Building Power in the City: Reflections on the Emergence of the Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance

By Harmony Goldberg
(get the PDF)

In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population
will be living in urban areas. – United Nations Population Fund Report 2007

On the eve of the transition to an urban world majority, the struggle in the cities of the United States took two important steps forward. Two national grassroots networks representing different fronts of urban struggle were launched in 2007: the Right to the City Alliance (a national network of grassroots organizations fighting against gentrification) and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The formation of these networks represents the maturation of the generation of organizing that began in the era of neoliberal globalization. These networks reflect an understanding that, as capitalism has changed, social movements also need to change and develop new forms of organization that will allow us to fight on new terrain.

Neoliberal globalization has transformed the nature of cities in the world economy. Cities in the United States used to mainly be the location of industrial production and trade. The globalization of production has meant that corporations have shut down most factories in the United States and moved production to the Global South in search of low wages and fewer regulations. Many of the former industrial cities in the United States – like Detroit and Buffalo – have gone into economic decline, facing high rates of unemployment and fiscal crises. Other cities have transformed into a new kind of city: the “global city” (a trend best described by Saskia Sassen). As production has become increasingly decentralized, its management has become increasingly centralized into “global cities” which serve as “command posts” for the corporate heads that manage the world economy. In the U.S., this includes cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. The cities that have taken on this role are growing and gentrifying at a rapid pace. Large numbers of middle- and upper-class workers have moved into city centers to be close to their corporate jobs. The same urban core communities that were abandoned by the government in the middle of the twentieth century have now become ground zero for gentrification. Although the industrial economy has declined over the past several decades, the service industry has boomed, particularly in big cities where the elite demand labor-intensive personal services to maintain a “world-class” lifestyle.

What has this meant for working class people and people of color? It has meant that many working class communities of color are being torn apart by gentrification in order to make space for the new layer of corporate workers. Private developers and banks are making huge profits from land speculation. It has meant that well-paid union jobs are disappearing, weakening the labor movement whose strongest base was in the large-scale industries that have moved overseas. The only employment alternatives left to most working class people are low-wage service jobs without stability or benefits; service industry jobs tend to be underpaid, unregulated and stigmatized. All of these changes have hit Black, Latino and Asian working class communities the hardest.

David Harvey has pointed out that capitalism simultaneously makes profit through the exploitation of working class people in the production process (accumulation by exploitation) and through the dispossession of peoples from their land (accumulation by dispossession). We can use this framework to understand capitalism’s new urban strategies. It is no longer adequately profitable for capitalists to exploit industrial workers in the United States, but they have found new ways to profit from the exploitation of workers in the service industries. This strategy relies on the super-exploitation of people of color and women of color in particular; the rise of the domestic work industry is one of the clearest examples of this trend. Similarly, gentrification is the one of the most important fronts of accumulation by dispossession in the current period. Echoing back to the original theft of land from Native American people, this new wave of gentrification and land speculation is giving super-profits to the wealthy off the backs of poor and working class people of color.

These political-economic processes have changed the terrain of the city, and social movements have had to change to fight on this new terrain. The past decade has seen the emergence of many urban struggles in communities across the country including campaigns against gentrification and intensified policing, urban worker organizing among day laborers and domestic workers and fights to defend and expand governmental services like welfare and public transportation. The Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance represent two crucial fronts in this growing urban movement.

Having closely observed and participated in the emergence of these two networks, I believe that their models offer important insights for the broader left. I will describe the concrete development of these two grassroots networks, and then I will offer my analysis of the theoretical and strategic implications of their work

The Right to the City Alliance: Initiated by the Miami Workers’ Center (MWC), Strategic Action for a Just Economy (SAJE) and Tenants and Workers United (TWU) in 2007, the Right to the City Alliance brought together organizations from across the country that were organizing against gentrification in working class communities of color. RTTC member organizations include organizations from Boston (ACE, City Life/Vida Urbana, and the Chinese Progressive Association), Los Angeles (Collective Space, East Los Angeles Housing Corporation, Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, Little Tokyo Service Center, Los Angeles Community Action Network, Pilipino Workers Center, SAJE/Strategic Action for A Just Economy, South Asian Network and Union de Vecinos), Miami (Miami Workers Center and Power U Center), New Orleans (Safe Streets), New York (CAAAV/Organizing Asian Communities, Community Voices Heard, FIERCE, FUREE/Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Make the Road NY, Mothers on the Move, Picture the Homeless, St. Nick’s CDC, and WEACT for Environmental Justice), Oakland (Just Cause Oakland), Providence (DARE/Direct Action for Rights and Equality, and the Olneyville Neighborhood Association, San Francisco (POWER/People Organized to Win Employment Rights, PODER, St. Peter’s Housing Committee) and the Washington DC metropolitan area (ONE DC and Tenants and Workers United). Right to the City also engages researchers, academics, lawyers and allies to support the work of the base-building organizations.

