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LANSING – It was a “historic” event. People came from as far away as Escanaba and as near as downtown Lansing. There were the young, the elderly, African Americans, Arab Americans, LBGT Americans, union leaders and members and – well, just people.
They all descended upon the Michigan Progressive Policy Summit, a first-of-its-kind gathering of progressive activists and community leaders. They gathered to discuss strategy and agendas. They compared notes. They connected.
“I thought it was a really good experience for someone my age to be around people with commitment, integrity and goals,” said 19-year-old MSU student Damian Nelson. Nelson is a member of the MSU Dems and hails from Traverse City.
Diane McMillan, a 57-year-old from Detroit, agreed with Nelson.
“It was a very good conference. I like that they are calling it a summit. This allows for a dialogue,” the professor of social work and social justice at Detroit’s Marygrove College said.
The morning began with a speech by former Lansing Mayor David C. Hollister. Hollister resigned from the mayor’s post to become the director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth under the first Granholm administration.
“It’s clear Michigan and the nation (are) in the midst of a transformation,” Hollister told the gathering. “Contrary to the public perception, there is a strategy – a very clear strategy.”
Hollister proceeded to share with activists how the country and the state are changing, including highlighting the importance of college education for economic development, renewable energy sources to prevent pollution, and addressing health care in a way that stops it from devouring our gross national product.
“We must attack and solve this problem. Look at the state budget. Health care is the single largest growing part of the budget. It can’t be controlled, and the reservoirs in the budget are gone,” he told the crowd. “You folks think about and strategize about it today.
“We have a plan. We have identified the problems. The question now is, ‘Do we have the political will to invest in these strategies and goals?’ Michigan is at a fork in the road; in the next few weeks, we will have decided which way we went. Let’s hope when our grandkids look back, they can say we took the high road.”
Following Hollister’s speech, activists split into three breakout sessions. The gatherings focused exclusively on one of three identified progressive policy issues: health care, renewable energy and education. The groups discussed the ideas of where they wanted to be with those issues. They developed complete dream lists of what each area would look like.
After the breakout sessions, all the activists gathered again to hear Donna Brazile, the first African American woman to run a presidential campaign – Al Gore’s in 2000 – in American history. Brazile’s keynote speech brought the crowd to its feet. Brazile called the gathering “historic.”
“We gather at a time there is a crisis,” Brazile said. “We need to find a way to articulate our values so that people are prepared to act when we say it is time to act. This is not about being right, or in the right place … it’s about having an open room.
“We can build a movement which seems to address all our concerns on our values,” she continued. “We must put principles before polls – I’m tired of waiting for that other leader to lead us to a better life for my people; your people; our people.”
Brazile concluded her address by striking themes of being one “fabric” of America, not specific communities or identity politics: “We can bring people together because they are tired of being divided. We can bring the country together and not be about the division of the hypocrites.”
Following Brazile’s speech, activists broke into more sessions based on their geographic region to discuss the specific agenda items identified in the first sessions. Each group will now go back to their respective regions and begin to coordinate, draw their community resources together and begin to implement the plans and strategies developed in those sessions, Pete Wiodode said. Wiodode is the summit and issues director for the Michigan Prospect, a think tank founded by former state representative Lynn Johndahl.