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| Local Progress: A National Network of Progressive Local Elected Officials
Published By:Pittsburgh City Paper

Live coverage of the Local Progress and the People's Convention in Pittsburgh

This weekend we'll be covering events at the Local Progress National Convening and Center for Popular Democracy's People's Convention that are happening in Pittsburgh this weekend. More than 1,000 grassroots activists and 100 elected municipal officials will attend conference sessions and a rally in the city from July 7-9. Follow our live blog for coverage.

People's Convention addresses Immigrants rights

This weekend during a panel discussion on immigration at the Local Progress conference, “sanctuary cities” were front and center. In places that have been classified as sanctuary cities, local law enforcement is dissuaded and sometimes barred from providing information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Sanctuary cities have been a red hot topic in Pennsylvania recently with Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey trying (and failing) to pass a bill that would cut off funding to sanctuary cities and Democratic U.S. Senate Candidate Katie McGinty telling the Mayor of Philadelphia that his sanctuary city bill needs altering.

Opponents of sanctuary cities believe they lead to undocumented immigrants, who are arrested for violent crimes or terroristic charges, avoiding deportation. But advocates say these policies protect undocumented immigrants, who are charged with minor crimes, from falling into the hands of ICE.

“This is about trust between the community and the police department,” said Philadelphia City Councilor Helen Gym, who spoke during the panel discussion as a proponent of Philadelphia's sanctuary policy. “The community is not served when they fear the police.” The lack of a sanctuary policy in Allegheny County enabled the prosecution and possible deportation of Martin Esquivel-Hernandez, who City Paper wrote about in a cover story in June. Esquivel-Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico living in Pittsburgh, was cited for driving without a valid license by Mount Lebanon Police and paid his fine in late April. Less than a week later he was detained by ICE.

Lt. Duane Fisher, of the Mount Lebanon Police, says the township's general policy is to make contact with ICE if police “find someone who is unlicensed” and to see whether ICE has “any reason to see if [the suspect] is wanted.” ICE officials have not returned multiple calls requesting information about Esquivel-Hernandez.

Gym says stories like these can harm relationships between immigrant communities and local law enforcement. “We don’t want people to be afraid to call the police to report crimes like burglary, etc.,” said Gym. “It is not the responsibility of local police departments to enforce immigration laws, since they are federal laws.”

She also adds that immigrants have helped Philadelphia grow after 50 years of losing population. Gym says that while the native-born population in Philadelphia has remained steady or dropped over the years, the foreign-born population has grown. “The vibrancy of Philadelphia, the part that seems exciting, hast to do with immigrants feeling welcome,” Gym says.

Other elected officials at the panel from across the country—even ones that are in rust belt cities like Pittsburgh—agreed that attracting immigrants is important to a region's prosperity. Summit County, Ohio County Councilor Liz Walters said immigrants and refugees breathe new life into struggling communities. Summit County, which is just south of Cleveland, has a manufacturing past and has been losing population for decades.

Even in the face of population decline, Walters said it has not been easy to sway other local politicians to the benefits of attracting and maintaining foreign-born populations. “For some, it's easier to see differences and so it's easy to be afraid,” said Walters.

But Walters said Summit County is starting to see successes. Akron, the county seat, now holds ethnic market bus tours where long-time residents sit next to social service providers and get to sample Italian, Mexican and Southeast Asian goods. She says strategies like these don’t just show people can live together, they are good for a region’s economy: “Any city that is not thinking about a [diverse] and global-minded local economy, is going to fall behind.”

— Ryan Deto

9-11 a.m. Fri., July 8

Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, spoke at Local Progress' national meeting about combating Islamophobia. - PHOTO BY ASHLEY MURRAY

Photo by Ashley Murray

Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, spoke at Local Progress' national meeting about combating Islamophobia.

Linda Sarsour is the executive director at the Arab American Association of New York and the co-founder of Empower Change, a Muslim online organizing platform. She spoke at this morning’s Local Progress panel discussion entitled “Our Role in this Political Moment: How local officials can fight back against hate, xenophobia and Islamophobia.” City Paper’s Ashley Murray caught up with her after the discussion.

Tell me about some of the work you’ve done in New York.

My organization predominately works with immigrants from the Arab world and South Asia and has been doing immigrants-rights work — language access to services for immigrants, police reform based on accounts of unwarranted surveillance against Arab Americans and Muslim Americans. That work has really opened up doors for being part of broader social-justice movements in New York City that includes working on city-wide immigrant-rights legislation and police reform with black and Latino civil-rights groups. We’ve had a lot of wins in New York. We are one of the most welcoming immigrant cities in the country. We have language-access legislation where government agencies are mandated to [provide] language access. We have passed landmark civil-rights legislation [including] police-reform legislation, creat[ing] the first-ever independent oversight for the New York Police Department. Really it was the most directly impacted communities [who were] at the forefront of those fights. I have committed myself to intersectional organizing because people are intersectional. I mean Muslims are black, white, Latino, Asian, Arab, and we also understand that within all of our communities we’re so complex. So we’re working on multiple issues because we’re not one-issue communities.

