineties that you organized against redlining using the Reinvestment Act.
Lewis: Community Reinvestment Act.
Clarke: The Community Reinvestment Act to pressure banks to see what you could do to stop redlining for the homeowners that were in the Bronx. The cycles come and go, but that is kind of an amazing—I mean, just talk a little about what was the story? I mean, after that speculative wave (07:00) and some people were trying to actually buy houses and live in their own houses, what was the role of ACORN and your work there in terms of the Community Reinvestment Act?
Lewis: Well, you know, we’re a membership organization and we organize low and moderate-income folks. And we take our issues and fight on things that affect our members. But two things have to happen. One, the fight has to benefit (07:30) our members. But two, at the same time, it’s got to move public policy. For years people understood that the banks put a red line around black and brown neighborhoods and you couldn’t get credit to buy and if you could, then you were exploited. So after the savings and loan debacle, we looked and saw that there was something called (08:00) the Community Reinvestment Act that said if these banks are going to merge, then they really do need to create a real program. And we actually created programs in which if folks were counseled so that they really understood about buying something that they really could afford, our interest was for them to stay in their homes long-term. So for years we fought to get banks (08:30) to open up and actually give credit so that low-income people could buy if they were counseled. And for years we tried to sound the alarm about predatory lending and subprime mortgages because it was ironic. For years we could get credit into our neighborhoods. And then banks discovered, ah, there’s gold (09:00) in them there poor people’s hills. And so the whole frenzy around subprime loans and predatory lending came in. We were railing against it but, of course, who listens to us?
Clarke: The New York Reinvestment [Coalition].
Lewis: I mean, and all across the country. And sure enough, what we predicted would happen did happen. Here’s what folks don’t tell you about the (09:30) foreclosure crisis story. In New York, we had a one percent default. One percent. Why? Because all of our folks were counseled and we always counseled people into buying homes and having mortgages that could withstand any hardship. So they don’t talk to you about if folks are really counseled and it you work with them, (10:00) they survived the foreclosure crisis.
Clarke: And they got loan products [without]--
Lewis: Exactly right. Exactly right.
Clarke: --balloon payments, escalating interest rates and surprise clauses and upfront fees that—
Lewis: So, it really makes me, you know, it really makes me crazy because you fight so hard to get some benefits for poor people. But in our free market economy, folks will always find a way to exploit that. (10:30)
Clarke: Well, you know, if you look at the work that the successors to ACORN doing now—here in California you have Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. And I know there’s 18 or 20 chapters, or no longer chapters, but separate independent organizations across the country carrying on some of that work. But how do you see the relationship between this foreclosure crisis, this devastation of the, not surprisingly, in our views that the same communities that were redlined well, that first were segregated in the 1940s, (11:00) then were integrated so to speak [laughter] in the 1960s. They were redlined and then they were predatory lent. Now they’re being foreclosed. When you see that organizing and you see ACCE carrying on this kind of work and the other community organizers, what do you see happening? And, you know, you go back to in our system, what’s the thing that’s got to change? I mean, what—if a Community Reinvestment Act wasn’t strong enough to keep them from flipping it on its head? Here we go. We’re going to get people in their homes. (11:30) Now let’s flip it on its head. Well, let’s give them a loan package they could never pay for and let’s double the price of their house and get twice as much money and then take it back and sell it for a quarter back to ourselves and then sell it again. So it’s a terrible—if you had a crooked landlord doing this on a one-on-one basis, everybody would be going, wait a minute now. You sold it first and you sold it twice, and so on.
Lewis: But that’s exactly what’s happening.
Clarke: So where do you see this—where do we get involved if the Reinvestment Act (12:00) was a weak instrument?
Lewis: Well, I mean—
Clarke: How are we going to change that? What is ACCE doing? What are the other groups—
Lewis: The Community Reinvestment Act was just a tool. Here’s where I think all things come together. Number one, the whole financial collapse came about because there was no regulation and regulations that were on the books were not enforced because it’s the free market and, you know, business needed to thrive. (12:30) We had a mindset in this country that actually worshipped rich people. And so the culture became anything that benefitted making money and rich people was fine. You see this being manifest today. There really is a war on the poor. If we can exploit you, if we can pay you below minimum wage, (13:00) if we can exploit your labor, then something is wrong with you, poor people. Here’s what’s good. What’s good is folks like ACCE here in California and, like you say, 17, 18, 19 groups, we will multiply. And it’s when the right attacked ACORN. What it did was just spur social justice (13:30) Frankensteins, for lack of a better—you know. People got so outraged. And they said, you know what? We know what the attack looks like now. We can protect ourselves against that and we will proliferate. And that’s what happens. What the right and those conservatives don’t understand is there are more of us than there are of them and groups get stronger. (14:00) Voting matters because what really matters are local elections. What we see happening in these state Houses, we see an attempt to suppress voters. We see an attempt to even stop registering voters because that’s what really counts.
