Nijmie 101: Get to know me



Here are some snapshots from my organizing over the years in terms of some of the issues and campaigns that I’ve worked on, and the trajectory of my political orientation and theory of change.


Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival

A New Poor People’s Campaign on the Dig (audio)

History of the Poverty Initiative (Kairos Center -) one of the two national co-convening organizations of the Poor People’s Campaign

Ending Poverty: Immersion in the Mississippi Delta (article)

Katrina: Poverty, Race and Ethics (article)

Healthcare is a Human Right

On building a diverse working class movement on the Dig (audio)

The Strategic Significance of Healthcare as a Human Right with Sarah Jaffe (article)

Revolutionary Common Sense on Hack the Union (video)

Education is a Human Right

Campaign for Nonviolent Schools (article)

MMPTV Episode 6: “No Education, No Life!” (preview)

Housing is a Human Right

Supporting the Community Leadership Institute in Philadelphia (article)

Community Preservation Network (article)

International Human Rights

International Women’s Peace Service (article)

The Landless Workers Movement in Brazil (MST) (article)


Media Mobilizing Project

Put People First! PA

Restarted and Former Executive Director

Philadelphia Student Union

What’s Killing Me

Steven Covey, author of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People talks about our “Emotional Bank Accounts”. Despite the fact that it’s weird to talk about banking in this context,  I think the concept of making investments in our relationships – actions that demonstrate trust, understanding and support – is a good one. He takes the metaphor further to suggest that when we violate trust or make a mistake, it’s akin to making a “withdrawal” against the investments that we’ve already made. I have often thought of this metaphor when I think about building trust with movement colleagues.

The more that I work with this metaphor the more I become aware that this grounding is only useful when it is broadly understood and reciprocal. There is much that gets in the way of us treating each other with deep respect, including ego, competition, lack of self-awareness, and oppressive conditioning.

At times the lack of respect that I experience make the work almost unbearable. I also have said and done things that I’ve regretted, made lots of mistakes and treated people with less respect than they deserved. I am in no way saying that I do not exhibit problematic behaviors.

I am also working on improving my practice.

I think the thing that I’ve been most harmed by is that people that I’ve invested in heavily – that I’ve given jobs, provided opportunities, supported, mentored, helped, not over the course of months, but over the course of years, have been able to turn on me as a result of a real or perceived “withdrawal” that feels so asymmetrical – especially in light of our history of multiple, sustained investments of trust. That kind of betrayal really pains me. There has to be a way to understand, overcome and avoid it outside of simply not trusting anyone ever again, or being made to feel ashamed for being taken advantage of – like I’m the one at fault for “having it happen to me”. Also seems important to note here that every single person who has ever behaved this way toward me was a man.

Relatedly, I’ve recently been reflecting on the things that are getting increasingly difficult for me in the course of doing this work. There are a lot of narratives out there about how we are supposed to expect that movement work is a hard and never-ending slog through shit. However, I am very much interested in improving our practice and not having the work produce a lot of collateral damage. If the work that we are doing serves to re-traumatize ourselves and others, how exactly are we getting free? We are already situated within an economic, political and social system that prevents us from being our fullest selves. We have no choice but to transform it. However as we do that, the ends don’t actually justify the means when the means are bullshit. We all have to make sacrifices and compromises, and our hands aren’t clean. We can’t stand outside the system to do our work. However, as we make the road by walking, we have to clear the path through our actions, and act – create systems, structures and processes – in ways that liberate instead of oppressing, for ourselves and others.

As I’ve been doing these reflections, here are some places that feel like they are becoming untenable for me in terms of the emotional labor that I’m doing on top of the intellectual and physical labor of movement work.  It’s not any one of these that’s untenable, it’s the fact that sometimes it feels like I am doing all of these things, all of the time. No single one of these is a deal-breaker, but taken together, and when performing these tasks of emotional labor actually crowds out my ability to be well myself, and do the things that I really love, like strategy, base building, and study, they become unbearable.

