Remarks by Public Advocates’ President & CEO, Guillermo Mayer
Voices of Conscience Awards and Celebration
April 6, 2017
Julia Morgan Ballroom, San Francisco
Good evening and welcome. We’re very excited to see all of you tonight.
Before I get to my prepared remarks, let me first give a very special thank you to our wonderful Public Advocates staff who made tonight’s event a reality. Especially, to Madelyn Wargowski, Isabel Alegria, Duc Luu, our generous volunteers—and of course, leading the charge with her incredible spirit, our director of development, Debi Harris. Let’s hear it for all of them!
It’s always good for the soul to come together in community, but especially, especially this year.
I don’t have to remind you about the times that we’re living in. We’re all painfully aware of that. Like many of you, we’ve been working nonstop since the November elections, pushing ourselves beyond our limits.
That’s why tonight’s gathering is so special. We get to be with you. We are coming together like countless others who have been gathering all across the country to get through these challenging times. They’re gathering in living rooms, at schools, in places of worship, in town squares, and even in beautiful halls like this one. Like them, we come together to take refuge in one another, to replenish the soul and strengthen our resolve.
And yes, amid all this madness, we have the audacity to celebrate our lives, our values, and our victories– to find joy! Because our human spirit is defined not by what we oppose, but by what we propose for this world. Am I right?
We are also here to take a stand. For Public Advocates, it means recommitting to the mission of challenging the systemic causes of poverty and discrimination, in what perhaps will be the most challenging period since we first opened our doors 46 years ago.
But all along this journey it has been you, our community partners, our pro bono allies, our pillars, donors and supporters who have helped get us this far. And with your help in these times, we will continue to resist injustice with every fiber of our being. We also promise you that as we resist we’ll continue to proactively construct the society we all want, because defense alone does not achieve justice. We believe that this national political crisis presents an enormous opportunity for all of us, especially in California, to advance an affirmative, progressive agenda in our cities, state and across our country.
Contrary to what our own instincts might tell us, the time to win that progressive agenda is right now. Not in 2018 or 2020. Now is the time to reclaim our democracy, our public institutions, our economy and to rewrite the entire social contract from the ground up. Now, tomorrow, next week, next month, not next year or the next election.
Right now. Because right now is when everything is on the line, and everybody knows it.
Let me ask you, when in recent decades have you seen such a broad and beautiful cross section of people in masses be willing to take action for progressive values in the streets, at detention centers, at airports or on the steps of city halls and court houses? When have you seen so many elected officials, from school boards, to city councils, to our state legislature adopt such a defiant tone against Washington D.C.?
We’re doing things we never would have done before this election because now the alternative has been so starkly and dangerously defined.
And we are blessed that before November we already had powerful movements making inroads, like the movement for black lives, for immigrant and LGBT rights, the push for climate justice, for tenants’ rights or the fight for a $15 minimum wage. Combined with the groundswell of anti-Trump activism in the aftermath of the election, we are presented with an opportunity to reach a tipping point in American politics. But only if we are willing to seize it. Now.
This is the time to push our political leaders and our institutions way beyond what they would normally expect, beyond the traditional rules of engagement and political customs, to push ourselves beyond our comfort limits, and to do what the bus riders union in Los Angeles encourages its members to do: to think the unthinkable thought.
This election forced us to revisit our values like nothing else in recent times, and even to confront our own complacency and double standards– like the things we are willing protest now because Trump is doing them, but weren’t willing to protest in the past because they were being done by a different administration.
Look, I don’t know if you know, but I’ve been Mexican for a very long time now. Forty-three years and counting. And I’m an immigrant to this country. I can authentically look you in the eye and say that today I am willing to be arrested to protect my undocumented brothers and sisters.
But why wasn’t I willing to be arrested when it was Obama deporting my community, or George W. Bush before him, and Bill Clinton before him?
If we are really honest with ourselves, these double standards will surface, because we’ve been forced to take a fresh look at ourselves and our beliefs. Again, because the alternative has been so starkly and dangerously defined.
Let me ask, is Luis Granados here? Luis leads the Mission Economic Development Agency, a critical ally in the fight for affordable housing. Luis recently pointed me to some literature on the issue of core values and there was a definition that really struck a chord: and that is, that a core value is something you’re willing to do and be punished for doing it well.
Let me repeat that, a core value is something you’re willing to do and be punished for doing it well.
Notice it wasn’t just, “what are we willing to speak up for,” not just “what are we willing to try to win and maybe not succeed,” but to be punished for doing it?
We must ask ourselves in these times, what is it that we are willing to be punished for?
Is it for women’s rights?
Is it for black lives?
Is it for our immigrant, LGBT and Muslim brothers and sisters?
If so, then ask yourself, isn’t it also for the right to put a roof over your head? To earn a living wage for yourself and family? To send your children to nurturing public schools that prepare them for the future? To get to work or to turn on the lights without poisoning our lungs or the planet?
We better prepare to be punished because our new attorney general Jeff Sessions ain’t gonna like what we’re up to, is he?
Some of you might be thinking, “Damn Guillermo. I thought you invited me to a celebration, what’s all this talk about punishment?” I’ll get to the celebration part, I promise.
But let me be clear.
When the dust settles after four or eight years of resisting Trump, if all we have to point to is the status quo in California, which is profound income inequality, entrenched segregation in our cities, grossly underfunded schools, a housing affordability crisis with no end in sight, a prison population size that is unconscionable and an entire segment of our society– mostly women, people of color and immigrants– continuing to live in a permanent state of economic servitude, and I mean those people who clean our homes and offices, pick and cook our food, raise our children and care for us when we are living and dying. If this is what we have to point to after four or eight years of resisting – with no tangible progress despite all this groundswell of activism– then my friends, we will have wasted perhaps the single most important political opening in California’s recent history to tear up and rewrite the social contract, to bring our values to life in our own back yard, and to inspire the rest of the country in the process.
But we’re not going to let that happen, are we?
Tonight, we commit to you that with your continued support for Public Advocates we will seize that opportunity together.
And we are going to start by thanking some of the people who have been helping this people’s law firm to advance a progressive agenda over the past year. From fearless community residents protecting their neighborhoods from displacement, to committed pro bono lawyers fighting for adequate and equitable school funding, to a rising political leader who is breaking the mold and setting a new standard for what it means to hold elected office.
Together these voices of conscience help remind us that as we resist vehemently, we must also continue to push for the society we want.
If we do that, we cannot fail. Because no president, no political party, no ideology or institution can kill our spirit. To paraphrase the Zapatistas: “We are the survivors of history who carry within us the seeds for a better world, a world where everyone fits.”
Thank you for being with us tonight and for helping us seize this moment together. I hope you enjoy the rest of the program.