MacKenzie Baris Interview

The Washington Peace Center recently conducted a series of interviews with local activists and organizers seeking their views & opinions on the recently released DC Principles, along with how national movements interact with local organizations/issues.


MacKenzie Baris

“It’s about trying to build long term relationships between people so that they understand each other’s issues across organizations and across parts of the city…” – MacKenzie Baris

MacKenzie Baris is the lead organizer and director of DC Jobs with Justice, a position she’s held for almost nine years. She took her first steps towards organizing in high school, working around environmental justice. She then became involved in various labor actions in college, after which she began working on community organizing.

Washington Peace Center: Could you introduce yourself and tell me very broadly how you got to where you are right now?

MacKenzie Baris: My name is MacKenzie Baris, and right now I’m the lead organizer and director of DC Jobs with Justice. I started doing environmental justice stuff when I was in high school—I was trying to organize kids at my high school around doing educational stuff and making smart choices about what we bought and doing river clean ups and tree plantings. When I went to college I got involved in labor work because I’m from a union family. I got involved in different labor things that were happening in the town my college was in—things like walking picket lines and trying to be helpful, trying to get our school paper to actually cover this stuff.

Then I got involved with community organizing. I had been teaching at a school, helping with a mentoring program as my job, and I got involved in community organizing in the neighborhood where I was working. I ended up living there for a couple of years working out of a Catholic worker house and organizing with churches in the neighborhood around vacant properties and creating affordable housing. I eventually found my way to Jobs with Justice when I got involved with trying to organize my workplace at George Washington University.

Washington Peace Center: Can you tell me a little bit about Jobs for Justice? What it’s about and what it does? 

MacKenzie Baris: Jobs for Justice is a coalition here in DC made up of local organizations, unions, community groups, religious groups, and student organizations.  All our groups are membership based. So what we try to do is help facilitate a grassroots movement for poor and working people in the city to work together for economic justice.  We’re really focused on, as the name suggests, work related issues—people having access to jobs, having living wages, and being treated with respect. That leads us to a lot of other places so we also work on immigrant rights, access to affordable housing and good education. Our member organizations include Empower DC, One DC, and other folks who are doing a range of work in the community we try to support.

Washington Peace Center: I’d like to go back to some of the specific things because I’m always curious about how that works. Maybe you could give us some specific examples?

MacKenzie Baris: In our experience sometimes it’s a matter of offering support when there’s one group of people trying to get something done. Take for example Empower DC’s Peoples’ Property Campaign, where you’ve got folks all over the city who’ve identified this issue, they have a proposal, and they’re trying to get the city council to change a law, to get property protected. What we can do as a coalition is that they can work through the other members of the coalition to get them to sign on and support. So what we’ve actually done is we’ve gotten unions to sign on and endorse that proposal, even though it has nothing to do with what they would usually think of. You’d think it was none of the union’s business. But they saw how it affected members in their community and through the coalition, they knew Empower DC and trusted them and were able to add their support to something that was out of their usual point of view. So that’s partly how we work. It’s about trying to build long term relationships between people so that they understand each other’s issues across organizations and across parts of the city in small ways—sending letters, testifying at a hearing, turning out for an action—really basic stuff.

Sometimes we try to get groups together to take on bigger things. Last year, the Chief of Police signed on to Secure Communities and there wasn’t one organization that was an immigrant rights organization that was going to lead that charge. But everyone was like ‘we have other work, but we don’t want to let this policy stand, so what do we do?’ So we got together a bunch of organizations that were all willing to throw down something for this, and to say we were going to do this together. There really wasn’t one organization that owned the campaign because it was the ACLU and the domestic violence organizations that cared about domestic violence survivors, and service organizations/labor unions who didn’t want their members to be arrested protesting in the streets. Everyone got together and made decisions jointly about the policy and what we wanted to ask the Council to do. So I think we show really good examples of that: we can get a lot of groups together that have an equal interest in a campaign that one alone could not do.

