Monday, July 03, 2006

Big Vision Podcast: Steve Williams from POWER

I recently posted my interview with Steve Williams, the Executive Director and co-founder of POWER: People Organized to Win Employment Rights on the Big Vision Podcast. Steve also happens to be the fiancé of Mei-ying Ho, who I interviewed last month. They're kinda like the Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt of the Bay Area (:

You can listen to the podcast on Gcast, Odeo or iTunes and I've included a transcript of it below in , as well.

If you know a person who is creating positive change that you think should be interviewed for the Big Vision Podcast, please send me their name and contact information at britt AT

Britt Bravo:
Hi! Welcome to the Big Vision Podcast, where we talk with individuals and organizations who are creating positive change. My name is Britt Bravo, and in today's show I talk with Steve Williams, the co-founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit, POWER: People Organized to Win Employment Rights.

Steve Williams: POWER stands for "People Organized to Win Employment Rights" and we are a membership organization of low-wage workers and tenants. We started off in 1997, initially organizing welfare recipients.

At the time, the Federal government had just signed the welfare deform legislation, pushing millions of welfare recipients from welfare to work. But by and large, people were pushed into poverty wage jobs and forced to make profit for huge corporations, while not having any opportunity to improve the living standards for themselves or their families.

We began, essentially, organizing a union of low-wage workers, unemployed workers, to try to improve both the living conditions and the working conditions for low-wage workers here in San Francisco. In the last couple of years, we've begun two new organizing projects. One: organizing immigrant women, mostly Latinas, who are working as domestic workers cleaning the houses and raising the kids, mostly of rich folks. The other organizing project is organizing in Bay View Hunters Point, the last remaining African American neighborhood here in San Francisco, organizing for housing justice and equitable development.

Britt Bravo: Tell me a little more about the campaign for domestic workers.

Steve Williams: One of the interesting things that we have seen historically is that women's labor, and particularly women of color, have played a central role of supporting the economy. So, oftentimes when we hear about San Francisco's economy, the main aspects, the main industries that we hear about are the dot com sector or Wall Street and finance, but all of those industries are made possible because, oftentimes, it is immigrant women who are going into the homes of those high-tech professionals to clean their houses, cook their food, raise their children, but all too frequently those women don't receive a livable wage. Almost never do they receive healthcare benefits or vacation time and oftentimes, have to work in incredibly oppressive environments.

The industry -- the federal government, and the state government specifically exclude domestic workers as classes of workers to be protected by labor rights legislation. Oftentimes, women are forced to do this work individually in other people's homes and have no recourse to have their rights protected. POWER began this organizing project, both to get the work and the labor of these immigrant women to be respected and compensated fairly, but then also to establish mechanism to be able to ensure that their rights can actually be enforced, and if the state won't do that level of enforcement now, then the women will do that enforcement for themselves.

The campaign has been interesting. Initially, it developed with us going out to parks. There were a lot of women who would take the kids that they were caretaking for, they would take them out to parks in the middle of the day, so that the kids could play around, the women who were then working as domestics would sit around and watch the kids. We would go up to parks in Pacific Heights and the Marina and you'd see all these white kids playing around in the playground and all of these brown Latina women sitting around, talking Spanish. So, it was pretty clear that there were domestics in the parks.

Initially, after conversations with a lot of domestic workers, we realized that the women really wanted to have negotiation training. Because there aren't formal union contracts in the domestic work industry, women are put in the position where they are negotiating theterms of their employment by themselves. We developed negotiation training to develop the capacity of the women to be able to ask for better working conditions, better wages, which is something that the women said they that had no understanding of, no access to those levels of skills.

Through the negotiation training, women began identifying particular problems that they were having in their work. Whether it was that they were not receiving livable wages, or maybe it was that initially they were hired just to take care of the kids and then after a couple of months, they were also doing some of the cooking for the family, and then after a couple more months, they were also doing laundry, and as their job descriptions were expanding, there was no increase in pay, there was no opportunity for vacation leave and almost never was there any healthcare protections.

Through that, we've actually have began a campaign now at a statewide level to ensure that all domestic workers who are doing any work in the homes actually have access to overtime pay, just the same as every other employee. Right now, that piece of legislation has just passed the assembly and is right now in front of the state Senate.

Britt Bravo: Do you have any stories of individual women's successes that you can share?

