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Celebrating 10 years of POWER, Bishop Dwayne Royster looks to the future with a new sense of urgency

October 18, 2021 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
A few weeks ago, Bishop Dwayne D. Royster flew down to the U.S.-Mexico border near Del Rio, Texas, a scene of absolute degradation and despair for thousands of Haitian refugees, and witnessed what he called Americans doing their best “Wag the Dog.”

The now-infamous bridge where Border Patrol agents shepherded migrants into squalid camps like cattle was emptied by the time the Bishop’s traveling party arrived on site. Hoping to defuse the situation and avoid further embarrassment from a growing humanitarian crisis, the Biden administration began sending refugees to four other southern states — a move Bishop Royster deemed “a little suspect.”

Several Haitian clergy members from Florida, many of whom had family among the refugees, accompanied the Bishop on his travels and relayed tales of trauma and abuse committed by American interests at the Del Rio border. Most egregious were the migrants who were told they would be flown to Florida for processing into the United States, only to disembark their planes back in Haiti.

“Philadelphia’s got a large Haitian community and I wanted to acknowledge that and then we get down [to the border] and it’s sort of like the whole dog and pony show,” Bishop Royster said. As executive director for POWER Interfaith, a collection of more than 100 congregations across 10 Pennsylvania counties fighting for racial, economic, and environmental justice, the Bishop did what he’s done best for the past decade — heeded the call to action.

“[Customs and Border Patrol] literally got rid of thousands of folks in a couple of days just so they could clear it out,” Bishop Royster continued. “And when they finally let the media and others in, they could take a look and tell the story of how great America was and I’m like, well, you haven’t been that great in this circumstance.”

Ten years ago, in the shadow of the Great Recession, in the nation’s poorest city, POWER Interfaith coalesced around economic justice and the idea that America can be a better place for everyone.

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On Sept. 25, 2011 mixed-faith congregational allies, representing a diverse array of backgrounds from all corners of Philadelphia, came together for POWER’s founding convention at historic Tindley Temple United Methodist Church.

The awe-inspiring scene affirmed commitments from labor leaders, politicians, and some of the city’s top movers and shakers while solidifying the organization’s central pillars areas for the next decade in a scene former Mayor Michael Nutter called organizing at its finest.

With 37 congregations by its side, POWER Interfaith began the fight for justice with a campaign for fair wages at Philadelphia International Airport a decade ago. As more allies joined the effort and POWER expanded over the intervening years, the organization learned to adapt and lead through change.

"I think the role of the grassroots is to demand and force the system that they want to have."
Bishop Dwayne Royster

On the eve of its tenth anniversary, a months long celebration lasting from Sept. through June, one of the preeminent grassroots nonprofits in the region reflects on its past in hopes of making a better future in a post-pandemic, post-George Floyd, post-January 6 world.

According to Bishop Royster, the world had a more positive frame in 2011, when America was still in the midst of the Obama presidency. However, he said, looking back, much of the volatility, hyper-extremism, and hyper-partisanship experienced now took root in that period.

“When we started this journey, 10 years ago, there was a sense that part of our journey was to hold government and others in balance — that the grassroots was another voice to speak into the larger system,” Bishop Royster said. “I am not convinced that the role of the grassroots now is to speak into the system, but I think the role of the grassroots is to demand and force the system that they want to have.”

“We’re losing democracy,” he continued. “We’re losing the ability of people, the individual, to have control and say of their own collective destiny.”

Economic justice has a steep learning curve

Bishop Royster believes that grassroots organizing is more critical than ever — and more challenging as the country attempts to divorce itself from Trumpism. But whereas 10 years ago, activism may have left room for some give-and-take, a newfound urgency has upped the stakes, demanding, in many cases, an all-or-nothing stance.

As he looks toward the future, the Bishop sees an imbalance of power that needs to shift. Progress suffers as too many politicians and power brokers make decisions behind closed doors about communities in which they have no stake.

According to him, the best policymakers are not people with Ph.D.s, politicians, or Washington think tanks. “The best policymakers are the people that are impacted by the policies that can tell you what they need,” he said.

Dr. Mark Tyler at a POWER press event, 2020.

In spirit, if not in exact thought, Dr. Mark Tyler, senior pastor at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, agrees, citing POWER’s independence from the city’s political infrastructure and ability to work within it as one of the organization’s strengths. Ten years ago, a missed train from the Baltimore airport led to a chance meeting with another member of the clergy — one of POWER’s organizers, Kevin Walsh. Tyler embraced the mission with enthusiasm, ensuring Mother Bethel AME’s involvement from the ground up.

At the founding convention, Tyler reminded everyone of the struggles ahead. He spoke of Nehemiah, a 5th-century leader of rebuilt Jerusalem during the Second Temple period. Like Nehemiah, the people of POWER Interfaith would face challenges, Tyler said, but they would meet them together.

A decade later, the example proved itself more than apt for the time. One of POWER’s more pressing concerns at launch was the ability to bring together a city of such diverse and siloed neighborhoods. As Tyler explained, how do you ask the people of Germantown to come together and help the community in West Philadelphia? But POWER united individual neighborhoods to create a citywide approach to grassroots organizing.

“One of the unique features of POWER is that it, again, transcends neighborhoods, neighborhood boundaries, but it’s deeply concerned about each neighborhood,” Tyler said. “And at the same time, we don’t belong to anybody except ourselves.”

Early on, the challenges came hard and fast for POWER — none more so than in its first campaign for fair wages at the airport. The fight for economic justice, as seen through the lens of racial justice, had a steep learning curve, with harsh lessons about the city’s political machine.