Clarke: Yeah, well, I want to get back to that and the period after ACORN, (14:30) with such a vicious, cooked-up campaign to blacken the name of the organizers that were actually engaged in some very good work. The notion that the voter registration cards were somehow defective was part of the libel.
Lewis: A brilliant strategy, by the way.
Clarke: But the, and the nonsensical story of pimps and whores. (15:00) We hope that part has been undone in terms of our readership, but if it hasn’t, [we’ll put a sidebar for] it.
Clarke: But the question about what--this is a long campaign they’re involved in. First off, they went after the biggest voter registration outfit in the country after an election, by the way, which was swung by the new voters.
Lewis: That’s right.
Clarke: And then they have passed, I don’t know, 18 voter suppression, voter ID, citizenship check laws.
Clarke: 30? Oh. (15:30) I haven’t been counting. They’re moving fast. And then the [Alec] group is—
Lewis: That’s right.
Clarke: --churning them out. So where do you see this—when it first happened with ACORN, it was like, oh it’s just this nutty right-wing guy’s website. And he pays a videographer to go around and do mean stuff. And boy, that’s weird. It caught on so bad. I wonder what happened and gee, too bad. Oh, where is that group? Oh, too bad. They’re out of business. So it kind of caught people’s up. Now we’re into this. Like you said, we know they’re—so how do you see that (16:00) trajectory and where are we in that process right now, because we have another election just coming up in—
Lewis: We do. I mean, the rise of the Tea Party was not accidental. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due. The day after the 2008 election when the right lost, they immediately, immediately set about organizing. They immediately set (16:30) about looking at the 2010 midterm elections, immediately. This is why I’m always sort of like on a “Wake up, progressives” tour, you know? Wake up, left. Don’t sleep here because you must organize, organize, organize all the time. You began to see a tactic because those of us who consider ourselves on the left (17:00) and progressive, you know, we’re really very civilized about our arguments. We always think that they have to be grounded in fact. Well, the other side doesn’t care about fact. It is all about winning and maintaining power.
When you go after the largest voter registration operation in the country—at our height, we, ACORN accounted for (17:30) 25 percent of all voter registration. Karl Rove in 2004 put his sights on us because we had a minimum wage ballot initiative in Florida. We registered over a million people and we moved those people to the polls based on issues, the issue of raising the minimum wage, not on a personality. Even though (18:00) George Bush won that state, people who may have voted for Bush also went to the other section of the ballot and voted to raise the minimum wage. That was dangerous. The New York Times published Karl Rove’s emails saying this is the real danger to the Republican Party and to the right. We must go after them. So there ensued AttorneyGate. (18:30) So you remember Alberto Gonzales and the resignation of US attorneys who said, “We’re being used for political purposes.”
Clarke: Oh, right. Right. The whole scale just slipped my mind for a while there, didn’t it?
Lewis: It all started with us. So they had their sights on us for a while. And they developed a way to go after you and it was really quite brilliant. Take your strength and turn it against you. (19:00) Discourage these new voters, young people, people of color. We’re hurtling toward being a majority minority country. You’ve got to blunt that somehow. And so they take a long-term view. And all politics is local, so if you can affect city council, state Houses, now you’ve set yourself up with an atmosphere in which—Wisconsin (19:30), you know, you can go after labor. You can go after those groups that represent poor people.
Clarke: Well, but if you turn that on its head, if you look at these demographic trends and you see the majority minority, minority majority, the majority of the majorities, which has been really here all along, especially if you take a look at the women’s vote. So if we look at that 99 percent, OK, well we’ll do the math later. 66.6 percent. But that majority has been here. But now that the new majority is really gaining (20:00) that kind of threat, where you see the fear in places like Arizona in that top demographic that people over 65 are 80 percent white and the people under 35, there’s 60 percent people of color. You see that gap and you see that shift. Thinking about the contours of the new majority coalition, what are some of the—you know, you turn this on the head. You had that right-wing strategy looking 10 years out. What are the contours and where are the places where you’re starting to see emerge (20:30) this powerful alliance of communities of color and progressives and women to actually turn this right-side up again?
