Ingrid Burke, Pitt Law '11, attended an "alternative" G-20 event on world hunger and economic decline which was hosted by the People's Summit on Pittsburgh's North Side...
his week I was given the opportunity to attend several G-20 alternative/resistance events in Pittsburgh. On Monday night, I opted for a lecture and panel discussion hosted by the People's Summit entitled "Ending World Poverty, Reversing Economic Decline in Our Communities." The People's Summit, a three-day event held in various locations around the city, was intended to provide a forum for the discussion of the various "social, economic, and political problems facing the world." All of the events were scheduled as part of a collaborative effort among Pennsylvania State Senator Jim Ferlo (D) and several local advocacy groups. Monday night's event featured keynote speaker Privilege Haangandu, a debt program officer for Jubilee Zambia and the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection in Zambia, in addition to several guest panelists representing various advocacy groups.
I was surprised to find that the theater was very crowded, but I found a seat just in time to hear Haangandu speak about his belief that no two individuals share the same conception of Utopia. Although this theory was aimed at explaining the G-20's inability to help impoverished Zambian farmers, it occurred to me throughout the course of the evening that his thoughts would have served as sound advice to the People's Summit organizers in their initial planning of the event. What had started as a narrowly-focused discussion on the G-20's capacity to address the needs of developing nations generally, and Zambia specifically, devolved by way of the panel discussion into a random series of political statements.
Common to every panelist and audience member was the desire to improve living conditions for people of all walks of life around the world. The keynote speaker, the panelists, and the audience members seemed to be in agreement with regard to the fact that there is suffering in the world, that suffering is bad, and that people who aren't suffering as badly should make it their business to minimize the suffering of those who have it the worst. The participants differed, however, with regard to their definitions of suffering and victims involved. Essentially, each seemed to envision a world aspiring toward a unique conception of Utopia.
Haangandu came from Zambia to Pittsburgh to raise awareness of the plight of Zambian farmers and to use them as illustrations of the gaps left in the developing world when a handful of individuals from the wealthiest nations make decisions affecting everyone. In his view, the heads of state at the G-20 summit have only speculation as a tool for determining the best interests of developing nations such as Zambia, and speculation is not sufficient to improve living conditions for the world's poorest people. Haangandu rejected the idea that African interests will be represented by South Africa's President Kgalema Motlanthe, stating that South Africa perceives itself as superior to the continent's other nations, and that even the poorest South Africans turn up their noses at Zambians. In his view, South Africa's central agenda at the G-20 will be to "rub us [Zambia] down." He emphasized that developing nations such as Zambia need not just legislation allocating foreign aid dollars, but a platform from which all voices can be heard.
Haangandu's lecture was met with overwhelming praise by the audience, and I took it as a sign that a great night lay ahead. However, the constant repetition of the slogan, "local is global and global is local," should probably have tipped me off that the panel discussion would take us toward purely local issues.
The panel consisted of John Canning, a neighborhood activist based in Pittsburgh's North Side and a member of North Side United and the North Side Leadership Council; Carl Redwood, a neighborhood activist representing the interests of the Hill District by way of his position as convener of the Hill District Consensus Group; Molly Rush, co-founder of the Thomas Merton Center, famed for having beaten the nose cone of a nuclear weapon with a hammer in protest of nuclear war in 1980; Tim Stevens, Chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project and former president of Pittsburgh's NAACP; and Maria Somma, a union organizer with United Steelworkers.
As each panelist spoke, the evening's discussion drifted farther from Zambia, from developing nations, from world hunger, and from anything else with a shred of a connection to the G-20. While the event's title made clear that the discussion would address "economic decline in our communities," I hadn't expected such a total disconnect.
Tim Stevens opened the panel discussion by asserting that we need to replace "white privilege" with a "people's privilege," but added that the people's privilege will not supplant the white privilege until voting in all political elections becomes common place in African American communities, until elected officials are more diverse, and until African American voters see the connection between voting and the representation of their interests. He emphasized the importance of solidarity within African American communities.
Next, Carl Redwood discussed what he sees as the profit-driven motives of community development. Stating that the government tends to favor business at the cost of the people, especially low-income citizens, he commented, "They don't call [the stimulus legislation] welfare." He stressed the need to strengthen and organize behind a common purpose in order to change things in the world.
John Canning began his segment of the discussion with the declaration that the G-20 will be a total failure if it results in the wealthier nations getting wealthier at the cost of developing nations. He, like Redwood, believes that the development industry is profit-driven. In his view, "old politics" were, and continue to be even among new politicians, replete with business deals between governments and developers. Like Redwood, he believes that developers don't want to improve living conditions; they merely want to earn a profit.
Molly Rush then began to discuss health care legislation, asserting that big pharmaceutical companies are working together to keep the cost of medicine high and that the national health care bill will garner massive profits. She claimed that infectious diseases are spreading at an unparalleled rate while the average Pennsylvania household is getting progressively poorer, making Pennsylvanians and other similarly-situated Americans more vulnerable to infectious disease. She is currently working on a state health care bill and feels that state legislatures are quicker and easier to work with. She hopes that the passage of her bill would set a precedent.
The end of the panel discussion became more sensational as Maria Somma declared, "[Free trade] was artificially constructed by.... greedy, corporate SOBs." She illustrated the need for unions to protect low-income workers by telling stories of Burmese political refugees working in terrible conditions for half the cost of their English-speaking colleagues. Her own union mirrored the language of a bill banning the use of cat and dog hair in clothes, replacing "cat" and "dog" with the word "human." While the animal fur bill passed in one day, her human rights bill has not been taken seriously. The panel discussion was followed by a general community discussion.
As a general whole, the evening was interesting and informative. I learned more about Burmese refugees and North Side gentrification than I ever intended to. However, I couldn't help but wonder how Haangandu felt after having flown across the world to deliver a speech on Zambia which, despite its designation as the subject of the keynote lecture, was quickly shoved out of the spotlight in favor of a barrage of personal anecdotes and pet issues. If these programs are truly meant to be "alternatives" or "reactions" to the G-20 itself, then would it not have made more sense to stand together as the panelists recommended, devoting the evening to a discussion of global issues which, like Zambia, will likely be affected by the decisions made this week? Discussed in this post:
The People's Summit
Photo Credits: Ingrid Burke