On Wednesday, before attendees of the Take Back the American Dream conference in Washington, D.C., boarded buses for a Capitol Hill rally, they first gathered at the Washington Hilton Hotel for one last pep talk. Their action plan for the day was to call on the U.S. Congress to focus urgently on job creation instead of budget cuts only. Sending them off with words of encouragement? Two members of Congress.
"The jobs crisis is a national emergency, so we need to act today," Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) told the audience. "For African Americans, unemployment is 16.7 percent. And that's just what's counted — we know it's closer to 30 percent. The national average is an unconscionable 9.1 percent. It's a moral disgrace in the richest and most powerful country in the world."
She continued with a list of policies that she has long advocated, including investing in job creation while ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, letting the Bush tax cuts expire, revising the tax code and passing her 99ers bill to extend unemployment insurance for people who have exhausted their benefits yet remain out of work.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, took the podium to say that, while legislation is important, outside agitation matters just as much.
"Yes, we need legislation. Yes, we need bills to pass, and yes, we need to pass the jobs bill right now," Ellison told the crowd of roughly 1,000 attendees who stayed for the conference's last morning. "But it's not only about that; it's about our fundamental relationship as Americans together.
"We in the Congressional Progressive Caucus — there's 77 of us, which seems like a lot. But there are 360 million Americans. We cannot be out in the highways, the byways, the neighborhoods, the farms and the inner cities the way you are organizing every single day. We can't do that; we need you. But you cannot introduce legislation to help change this thing in the Congress. So you need us. We need partnership!"
But Van Jones closed out the pre-rally pep talk by saying that, despite the Democratic Party's presence at the conference, and his own past in Democratic politics as a White House adviser, the American Dream Movement is not powered by politics.
"It's not based on any political party, and not beholden to any political party. It's not based on any politician, and not beholden to any politician," Jones said, before reminding the crowd of their action steps to pressure Congress and recruit more than 2,000 American Dream candidates to run for office in 2012. "We've talked a lot. I've talked a whole lot. … But it's time to start walking our talk."
I spoke with a few of the conference's African-American attendees about how they were feeling after three days of coalition building and strategy planning.
"I know that African Americans especially have felt excluded from the so-called American dream," admitted Monique Hairston, 32, a Rebuild the Dream volunteer from St. Louis, Mo. "The American dream as a concept might be hard to swallow for some African Americans. But what's happening here right now is a redefining of what the American dream really means. It's not about materialism or consumerism, but it's about creating an America where all people can thrive, and have quality education and health care. That's what this movement is about, and that's why I'm here."
Keith Gibbs, a 42-year-old from the Bay Area, feels optimistic about the American Dream Movement's plan to hold elected officials accountable. "We have officials that have been around for a long time. Some of the candidates that we hold dear to our hearts are getting complacent. They've been around, seen how the system works, and now there are different challenges that they're not stepping up to address," said Gibbs, a member of the Communications Workers of America. "If you're a Democrat, [historically] you just support the Democrat because it would be worse to have a Republican in office. But now we're saying, if they don't do the job, then we have to focus on finding candidates that will be more progressive, more thought-provoking, and really focus on what this country needs."
Shawn McDowell, 30, of Charlotte, N.C., said that he came to the conference because he feels that too many politicians are bought off by wealthy lobbyists. "I want to understand what's going on with our democracy," he said. "This feels different from past progressive initiatives because of the variety of organizations I see here. This is an opportunity for people to put aside their differences and push with one momentum."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.