“Leadership Comes from People Doing the Everyday Work”: An interview with Philly Socialists’ Co-chairs

Image caption: Philly Socialists co-chairs Mara Henao (left) and Ariel Diliberto (right) sit for an interview.

By Danielle Corcione

This year, instead of one chair, Philly Socialists elected two co-chairs, Mara Henao and Ariel Diliberto. The Partisan’s Danielle Corcione sat down with Mara and Ariel in June to ask about their visions, goals and hopes for the organization.

Danielle: What are you excited about in the upcoming year?

Ariel: I’m excited because we’re turning a new leaf in our capacity to grow locally. We have learned from past years about how to keep people involved with the organization. The ways we are changing the structure are going to help grow the organization. I think everyone on central committee — all the new people — are stepping up a lot. I’ve already noticed what a difference having a co-chair makes! I really feel like I have a partner and never feel like the weight of the organization is on my shoulders. I love working with Mara, and I think we have different focus areas of interest but similar working styles. I like having someone to bounce ideas off who brings a different perspective and is involved in the organization in a different way than I am.

I’m also really excited about launching another “Fight the power” project with the worker organizing project. I think this will be a huge step towards growing the organization and short-term wins that exist outside of electoral politics. It will boost morale and give people a taste of how the people are the power. And it will be exciting!

I feel like Mara and I are very embedded in the day-to-day work.

Mara: Yeah, it’s hard to think forward a little bit. In a year, one of my goals is reaching at least 200 dues-paying members. That’s about 70 more people paying dues. We’re starting right now, so everyone is figuring out their role, but it’s exciting to see people who want to do stuff and see how we will grow, learn, and make political decisions strategically, together. It’s exciting to trust everyone else, because you’re always afraid someone will make a bad decision, but then the right decisions are made.

Danielle: What is your vision of the organization? Are there any other specific goals you have?

Ariel: I’d like for people as soon as they get involved to feel connected to what’s going on. I also want to be an organization that’s more caring of our people, having the arbiters [members who are elected to resolve conflicts and grievances within Philly Socialists] more involved in the organization’s day-to-day: coming to more cadre meetings [work sessions], etc., and then maybe people will feel more cared for. I still want to figure out better ways to keep people connected to the organization. Having people assigned five people for one-on-ones was overwhelming for people. I hope the monthly cadre meetings will help, and central committee members visiting different projects each month, but I feel like we need more. Maybe each member is assigned one person to invite to events? I’m open to ideas on this!  

As for bigger visions, we obviously want the organizing center to take off. We want more press coverage of our work! The tenants’ union is currently doing some restructuring, and I want to see their growth supported. I want to keep taking on slumlords; I want to take whatever happens with Good Cause and really use it to take on city council.

Mara: This year, I think a lot of projects are finally going to begin doing what we expected them to be doing. For instance, the garden: We want to finally be able to use it as a tool to tackle development. I also think the ESL classes are going to become super relevant, either this year or next year, very soon, with all the anti-immigration stuff going on. That’s something we’ve had going on for years, and people have said, “Oh, that’s so NGO, that’s not radical…” Well, guess what? It is, because how else do you build a party that includes those communities you want in them if you’re not reaching out to them? What better way is there to reach out to them than finding an issue that affects them directly and working on that?

I’m excited about that. I’m also afraid that we will not be ready to take on all the work that we’re taking on, that just happens. But in my experience, I’ve also noticed that it’s kind of a snowball effect — finally it all comes together. The more work you do, the more people you get, the more experience you gain.

Ariel: That’s an interesting point about our work becoming more relevant to people, becoming more mainstream, while we’ve been doing it all along.

Mara: It’s easier now to explain why it’s political. Even though the answer hasn’t changed, people are more open to understanding.

Ariel: Like how we called the garden the land redistribution program from the beginning, but people said, “Well, it’s just some land that no one wants.”

Danielle: What about any individual, personal development goals that you want to accomplish?

Ariel: I’d like to be a little more visionary.

For our first email to central committee, I thought, we should write something really inspiring. Mara was like, “We should have a meme,” and I was like, “I don’t know what that means, so like, I’ll need your help with that.” So Mara came up with a meme, and I sat down to try to write something that would inspire people, and I’m not really used to doing that. I definitely sat at the computer staring for like half an hour, typed three words and deleted them, but it finally just all came, and I was really proud with what I finished with. It was kind of a reminder of why we do any of this, and why we do it the way we do it, and how much we’ve accomplished already, and how exciting this responsibility is. My favorite line was like, “We will overcome the shame of whatever crumbs of privilege this rotten system has given us, to do work to make it better so we don’t have to be ashamed anymore.” That’s just speaking for myself, too, of course.

So being more visionary would be a big development goal, but also being able to tie it back down to saying, here’s the vision, what’s the next step for the organization that gets us closer to it? I want to think more strategically. Sometimes I get in the weeds with logistical stuff, because that’s the kind of stuff I love. But I want to think long-term about the strategy above and how the decisions we make now tie into that.

Mara: One thing I always want to work on is being more eloquent, expressing better the ideas that I think. Sometimes I’ll get very emotional and say stuff in a way that’s maybe not the best way of saying it. So just taking more time to think about stuff.

