Several volunteers handled the sign-in counter, room setup and telephones before the “Oakland Women for Bernie Meet-Up” began last Wednesday night. Host Christina Leyva, 30, shuttled back and forth between welcoming attendees at the entrance and overseeing the space’s assembly at the California Nurses Association office. The dancer, choreographer and artist said it was the first event she’d ever moderated and was understandably nervous, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“This was a unique opportunity to bring women together and to start having conversations that are what building a movement are all about. It’s also an opportunity to really encourage intersectionality when it comes to hearing a range of perspectives on Bernie’s platform,” said Leyva.
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is a presidential candidate competing against fellow Democrat—and former Secretary of State—Hillary Clinton for a nomination to hold the highest office in the land. The self-described “democratic socialist” has made subjects such as income and race inequality, raising the minimum wage, tax hikes for the wealthy, and immigration reform some of the centerpieces of his platform.
Sanders and Clinton were neck-and-neck in two out of three of the past state primaries, with Sanders coming out on top in New Hampshire on February 9, but behind Clinton in the Nevada caucus on February 20. The two have each earned 51 delegates each out of the 2,382 delegates needed for one of them to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
Conversations among the approximately 75 attendees were in mid-swing moments before the clock struck 7 pm, as women came in, with children and men serving as plus ones for some. They took their seats after making “I’m voting for Bernie because…” signs, taking a few buttons supporting the candidate, and partaking of the snacks on the counter. After introducing herself to the audience, Leyva said the room would act as a space to discuss Sanders’ platform, particularly its effect on women and their families. The lights dimmed so they could watch an endorsement for Sanders from former Ohio senator Nina Turner.
“Senator Bernie Sanders has heart-soul agreement. He cares about the working poor; he’s not afraid to talk about the working poor,” she said. The former senator said that her mother had passed away when she was in her early twenties, which prompted Turner to support Sanders’ stance on universal health care and free college tuition—both expenses she had struggled to pay.
The room was brightly lit once more as guest speakers like Barbara Ruffner of the Democratic Socialists of America, Martha Kuhl of National Nurses United, and Sierra Madre of Bay Area for Bernie stood up one by one to state why they placed their faith in the junior senator from Vermont. Though their stories differed, the most frequently reoccurring reason was the Brooklyn native’s dedication to both women’s rights and feminism.
Ruffner said Sanders’ platform appeals to her because he is focused on the “poor and working woman.” Ruffner said it wasn’t enough for a candidate to be female—alluding to Clinton—but that “the person also has to be willing to walk the walk, and Bernie does that. You can see his commitment.”
Then, Leyva announced that they would break into groups to discuss and critique Sanders’ platform. Discussions on topics such as immigration, slavery reparations, civil rights, women’s representation, climate change and Sanders’ ability to absorb critiques made up the bulk of conversation among the four large groups.
One group took on Sanders’ platform on immigration, which he revealed to the public in a statement last November. Sanders had promised to “fight for comprehensive immigration reform that provides a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring Americans living in this country” and vowed to utilize executive actions to accomplish his plans instead of waiting for Congress.
But Ana Ochoa, a 31-year-old social worker, said that though Sanders captured her attention with his insistence on tackling student debt and corporate influence, she needed to know more about what he plans for immigration reform. “I’m an immigrant to the U.S. who came here undocumented and became documented when she was 16 years old,” said Ochoa. “I’ve been politically involved since college and I’ve never been this excited about any candidate, but immigration rights—and equality in general—need to be discussed in more depth.”
Others wished the subject of “reparations for slavery,” or compensation for those descended from Africans who were enslaved by the Atlantic Slave Trade, received more than a negative mention. Sanders said last month at a forum in Iowa that reparations would be “divisive and unfeasible.” Sanders, instead, offered “job creation, free college and increased government investment in economically depressed communities— especially communities of color” as answers to achieving racial equality.
One attendee said she was surprised by Sanders’ take on reparations considering his personal and Civil Rights Movement history. “He was such a staunch advocate for equality for all, demonstrating, doing sit-ins, willing to be arrested for the cause,” said a woman who wore a navy blue form-fitting coat and did not offer her name. “Also, Obama approved $12 million to aid Holocaust survivors over the next five years so why can’t such a thing be a reality in this situation too?”
In other discussions, many people agreed Sanders is willing to receive and absorb constructive criticism. “I think what he has shown time and time again in his candidacy is he’s amenable to criticism and he’s really does listen,” said Stephanie Blazek, 24. “And it’s not something that some focus group is telling him: ‘Well, that’s not flying with the young people, so you can’t say that anymore.’”
For example, she said, Sanders has been criticized for being too ambiguous on his plans to reverse climate change and for linking it to an increase in terrorism. To his credit, said Blazek, he came back and tried to provide further details in recent speeches and debates.
Retired Oakland teacher Michael Barglow, 69, said he felt Sanders was honest and consistent, having been demonstrative and vocal about his commitment to civil rights—especially when Barglow considered his own history. “I was active in the Civil Rights Movement at the same time he was, so I trust the roots of his activism,” said Barglow. “I hope he continues to talk more about racial justice issues, too.”
Barglow said he understood the need for women to have their own forum, and that one of the requirements for his attendance would be silence—at his wife’s insistence. His wife, Laurie Baumgarten, a retired Berkeley teacher, said, “I think men have to learn to step back. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a voice. It does mean that at gatherings that are primarily women where women are defining a certain program, it’s important that time and space is first given to the women to process the information.”
Baumgarten, a 69-year-old climate activist, said Sanders’ chutzpah and integrity makes her trust him, but still worries about his ability to reach the masses—especially on the matter of climate change. “It’s the crisis of our time,” Baumgarten said. “I heard that Bernie Sanders did not get the senior vote in New Hampshire. [Sanders] has the best climate program and I think we have the best chance with Bernie as president, so I’m very concerned that the climate message gets out there. I’m still confident, though.”
Leyva said she felt confident, too, about the night overall. She had been worried attendees might feel that their backgrounds and viewpoints wouldn’t be represented, but her anxiety was allayed by the mix of people who turned out, which included young adults and senior citizens; white, Black, Latino, Asian and Native American voters; people who identify as Socialist, Democrat, and Independent; as well as people who are employed part-time, full-time or retired.
She did have one regret. “We were working to have a trans woman from the Harvey Milk Democratic Society come to speak as a guest, and she wasn’t able to make it. To me, that representation was lacking in the room, and it would’ve been great to have more,” said Leyva. “I was really happy that everyone came and hope that people felt like this resonated with them and that they did have their voices heard.”