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Heather Booth

On consumer protection and building movements in the digital age

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Heather Booth is the field director for Americans for Tax Fairness, a group of "425 national, state and local endorsing organizations united in support of a fair tax system." She got her start in the 1960s working on campaigns like Freedom Summer, in which she helped African-Americans in Mississippi register to vote; the Chicago Women's Liberation Union and the Jane Collective, an early abortion counseling service.

More recently, Booth worked alongside Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) to establish and safeguard the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and helped ease the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a sweeping package of financial regulations trailing the Great Recession. Booth will be in Boise for a screening of the documentary Heather Booth: Changing the World at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19. Tickets are $10, and a Q&A with Booth will follow the film.

How do we make this a more just and caring society?

We have to take back our "small-d" democracy. We give people confidence so they can speak up about how they're impacted by policies that are lowering wages. At the floor, we need at least $15 an hour so people are brought up out of poverty. We need protections for healthcare. We need education people can afford.

How has your view of organizing changed over the years?

I was in Mississippi in 1964, part of the Southern Project where northerners were recruited to shine a spotlight on the conditions of poor black people and how they were terrorized. It gained notoriety because three young men were killed at the hands of the Klan, but what people may not know is ... they found the bodies of eight other black men whose hands had been bound or feet chopped off. Because people organized, within a year there was a voting rights act. There are some ways organizing has changed a lot: There's social media. The news cycle goes so much faster, and that has also changed organizing.

How do you persuade people to join a movement who may share its goals not its rhetoric or ideals?

If there's a difference of ideals, of what you're fighting for, there probably won't be a meeting of the ways, but there are people who can gather together across differences. There was a fight I was in in Chicago where there was a highway about to go through a black community and a white community [that] would have wiped out 30,000 homes. People who were on different sides of issues decided to come together. They won on the highway fight, and they transformed the leadership in those communities.

Is persuasion as effective today?

There is a level of hate-filled rhetoric and conflict I think is the most extreme in my lifetime. Organizing identifies people who want to solve problems.

What are the sources of the polarization you've identified?

In the early 1970s, there really was a war on the middle class by many of the most powerful and entrenched institutions. Often, we live in a bubble of only living in neighborhoods of like minds, reading articles of like minds.

What are the promises and pitfalls of using social media to organize people?

All forms of power raise the question of who controls the power and what is it used for. Social media has an immediacy. We have limitations, though, when we only listen to the short snip, the tweet, as opposed to getting a more in-depth story. The limitations are when you're only listening to stories of people who have the same point of view.

How do you rally ordinary people around a complicated topic like consumer financial protection?

Sometimes issues where a lot of power is at stake are made to sound very complicated to intimidate people. In fact, people can understand it. How [Sen. Elizabeth Warren] describes it in the film, mortgages were being sold like hand grenades with the pin pulled out. People were living in those houses but could no longer afford the exploding loans they'd been given.

A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says we can make these contracts simple. There actually is a right and a wrong. There's a good and a bad.


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