"People are overwhelmed with all the economic hardship, most of which has been caused by the bad decisions of the people in power," said Teresa Stanley, the South Hampton Roads Organizer with Virginia Organizing. "And politicians are focusing on issues that are not where the people are."
Stanley, a long-time activist and Hampton Roads resident, spends her days organizing people in Norfolk and Hampton Roads to get active on issues affecting their community, which has been hard hit by the economic downturn. She tries to get people active on issues such as predatory lending, the privatization of roads to the area (which has resulted in new tolls) and the lack of jobs.
"Young people are the future," she said, "and the jobs are not there like they were when they're getting out of school now." Plus, she said, politicians "are still no focusing on jobs like they should," and are instead focusing on everything from limiting access to abortion to attempting to kill unions.
She sees the Occupy movement -- with which she's worked in Norfolk -- as an antidote. "The Occupy movement has been an inspiring message for getting issues into the mainstream media that would otherwise be ignored." And although she admitted that learning to work within their General Assembly structure was initially challenging for someone more used to traditional organizing methods, she sees the benefits of the focus on direct democracy and consensus building these days. "It's been inspiring to see young people claim the non-violence mantra," through the General Assembly process. "Claiming the non-violence mantle is power."
But it's not just the Occupy movement she's found herself partnering with of late. "Unions are really reaching out to environmental and social justice folks in a way they never have before," she said. "The energy of Wisconsin was good for those of us who weren't even aware that unions have been climbing out of this ditch they had been thrown into on a national level." Their efforts are working to bring together "those of us that can stand together on a lot of issues we haven't before."
But, she said, "Hopefully it'll result in meaningful, take-it-to-the-streets action," or else she worries things will never change.
For instance, she cites ongoing efforts to get some sort of legislation passed in the state to restrict predatory lending, which helped trigger the housing crisis on a national level and has been an ongoing problem in her area for many low-income residents. "We've been working on that at the state level for eight years. But these politicians are bought by the predatory lending lobbyists," she said. "No matter what economic evidence you send them, they just won't pass the legislation." By comparison, she notes that local politicians, not subjected to the same lobbying, are often easy to work with to pass restrictions or resolutions calling for state-level legislation.
She also points to the recent announcement of new tolls coming to Hampton Roads on virtually every road in or out of the geographically isolated region. "The Ring Of Fire with the tolls is huge," she says, referring to locals' nickname for the proposed ring of tolls encircling the area. "For families on fixed incomes, you're talking about a crisis that will add $1,000 to a family budget just to get to work."
Still, she hopes that by working with the folks in Occupy and partnering with other organizations interesting in social and economic justice in the area, she can get more people educated and activated, which she sees as the only antidote to the control of monied interests in the state and beyond. "The more information, the more informed a populace, as Jefferson would say, the more they can be trusted in a democracy," she said.
[Image via Occupy Norfolk]