Just after the first snow of the season, organizers at the Philadelphia Liberation Center hosted Kensington Unity Day on Nov. 17 — a winter clothing drive with a free hot meal for our neighbors in north Philadelphia’s Kensington community. Members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which operates the Liberation Center, teamed up with neighborhood residents to serve more than a hundred hot meals and distribute warm clothing, blankets and winter coats.
Unity Day had a special focus on collecting and distributing supplies for children. When the school year began, many of Philadelphia’s students sat in sweltering classrooms without air conditioning. When the heat became a serious health risk, the school system called for early release days. After worrying about whether their kids would be safe in the unfit conditions of the schools, working parents had to scramble to pick up their kids from school early and oftentimes lose out on some of their day’s pay.
Now that the weather is getting colder, students and teachers have the opposite problem — the heating in many of Philadelphia’s schools is often not good enough or simply nonexistent. Students try to stay warm in frigid classrooms by bundling up with coats and warm clothing, but not everyone has what they need to feel comfortable. Kensington Unity Day aimed to make sure neighborhood kids had winter coats, hats, gloves and scarves, so they can be warm in and out of school.
The city gives out millions and millions of dollars every year in tax abatements for real estate developers who stuff their pockets, gentrify our neighborhoods and build housing that no one can afford. Somehow, they can’t find those millions when we ask them to install proper heating and improve the conditions in our schools. The capitalist system won’t take care of working people, so we have to take care of each other. One way to do this is through events like Kensington Unity Day.
Under capitalism, a tiny group of millionaires and billionaires have the power, and they use their power to make sure they can keep the wealth of society all to themselves. They don’t care if people are struggling or whether our needs are met. The PSL is dedicated to the struggle for a revolutionary change that will establish a socialist society. Socialism means that working and oppressed people have the power, so we can use that power to make sure everyone’s needs are met. Kensington Unity Day was an opportunity to demonstrate socialist values in practice.
Preparation: An outpouring of solidarity with the community
Putting on an event like Kensington Unity Day requires a lot of preparation, but any serious group of activists can do it as long as they’re willing to work hard and build with their communities. The two main areas of work required for preparing an event like this are collecting donations and outreach. To collect donations, PSL members set up an online fundraiser and reached out to our personal and political networks to ask for monetary and in-kind donations of winter clothing like hats, coats, sweaters, etc. We set up donation drop-off spots, and found a store that was willing to hold a set amount of children’s coats aside for us, so we could buy them in bulk with the funds we raised through the online fundraiser.
People were more than willing to help out, and we received an outpouring of both donations and financial support. This was enough to cover the cost of bulk purchases of children’s coats as well as the hot meals we prepared for attendees.
The second area of work is neighborhood outreach. Members and friends of the PSL began flyering several weeks before the event, talking to people on the street and on public transportation about Unity Day. We were able to speak with hundreds of people and hear their perspectives on the issues our neighborhoods face.
This kind of mass work is not only important for the success of survival programs like Kensington Unity Day; it is also absolutely necessary for the development of revolutionaries and for the construction of revolutionary organizations. Without carrying out systematic outreach, being with the masses and listening to their ideas and concerns, a revolutionary organization cannot hope to succeed.
The outreach effort was effective, measured both by the large number of people from the neighborhood who came to the Liberation Center on Unity Day and also by the contributions made by members of the Kensington community. We are extremely grateful to our neighbors who donated their spare clothing, and a new Liberation Center volunteer who helped set up for the event and staff a clothing table.
Finally, in order to keep building our relationship with the community, the Liberation Center organized a series of follow-up events. Every attendee received a flyer promoting a forum on the rise of the far-right in Latin America, and another flyer for our “Community Assembly” series on the crisis in the city’s school system. We were very happy that many Unity Day attendees also went to the forum that was held at the center the following day.
We need socialism
The PSL thinks that nothing short of a revolution can solve the huge injustices working class people face every day. So how do revolutionary politics relate to programs like Kensington Unity Day? A huge web of nonprofits, which receive large amounts of grant money from capitalist charitable foundations and government entities, already carry out a wide range of social programs. Our goal is not to compete with them to provide the most material assistance — our goal is to compete with them politically and win the trust and support of the people.
As revolutionaries, we believe that the only way the people can be liberated from poverty, oppression, war and environmental destruction is socialism. If we tried to meet every single need of our communities ourselves we would have neither the time nor the resources to do anything else. We would not be able to struggle for a socialist society. Huey Newton, Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party, explained the proper relationship between revolutionary struggle and survival programs (our emphasis):
All these programs satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to our problems. That is why we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution. We say that the survival program of the Black Panther Party is like the survival kit of a sailor stranded on a raft. It helps him to sustain himself until he can get completely out of that situation. So the survival programs are not answers or solutions, but they will help us to organize a community around a true analysis and understanding of their situation. When consciousness and understanding is raised to a high level then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors.
As socialists, we know that the reason people are struggling to meet their basic needs is ultimately the fact that our society is organized for the benefit of a tiny handful of billionaires, rather than for the masses of people who do all the work. For revolutionaries, the survival programs are certainly important in themselves: we carry them out because we care deeply about our community and want everyone to have what they need to feel warm and safe. And if people have more of the basic necessities they need to live, it is much easier to devote time to studying politics and organizing movements that can win concessions from those in power. Still, we recognize that so long as we live in a society based on greed rather than unity, these survival programs alone will never be more than a life raft—a temporary and ultimately insufficient solution.
When we collect and distribute winter clothing, we show through our actions that even if the billionaire class doesn’t care about us, we have the power to protect each other and fight back with our strongest weapon — working class unity.