These groups are not only united because of their shared struggle against gentrification; they also share a deeper vision for urban social change. “We all have the right to remain and return to our cities, to take back our streets and neighborhoods, and to ensure that they exist to serve people rather than capital. We all have a right to the city. We believe the right to the city is the right for all people to produce the living conditions that meet their needs.” The French philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, first developed the call for the “Right to the City” in 1968. It is a banner that has been taken up by urban movements around the world. Lefebvre argued that the right to determine the future of the city does not belong to private capital or to the state; instead the right to city belongs to all people who live or work in the city. This framework reflected the struggles that these organizations had been waging in their communities. It spoke to their vision for a radical transformation of power relations in the city and for a real practice of democracy. At the founding conference, The Right to the City Alliance built on this framework and developed principles of unity that reflected their vision for today’s cities. Their vision includes a challenge to the market-based approach to urban development and support for economic justice, environmental justice, immigrant justice, racial justice and democracy. They do not believe that the fight for the city can be isolated from broader social dynamics. They connect the fight for the city to the struggles of rural people and indigenous people against environmental degradation and economic pressures, and they believe that the struggle for cities in the United States is connected to international struggles.

In order to achieve their vision for a city that is based on the needs and the dreams of their communities, the Right to the City Alliance believes that the movement against gentrification must incorporate housing issues but cannot be a narrow housing movement. Gentrification transforms much more than just housing; it also reshapes public space, undermines locally owned businesses and increases repressive policing. The Right to the City Network includes many organizations like Just Cause Oakland, St. Peter’s Housing Committee and the Miami Workers’ Center whose primary work is to defend public housing and low-income renters and homeowners, but none of these organizations organize narrowly on housing issues. They are also incorporate work to preserve and expand the community-based businesses and cultural institutions that are crucial to the survival of their communities. Organizations like FIERCE and Picture the Homeless in New York City organize to defend community access to public space while groups like Safe Streets in New Orleans work against the role that repressive policing plays in gentrifying communities. This expansive approach to anti-gentrification organizing reflects the Right the City Alliance’s movement-building orientation. The alliance is not interested in a narrow definition of the issue; instead they want to foster a resistance that is as complex and wide-ranging as the process of gentrification itself.

Although the day-to-day organizing work of RTTC member organizations continues to focus on local campaigns, the Right to the City Alliance has provided a national space where grassroots organizations could reflect on their organizing practices, the conditions in their cities and national patterns (e.g. mapping the projects of national real estate development corporations like Related). National convening’s have served as sites where groups could develop relationships and shared analysis. Several workgroups have started to connect organizers working on different fronts of the anti-gentrification struggle: tenant organizing, organizing public housing residents, civic participation and New Orleans solidarity work. These groups organize regular conference calls to reflect on their local work and to strategize towards shared work. The Right to the City Alliance plans to mobilize its member organizations for national demonstrations at events like the U.S. Conference of Mayors and commemorations of the Katrina tragedy. The Right to the City Alliance believes that this foundational work of relationship-building and analysis development will lay the groundwork for powerful joint organizing as the capacity of the network grows over time.

National Domestic Workers Alliance: Domestic work is deeply connected with the legacy of slavery in this country. Today, the industry remains racially stigmatized and treated as low-value, unskilled “women’s work.” According to Antonia Peña, a domestic worker and a member of Casa de Maryland, “Society does not look at our work as important, but we know how important our work is. We take care of children from early in the morning to late at night. We clean houses from top to bottom. This is hard work, and it takes real skill.” Domestic workers are excluded from federal labor protections like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. This leaves many workers vulnerable to intense exploitation and mistreatment. “Many of us face extreme abuse in the workplace, and it annihilates our souls. Then employers tell us to be grateful for the little that they give us,” says Peña. Most domestic workers have to work long hours for pay below minimum wage with no overtime, sick leave or health insurance.

