Getting A Seat At The Table

By Otis Ubriaco

As staff and members from Lancaster Stands Up gathered with all of the other Pennsylvania Stands Up Chapters a month ago for our member convening, I found myself reflecting on where we’ve come from as an organization and how equally daunting and exciting our work is yet to come. 

When I attended my first Lancaster Stands Up meeting in 2017 they made it clear that there are three principles they use to drive their work:

  1. We want to build grassroots power independent of any political party – we know we can’t get lost on left vs right, we need to focus on bottom vs top.
  2. We want to use this power to help make a democratic party work for all of us. 
  3. We want to connect our issues to their political solutions.

These were ideals from the beginning of Lancaster Stands Up but they weren’t a reality yet. Not only did we not have enough power, we didn’t have any at all, and we knew we had to get serious about it. 

I will not give an oral history of all that’s transpired since then, we’ll save that for another post, but there is no doubting we took those three principles seriously and made progress on all of them especially though (but not limited to) these moments:

  1. Running an independent expenditure electoral campaign to support Jess King for congress, building more grassroots people power than we’ve seen in generations.
  2. We continued to run many electoral campaigns seeing important victories from school boards, to city council, township supervisor, county commissioner and more, helping a democratic party for all of us
  3. We became a dues paying member organization meaning we are taking building and funding our own power seriously
  4. We combined with various other progressive political groups across eastern Pennsylvania to form Pennsylvania Stands Up

Through all of these moments, we continued to build our grassroots party, and helped continue to make a democratic party work for all of us – but what about connecting our issues to their political solutions? 

Through 2022 we had done issue work in various forms but they were often reactive and symbolic in nature. Connecting issues to their political solutions meant needing real power. We had a housing team that wanted to find easy ways to get towards some form of rent control or new affordable housing, but our allies in political office would often say they themselves didn’t have the power to do what we were asking – we would need laws passed at the state or federal level. This kind of power is something Lancaster Stands Up was far from having. We could use our people power to protest, but we didn’t have anyone to co-govern with that could help enact these things. What are we to do?

Then suddenly – a breakthrough. Thanks to our membership in Pennsylvania Stands Up we now had access to a statewide network – sure none of us independently had enough power to call for anything on the state level – but would we combine our grassroots power? 

State Senator Nikil Saval, who is one of our co-governance leaders, introduced the Whole Homes Repair Bill, a transformative piece of legislation that essentially funded weatherization and home repairs for low to moderate income homeowners. Our various Pennsylvania Stands Up chapters collaborated with other organizations across the state and staged statewide protests, met with our local electeds and eventually saw the bill get passed. This was the biggest “connecting our issues to their political solutions” moment we had ever seen in our organization and it was the first time we had successfully done anything on the state level. 

As amazing as this bill was – it was only one small piece of the pie – housing and the environment are much more complex issues than what was being solved with whole home repairs. We knew we needed to continue to think bigger, the only question was how to go about it. 

Alas, finally we have arrived back to my first sentence of this post. During our Pennsylvania Stands Up’s member convening we did much collaboration and visioning on how we continue to build power in our communities to make the changes we need to make a Pennsylvania that works for all of us.  One of the major outcomes of these two days was we voted to approve a long term issue campaign around housing and just transition. In short, each chapter is given the freedom to pursue whatever local campaign around this issue that’ll be meaningful in their area, but over time we can combine the people power from our campaigns to demand the changes we need on a state level if needed. 

Lancaster Stands Up met in a subgroup and began a basic rough draft on what this could look like. We spent most of our entire talking through all of the ways we are affected by poor housing policy in the county and the city. It was difficult to begin to picture what a campaign would look like because housing is at the center of so many issues and can take so many forms. We have homeowners with an aging housing stock that need repairs, we have renters who are not getting paid enough to keep up with the rapidly increasing housing costs, and we have homeless people who are overpoliced and need “housing first” (insert link) solutions. How could we ever begin to narrow the scope of this issue? How could we identify anything that could be a realistic “short term win?”

On March 11th, I and Pennsylvania Stands Up staff member Pele IrgangLaden set out to Washington D.C. hoping to help find some of these answers. People’s Action, a national progressive organization that Pennsylvania Stands Up is an affiliate of, gathered 18 organizers across 8 states to meet with the Department of Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House to better understand how we can leverage federal resources in our community. 

Going into it we weren’t really sure what to expect – we have heard that the Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) had billions of dollars in resources that could radically improve our infrastructure but for the most part, anyone we talked to couldn’t figure out how to actually get the money and what we could use it for. I shared in these meetings the realities we were facing – Whole Home Repairs is great, but we not only need more money for these programs, but it needs to be more flexible so money can help out more people in a variety of ways. 

These meetings ended up much more productive than I was expecting. They were not performative and structured to simply just make us feel good about ourselves for being in Washington as I feared. These were in depth conversations with lot’s of collaboration on what is possible with existing legislation and what can be done to improve future funding streams. 

To fully transfer everything we learned it would at least quadruple the length of this already long running post so I will save us all some time and share some of the highlights that I learned:

  1. Our work on Whole Home Repairs is what helped us get in the room for these meetings. Thus proving on some level, that our hard work in building independent political power has given us opportunities to co-govern with government officials on a federal level!
  2. These agencies want to work with organizations like ours because they actually want to see their hard work on this legislation actually result in improving people’s lives. They need organizations like ours to tell them what’s really happening at a ground level and we need them to help answer our questions so we can actually make effective use of these funding streams. 
  3. Through the IRA a school district can install solar panels and retrofit their buildings for climate resiliency and get tax refunds and reimbursements from the federal government. (Rep Fielder is already leading a “Solar for Schools” campaign). There are also many other examples of how the IRA can directly fund non-profits, schools, and local governments in the name of infrastructure/energy efficiency. 
  4. There is a newly created State and Community Energy Programs (SCEP) that the DOE is distributing. There are two aspects of it, both of which are available to renters through their landlord and to homeowners.
    1. The home energy rebate program can replace appliances in homes (HVAC/water heater) and get them 70% funded by the federal government. 
    2. A more open-ended funding stream to improve home energy efficiency, where you can combine multiple home repairs as long as they meet a certain energy efficiency improvement threshold.
  5. Municipalities in other states have created a new position called a “navigator” in their local governments to focus on applying for these funds in collaboration with communities. This could be something to be advocated for in the Lancaster City government if Home Rule is passed in November. 

With all of this new information, we need to go back to our chapters, do some more research, and work with our local electeds and nonprofits to see if we can use any of these funding streams to help kick off our first long term visioning campaign. 

Through our meetings we now have established relationships with the federal agencies that help distribute these programs and are willing to meet with us again in the future to answer any specific questions we have related to these opportunities. 

Only time will tell if these meetings in Washington will contribute to aspects of our Long Term Visioning but there is one thing we can already say for sure. For an organization that had no power at all when it formed in 2016, it should not be taken for granted that at least for a couple days, we had a seat at the table in Washington, strategizing how we can continue to connect our issues to their political solutions. 

If you’re interested in being part of this work going forward, please fill out our working team interest form and express your interest in joining our Housing Team. 

If you are not a member of Lancaster Stands Up yet, I highly encourage you to pay what you can on a monthly basis to support our work. To build independent political power we need people who can give time and people who can give money – if you are able to be one of hundreds who choose to give money.  You can become a member here.