Washington Peace Center: When you talk about the importance of building relationships, I wonder how you collaborate with so many groups on an issue like secure communities and define a message, and a process, and try to define how to achieve a goal. Can you speak to some of the challenges of actually making that happen? It seems like that would be at times difficult working with that many actors.

MacKenzie Baris: It’s definitely a challenge. Different groups will know different things about an issue and have their own perspective on it. There are differences on political analysis, identifying the problem and focusing on what we want. Then there are differences in the tactics people are comfortable with. In organizations that do service and advocacy they’re talking about protests, and others say they don’t do that. Some people don’t even want to talk to Council members because it’s too political. So there are always those challenges. I think the more people know, trust and understand each other’s organizations, the better. You have to start with knowing where each organization in a coalition is from. You have to know what their priorities are, what their limitations are, and what resources they have to offer. Then you carve out a role each group can play in the campaign that is within the limits of what they’re comfortable doing and utilizes their skills.

There’s a lot of talking things through with people. It’s important that they work as a group and listen to each other, but then it’s also good to have one on one conversations to be able to talk through stuff in a non-confrontational way. Sometimes in big groups people can misunderstand and go off on each other, and they say “that person just doesn’t get it, why should we work with them at all?” Sometimes someone has to sit the group down that’s causing a problem and say, “let’s talk about why you’re not okay with this” and then get them over whatever it is.

Washington Peace Center: I could just as easily see that kind of negotiation happening across the national/local gap. Can you talk a little bit more about national level work you’ve done and challenges you’ve seen with that?

MacKenzie Baris: We’ve never really done national stuff, but we get asked a lot by national organizations to support issues that are part of a national campaign. I think there are always challenges because when you’re trying to be grassroots and folks who are impacted by issues make decisions through their own organization, it’s hard when someone higher up has said we want to pass this in Congress or we want DC to pass this locally. How to deal with that is difficult because you want to have a process that people are committed to. We get asked to do so much stuff in DC because we’re here. If we did it all, we would never be able to address local issues. We would never have the capacity to change local laws and fight community struggles and fight developments because we would be doing nothing but turning people out to the Hill and to the White House for stuff.

So I think that for us, we try to get involved with stuff if we know it’s already resonating with our members and it connects to something they’re doing already. If we can find a local angle on an issue, we try to figure that out. We try to be honest with national organizations and explain we want to do things that will build our local movement in some way and contribute to the national movement, but it’s important to do these things in a way that builds the local movement. We think about having a role in whatever is needed to make things happen.

Washington Peace Center: That’s pretty much the heart of the conversion that we’re trying to have. So if that brings up any more thoughts or ideas…

MacKenzie Baris: I’m trying to think of examples where these ideas have worked well. I think where there’s a really organic movement, it’s easier. With all the immigrant rights stuff that was happening, it was everywhere and hundreds of thousands of people were on the streets in New York, Los Angeles and DC. In that case people wanted to do it; they wanted to march on the Capitol and the White House. People want to feel like they’re part of something that’s organic. In those cases it’s great for local movement building because you get a bunch of people together and ask: How are we going to mobilize and have marches?

Then sometimes it feels forced. It’s like, ‘okay everyone, go to Upper Senate Square Park for this rally and there’s going to be 20 speakers and it’s on some random piece of legislation,’ but that doesn’t feel organic. It’s hard. It feels like a lot of the peace activism that happens is organic too. Stuff gets called for here because it’s DC, but there’s energy for it at a local level. It’s tricky.