And maybe it’s not so much of a personal goal, but I’d like people to take less serious stuff less seriously. You don’t have to be quoting some extreme somebody to be taken seriously, or be serious all the time… Just be more open to being more flexible.

Ariel: To have humor, to be able to build relationships.

Mara: Yeah, exactly.

Danielle [heavily paraphrased]: With this strange political moment we’re in right now — the midterm Congressional elections coming up, it’s been about a year and a half since Trump got elected, all the xenophobia — do you have any message for those outside Philly Socialists who have perhaps seen these events, gone to demonstrations, and feel like voting in the midterm election isn’t enough for them?

Ariel: That’s a good question. There’s a little more instant gratification in protest — the solidarity, it’s like an adrenaline thing. But I think [the issues that] the tenants’ union or the workers’ center [are responding to] are embodiments of the evil we’re fighting against that we see reflected in politicians, which makes voting so uninspiring. So if you want to go to a protest that’s going to mean someone gets to stay in their home, join the tenants’ union, or if you want to go to a protest that will mean someone doesn’t get fired for organizing for better working conditions, get involved with the workers’ organizing center. If you’re more of a behind-the-scenes person, there’s the garden and land tenure stuff. I think our agitation is on the rise within the organization, but like Mara said, it’s connected to the core of these issues [in a way that voting is not].

Mara: It’s funny to talk about voting because I’ve never voted in my entire life, not because I didn’t want to — just because, you know, I can’t. I think that if you want to go vote, you should go vote, go exercise your right to do it, but also know that, to be honest, your vote is not going to do anything. Or it’s not that it’s not going to do anything, but [it has to fit into a larger picture]. Like the tenants’ union, they’re working toward passing a new law, and if we’re talking about working toward those kinds of changes, it makes total sense that that’s going to make a change. But when it’s like primaries and things like that, it doesn’t matter what you want, you’re not going to get it. If you don’t put the hard work behind those votes, you’re not going to get what you’re looking for.

Also, you know, time is valuable. Voting is something easy and quick that people like to go do, because you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, and sometimes that’s all people can do. [The same goes for] rallies and things like that — be smart about the rallies you’re going to. Think, “What’s something that’s going to be worth my time?”

Ariel: Election stuff is seductive … but I tell myself two phrases: One, “The Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements,” which is when people get incorporated into the machine and basically crushed or neutered. That one I heard on the By Any Means Necessary podcast. The second one I heard from Tim [Horras], it was around the general election: Whenever people ask me what I’m doing on November 8th, I ask them what they’re doing on November 9th, and if their answer is nothing, then I say, “You have no right to shame me for what I decide to do around voting, because if you do nothing the rest of the year, you have no right to shame other people about it.”

A few months ago, the Philly Socialists membership voted for a moratorium on political endorsements. We understand that getting a few progressive people elected is tempting, especially because it’s one of the only normative pathways offered to us to “be political” or “make a change.” And it’s easier than starting from the ground-up. Sofia Burns, a comrade in Seattle Communists, wrote a great article recently on how you can win elections with ideas, but you can’t put those ideas into actions unless you’ve built up institutions and power outside the state. And that’s what we are doing, which is why we’re not focusing on elections in the short-term. That is our strategy.

Danielle: What words of wisdom do you have for Philly Socialists members who have been practically involved with projects?

Mara: I just want to say that I’m very grateful for the work that they’re doing. We wouldn’t be able to say that we’re a mass-line, base-building [organization] if we didn’t have them around. We wouldn’t be able to do any of the stuff that we’re doing without them. I know that leadership comes from people doing the everyday work. I wouldn’t have been elected chairperson if those people hadn’t worked with me, doing the grinding work every day for the past six years — this position wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t be able to rent this space that we’re in right now. We wouldn’t be able to do any of the things that we’re doing. They shouldn’t undermine themselves, they should be very proud of the work that they’re doing.

Ariel: I think the project work is really beautiful because we have this bigger goal in mind, and having central committee people now, being able to rotate through and visit the different projects to remind people that their work is not only valuable day-to-day but, like Mara said, it’s literally pushing us forward toward a much bigger goal — a more just, better world. I think the people involved in these projects are people who truly enjoy interpersonal connection and the labor of contributing to other people’s lives, which is so beautiful.

My advice would be to keep at it, but also know that if you need time for yourself, the organization will continue whether you take a break or not, so take a break if you need it. I’ve definitely been sort of brought back to the organization multiple times. I never really left or canceled my dues, but I got distracted and other parts of my life took over for a little while, and the organization just kept getting bigger and growing all the while I was gone. What I told central committee was that you can’t stop Philly Socialists if you tried, so don’t worry, don’t think that taking time for yourself is going to stop the work. It’ll make it better, because you’ll be able to come back refreshed and won’t hate us.

Mara: One last piece of advice. If you’re involved in the work and you know how to run things, always be aware of who you’re teaching; you always need to be teaching somebody else. We’re not asking you or anybody to be in the same place forever, because like Ariel was saying, people burn out or you just want to do something else. Or maybe you don’t want to be a part of the central committee [anymore]. Then you should be thinking about, “Who else could be a leader when I’m gone?”

Danielle: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that I didn’t ask about?

Ariel: I’m sorry I didn’t mention the Partisan in any of my project examples…

. . .

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