As luck would have it, the grassroots organization made some powerful allies along the way as well.

With help from union partners 32BJ Service Employees International Union and UNITE HERE Local 274, some of the region’s service workers collectives, POWER learned of the bleak conditions workers faced at Philly International. Of note, employees in tipped positions were unable to ask for tips. Management had them working for minimum wage or less while forcing them to lie and say they were making tips.

At first, POWER thought they had an answer.

The airlines contract with the airport while the city owns the property outright. On the books legislation known as the Philadelphia 21st Century Minimum Wage and Benefits Standard ordinance already called for all contractors working on a project for the city to earn a living wage — 150% of the minimum wage plus benefits. At the time, however, Mayor Nutter refused to recognize the law as applying to subcontractors, such as the over 140,000 people working at the airport.

So Bishop Royster and the team at POWER worked with the system. The group came to a deal with City Council to amend the law, ensuring that hundreds of thousands of service workers would now receive a fair wage — or so they thought.

“We thought we had gotten agreement with Council [to amend the law], last minute Council, kind of bails on us on this,” Bishop Royster said. “And so our first major potential victory, we lost.”

The moment of defeat cut deep, according to the Bishop. But POWER shook off the loss, said some prayers, and recounted inspirational stories from the Bible. Forty-thousand signatures later, the group turned the issue into a ballot initiative and a winning one at that.

Three weeks before the election, knowing that the initiative would pass, Mayor Nutter — with a bit of urging from President Obama himself — enacted the legislation, raising the airport workers’ wages to over $10 per hour.

But POWER didn’t stop fighting.

“We go out and talk to the press and we’re like, ‘OK, that’s great,’” Bishop Royster said. “‘Now we need to get to $12.’”

Philadelphia itself is the path to the future

Still, economic justice is far from POWER Interfaith’s only focus. Over the past decade, the organization expanded throughout Pennsylvania, building partnerships and alliances based on its five key pillars. The Live Free Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform led the way in passing two ballot initiatives last year in Philadelphia — one to end stop-and-frisk and another creating a police oversight commission. The organization led the way in bringing thousands to the polls last year with its Civic Engagement Campaign. And for years, POWER Interfaith has been at the forefront of fighting for a sustainable economy with its Climate Justice Campaign.

Then there’s the statewide Education Campaign, an economic and racial justice battle with profound implications that began on the regional level. While POWER dove into the education fight as far back as its early days, speaking with parents and administrators about the needs of students, the campaign began in earnest when the city started closing schools in Black and brown neighborhoods.

As Bishop Royster recalled, the district wanted to merge some schools with historic rivalries — a bad idea in the best of circumstances; a terrible idea in a city of neighborhoods like Philadelphia.

As it became clear that the issue was money, POWER sought a way to determine school funding based on race. Despite hordes of naysayers, including several of the group’s own allies, POWER persisted — and prevailed. After finding a data guru to look at the numbers, the organization learned of a significant funding disparity. POWER found a difference of $1,800 per student per year between majority-white school districts and those with a preponderance of students of color in Pennsylvania.

Bishop Dwayne Royster. (Courtesy)

“If the school district of Philadelphia was both getting adequate and equitable funds, it would get an additional $400 million a year, which is nothing to sneeze at,” Bishop Royster said. “Now, I say that because $400 million, we could probably pay bus drivers better. We could make sure we had full janitorial staff at all the schools. We can make sure we had all the resources that were necessary.”

Progress was supposed to happen this year when Gov. Tom Wolf called for $1.5 billion for Pennsylvania schools. With COVID surpluses and federal dollars coming in, the goal was more than possible. However, Republican legislators balked at the idea, and students received far less than what was available to them.

But there is hope on the horizon. Pennsylvania’s constitution requires the General Assembly to provide “a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” Based on this, The Public Interest Law Center and the Education Law Center filed suit in Commonwealth Court on behalf of several school districts, parents, and other organizations. Dubbed the PA School Funding Lawsuit, the effort charges the state’s Department of Education and area politicians, including the governor, with withholding proper school funding.

As POWER reflects on the past decade and watches the sun rise on another, Tyler hopes to see the organization fulfill its promise through all five of its key pillars. However, he said, he would like to add another — the fight for housing justice.

Speaking on Columbus Day, which he sometimes refers to as “Gentrification Day,” Tyler noted that the displacement and removal of people of color from what may be the only neighborhoods they’ve ever known is a significant issue.

“Nobody wants blight,” he said. “Nobody wants rundown neighborhoods. At the same time, it can’t possibly be in the best interest of the neighborhood when you can price everyone out and now they can’t afford to come back to places they’ve always known as home,” he said.

For Bishop Royster, Philadelphia itself is the path to the future. POWER’s executive director hopes to have some serious conversations over the next few years about the city’s role as the largest economic engine in the state — a status that stands in stark contrast to its place as the poorest city in the nation.

“How does Philadelphia leverage its own power to be able to control its destiny within the state of Pennsylvania?” Bishop Royster asked.

Whatever the answer may be, he knows that POWER Interfaith will have a voice in that conversation.

Ten years ago, POWER exploded onto the scene at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, a slow train rolling into an electric explosion. But the organization reflects on its first decade with the understanding that what’s past is prologue. Everything accomplished until this moment is but the foundation for tomorrow and beyond.

And looking back, it’s been a great start.

“I would build this organization the same way that we did then, which is starting with talking to people one-on-one,” Bishop Royster said.

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