Lewis: Well I think this is why this election this year is so important. Because I think what you’ll begin to see is, like you say, this new majority, this coalition of folks who find that they have interests in common. You know, women are under attack. Black folks are under attack. (21:00) Brown folks are under attack. Left folks are under attack. Progressives are under attack. Our cities are under attack. So people can see it very clearly and see it’s in their self-interest to come together. See, that’s what I mean. It’s like when the right attacks, they really set up an atmosphere for (21:30) groups to come together and really be stronger and to fight back because the right becomes so extreme that everyday people can see this is crazy. But we understand that we are in a real war. There’s no complacency here. And you have women of all stripes coming together saying, listen, they can pass a law in Texas cutting healthcare from 300,000 (22:00) poor women, mostly black and brown. They can do some draconian things here. So I’m happy. It’s almost like—[laughter] because, you know—
Clarke: Thank you, Rush.
Lewis: --as an organizer, we thrive in polarizing situations. And America is polarized more so than ever before.
Clarke: Well, but when you go back to this (22:30)—you said when you were a community organizer without any Alinsky training, nonetheless you looked at the individual interest of each of these members and our self-interest is at stake. We’re being attacked as progressive. We’re being attacked as people of color. We’re being attacked as women. All of us have this self-interest. But then the second ingredient, you said there was a second ingredient. It wasn’t just enough to look out for your interest because, sadly, we have seen the end road (23:00) of looking out for your own interest in the labor unions. You’ve seen the end road of looking out for your own interest in the narrow definition of feminism that could get a Secretary of State. You know, we’ve seen that looking out for your own interest without the second—what was that second ingredient?
Lewis: Public policy.
Clarke: And for this new majority, what are the policies?
Lewis: Well, remember when I said the unique thing about ACORN—and now our model is being duplicated—is you not only look out for your members’ (23:30) self-interest for them, because we were like a community union. That was our model. But whatever the campaign was not only had to benefit your members but change public policy so that it benefitted other folks that were in a like situation. I think that’s the key and I think what people—even labor—realizes now that they are under (24:00) this brutal attack, they have been under attack for decades. I mean, you know, we’ve seen union membership go down in this country. And unions, organized labor was at its height when? When it came outside of the workplace and actually got involved in social justice issues like civil rights that affected their members. (24:30) So it’s not just what affects your members, but what kind of policies that we put in place that are going to benefit more than just your identified folks and that’s the key. And I think that’s what community organizations are looking at now. No more can you put a shell or a bubble around you. You really do have to open up.
And I think, I think what has happened is sort of like the old clichés, you know. (25:00) I used to always say they come for me in the morning; they’re coming for you at night. And now people have seen that played out and it’s very real. It’s extremely real. And folks are saying, you know what? When you work for social justice, this is not just a hobby. This actually affects the world. It actually affects my neighborhood (25:30) and I have to look outside of myself. That’s why, I think, community groups like ACCE here in California grow stronger, grow better out of this adversity and out of recognizing we are at war and we need to have allies of all stripes.
Clarke: So, now if we were to get to that place, and we see some of it stirring here in California for sure. And we did sort of sidestep the last little (26:00) right-wing wave in terms of our elections, but we didn’t exactly stop it and turn it back, either. It’s still washing over us, particularly as we look at the real impact. So when you’re talking about the policies, I know that now that you’ve moved on to create a new organization called the Black Institute and you’re thinking about, particularly, the policies—it’s sort of a think and action.
Lewis: It’s an action tank.
Clarke: Action tank. OK. So it’s taking action. What policies—because, you know, when you said you organized in Florida for minimum wage (26:30) in the state of Florida, so they upped the minimum wage in the state of Florida.
Lewis: Right, right.
Clarke: So, you know, that’s a pretty basic idea. But there’s sort of a mystification here like, well, we need an action tank to pick up these policies and present them out there so that this new majority can take them.