  • Constantly mediating conflict between people for the good of the work
  • Absorbing people’s emotional outbursts, when targeted mistakenly at me or others; being expected to de-escalate and mend the situation even when it is re-traumatizing
  • Anticipating and troubleshooting problems and providing extra support proactively in order to avoid re-traumatizing other people – ie trying to solve problems before they happen
  • Accepting people being impatient, judgmental, negative or demanding in ways that are very challenging to deal with because of where they are in their leadership development process
  • Cleaning up after other people’s bad behavior, playing a reassuring or ameliorating role to calm people’s feelings because of someone’s unaware or intentional bad actions
  • Being someone that people come to when they have problems, being someone that is expected to fix people’s problems and make them feel better, rather than them fixing their problem on their own, or offering to help fix my problems
  • Constantly being expected to absorb negativity, people unawarely not balancing their critiques, complaints and problems with affirmation and appreciation
  • Making issues personal instead of understanding them as part of the process, organizational, and co-created (ie acknowledging their own role)
  • Being the object of the assumption that I am able to do a tremendous amount of work without strain, stress or pain
  • My ideas being repeated as if they were the original ideas of others who then get credit and recognition for them
  • Despite fighting for people, helping them and defending them, being treated as if I am not worthy of the same, being turned on quickly for the convenience and benefit of others
  • Having a position of non-conflict and nonviolent communication used as an excuse to be an “easy target” or scapegoat as needed because I won’t make the kind of scene that others will
  • Perceiving my work and my ability as a threat rather than an asset because of ego and behaving in ways that lack integrity as a result
  • Working with people who are afraid of conflict, therefore if conflict arises, quickly exit the scenario rather than take a principled stand for the sake of no one “being mad at them”; can’t distinguish between reasonable or justified accountability and unprincipled attacks
  • To not have the role of oppression acknowledged in situations, to have people around me not acknowledge power when being treated badly by someone that society imbues as more deserving of respect and dignity than I am. To have the oppressive component of the mistreatment ignored or minimized, to exhibit a complete unwillingness to assist the person doing the behavior to achieve greater awareness.
  • Being a constant cheerleader, having to maintain hope and continue to be inspirational during moments when others are lost or feel hopeless. Having to maintain discipline around hope and a clarity of vision that carries other people through difficult times.
  • People who use their privilege to step on you, using your emotional and intellectual labor for their own benefit and using it to maneuver themselves into positions of power or influence without giving credit or assistance to help better your situation.
  • Constantly getting the unaware and oppressive feedback that I’m aggressive, threatening and intimidating simply as a reaction to my natural way of speaking and being.
  • Not being allowed to express anger or frustration at the above treatment, expected to always appear to be okay with whatever is happening even when it is unacceptable, receiving reactions of anger and frustration for my reactions because they are seen as a distraction and an inconvenience when none was given for what caused them.

Check out my interview with Dan Denvir on his podcast, the Dig

“Building a Diverse Working Class Movement to Transform America”

From the description of the epidsode: What is to be done? How can I get involved? Those are questions that a lot of people are asking now that Donald Trump is about to become president of the United States. Today, I speak to Nijmie Dzurinko, a Black woman who grew up poor in the deindustrialized Western Pennsylvania steel town of Monessen. Nijmie is one of the smartest and most experienced organizers we know. In the past, she has been Executive Director and organizer with the Philadelphia Student Union, was a co-founder of the Media Mobilizing Project, and is a co-founder and currently co-coordinator of the group Put People First! PA.

Why I Fast

20160831_130726-2I fast to slow down and notice what’s happening inside and outside my body. I fast to enhance my discipline and my ability to examine my own habitual patterns. I fast to give my system a rest.

For me, fasting is a proactive decision to slow down. I work a lot and can sometimes find myself in the position of my body shutting down or becoming ill in order to stop me. This is not a positive pattern and fasting is one way of interrupting it and making a conscious decision to reduce my activity on my own.

For me, fasting is not a quick way to lose weight or a crash diet. In fact, I don’t fast to lose weight at all. Fasting for me is a spiritual practice.

Fasting brings me closer to the natural rhythms of my own body which are connected to rhythms in nature. Therefore it brings me closer to all life. It gives me the opportunity to re-evaluate what I “need” and also the relationship between food and my emotional life. I recommend keeping a journal, or adding what comes up for you during fasting to the journal you already keep. Fasting invites us to notice what comes up and deeply feel it while carefully choosing our reaction to it. That’s a powerful practice that we can apply to other areas of life.

In my experience, the best times to fast are when I have a reduced workload and when I’m not travelling. When I have time to prepare juice (which is time consuming) and also the space to rest and take naps as necessary.

You may want to consider fasting for a day or over the weekend just to get started and you can try out longer periods as you make other space available in your life.

I have a device (refurbished Vitamix) that pulverizes all parts of the fruit and vegetables, so I’m not losing any fiber. Traditional juicers often separate the fiber from the juice. Either way is okay, and you should be aware of the difference.

And lastly, I don’t do any strenuous exercise during a fast. The everyday walking and moving coupled with some light yoga or stretching is all that I do during a fast. Lastly, please remember to drink LOTS of water!

How to keep the political revolution going in PA


When I posted this on Facebook the morning after the PA primary. . . .

“Bernie Sanders won 30 counties in PA. Primarily the rural counties. The counties people disdain as “Pennsyltucky”. The counties young people move out of because there is no work. The ones most people in Philly or Pittsburgh have never heard of. They may not identify as liberal or progressive. They do not use the phrase “white supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchy” on a regular basis. Yet they voted for a platform of breaking up big banks, making healthcare a public good, and free higher education. Is that sinking in? They understand that everything that Wall Street has is ours because Wall Street owns us, it owns the people we elect; and all of our taxes, rent, fines, interest, fees, energy, water, land, and bodies go in service to it. They can see it even more clearly than a lot of us in Philly. The places that capital has abandoned are the ones where something else is taking root.”