One of the things you said on the panel today is that the same people who are promoting Islamophobia may also be against LGBTQ rights and promote deporting Latinos and separating them from their families. Can you talk about that intersection?

I like to look at things from a broader perspective, and because I'm an intersectional organizer, I get to see that the same legislators that are passing anti-LGBTQ laws are the ones passing anti-Sharia bills, which are basically limiting Muslims rights to practice Islam freely in this country. People who are unconditionally pro-police and anti-police reform [and] anti-refugee resettlement are mostly the same legislators around the country. Once we started understanding that, it really helped us build alliances so that when there is an anti -refugee legislation, different movements are showing up for others. When there is an anti-LGBTQ [bill], other communities are showing up. It’s been very powerful. We’ve been able to defeat a lot of anti-refugee legislation across the country. There have been hundreds of cities that have passed welcoming-immigrants resolutions. And I think many legislators are realizing opposition is not in opposition to one group. They are actually in opposition to multiple groups, many of whom are marginalized and minority communities.

Lastly, on the panel you talked about how “Daesh” uses Islamophobia as a tool. Can you talk about that? [Sarsour told the audience that she uses the Arabic acronym Daesh because the terrorist group does not like that name. Many English-speaking media outlets use the term “self-described Islamic State” or “ISIS”.]

I think Islamophobia is systemic targeting and discriminating against Muslims in America, and what it does is it isolates Muslim Americans from the larger American society. It puts people farther into the margins and what that does is, and especially when elected officials in particular are in the media spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric, it actually gives fuel to violent extremists on the other side of the world — and particularly watching Daesh create these social-media videos where they actually quote people like Trump. This feeds into the narrative that they are trying to propose that the West is at war with Islam and that you are not welcomed in your countries, you are a minority, you are at the margin. They use this very problematic rhetoric that is actually based on things people in our country have said. So I always tell people to be careful of what type of ammunition you’re giving to the violent extremists. Unity is the enemy of terrorism, and what Daesh does not want to see is people coming together saying, "We stand with our Muslim neighbors, we stand with our LGBT neighbors." They don’t want to see people working together. And I think we’ve done a very good job in some parts of the country, in places like New York City, where we said, "We’re not going to be divided. We’re not going to let Daesh divide us; we’re not going to let the right-wing divide us."

— Ashley Murray

6-8 p.m. Thu., July 7

Culver City, Calif., City Councilor Meghan Sahli-Wells spoke to a crowd of locally elected woman officials.

Culver City, Calif., City Councilor Meghan Sahli-Wells spoke to a crowd of locally elected woman officials.

Ana Maria Archila stood at the front of a small conference room and emotionally said, "All of you  represent what's possible. I need you." She told this to a small conference room of locally elected woman officials after talking about her 4-year-old daughter who told her mom that she could "be Michelle" but couldn't be president.

"She's only 4, but she already learned gender roles. That's why I need you," Archila said.

Nearly 40 women — including local city councilors, county supervisors and school-board members from as close as Wilkinsburg, Pa., to as far as Tacoma, Wash. — gathered for the Local Progress' Inagural Women's Caucus Gathering to kick off the weekend at the Westin Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh. Local Progress, which has the tagline "The National Municipal Policy Network," is part of the Center for Public Democracy, also holding its People's Convention in town this weekend.

The purpose of the Local Progress national meeting is to "create a community to share best practices around policy and learn from campaign best practices," says Sarah Johnson, co-director of the organization. "We think local progress can play a role in supporting women."

Meghan Sahli-Wells, a city councilor from Culver City, Calif., said that although her city was founded 100 years ago, there have only been five women elected to local government.  "We can still count the number on one hand," she said, holding five fingers up to drive home the point.

Various participants shared concerns about obstacles for women wanting to run — like lack of a network to raise capital — and issues once in office — like needing a career mentor.

Sequanna Taylor, now a supervisor for the 2nd District of Milwaukee County, said, "I didn't have the money, but I couldn't let that be an issue. I was out in blizzards getting signatures." Taylor said when her county came under financial distress, she grew concerned about representation in her district and decided to run. She said the board had a reputation for being made up of "good old boys."

"I have to make sure they [District 2 residents] have a voice," Taylor said.

A collective, disappointed "wow" could be heard when political scientist Dana Brown, of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University, told the room that 82 percent of the locally elected officials in Pa.'s 67 counties are male. Her organization is a bipartisan center that encourages women to run for office.

"Public policy is happening whether women are at the table or not," Brown said. "Somewhere right now there is a vote happening. ... We, in Pa., have a long way to go."

She shared research findings that show when women are at the table, they change agendas by bringing a new perspective; change procedures by changing content of discussions and enforcing transparency; and change policy outcomes because they use more collaborative and inclusive language in negotiations.

Two local politicians attended the discussion — Pittsburgh City Councilor Natalia Rudiak and Wilkinsburg Council Vice President Marita Garrett.

Rudiak said that when she was a young activist, "a man always had the megaphone [at protests]. I remember wondering if I'll ever have it." Now Rudiak, one of the youngest people ever elected to council, says "I'm doing everything I can locally to get women elected."

— Ashley Murray

By Rebecca Addison, Ryan Deto and Ashley Murray