Lewis: Well, I mean, it is very simple but you don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. (27:00) Now this thing called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC. Now people know that word, they know that acronym. They know that this is a right-wing think tank. Well, of course, there’s millions of them. You know? I mean, what was the senior Bush, you know, a thousand points of light? You know, they’ve got the Heritage Foundation (27:30) and the Cato Institute and this and this and this. And for years, people hadn’t really heard about ALEC. But groups like ACORN and others, we knew about them. And again, I think what we have to do is trust each other and not fall into the trap of being territorial, of saying, well—of falling prey to foundationitis, where a foundation (28:00) will say, “Well, we’ve already got one of those. We don’t need another one.” Well, to hell with that. Community groups have got to find ways to do earned income so that you don’t rely on the kindness of strangers, so that you can weather the storm. We need a thousand points of light. And in 2009 after I began to reorganize the ACORN chapters (28:30) because, you know, you’ve got to live to fight another day. And another cliché, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Well, they didn’t kill us. They made us stronger. And you morph in to what you need to do.
And I remember standing down by the White House and there’s these dueling kind of protests going on about healthcare. (29:00) And you had these people saying, “Well, the American public doesn’t really want universal healthcare. They don’t want single payer.” And I said, “What America are you talking about? Who are the people that you’re talking about?” Not being able to affect comprehensive immigration reform in the 21st century (29:30) when the country, again, the browning of America had begun decades before, this fear of a black planet was just palpable. And I decided, you know what? What’s good for people of color, what’s good for black folks is good for America and is good for the world. So, like, General Motors, you know? (30:00) So if we don’t look at stuff from the point of view of black people and people of color here in the United States and throughout the [this war], then we’re ignoring things that could help our country.
I decided that we needed to have three strategies. One, data, research, polling. There are studies and data that sit on dusty shelves in academia (30:30) about people of color, about black folks. There is no company who exclusively does nothing but poll people of color. We’re always a tab in a larger poll. So if you could bring down the data and the research and as Malcolm X said, (31:00) make it plain, turn it into plain language, turn it into public policy, train people on that, train people on how to turn that into legislation. But then you have to have the third element. You’ve got to be able to move it on the ground because you can have all the advocacy in the world and you can have the best ideas in the world but if you don’t move it on the ground through grassroots organizations, organize, and mobilize people around it, (31:30) it won’t make a difference. So that’s what I wanted the Institute to be. Research, which is sort of symbolized by the head. Leadership, training, development, signified by the heart. And then being able to move it on the ground. Green for grassroots. I figured after the ordeal that I’d gone through with ACORN, (32:00) I knew about forming ACORN chapters. I also knew that there were other organizations that really met that challenge and came up. And I said, well, if I could connect with them and we start working together, we could deal with immigration. The face of immigration is a lot blacker than the frame that it’s all about undocumented Latinos. You know, (32:30) there is a huge, huge black population of immigrants from the Caribbean, from South America, and from Africa and they need to be included in that narrative. The privatizing of education, this is serious because now that these urban school districts have more melanin in them and have more color, all of a sudden now, (33:00) once again, let’s privatize.
Clarke: And make some money off it.
Lewis: Then you’ve got to—the environment and, of course, economics. So we have three strategies, four areas of interest, and for me this idea had been brewing in my head for a very long time and I just said what the hell? We’re in a war, so I may as well fight the war the way that I think is most effective for me (33:30) and that’s what I’m doing with the Black Institute. And that’s why I’m here in California today.
Clarke: Well, that’s a great segue into what we’ll be actually doing tomorrow. And I want to acknowledge that this is part of a project here that the Urban Habitats Bay Area Social Equity Caucus is putting on for the State of the Region conference, which will be featuring a powerful public speaker, Bertha Lewis, (34:00) and we’ll be getting more of this stuff tomorrow. And we want to thank, especially, the people who are putting the conference on: Frank Lopez, who’s not in the room with us right this minute, but who will be listening to this soon.
Lewis: Yea, Frank. Yea.
Clarke: Frank, he’s been doing quite a job. But actually the entire Urban Habitat staff’s been pulling on. And I want to also thank our board engineer today, Joe Feria-Galicia and Christine Joy Ferrer, publishing assistant in the house. So thanks for joining us, Bertha, and we’ll look forward to (34:30) finding out the three strategies, the four areas, and the key to building the echo chamber of the left.
Lewis: [laughs] Yes, yes, and I thank you guys for having me on. This is fabulous. It’s wonderful to have your own media outlet. Because remember, what did the right do? Little by little, they did their right-wing talk radio, took over radio stations. (35:00) So—
Clarke: Here we go.
Lewis: We can do the same thing.
Clarke: And we’re starting it here. Thank you again, Bertha.
Lewis: Thank you.
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