Although it is difficult to document with any certainty, the domestic work industry seems to have grown over the past several decades. This upsurge in the domestic work industry is deeply intertwined with global political-economic dynamics. As global inequality increases, many people are forced to leave their home countries in search of work. Once they arrive here, most of these migrants are tracked into low-wage service jobs. Many female migrants find that domestic work is the only work available to them. According to Antonia Peña, “It’s not workers’ fault that we were born to poor families in a poor country. For many of us, domestic work was our only option. Now we do this work for some of the richest people in society.”

In response to the resurgence of the domestic work industry, a wave of domestic worker organizing has taken root in cities across the country over the past ten years. Building on this groundswell, domestic worker organizations from around the country came together at the first U.S. Social Forum in June of 2007 to found the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The alliance includes organizations from New York City (including Domestic Workers United, Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, Damayan which organizes Filipino workers, Andolan which organizes South Asian workers, CAAAV: Organizing Asian communities, the Unity Housecleaners of the Workplace Project, and Las Senoras de Santa Maria), Maryland (CASA de Maryland), San Francisco (including Mujeres Unidas y Activas, POWER’s Women Workers Project and the Women’s Collective of the Day Labor Program at La Raza Centro Legal) and Los Angeles (including the Filipino Workers’ Center and CHIRLA/Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles).

The member organizations of the National Domestic Workers Alliance have many different approaches to organizing. “We’ve really tried to build an organizational culture that makes room for people who come to the work in different ways. Some groups are building worker cooperatives; others are using a mutual aid approach. There are groups that have a more traditional base-building approach, and there are other organizations that are primarily focused on the international connections,” says Ai-jen Poo of Domestic Workers United in New York City. “All of these approaches are important in this period. The movement will be stronger if each approach can grow and evolve. It’s important to have a space where we can all work together and build long-term relationships.” In that spirit, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has focused on relationship-building between its member organizations, including joint political education to develop shared analysis and “organizing exchanges” to give member organizations the space to learn from each other’s models. The Alliance will be coming together again for a National Domestic Workers Congress in 2008. In addition to the ongoing relationship building and internal planning, this Congress will include a structured dialogue with other national-level alliances of grassroots organizations (like the Right to the City Alliance and the Poor Peoples’ Economic Human Rights Campaign). The Congress will conclude with a massive march in support of Domestic Workers United’s campaign to pressure the New York State Legislature to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, legislation that will provide basic worker protections and benefits to domestic workers. The National Domestic Worker’s Alliance is still too new to have plans for joint national work, but if the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights can pass in New York it will provide a precedent for similar legislation on a federal level.

The Beliefs Underlying the Work: Although the Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance focus on different fronts of the struggle, both networks are responding to the ways in which working class people and people of color are being exploited in cities in the neoliberal era. Their purpose is to build the power of the communities who have historically been marginalized by both mainstream society and by the left. These two networks are built on similar underlying political assumptions:

    The fight is fundamentally a struggle against neoliberal globalization. “The daily issues in our communities – like the experiences of low-wage service workers or people getting displaced from their homes through gentrification – are expressions of national and international trends, specifically how neoliberalism has transformed our cities. That’s why our local organizations have formed alliances that are national in scale with international analysis,” said Rickke Mananzala who is the Director of FIERCE in New York City and a member of the Right to the City Alliance Steering Committee. These organizations believe that they need an international analysis in order to do effective local and national organizing, and they believe that their organizing offers important new insights into analyses of global political-economic dynamics. According to Ai-jen Poo, “The people who are at the frontlines of the impact of neoliberalism – sectors like migrant workers, domestic workers, the people who are being displaced from urban centers, unemployed workers in the rust belt – these are the people who really understand neoliberalism. Because of their experiences, they have a lot to say about what kind of movement we need to build.” At their founding meetings, both networks incorporated explicit conversations about the way that neoliberalism has shaped the terrain of their work: creating conditions that have led to the upsurge in international migration, driving deindustrialization and the rise of the gendered and racialized low-wage service economy, and reshaping cities to meet the needs of global capital
    The struggle cannot be confined to one system of oppression. Working class communities and communities of color face class exploitation, racial and gender oppression, xenophobia and homophobia; all of these issues have to be addressed in the work. This approach – which was first developed by women of color feminists and which is sometimes called ‘intersectionality’ – clarifies the ‘intersections’ between the different systems of oppression (e.g. the ways in which gender and racial oppression have played a central role in the capitalist project). Any struggle that does not address these inter-relationships will be limited in its liberatory potential. The national alliance of domestic worker organizations is not organizing narrowly around “worker” issues; the life experiences of their members makes it absolutely clear that – if dynamics of race, gender and immigration status are ignored in the name of a narrow class analysis – their workplace issues cannot actually be addressed. Their work clarifies the need for a more complex approach to understanding the dynamics of class. Similarly, the Right to the City Alliance is pushing beyond a narrow “housing” approach to fighting gentrification, understanding that racist policing practices, the privatization of historic LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) public spaces and immigration raids also play central roles in the process of gentrification.