Washington Peace Center: It’s totally tricky. But there’s a question of energy for something. This idea of energy and how DC is intrinsically different from everywhere else in the country given the question of representation and autonomy…What issues are more likely to resonate with folks who make this place home, rather than people who arbitrarily feel ownership over it because it’s the nation’s capitol? That’s something I’ve been trying to tease out. What’s a movement coming out of DC and what’s coerced? I don’t know if there are any actual leading questions…

MacKenzie Baris: It’s really true because there’s such a disconnect here; I have never been inside the Capitol building or the White House. Maybe I should go. Maybe I should have been part of a DC Voting Rights lobby day, but it’s a funny thing when you never think about it. People in DC generally don’t have that experience whereas people from other parts of the country who are politically active do have that experience of coming here. So a lot of the energy goes there.

If on national issues—the war, immigrant rights, the federal budget—we would want DC people mobilizing, the question is what has to happen in our communities for that. Since the focus is always on mobilization and turn out, there are a lot of issues we don’t actually organize around in a consistent way. People are actually going to come lobby versus just turning out once for a rally. I think we probably need more organizing capacity. More groups who are organizing teach-ins, community meetings, door knocking, and reaching out and building coalitions all the time. That is what would move people to the national stuff legitimately because we would have a local movement that is joining up.

Washington Peace Center: But even then, there are only so many people who live in this area, and especially with organizers, there is a very strong culture of burn out with people in DC. There are so many demands—it’s kind of without parallel anywhere else.

Along the lines of harnessing energy and coalition building, from your standpoint, how do you see an organization like the Washington Peace Center helping out with your goals? That’s one of the things we’re trying to do is help ride this wave with the things that are happening with Occupy DC and try to turn that into something tangible. How do you see the relationship between the organizations?

MacKenzie Baris: Yeah, I think one of the things Jobs for Justice does—you know we’re officially a coalition—is facilitate individual relationships and then longer-term organizational relationships. I think the Peace Center can help play a similar role. Even if you don’t have official coalition members, the fact is you’re sort of a center of energy and you maintain relationships that provide some consistency. Organizers are changing. If somebody leaves, their mission can completely change. Having a way to stay on top of that and facilitate things is important.

You guys are down there at Occupy DC, putting in the time and building relationships for the folks who are doing that. It seems like the people who started that really didn’t have a lot of connections in DC. It’s great because you know and have relationships with the organizations that are here all the time. To be able to go to them and communicate what’s happening at Occupy DC and ask “What do you think of it? What are you doing right now that we could try to connect? Where could Occupy DC do something related to Empower DC’s campaign goals?” You guys are in a position to do that because you have relationships on both sides.

I think that’s one of the problems with the local/national stuff. I think we’ve gotten to the place where locally, we have a lot of strong relationships. People know each other. We have social bonds, we have collaborative bonds and there’s a lot of different ways people work together that could always be growing. But, more local organizations don’t have anything like that with national organizations. Or maybe just with one that’s a parent.

Washington Peace Center: Like obviously a parent, or a parent organization?

MacKenzie Baris: Like a parent organization.

Washington Peace Center: Ah cool, just wanted to make sure.

MacKenzie Baris: For example, let’s say the Center for Community Change has sponsored someone somewhere and given them technical assistance so they have a relationship. That becomes hard because it’s like “How do we interact with something like Freedom Plaza?” We wouldn’t necessarily know where to start. I feel like that’s a lot of it.

We really benefited in the immigrant rights work with relationships with Secure Communities because Jobs with Justice locally has national relationships with the national day labor organizing network and the national employment law project and some of these national groups that work on immigrant rights. So we were able to benefit from what they had to bring. They kind of brought us the issue because they have strong relationships with us, and the ACLU and some other folks. We were able to benefit from that and build an organic local struggle with their technical assistance. I wouldn’t know how to do something similar around the Stop the Machine stuff that was happening in Freedom Plaza. So I think that’s where the Peace Center, having relationships with the national organizations, from Greenpeace to CodePink, can play a connecting role and figure out how they can have legitimate relationships with local groups in a long term way. There’s an ability to facilitate that.

Washington Peace Center: Totally. Are you familiar with the DC Principles document?

