This panel took place on February 27, 2020 as the opening plenary session for the Future of Public Goods conference at Yale University.


Dorian Warren – Center for Community Change
Judith LeBlanc – Native Organizers Alliance
Tarso Ramos – Political Research Associates
Daniel Martinez HoSang, Facilitator – Yale University

Panel Description

We seem to be in a moment ripe with both possibility and danger. On the one hand, there has been a significant upsurge in campaigns across many sectors related to the provision and funding of public goods, evident in demands for greater funding for public higher education, mass transit, Medicare for All, Universal Pre-K, water rights, and protections, the Green New Deal, public control of utilities, etc. Moreover, privatization and market-based programs no longer have the same authority as catch-all solutions; they face an increasing crisis.

On the other hand, more than forty years of relentless attacks on the government in general and publicly-funded and provided services and programs in particular, has taken its toll. Public distrust of the state is still significant. The charge that public goods represent ‘free stuff’ is still resonant; many of these charges have race and gender underpinnings. And there is no straightforward ‘return’ to the New Deal/Great Society framework for providing such services and goods. They may provide some foundations and blueprints for a more robust public goods agenda, but much more work remains.

In our opening session, a group of nationally recognized organizers will consider the political strategies, public narratives, and frameworks of analysis that hold the potential to address this contradiction. How do we win broad based-support for public goods and government accountability at a time when anti-statist feelings still run high? How have indigenous communities and communities of color sought to reimagine pubic and collective goods. How can we ensure that disparate campaigns for those goods don’t remain isolated from one another, but instead assert a proactive and resonant vision of the role of government in addressing people’s needs? What can we draw from the past and what must we forge anew?

This panel transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Daniel Martinez HoSang:

One of the things we’re trying to think about are the sites and places of new possibilities of collectivity, public goods commonality. Judith, you spent a lot of time across Indian country working with communities doing just this, and I wonder if we can start with that.

Judith LeBlanc:

In the indigenous framework, we believe inter-tribally that we are all related, that we are in relationship with each other and with the natural world, we are in relationship with the past and the future—and that the way we walk in the present is how it is that we bring the past and the future together.  So it matters what we do in the present for the common good. And whatever you do in the present is going to have an impact far beyond the immediate.

in Indian country, I’m going to give you a snapshot of what we’re doing in relationship with the Ihanktonwan or the Yankton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, and a traditional women society named the Brave Heart Society and the Treaty Council of that tribe. The work that we’re doing is to try to create a model that can help the tribe move towards becoming co-managers, co-caretakers of the Missouri River Bioregion. 

First, you have to understand how the New Deal created a dilemma for the tribe.  Dams were built for electric power, and traditional sacred lands and villages were flooded in order to create a dam on that reservation and left the tribe with no access to the Missouri River, and destroyed traditional plants.

We were awakened by the struggle of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. That fight started as a struggle to protect the sacred sites, and the Water Supply of the Standing Rock sued 10,000 members. But that tribal council began to realize that it was really a struggle to protect that water for 17 million people who live, love and work along the shores of that river. So the common good is a working, living practice of Indian country. Eventually, $5 billion was divested from the Dakota Access Pipeline, and it moved people globally to see their stake in protecting the water of the Missouri River.

Inspired by that, we realized the time had come for the idea of the Indian tribe becoming co-managers, co-caretakers of this land rather than the Bureau of Land Management and the OmniCore of Engineers. We’re trying to create a model for how to show the federal government that we must, for the good of the river, become caretakers once again—despite the fact that the EPA is being destroyed before our very eyes every day, despite the fact that the tribe has no real access to the Missouri River. We have the moral, the inherent, and in fact, the legal right to take care of the land and water.

There are three principles that we’ve been working with in the past three years.

One is that grassroots grassroots always the point the direction of the path for how we can solve the most difficult problems. This water project was the dream of some elders to regain that right, that inherent moral right to be caretakers of the river.

Secondly, we’re attempting to braid science with traditional values and spirituality. It’s like peanut butter and jelly, because science sometimes has the answers, sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s where spirituality and values move us to find the answers that we don’t know. So we have to braid it. Sometimes that braiding can become difficult, but it must be pursued. For example, we’re helping to develop the technical, scientific expertise of the Environmental Protection Agency of the tribe, which currently only has a part time worker with a clear and present danger of the KXL pipeline there on its territory. So we’ve brought a native and nonnative scientist into this project.

The third focus of the project is the critical role that tribal communities can and should play in environmental justice movements, in struggles for the common good.  Why?  Because Indian tribes have the longest running experiment of democracy. We’re the only peoples with a collectively owned land base, our own elected leadership, and we have been governing the land since the beginning of time. The good, the bad and the ugly of that reality needs to be studied and generalized upon.  And this is where some exciting experiments like the projects that we’re working on are come in. We have many projects on different reservations—Navajo, the Oceti Sakowin tribes and seven tribes of South Dakota along the Missouri River, a number of places where their alternative energy project is being built of blood, sweat and tears. Less than 1% of our philanthropy goes to Indian country, but lot of the energy and the resources that are being brought together are being used to create alternative forms of energy not just for the tribes, but for the communities, the border towns as well.