    The city is a key site for the struggle. Cities have traditionally been crucial spaces for progressive organizing, and that dynamic is no different in these times. Cities play a central role in the contemporary global economy, housing the majority of the world’s people and serving as key nodes for transnational management, consumption and communication. The particular way that globalization is reshaping cities has opened up new fronts of struggle for working class communities and communities of color. Struggles against gentrification and the organizing of low-wage service workers have moved to center stage in contemporary social movements. Rene Poitevin, a professor at New York University who is affiliated with the Right to the City Alliance said, “In the 21st century, the city will play the role that the factory did in the 20th century; it will be the main site for capitalist accumulation and therefore the main site for class struggle. Figuring out how to build the revolution from the city is the main theoretical and political challenge for our generation today.”

    “Organizing oppressed people is heart and soul of the movement,” said Ai-jen Poo. “Building lasting institutions in working class communities and communities of color is the most important work that the left can do; these organizations are the building blocks of a stronger movement.” Reflecting on the decades of decline in the labor movement and the growth of an organized movement on the Right, these organizations have decided to take on the task of re-building the organized power of the people who are the front-lines of neoliberalism. This is based on the belief that oppressed people have the most interest in changing the system and – if organized – the most power to actually win change. These organizations’ commitment to the methodology of grassroots organizing is also based on a commitment to the self-determination of oppressed people. It is in the method of their work – building the collective power and leadership of working class people and people of color to win real changes in the daily lives of their communities – that the Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance are different from many other left organizations.

    We need to combine grassroots organizing with a deep political analysis. Just as the methodology of these two networks differs from the much of left, it also differs from traditional community organizing models. Challenging the “non-ideological” and anti-left approach of traditional Alinskyite community organizing models, these organizations all incorporate intensive political education with their members and leaders. At the founding meeting of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the San Francisco-based Day Labor Program’s Women’s Collective led a workshop connecting the contemporary domestic work industry with the legacy of slavery while Domestic Workers United led a workshop on the rise of the domestic work industry under neoliberal globalization. At the United States Social Forum, the Right to the City Alliance held a series of workshops to provoke dialogue about the political analysis underlying the “Right to the City” framework including: ‘Gentrification in Global Cities: Working Class Communities’ Right to the City,’ ‘Race, Gender, Nationality: A Fight for the Right to the City,’ and ‘Right to the City: Urban Struggle from the Philippines to South Africa.’ By promoting this kind of internationalist analysis and engaging in regular strategic dialogues, these networks break open political spaces that are closed in the mainstream organizing world.

Reflecting on the Successes and the Challenges: Even in their relatively short existence, these two networks of grassroots organizations have been able to make several significant advances. Most significantly, they have been able to raise up the possibility of building a left that is deeply rooted in oppressed communities. For the past several decades in the United States, the left has been made up overwhelmingly of middle class activists, many of whom are also privileged along other axes of power like race and gender. Without dismissing the important role that middle-class radicals and white activists can play in the left and in social movements, the Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance offer a reminder of the principle that oppressed people have to be the ones to lead the struggle for liberation. This is more than an abstract moral issue or an outdated political idea. It is a real political possibility that challenges the white middle-class left to consider the strategic implications of its social base and tactical orientation. Assertions like ‘We are all oppressed by capitalism’ or ‘It’s not just about class (or race)’ may contain some kernels of truth, but they also radically oversimplify social relations and political strategy. A left that is truly committed to democracy and self-determination has to consider the intense level of racial, national and gender stratification that exists within the broad cross-section of people who are oppressed by capitalism. A left that is serious about its commitment to transforming the structures of power has to engage with the strategic challenges presented by this emergent grassroots left.

As essential as this work is, it is not without its challenges. Any organizer working in a time of relatively low social struggle faces an uphill battle. There are many contradictions that have emerged in the work of these networks and their member organizations. These organizations have attempted to approach these contradictions in a balanced and productive way, trying to struggle through the complications rather than defaulting to easy answers. These contradictions have included working within the non-profit system, the work of leadership development, fighting for reforms and navigating differences in the left and in the broader social movement.

