‘Fighting Back, Moving Forward’: Keystone Progressive Summit Points the Way

(Note: This report, by JSPAN Executive Director George Stern, first appeared in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice. Also at the Summit from JSPAN were Board members Ruth Damsker and Audrey Ross.)

Keystone Progress, an organization whose goal is to strengthen the progressive political movement in Pennsylvania, held its annual Progressive Summit in Harrisburg. The summit is an opportunity for progressive leaders and individuals to network, support one another and share ideas and successful programs. As such, this year’s event was a much welcome respite from the drumbeat of hate-mongering and negativity we’ve endured during this endless election season.

At the summit, over the course of two days, we witnessed debates among Pennsylvania senatorial and attorney general candidates, heard a stirring keynote address in support of public schools by Becky Pringle (vice president of the National Education Association) and reflected on the need to eradicate systemically embedded racism if we ever hope for America to reach its promise. We also chose from among dozens of workshops, led by experts from across the progressive spectrum, who represented organizations from the commonwealth and beyond. They shared information and best practices on varied topics, including online advocacy, power-building by women of color in rural Pennsylvania, redistricting reform, campaign finance, gun violence, school funding, abortion and the Supreme Court, fracking, merit selection of judges, the use of immigrants and refugees in the rhetoric of the right and the left, social change through relational organizing, attacks on unions, the Pennsylvania budget debacle, and much more.

To provide readers with a feel for the summit as a whole, I will share some reflections based on my personal experiences there. Most welcome was the tone of the summit, even during the debates — friendly, informative and respectful. Debate questions and answers emphasized issues. Yes, there were some heated moments as candidates tried to distinguish themselves from one another. But, all the candidates evinced a significant amount of skill and expertise and demonstrated real concern for fairness and justice.

For me, the most striking — and frightening — takeaway was the detailed description by Marc Stier, new executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (and a JSPAN VP), of the fiscal cliff that Pennsylvania is rapidly approaching. The Pennsylvania General Assembly has two basic choices: raise taxes or institute budget reductions that will make the Corbett cuts to education and human services seem minor. Governor Wolf’s warnings about the deficits were right on the mark: we are past being able to kick the can further down the road. Pennsylvania’s credit rating has already suffered, but is consensus even possible?

Happily, however, I brought back good news as well. I attended several workshops that focused more on process than on substance, specifically, on how to organize for change. We discussed developing relationships between organizations and between individuals that ultimately lead to coordinated efforts to bring about the social improvement we seek. Keystone Progress itself is looking to create and empower chapters across the state in order to bring progressive messages effectively to all 67 counties, not just Philadelphia, Allegheny and their suburbs. I was personally encouraged as I met delegates of all ages from all over the commonwealth with the fire in their bellies to work hard for justice and fairness for all Pennsylvanians.