By Debbie Southorn, AFSC intern

From Dec. 2-6, 2012, a broad coalition of community organizations, religious leaders, and activists in Chicago served soup and bread outside the offices of Sen. Dick Durbin. The four days of bread and soup lines culminated in our construction of a shantytown coined “Durbinville,” modeled after the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression.

Our message to Sen. Durbin, Senate majority whip and an important player in the budget showdown, was clear: Do not allow mass poverty, unemployment, and death due to lack of access to medicines and health care to be your legacy from balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and vulnerable in this country. Tax the wealthy and corporations their fair share and cut Pentagon excesses.

As a young, white, and relatively new-to-Chicago intern with the American Friends Service Committee, I had the privilege of participating in #Durbinville, led by several community organizations advocating for racial and economic justice including SOUL, IIRON, and Lakeview Action Coalition. Here are four things I’m taking away from the experience.

We’re not broke.

This whole crisis of the fiscal cliff is a myth. We have money in this country, and it’s not in my grandma’s Social Security check. Both the public and politicians need to recognize the truth of the situation and stop acting like we’re going to fall off a cliff on Jan. 1, 2013.

We have sources of revenue available to us. This is a question of priorities. I dig the way that SOUL’s education organizer Maria R. Fitzsimmons puts it:

Putting concern for the deficit before social programs and New Deal-style job creation is not only reflective of poor economic theory, it pits the American people against the economy, as if a thriving economy and an impoverished, sick, jobless, homeless, uneducated populace is some how admirable, let alone even possible.

These cuts would kill people.

It is an act of violence to deprive someone of access to their medicine, health care, and only means of survival.

How dare Sen. Durbin, who claims to represent progressive interests, speak of making cuts to vital human needs programs?

The poor, the elderly, and the most vulnerable of communities in this country are already struggling to survive. Sarah Moore of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus in Chicago shared that “after cutting her meds in half to save money and cutting her food budget, there's nothing left to cut.”

Follow and listen to the leadership of those most directly impacted.

The creative visuals and strategic use of civil disobedience employed by the organizers was effective and engaging. #Durbinville received national media attention.

But without question, the most powerful aspect of #Durbinville was the testimony and leadership of those who would be immediately and harshly affected by any cuts to the social safety net.

I was organizing alongside homeless and formerly homeless folks, my elders, current students, the unemployed and underemployed, people of color, and other concerned community members.

These decisions affect our friends, our neighbors, and ourselves. That is why we are fighting. We all have a stake in creating a more equitable and just society. It was their stories that kept me motivated and rooted in the struggle.

Real peace is about true and lasting justice.

To be honest, when my friend from SOUL reached out to me about getting AFSC involved in planning #Durbinville, I had hesitations—Would we get behind an effort to challenge and change federal budget priorities that did not include cuts to military spending as part of its main platform? Fortunately, the answer was yes.

Just like these economic justice groups, we too advocate protecting social programs, investing in job creation, and taxing the wealthy and corporations their fair share. And though cutting the Pentagon’s bloated budget was not included in the central frame, #Durbinville was littered with signs like these:

 

Getting behind this demonstration without demanding that our message be center stage felt like a step in the right direction given that in this country, the peace movement is largely white and justice movements are largely led by people of color.

As peace activists, we have to be vigilant about challenging institutionalized racism and seeking out the leadership of people of color.

We have to ensure that the people most vulnerable and most directly affected by the crises devastating our communities and our environments are at the table, forming and shaping our collective vision for a better society, even as we advocate an end to militarism abroad.

We have to recognize our common interests and our personal investments in creating justice here in the belly of the beast, because let’s face it: if we really did spend more on books there would be less money for bombs. And if we could dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, we’d start to experience the real safety and security that comes with an educated, engaged populace.

#Durbinville was just one action, and the budget showdown is just one site of struggle.

In this time of severe economic crisis, ecological devastation, and waning empire, it’s going to take more principled coalitions of broad-based groups coming together, like we saw last week in Chicago’s Federal Plaza, to build the people power we need to win and create lasting social transformation.

Debbie interns with AFSC in Chicago, where she works on a variety of peace and social justice initiatives, including the “If I Had a Trillion Dollars” national youth film festival