We have found that it has taken a lot of grassroots public popular education in order to prepare for the kind of structured governing structure to enforce a water code.  We have brought in scientists native and nonnative to develop a lot of code that’s much more stringent than the EPAs and we are also rebirthing traditional practices and ceremonies of water that have not been in practice for some time. And so we are utilizing science, as well as traditional ways, and giving hope and inspiration and capacity for the tribal leadership to challenge the federal government, to challenge the policies of the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. OmniCore of Engineers and to actually create a baseline of what the water quality is, so that in fact we can become the caretakers—because we’re able to do that kind of work through a community based water testing program that the federal government cannot.

I can say in conclusion that re: nation building, we are rebuilding the muscles of sovereignty.  We are creating a model that we are sharing now with four other tribes of the seven of the Oceti Sakowin. We feel we will be able to shift the power to the tribes when they are negotiating on infrastructure projects, and will become a material force in our continuous struggle to stop the building of the KXL pipeline and in fact to offer an alternative way of governing the hydroscape.

I’s a 10-year plan, and we’re three or four years into it.  It was very difficult developing the consciousness among the tribal leaders that we can do this, that it is possible to challenge the power of the federal government with our sovereignty.  But it’s a powerful transformational process, because now there are new leaders that are being elected to some of the tribal governments who have that fire that Standing Rock ignited, but now they’re developing the idea that we have the tools that can bring allies into the struggle, and that it would be for the common good, just as a standing run was for the 17 million people who live, love and work along the Missouri River. So this project could be a way of developing and protecting Mother Earth, but for the good of all.

And there are alliances that are developing with right farmers and ranchers who’ve also been a part of the fight against KXL, but we never applied a proactive campaign to actually be a part of governing the land as peoples of the land themselves.  And the beautiful thing of ranchers and farmers and tribal nations coming together is that we don’t have to live in the past, we have to live in the present and think about the future as we bring the practices of traditional water, care of water, respect for water and tribal sovereignty into the present. 


Yes, great. Thank you. There are so many rich things in that story.  One thing that I was struck by is that many people would think about the story of the collective good since the 2016 election only as one of decline and the loss of possibility.  But you’re seeing it from a different perspective—that that’s not the narrative, it’s actually thinking about new possibilities that the failures of the past make us confront. Tarso, I think your story and the work you’ve done around community and labor partnerships and public educations seem similar, and that it’s still tightly connected to the 2016 election.  And I wonder if you could talk to us about that.

Tarso Ramos:

Sure. I just want to acknowledge that any conversation about public education of course has a history that goes well back before 2016 election. And it’s important to talk about race in public education, because education is one of those places where where racism has become economic suicide for most white people in this country. The ways in which this notion of savage competition, this idea that in order for some populations to thrive others must be dominated, excluded or expelled plays out in really powerful ways.

And we know this, of course, going back to the history of the foundation of public schools and the public funding of white segregated, often Christian academies, and then the funding of a strategy of school vouchers and so forth out of the leadership of the Christian right. The Walton Family and so forth have given us a deeply divided legacy of the regional division in the public education.

Coming forward to 2016, an interesting thing happened in this area of Massachusetts where I live. The same year that Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States, on the same ballot, the population of Massachusetts rejected a strategy for enlarging and expanding tribal schools. They did this in part because the funding mechanism was a clear money grab from existing public education, and the darkness of that contrast was too much even for Massachusetts Liberals who have invested in this idea of school choice and alternatives in public education. It was a step too far.

We’ve seen from that time till now that there has been some very exciting or exciting organizing that’s happening in places like Oklahoma and West Virginia, the Chicago Teachers’ of Strike, other organizing that has really brought this question of fighting for and bargaining for the public good. The question of mental healthcare for students, the process of gentrification, policing in schools and a variety of other community issues had become part of the core demands around bargaining around public education.  And we’ve seen that spread to other organizing sectors as well.

And I think this has really put on the table the notion of a fight for the public good that looks to bridges across the typical divisions that are used to compel into focus this notion that my personal, my community self-interest requires the exclusion of others.

One of the things that happened in the case of Massachusetts is that the successful fight which was championed by the Governor of the State of Massachusetts was funded to the tune of many millions more than any valuable mission in the history of the State of Massachusetts, largely with the Wall Street hedge fund money. It gave us privatization of public mental hospitals and a whole wave of privatization elsewhere.

