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Progressive Moves To the Left and a Bit to the West…

Attendees in the South Hadley Library community room last Monday (courtesy Prog. Mass/Deborah Levine)

SOUTH HADLEY—A flurry of progressive organizing, actions and meetings across the country has followed last November’s election. The Pioneer Valley is no different, but there are challenges. Activism is no stranger to college towns like this one, the home of Mount Holyoke. Hampden County, home to two-thirds of the 413’s population, sees far less of it though. That gap threatens the potential of the energy brought on by Donald Trump’s election.

However, broad organizing efforts and that anti-Trump energy could help transcend the infamous “tofu curtain”—actually part of a mountain range—that divides the Valley. Actions and protests have hit Springfield in recent weeks. Last Monday in South Hadley, activists from Springfield to Greenfield gathered for the first meeting of Pioneer Valley chapter of Progressive Massachusetts, an umbrella liberal advocacy group.

More than 200 people packed the community room of the library. Attendees spilled out into the hallway and crowded the evening’s breakout sessions.

Tony Mack speaks to one of the local organizers of the event, Brenda Davies. (courtesy Prog. Mass/Deborah Levine)

“There is an upswing of organization emerging across the state and across the country,” said Tony Mack, a Progressive Mass board member from the eastern part of the state. After the event appeared on Facebook, the response “exploded,” he said.

It has been difficult to build sustainable branches of some statewide organizations in the 413, especially outside the Amherst-Greenfield-Northampton axis. Issue-specific groups have been more successful.

Among organizers’ goals is connecting people on their individual issues, while using the whole of their membership as leverage for the entire progressive agenda. Early results were encouraging.

“This is high times in term of organizing,” said Jafet Robles, a community and political organizer for Neighbor to Neighbor in Springfield. That also helps develop leaders. “That’s what is needed,” he added.

Breakout sessions ran the gamut of education, voting rights, the environment to criminal justice reform.

Shanique Spalding, a member of the League of Women Voters, leads a discussion on Springfield’s early voting program (WMassP&I)

One on voting rights—which broke into two groups because of its size—discussed Springfield making early voting available in each of the city’s eight ward and hopes of expanding it to the city’s 64 precincts.

Another group discussed an education reform bill before the legislature while others talked about climate change. Attendees sat in on the sessions that interested them most.

Alan Bloomgarden alluded to this while speaking to a climate change group assembled at the bottom of a set of stairs off the children’s room.

“My concern at keeping it all in front is fatigue,” he said. He noted the value in a group like Progressive Mass’s allowing individuals to put their energy into specific causes rather than face burnout.

Beacon Hill is a big focus of Progressive Mass. (WMassP&I)

Mack indicated the group would, as it has done since its founding, work on state policy issues. That includes endorsing candidates, principally in Democratic primaries, who will support the organization’s membership.

It “starts with issue campaigns we’re all committed to” and “really intimately working together.”

Despite its inescapable relationship with the Democratic party, Progressive Mass is also independent of it. During a breakout session that touched on Holyoke’s needle exchange program, Nelson Roman, a ward councilor there, noted he had identified as a Democrat in four years.

Dorothy Richard Albrecht, a Bernie Sanders delegate to last year’s national convention from Holyoke, remains active in the party. But having breathing room to organize outside of it, especially as disagreements remain, is helpful.

“It’s good not to be part of Democratic” events as well, Albrecht said, observing, encouragingly, that many Democrats were present nonetheless.

Progressive Mass is not alone, however. Last month the Massachusetts’s branch of Our Revolution, Senator Sanders’s current organizing vehicle, kicked off his inaugural meeting in Worcester. It will reach westward, too.

Our Revolution organizers say that a 413 chapter is under development. Our Revolution is not an arm of the Democratic party. Yet, it is encouraging members to participate in the caucuses that elects delegates to the state Democratic party’s platform convention in Lowell this year. Trainings on how to run and become delegates are planned.

Despite traditionally playing host to protests and activism less than its northerly neighbors, hundreds came to Springfield City Hall for a women’s reproductive rights rally on Saturday, one of many nationwide.

Jossie Valentin at the womens reproductive rights rally at Springfield City Hall Saturday (WMassP&I)

The “Our Bodies, Our Justice Rally” organized by activists Liz Friedman and Lindsey Sabadoa. Emcee Jossie Valentin, a Holyoke Councilor, listed support from state and local labor, civil rights, reproductive health and LGBT groups.

Other rallies on behalf of immigrants and refugees have hit 36 Court Street and Springfield’s federal courthouse in recent weeks. Save the battles over biomass, only police misconduct has brought out such demonstration in the city. One challenge remains activating more of the city’s population and not just its activists and those from neighboring towns.

A concern some attendees expressed was a duplication of efforts. For now, that problem will be one to confront when newer groups mature. Clashes on the left are nothing new and indeed are frequent with the Democratic party. But the party’s raison d’être—electing its candidates—is not precisely the same as progressive groups’: producing policy outcomes.

The first-past-the-post system ensures an alternative party on the left would only bring defeat. Having multiple progressive groups may or may not sow discord. Yet turf wars, confusion or inefficiency could occur even if otherwise united under the banners of a Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Critical to success long term in the Valley, however, will be crossing its divides.

More than a few mountains (via wikipedia)

Aron Goldman, a lead organizer here, referenced cutting through the “tofu curtain” bisecting the region. Resting along the Hampden/Hampshire county line, it divides the older, blue collar cities and suburbs of Greater Springfield and the college towns and Vermontesque rural communities north of Holyoke and to Franklin County.

Though Hampden County was represented, outside the community room windows a moonlit Connecticut River separated Holyoke—and Hampden County—from South Hadley, a Hampshire County town. Activists up and down the I-91 corridor have spoken about others’ leeriness about the arch-Democratic cities local TV news portray—sensationally—as the O.K. corral.

Still previously inactive Hampden County residents were there, too, not just activists like Robles or councilors Roman and Valentin.

Indeed directing the local progressive groups’ energy around local elections may stoke more participation in the cities. Valentin, told the attendees many people are “not paying attention to how those folks are voting,” a reference to her colleagues.

Holyoke delivers lopsided margins for Democrats and Sanders also had a strong showing there against Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary. Nonetheless, Republicans and pointedly conservative Democrats dominate the City Council.

“People are going to define it differently,” Mack said of how members from different parts of the Pioneer Valley. “Wherever it feels most salient, if the way to make the case is to take the fight to a local race,” Progressive Mass will do that he added.

These efforts may take time, but there may be some short-term gains, too. Even as trepidation has given way to the reality of Trump’s presidency, simply the growth of community among the opposition may kindle hope.

“I think it’s incredible that so many people activated” for Monday’s event, Albrecht told WMassP&I.