We all value human rights, but some fight for them more than others. I had the opportunity to speak with Zaira Livier; the director and co-founder of People’s Defense Initiative. This grassroots organization is focused on executing campaigns that fight for justice on a variety of pain-points including migrants rights, poverty, and criminal justice. They also work to help those in need, especially during this pandemic.
Can you tell me a little about who you are and your role in People's Defense Initiative?
I am the co-founder and director of People’s Defense Initiative. I’m a migrant from Mexico, and I was undocumented with my mother and brother for many years. I grew up here, in Tucson, Arizona. I started organizing campaigns five years ago out of need, including the minimum wage campaign which we were able to get to $12. This campaign also gave all workers in Arizona paid sick time which we didn’t have prior. As far as People’s Defense Initiative, I spearhead the various campaigns we organize in attempts to bring justice to those in which justice is not being served.
Can you tell me a little bit about the organization's mission and how it got started?
We just had our 2 year anniversary in April, so we are still a fairly new organization. Basically, we focus on building political power locally. We also focus on policy and lobbying our elected officials where we can, and our goal is to run our own candidates on our platform. We founded this organization in 2018 when so many of us were exhausted of constantly protesting and getting nothing in return. The idea was about community defense and protecting ourselves and we knew that it had to start locally and be a grassroots effort. We focus heavily on migrants rights, as well as poverty and criminal justice.
What movements are you a part of?
All of our campaigns are local campaigns. Our first was what is referred to as the Sanctuary campaign. This was the first citizen led Sanctuary campaign to be put on the ballot by community members in the nation. We lost by a landslide, but it was an amazing experience to write policy based on speaking with directly affected people and the actual needs of the community. Although we didn’t win, we are so proud of this campaign because it was a campaign based on truth. We wrote a bill that really touched people and got them engaged. We even had people who hadn’t voted in a long time or had never voted at all come and vote for us. So, we really gained insight into how to run a locally-run grassroots campaign and now have a structure we follow to run more in the future.
Can you talk a little bit about La Cocina and your efforts in feeding people amidst COVID-19?
Our program is called Feeding Those Who Feed Us and it’s based on a mutual aid model where we have communities stepping up to the plate because the systems that are in place are failing so many of us. So many service industry people went out of work, and 86% of the American economy is service industry jobs, so we saw so many of our friends, community members and family members lose their jobs and have to wait sometimes for weeks or months to receive any kind of unemployment - and those are the lucky ones. Then, there are people who didn’t qualify or people who are undocumented as well who are struggling even more.
La Cocina started when the owner of La Cocina decided to start a food program where she and her staff were cooking meals Monday, Wednesday, and Friday’s for out-of-service industry workers to come and pick up. We teamed up with them to raise money for this program and expand it to other restaurants to provide food every day of the week in different locations. This also expanded to have pick-up locations for dry goods and groceries for anyone who needs it several times a week. We have provided refugees at the refugees center with fresh groceries every week, and have used funds raised to help undocumented families with direct aid for food. In total, we have been able to provide over 4,000 hot meals so far to those in need, not including groceries. Basically, it has been a program of love where so many local businesses and community members have stepped up and volunteered their time and money, and we plan to continue this even after the pandemic.
How has COVID-19 affected your organization?
Our model was building in-person connections - we used to be out in the field, holding protests, hosting conversations, and initiating direct outreach, so this has definitely made it difficult to do that. But, we’re figuring out new ways to connect with people, and COVID-19 has actually opened up new opportunities for us - where there is struggle there is always persistence. Issues that have always been there, we see them being exaggerated by this crisis. For example, housing justice - you shouldn't lose your home because you can't afford to pay for a month or two. So these problems that have been there prior to COVID-19 are just getting amplified, and we are doing our best to help fight these injustices.
Is racism and inequality still rampant in Arizona?
Absolutely. Tucson is referred to as a liberal blue beacon in Arizona, but the truth is, before this crisis hit, our unemployment was well above the national average as well as the poverty rate. The Center of Economic Integrity did a study in 2018 and only 8% of zip codes were thriving, while 56% were in distress. These are highly minority concentrated zip codes. Not only is the inequality unbelievably exaggerated, but also the racial lines. The thriving zip codes are predominantly white and far to the north, and the rest of the city is really struggling.
Is there anything else you'd like to share about People's Defense Initiative?
We are building a Tucson tenants union to fight for housing rights and protect against eviction once these eviction pauses expire. You can find information about this at https://www.tucsontenantsunion.org/ and to keep up to date or get involved you can go to our website and www.peoplesdefenseinitiative.org.
We thank Zaira for sharing her story as well as providing insight into how People’s Defense Initiative is striving to make their community and world a better place.