GAMBIER — Two Democratic Socialists, one a Pennsylvania statehouse representative and the other a Maryland House of Representatives delegate, addressed why they believe Democratic Socialists are growing in acceptance and popularity in America.
Before a large group of students Thursday in Kenyon College’s Gund Gallery Community Foundation Theater, they said Democratic Socialists are all about advocating for issues people care deeply about like union rights to organize and an acceptable minimum wage. They were introduced by Sigal Felber, a co-chair of the Kenyon Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter, with the group’s secretary, Nicholas Becker, providing questions.
One of the speakers was Summer Lee, a community organizer with a law degree and focus on civil rights who represents Pennsylvania’s 34th District based in Braddock, near Pittsburgh. She is the first black woman elected to the House of Representatives in western Pennsylvania. Joining her was Gabriel Acevero, a union organizer by background, elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 2018. In so doing, he became the first LGBTQ Afro-Latino person elected to public office in his state, Felber said. Acevero represents Maryland’s 39th District in Montgomery County near Washington.
Lee is one of three Democratic Socialists in the Pennsylvania state legislature, in which the House and state Senate are Republican-controlled but the governor is a Democrat. Acevero, who said one of the core issues he ran on was a Medicare for All system for Maryland, said the Democrat-controlled House and Senate in Maryland enjoy veto-proof majorities to stand against a Republican governor. That political reality has made passing a state minimum wage law of $15 per hour a reality, he said, although it is the “weakest” minimum wage law among the states that have enacted them and is being initiated in phases.
Becker asked Lee and Acevero what led them to become Democratic Socialists, and both offered that is has to do with bringing representation to people of color who are marginalized in society.
“Honestly, I always think of putting people over corporations,” Lee said. Whether that ties into giving people an affordable, sustainable healthcare system that prioritizes health and wellness over pure profits, or whether it has to do with making police officer actions accountable to the public, it all has to do with putting the will of the people and what is best for all Americans above pure capitalism, she said.
“Capitalism is inextricably linked with racism,” she said. This is because it benefits the extremely wealthy by setting rules of corporate welfare in their favor, Lee added, while keeping blacks marginalized and in a constant state of exploitation by having to accept the terms those in power offer them economically — just in order to survive.
Acevero and Lee both said the key to Democratic Socialists’ success involves lots of community organizing, educating, and campaigning, so as to coalesce people in their districts around important issues. Acevero said as a community organizer constantly defending the rights of labor to organize for fair and livable wages and working conditions, he views his political mission as one that involves “bringing Democracy to places it doesn’t exist.” That means overcoming barriers such as letting marginalized citizens know they have a stake in issues that are important in Maryland, such as Medicare for All, he said. There are “hundreds of thousands of people who are uninsured” in what he called the nation’s “richest state.”
“Capitalism is antithetical to the way that people actually exist,” Lee said, “because it monetizes everything” and creates a system where the most affluent have the greatest purchasing power yet hoard their earnings, while those who need goods and services the most often cannot afford them.
Acevero said community organizing can work but it takes activism and passion. It means convincing people on the margins of society that their votes count, and so do their voices — and that communities that elect Democratic Socialists will be heard and actually have the opportunity to co-govern with the gatekeepers they elect. They do so by staying in constant contact with them.
Even more so, convincing marginalized black citizens that they need to run for local offices — county commissioners, borough aldermen and other offices — is important to combat the rise of “gentrification” in cities, Acevero said. Gentrification involves replacing the character of a neighborhood with more affluent homes and businesses. Only by electing those who will fight such trends, and getting citizens in their districts out to vote for those who truly stand for the people over corporations, will democracy succeed, he offered.
“Oppressed people are married to the capitalist system, make no mistake,” Acevero said.
George McCarthy, a Kenyon professor of Sociology, asked Lee and Acevero what a fledgling student organization like the Kenyon Young Democratic Socialists of America could do to make their organization stronger. KYDSA has only been in place at the college for a few years, and some students remarked that although the village of Gambier is decidedly progressive, they are surrounded by Knox County residents who are overwhelmingly Republican.
Acevero said they need to grow in numbers and strength by advocating for Democratic Socialist issues — like the $15 minimum wage — beyond the bounds of their own campus. They need to make their voices heard and be unapologetic about it, Lee said, because they are truly advocating for people.
“Martin Luther King, Jr., knew that movements have always been led by young people,” Acevero said.
The rest of this article is available to our subscribers.
Do your part to support local journalism
Subscribe to our e-edition to read this and many other articles written by your neighbors.