Navigating The Non-Profit System: The work to build member-led organizations of working class people of color to fight for substantive changes is incredibly labor-intensive. The day-to-day demands of base-building, leadership development and running campaigns are intense, and most of these organizations have chosen to work within the non-profit system in order to raise the funds necessary to enable people to do this work full-time. This approach presents a host of problems that have been well-explored in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. To raise some of the most relevant issues, the demands of full-time organizing can privilege the skills and capacities most often held by middle-class people, pushing organizations to hire people from outside of their base; the decision to hire full-time organizers can mean that staff members have a higher level of investment and leadership in an organization than the members themselves; the intensive work it takes to build a non-profit can promote an organization-building or “empire-building” mentality rather than a movement-building approach; and capitalist-resourced foundations can put a brake on radical politics and limit how far organizations are willing to push the political envelope. The organizations in the Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance acknowledge the reality of these challenges, but they have – for the most part – still chosen to take on the non-profit organizational form in order to be able to invest more time in the work of building working-class power.

Recognizing the challenges embedded in the non-profit model, these organizations are intentionally working to address these contradictions and to continue to explore alternative models.The political clarity of these alliances demonstrates that they are not limiting their politics out of fear of losing funding. These organizations also self-consciously challenge narrow approaches to organization-building by prioritizing movement-building. Rickke Mananzala reflected on this dynamic, saying, “We have to avoid the trap of getting stuck in building our separate organizations. We definitely need strong organizations to serve as effective anchors for the movement, but we need to do our organization-building in the service of movement-building. We see the Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance as vehicles for the broader social movement.” In addition to building these movement-oriented networks, members of these alliances invest significant amounts of time to help build other movement-building institutions (like the United States Social Forum) even when these efforts do not directly benefit the organizations themselves.

Leadership Development: These organizations also invest heavily in developing the individual leadership capacity of their member-leaders, preparing these leaders to assume leadership in the organization and to take on staff organizing positions. According to Rickke Mananzala, “Developing leadership from within our communities is ultimately the key to building the power that we need.” Almost all of the organizations engaged in these networks have made a serious commitment to integrate intensive political education and skills training into their work in order to develop the capacity of their member-leaders to effectively lead their organizations, and they have developed a solid base of member-leaders. By integrating explicitly left political education into their work, these organizations differ from mainstream community organizing which focuses solely on developing the practical leadership skills of grassroots leaders. This investment in political development reflects the fact that these organizations are not just developing leaders to direct successful reform fights; they are also working to develop working class organizers who can provide leadership to the left and to broader social movements.

Many of these organizations also invest heavily in developing collective member leadership bodies to counter the tendency toward staff leadership and control. In describing the success of Domestic Workers United in building up its member leadership, Ai-jen Poo said, “We are working to be an organization that is member-driven and truly led by worker leaders. We have built a solid steering committee of domestic workers who provide overall strategic direction for the organization and who coordinate work with other members.”

In doing their leadership development work, organizations have to honestly confront both personal and practical hurdles. The leadership development process has to support people in overcoming the social stigmatization they face on a daily basis. Antonia Peña described this process clearly, “We face many challenges in our organizing. At first, many domestic workers are scared to fight back. Others are ashamed to stand up and say publicly that that are domestic workers because society puts such a low value on our work. But we help workers to understand that they do have power. Many people who have been abused or exploited at work have been able to face their employers and say, ‘No more!’ Their self esteem grows as they challenge their employers, and that is so important.” Member-leaders also face many practical challenges in the process of leadership development, since they have to juggle many other stresses and responsibilities in their lives. Ai-jen Poo discussed this challenge, saying, “We’ve made progress, but there’s still work to be done. There are particular leadership challenges facing low-wage workers who work long hours. We need to acknowledge those challenges and develop a stronger infrastructure to help us advance members to fully lead the work.”