I think this is important to point out in part, because there is a kind of Northeast liberal that imagines that these savage rational inequalities that we see from the period of Jim Crow are somehow a red state problem or a Southern problem.  And in fact, in one of the most liberal places in the United States, Massachusetts, you have incredible white people holding up private investment and exactly this kind of savage inequality around racial lines, just with the sugarcoating and pretending it’s not really about race.  And so this innovation of the Christian right both is a way to preserve white supremacy in an education system and to capture public wellness for Christian nationalist agenda.

And so I just want to suggest that in any of these fights around on the public good, there’s a broader question that we have to contend with around who is the leader, who is the “public” in the “public good.”  And even though there are some growing momentums for some very important fights, I would argue that we are losing still the fight of a who is the lead, who is included in this.  And in fact, we’re seeing the trend line both in the United States and globally around an increasingly savage exclusion of who gets to be part of leading the people.

And so even as we’re building our power, if we’re not contending and contesting on this much larger cultural level around who are agents of history, who are members of the democracy, who’s written out of history, who’s written out of the story of democracy ,who must be excluded—then all of the clever policy ideas and all the coalitions we put together are not likely to win in the long run.  And so I hope that we can link this question to public good.


Thank you.  I think one of the issues that you’re getting at is this capacity for this very localized effort.  Part of that community and labor collaboration on schools comes from the lived reality that schools are places of possibility of connection between parents.  Not in every ways, but that’s partly what was being fought for there—some vision that this is a place that’s not just about the transmission of accreditation, but it’s carrying something else. And people were deeply fighting that.  That’s why parents showed up even when those donors were telling them these teachers were greedy, they’re only going for themselves. Parents and students showed up for them.  And it reminds me, Dorian, you just told us that you came back from door knocking on Monday in California behind a ballot initiative that’s also trying to generate a vision for voters in Northern California about trying to build on something that black women and other women of color have.  Could you talk about that?

Dorian Warren:

Sure. I was in Auckland on Monday door knocking with a group of very powerful, gracious women of color, particularly black women, and they’re fighting over the question of whether child care is a public good or not fundamentally. A few details about what this effort is: it’s a ballot initiative in Alameda County, Measure C. It’s a valid measure that would offer a tax increase and yes, it’s a 0.5% tax increase, sales tax. But it would create a $150 million a year for 14 municipalities in the county to provide access for poor and working class people, particularly women, to early learning and child care, as well as funding a permanent revenue stream for one of the two pediatric trauma care centers in the State of California.  So these women are out there door knocking and trying to convince and persuade their fellow community members that this should be a public good and not a privatize personal concern.

So this has been an issue for a very long time.  These women work two to three jobs and struggle to take care of their children.  They had this idea two years ago and they went door knocking.  And because of the rules of the democracy in California around ballot initiatives, they had to get two-thirds.  So they needed 66.7% of the vote. And they got 66.4%. Needed 66.7% and got 66.4%, and we’re devastated.  But here are some badass women.  They were like okay, we’re going to pick ourselves up, we’re going to do an analysis of what we did right, what we did wrong, and then we’re just going to keep building power.

And so what they did, and this goes to the theme that we’ve already heard around solidarity—they said, well, it can’t just be a parent’s issue or a mother’s issue.  So they went and organized the early learning teachers. Because if this passes, those teachers will then at least have a $15 minimum wage, so the teachers will get a raise. And they’ve organized the providers of child care centers, those that have to expand capacity to creating more slots for kids in Alameda County.

So this is similar to what you’ve just heard Tarso has talked about in terms of teacher strikes. There’s this common good idea that teachers in Chicago in particular, but also LA versus many others have been fighting for. It’s not just the workers issue, or it’s just not the parent issue—its parents, its workers, its providers.  So there was an incredible groundswell of support.

By the way, all the consultants from DC who wanted to come and do this campaign for them, told them they’d charge millions of dollars.  They had no plan strategy that actually talked to poor and working class people or to even reach out to parents.  They were just going to come in and do some ads. That sounds familiar, right? They’re going to come in and do some ads. 

So I was very moved, and I had about 30 conversations on the doorsteps, some of which were really hard in terms of persuading why this is in their self-interest, why they should care if they don’t have kids.  This is like, ‘This is a public good.’  This is a part of their identity as a community member, to support this effort.

So I’ll leave it at there just to say the principles are similar to what Judith underlined earlier, this firm belief that actually, when the people who are most directly affected by injustice are given power and resources to lead campaigns for justice and democracy and freedom, they can win and transform not only their lives, but their communities.


Great, thank you.  What I so appreciate about that story is, we started talking about the ways that the market and privatized economies encourage us, incentivize us to invest in one another’s disposition.  And you can see it across all of these sectors that teachers against the taxpayers that are paying the bill, teachers against students, low income workers trying to make ends meet—it’s not just an appeal to a principal, it’s the active work that has to say, let’s look at where that proposition has got us and what else is available to us.