Steve Williams: Yes. Coming out of the negotiation training, it was very interesting because, like I had said before, a lot of women felt like they didn't have the skills to really be able to negotiate with their employer. A lot of women reflected back to us that they felt oftentimes like the families would treat them as if they were a part of the family, so that then their work was in some ways made invisible. But, it also created a relationship where it was more difficult for the women to actually ask for what they needed in order to be able to meet the needs of themselves and their families.

Women would tell all of these incredible stories throughout the negotiation training. There was one woman, who in particular, after we concluded the negotiation training, decided to initiate a re-negotiation of both the terms of her employment. Initially, she was getting paid eight dollars an hour. At the end of the negotiation, the family raised her pay to 14 dollars an hour. She came back and she was really excited and she said it was really a result of the experiences that she had in the negotiation training and the increased level of confidence that she had that both she could ask for what it is that she needed and if she didn't get it, that she had other recourses.

Britt Bravo: What brought you to this work. Why do you do this work, and not some other kind of work?

Steve Williams: I think for me one of the things that motivates me is the idea that the world can be a better place. Just from my understanding of history and my understanding of politics, the best way of actually being able to improve the living conditions of low income, oppressed people is for those people to come together and take their destinies into their own hands.

If you look at the history in South Africa, and the movement to end the apartheid regime, or if you look at the revolution in Cuba, where literally the island was essentially a playground for rich people from the United States. The Cuban people took their own destiny in their hands and altered then the future for not only themselves, but also future generations.

I think here, in the United States, just understanding the history of the civil rights movement and understanding the exploitation and oppression that African-Americans have experienced, and that my ancestors came together to really reshape the history of this country and the world. I think as we look at all of the really oppressive statistics; half of the world lives on less than two dollars a day, that people, particularly throughout the third world and the global south, die of preventable diseases by the thousands every day, and that all of that happens at the same time that huge corporations like Bechtel or Microsoft are making hundreds of millions of dollars, that there are actually the resources to create a better world and a better future for all of us. I think that the way it is actually going to wind up taking place is for working class people of color to come together in unity and really begin shifting the structures that impact all of our lives.

I just feel really fortunate to be able to be here at POWER, as one organization that creates a space for working class people of color to come together, to find their voice, and then actually to begin exercising that voice in the public domain.

Britt Bravo: Have you always done this kind of work?

Steve Williams: When I was in college I did a lot of service work around homelessness issues. I was somewhat lazy in doing that work. I was like, "It's cool doing it," but I recognize that regardless of how hard I worked in the homeless shelter, that every day there were more and more people, who were forced to come to the shelter because they had nowhere else to go. I think that I wanted to figure out a way that by doing the work that I am doing, that some day, no one will ever be homeless, or no one will have to make a decision between buying medicine for their kids, or paying rent.

The summer before my last year in college, I participated in a summer program in Philadelphia that was designed to teach young people organizing skills around poverty and homelessness issues. It was the first experience that I had with social movement organizing. I was hooked from that moment on. Immediately after I graduated, I got a job with the Coalition on Homelessness here in San Francisco, where I feel that I learned a tremendous amount about creating spaces for low income people to be able to raise their voice, recognizing that all too often, people of color, women and low-ncome people are excluded from the decision-making processes that actually affect their day-to-day lives, and that the only way that those folks are going to be able to come together to have a say is by coming together in numbers and asserting that strength. So, from the Coalition on Homelessness, there was a push to initiate a welfare rights organization, and it was the leadership of that grouping of folks, who with me, then ultimately wound up founding POWER in 1997.

Britt Bravo: What keeps you motivated and inspired? What keeps you going, because you have been doing this for a while, and it's not easy work.

Steve Williams: Yes, it's not easy work. I think the thing that every day inspires me are the members of POWER. I think it's constantly a moment of inspiration to see people who initially come into the organization somewhat shy, not convinced that things will actually be able to change, and to see them over the course of several months become dedicated and very skilled organizers and leaders in a broader social movement.

There is a member of the organization, who we first met when we were organizing out at one of the MUNI bus yards. In exchange for welfare benefits, welfare recipients in San Francisco were forced to do public sector work, work which was once performed by unionized city employees. This woman was cleaning the buses, cleaning graffiti off the San Francisco MUNI buses. Unionized city employees used to make 27 to 35 dollars an hour doing that work and she, along with her co-workers, was now forced to do that work for 345 dollars a month with no benefits, no protections.

