BERKELEY, Calif. — They came from all regions of the country and from every arena of the racial justice struggle, and with one voice they declared that in the wake of Nov. 2, their determination to fight for democracy, equality, social and economic justice is more powerful than ever.

Well over 500 leaders and activists participated in a conference held Nov. 11-13 at the University of California at Berkeley, sponsored by the Applied Research Center (ARC) and titled “Race and Public Policy: A Proactive Agenda for 2005 and Beyond.” The mostly youthful participants — largely people of color — represented hundreds of grassroots organizing movements.

Plenaries and workshops ran the gamut of struggles to end racial and national oppression, from voting rights and electoral reform through education, job quality and access, racial profiling, health, housing, language access, immigrant rights, media, Native American sovereignty rights, and building labor and community coalitions. The conference presented over a dozen model policies that come out of recent legislative and legal victories.

Opening a plenary on next steps after the election, Tammy Johnson, program director of Race and Public Policy, emphasized the movements built during the campaign as the foundation for further advances. She cited passage of minimum wage initiatives in Florida and Nevada, election of nine Native Americans to the Idaho Legislature, and the entry of Illinois Democrat Barack Obama and Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar into the U.S. Senate.

Jacqueline Berrien of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund called for seeing voter empowerment as a continuous process: “We disempower ourselves if we only pay attention to the presidential election every four years.” Berrien urged measures to make voting easier, and called the IRS challenge to the NAACP’s tax status “not just chilling – freezing.”

Maria Blanco of the Bay Area Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights called for an “offensive defense” against the nomination of Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General, a new voting rights act that bans voter suppression, and a stepped-up fight for legalization and amnesty in the wake of Arizona’s Prop. 200.

The war in Iraq was addressed by many speakers. Norman Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy called the antiwar movement “the intersection between war, militarism, race and poverty.” ARC co-founder and executive director Gary Delgado pointed out that the Iraq war and the “war on terror” now absorb 40 cents of every tax dollar.

One of the most striking stories was the campaign described by newly elected Rhode Island State Representative Grace Diaz. Her candidacy arose out of the movement of Rhode Island’s home child care workers to win dignity and respect — a struggle that began in direct action community organizing in the early 1990s and has evolved into a unionization drive today. She has been a leader in the organizing committee of the child care providers union, District 1199 of SEIU.

Diaz is the first Dominican American woman elected to statewide office in the U.S. Her multiracial campaign in a majority-Latino district, backed by unions, organizations and community members, defeated a four-year incumbent. Now, said Diaz, “I have to keep in contact with my community, because the racial justice movement doesn’t end when you get elected. We need to build unity of the community, building from the root, the family.”

The conference opened with an evening presentation by television personality Tavis Smiley, whose shows are featured on PBS and NPR. Smiley called for developing a “Contract with Black Folk,” a set of principles to demand of candidates. “We must be clear about the distinction between electability and accountability,” he said. “We have to hold elected officials accountable on racial justice issues.”

In closing the event, Delgado declared to a standing ovation, “We must be willing not just to say No, but to be proactive, propose, give our people clear choices. Fairness, equity and justice are our values, our strength — we cannot concede them.”

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