Fighting for Reforms: Although neither the Right to the City Alliance nor the National Domestic Workers Alliance are currently waging alliance-level campaigns for national-level change, their member organizations have won many significant victories at more local levels. These organizations have pushed back attacks on their communities and succeeded in improving the daily lives of their members: winning affordable housing provisions, gaining remuneration for domestic workers who have been underpaid and abused, stopping the demolition of public housing and maintaining access to public space. Because these victories are clearly “reforms,” radical activists might criticize these organizations for promoting faith in the current system or undermining the possibilities for more revolutionary transformation. But these organizations make a distinction between “fighting for reforms” and “reformism,” that is, the belief that reforms can meet the fundamental needs of oppressed people. The fight for reforms can be a part of the process of building power for a longer-term transformative struggle; in this sense, reform fights are part of a pedagogical process that can help reveal the actual composition of the power structure and clarify the power that working-class people have to challenge that structure. By combining these reform fights with agitation around more transformative visions for social change and radical political education programs, these organizations are working to ensure that their reform fights do not fall into reformism. Instead these reform fights are methods through which these organizations can build their power and capacity to fight, providing concrete mechanisms to build larger bases that can attain the scale necessary to significantly impact the power structure. According to Rickke Mananzala, “We don’t have the luxury to sit back and stay small. It would take thousands of people to win just the basic reform battles that we need in this country. If our longer-term vision is actually to reorganize power so that our communities actually have the right to decide how our cities will operate, we’re going to need hundreds of thousands of people to be engaged in the movement. We have no choice but to build our work up to scale. It’s going to take a lot of hard work to get out into the public housing projects, into the restaurant kitchens and the parks to organize the people who are being hurt by neoliberalism and to get them out into the streets. But that kind of hard work is our responsibility if we’re serious about winning change for our communities.”

Building Unity Across Difference
: The Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance are both networks made up of individuals who have a range of political beliefs and organizations that have many different organizational models, a potentially challenging dynamics given the common tendency in the social movement and in the left for differences to become divisions. Although there is much to be said for explicit ideological engagement and friendly struggle over differences, these kinds of exchanges have unfortunately often devolved into unproductive organizational splits, debates over long-past historical conflicts and theoretical hair-splitting in recent history. But this is not the way that these networks have handled political and methodological differences. Because they are grounded in practical work on concrete issues impacting oppressed communities, political differences can be handled in the context of unity-building rather than division-making. The concrete work provides a container to hold the differences between – for example – marxists, anarchists, autonomistas, nationalists and social justice activists. Organizations with different methods of work – from workers cooperatives to traditional base-building organizations and service providers – have a shared interest in winning real changes in the lives of working class communities and communities of color. The unity that these alliances have built through dialogue and shared practice offers a challenge to the common polarization between “engaging with the state” and “building alternatives.” According to Rickke Mananzala, “We need to stop pitting the strategies of ‘building alternatives’ and ‘fighting for reforms’ against each other. We need to build alternatives and we need to directly challenge the system. It should be both-and,’ not ‘either-or.’ Our communities need us to challenge the system through reform fights, whether it’s organizing LGBT youth to fight police brutality or fighting to defend public housing. But we also need to build alternative institutions, and we need them on a much larger scale. The Black Panther Party’s free breakfast programs weren’t just in one community; they were in communities all around the country. We need to be building all of our work to that level.”

In their external movement relationships, both of these alliances have experienced an outpouring of support from many different sectors of the left and the social movements: from radical direct action movements to the mainstream labor movement, from progressive academics to radical cultural workers. These experiences demonstrate the possibility of building a more unified and coherent left, and they suggest that left unity can be built most effectively when it is grounded in the struggle of working class communities and communities of color.

Moving Forward: The work of the Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Workers demonstrate the power of grounding left analysis in the practical work of organizing working class communities and communities of color. These networks reflect a growing tide of resistance against the impact of neoliberalism on urban communities in the United States. They also represent a more general trend towards the increasing consolidation and strategic clarity of grassroots movements inside the United States. Other national networks and organizations including Grassroots Global Justice, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, the Poor Peoples’ Economic Human Right Campaign, ROC-United (which organizes restaurant workers) and the Taxi Workers Alliance have also emerged to consolidate the power and analysis in different sectors of working class communities and communities of color in cities around the country. As these kinds of grassroots networks continue to grow, they will provide a solid foundation for the growth of more powerful and popular social movements and for the regeneration of a strategic left that is grounded in mass struggles.


Harvey, David. The New Imperialism. New York : Oxford University Press, 2003.

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Prison-Industrial Complex. Cambridge: South End, 2007

LeFebvre, Henri. “The Right to the City” from Writings on Cities by Henri Lefebvre. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Eds.). Cambridge: Blackwell Publishing, 1996.

Sassen, Saskia. Globalization and its Discontents. Essays on the New Mobility of People and Money. New York: New Press, 1998.

United Nations Population Fund. State of the World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth. Downloadable from].

One Response to “Building Power in the City: Reflections on the Emergence of the Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance”

  1. Changing the Story » Blog Archive » Will You Join Us in the Middle of A Whirlwind? Says:

    […] Goldberg on The Right to The City Alliance: This expansive approach to anti-gentrification organizing reflects the Right the City […]

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