When we first came in contact with her, it was like pulling teeth to get her to say anything, even in small group meetings out at her work site, where she knew everybody. But, she continued to come to all the meetings. She would sit in the back, she would observe what was going on, and a couple of months later, she started talking up in the meetings. She eventually became a member of the steering committee, the leadership body of the organization. A couple of years ago she was actually speaking at a demonstration where there were about 1500 people, and she was one of the most articulate, fiery, inspirational speakers that I have ever heard. I think it is just a constant inspiration to me to see the transformation that people can go through when they really take their destinies into their own hands.

That coupled with getting an opportunity to go outside the United States and see movements that are really vibrant and broad based. Having an opportunity to go to Cuba, to South Africa, to Venezuela, and to see places where both ordinary people have really seen the results of what happens when they join up with their neighbors and begin to trying to change their own reality. But, then also recognizing it has real positive impacts on our ability to have community with each other. The idea that we can all have free education through university level, or that we will all have free health care, I think really begins to shift the way that we relate to each other and really establishes a basis for strong community, both between racial lines, but also across racial lines, across language lines. I think those have been the experiences, both inside and then outside the country, that have really inspired me to know that the work that I am doing here, in San Francisco, is connected to a global movement that is, I think some day, going to achieve justice.

Britt Bravo: If someone listening to this podcast wants to become an organizer, what should they do?

Steve Williams: The first thing that folks should do is to locate an organization in your community. POWER, like every other grassroots membership organization that I know, is constantly looking for volunteers, is dramatically under-resourced, and our ambitions never match up with the resources that we have in the bank. I think that folks could financially support membership organizations, but I also think that people coan figure out a way of volunteering and figuring out ways of being able to support the leadership of low income people.

Then, if through that experience, people are so inspired to then try to become, and try to take up the work of organizing, there are some really incredible training programs where people can learn how to do organizing as a full-time activity. A couple of the programs that we have come in contact with -- SOUL, the School of Unity and Liberation, runs an eight-week summer-long program for young people that, I think is really amazing in both developing the skills of young people as organizers, but then also putting organizing in a broader political and economic context. That's one. SOUL is located here in the Bay area, in Oakland. Another organization based here in the Bay Area is the Center for Third World Organizing, C-TWO, who also has an organizing internship program that I think has really produced some of this generation's best organizers. Then also, down in Los Angeles, there is an organization called the Labor Community Strategy Center that has, probably, the most extensive and thorough organizing training program. That's actually a nine-month long training and they, I think, are incredibly sophisticated, both at developing people's skills as organizers, but then also helping people to develop a sharp analysis of what's going on in our communities and how it is that we can make positive change.

Britt Bravo: Is there anything else that you want people to know about POWER and its work?

Steve Williams: I think for POWER -- we're really struggling with the fact that there are massive changes happening in all of our communities. In San Francisco, the African-American population has decreased by 23 percent over the past ten years. I think that is related to fundamental shifts that are happening in both the political and economic structures in this country and in the entire world. I think it is really important for all of us who are trying to make change to develop really sharp analyses of what is going on in the world around us. I think that this analysis of what the problem is, ultimately impacts our ideas of what the solutions are going to be to fixing those problems.

Because POWER was grappling with understanding what is going on in the world around us, we ultimately wound up going into a nine-month study process that ultimately culminated in the publishing of a book, which is entitled, Towards Land, Work, and Power. It's now available on AK Press; you can get it at, or on It is the result of four organizers here, at POWER, really trying to put our ideas about the problems that we see in society, but also really trying to couple that with solutions because I think, it's all too easy right now to get discouraged and disillusioned and to think that there is no way that we're ever going to win. But, I think that there are countless examples through history, in individual communities across the country and around the globe, where ordinary people have risen up to then completely alter the course of history. I think it is important for us to build off that hope and build off the experiences of folks who have gone before us. I would encourage people to pick up POWER's book and hopefully, if you like this podcast, you will like the book as well.

Britt Bravo: Thanks for listening to the Big Vision Podcast. For more information about POWER, go to I will also be posting a transcript of this interview on my blog, Have Fun, Do Good, at You can also find transcripts of past interviews on that blog as well.

If you like the music, it is from Kenya Masala's "Mango Delight" and you can learn more about Kenya's work and his music by going to

Finally, if you want more information about Big Vision Career and Project Consulting, you can check out my website at

Thanks for listening.

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  1. Great podcast interview with Steve William and bravo the amazing organizing and analysis done by POWER organizers, leaders and their base.

  2. Thanks, Eric! We actually met a couple times at the SFSU La Raza Studies volunteer/intership fair when I worked for Streetside Stories.


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