MacKenzie Baris: Yeah, actually let me make sure…

Washington Peace Center: So it started out once upon a time as a document called DC is Not Your Protest Playground, and it lays out a set of mutual expectations for local and national organizers for doing national level work in DC. Do you feel like you can say words about it? Or you can speak to the spirit too…

MacKenzie Baris: It’s probably been a year since I’ve looked at it.

Washington Peace Center: Absolutely, so Robby Diesu and other folks have started a blog that they’re calling the “DC Organizers Union”—I don’t know why it’s a union—where they’re posting thoughts and the principles are posted there because they thought it might be better in an autonomous space. They’re issuing communiqués with different organizations and they just posted one with the Tar Sands folks which is really exciting. It’s worth checking out at notyourplayground.wordpress.com.

But anyway, do you have any other thoughts about this situation you’d like to share on the record?

MacKenzie Baris: Like about national level protesting in DC….

Washington Peace Center: And the sustainability of local movement building and how those two things can work together?

MacKenzie Baris: Yeah, I think it’s partly about being respectful of people’s local capacity. There’s this sort of passivity, not being a drain on local resources and being understanding of the fact that these groups are not going to be able to carry your logistical stuff, your logistical water when you’re here. And you guys need to be on top of that if you’re coming into town.

And then there have been times where it’s like “Oh, we’re going to try to get outside groups to feed into local protests.” Although that sometimes too can be artificial if there’s not something; you end up with an action that doesn’t make any sense for the local campaign because it’s shoehorned into a time and place that is convenient to whatever the other thing is. Sometimes that’s not actually good either.

I kind of wonder, going back to the relationship thing, do we benefit more from a national movement with just meet and greets? Getting national leaders who are in town for stuff, getting them to know local organizers, to know what’s happening and to see if there are places down the line where there’s room for more legitimate long-term collaboration on a campaign. To know who makes sense for that and what people’s interests are. That’s the longer-term stuff.

The shorter-term stuff is not to do harm, to have space to bring up local struggles if it makes sense and is appropriate, and to know about the long term and identify places for long-term collaboration for national organizations. Because a national organization can be like, “Yeah we want to do some things in DC around this issue, who would we work with on that?” or “Who is already doing that kind of work but isn’t part of our discussions about this at our table?” Having ways to actually connect that way would be good.

I would guess that most national organizations have no idea who most of the local players are unless they’re affiliates of some national organization like the Sierra Club or ACLU.

Washington Peace Center: I really like the line about holding logistical water.

MacKenzie Baris: I mean, we’ve done that sometimes. There was this group of guest workers from New Orleans who were brought in after Katrina to work in a ship building factory and promised all this stuff. They were $30,000 in debt and being charged for room and board. Basically, they were in this trapped slave situation where they couldn’t get out. So they just went on strike and walked out of the job and left. Then ICE was like, “Well you’re not working for this company anymore so we can deport you anytime.” They went on this freedom ride from New Orleans to DC and were trying to set up a camp, so there was a situation where they had no money. They were in a crazy amount of danger. So I was like, “Okay, we will figure out how to get you tents and water and blankets and a permit and a sound system and all the things you need, because you really have nothing here.” They were on a bus in North Carolina calling us saying they were on their way, and asking what was going to happen. I can’t fault them too much because it was such a crazy situation. These workers walked out, and it was like “Sh*t what do we do?”

But then there are situations where if you’re the AFL-CIO you don’t need local groups to do this stuff for you.

Washington Peace Center: Especially if you have local groups who work for you who live here, who know where to get blankets from.

MacKenzie Baris: Conversely, I think the really great thing about when the guest workers came is that some national organizations stepped up with that stuff. The AFL did an enormous amount of collecting of resources to give to them. So it was actually an example of some of this national stuff feeding back in. I think hopefully they’re getting unions to get resources out to Occupy DC, which I think has been happening in a scattershot way. Hopefully this will happen more. You want to have the relationship so that happens too when it’s needed.

Washington Peace Center: Awesome, thank you so much!

 

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