I had no idea it would resonate so much with people here in PA and around the country, with over 600 likes and 274 shares.

I think for many folks it was an interesting twist on what they initially felt as a disappointing election result. So I wanted to follow up and share some strategy thoughts for people who want to continue on with making an actual political revolution here in PA, that outlasts any one election cycle. These thoughts are based on 25 years of history and current experience with people’s struggles, which I have been involved in since the age of 14.

We need permanently organized communities. That means we need everyday leaders who live near each other and who are connected to each other and committed for the long haul. These cores of leaders then must be connected to other cores locally, regionally, statewide and beyond. Building the power to make the kinds of changes that we need to put people before profits is not going to happen overnight. Mobilizing even large groups of people to one or multiple actions is insufficient to the task of shifting power in society.

We have an unprecedented opportunity to unite poor and dispossessed people across racial lines and all other lines of division; and we need to understand racism and gender oppression One of the most interesting things about my FB post is that although I was critiquing the kind of politics that privileges language learned in elite educational spaces over material conditions and lived experiences, the phrase “white supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchy” was nevertheless shared hundreds of times. Which is not a bad thing. We who believe in freedom need to understand that the range of different ways poor and dispossessed people experience day to day life in our system are a living legacy of the harmful divide and conquer strategies that began on this land in the 17th century and continued to evolve at the hands of elites from there.

A critical mass of people is rejecting the idea that poverty is a moral failing and realizing that our system itself reproduces poverty. There is tremendous power in finally ridding ourselves of the pox of shame and humiliation that comes with not being able to meet our basic needs whether that’s a new experience or not.

The left/liberal and right/conservative boxes are killing us. At the ground level, the two major political parties use poor and working people at the ballot box and then largely abandon us when the vote is over because they do not actually represent our interests. Spending all of our time faux-fighting people on the “left” or on the “right” is a distraction from understanding that our world is much more oriented toward “top” and “bottom”. We need independent politics.

Study and education are crucial.We have a tendency in our culture to leap before we look and shoot before we aim. We rush into trying to change things before we understand what’s been done before, and what lessons have been learned. If we are serious, not just playing around or tinkering around the edges, then we know what an awesome responsibility it is to try to change the course of history. Would you trust that responsibility to someone who knows nothing of history?

Transforming human relationships through practice. Our society is currently set up to keep people who are dealing with a lot of the same problems in isolation from each other. Not to mention that we have a long history of segregation along lines of “race” and color, we speak different languages, and we have different customs and cultures. Yet we have to manage to get together, not at some fictional point in the future, but as soon as possible. And working together, being together, creating strategy together and taking collective action, is not simple given how fractured we are. It has to be a conscious leadership practice that brings marginalized people into the center, cultivates deep trust and relationship, and helps expand each of our individual circles of concern beyond our immediate family or people who look like us.

For more information on organizations working to be vehicles for these kinds of practices and approaches see:
Put People First! PA
A New Poor People’s Campaign for Today


Refuge, Reason and Resolve

My mother's grandparents, immigrants from the Levant

Pictured: My mother’s maternal grandparents, immigrants from the Levant (at the time known as “Greater Syria” including what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel), pre WWI

There is a petition circulating right now in Pennsylvania asking Governor Wolf to reject Syrian refugees. Over 70,000 people have signed it. One of the most frequent reasons petition signers give for their position is that there are hundreds of thousands, millions even, of people in our state who are suffering, and who don’t have what we need. If you signed this petition you may have real concerns about your neighbors, friends and even family members who are trying to make ends meet and dealing with unemployment or underemployment, challenges around housing, healthcare, education or childcare, or caught up in the system in some way.

And you’re right that there are altogether too many people here in Pennsylvania who are struggling. One fifth of our children are living in poverty. We have over 15,000 homeless people, and 50,000 thousand people locked in cages due to mass incarceration. The number of our homeless veterans increased by nearly 50% in the last six years. Nearly one and a half million Pennsylvanians live in poverty. That’s over 1 million/10% of whites and 28.7%/370 thousand African-Americans. A full-time, full-year minimum wage worker earns $15,080 annually, an amount still below the poverty line for a family of four.

However, we have to ask ourselves, are the Syrian refugees the source of these problems? Will not admitting refugees fleeing war and poverty solve the problems that we as poor and working people have in Pennsylvania? Will refusing refugees help homeless veterans? Will it house those who need housing? Will it provide medical care to those who need it? Will it feed the people who need fed? Will it educate the students who need education?

Not only will refusing refugees fail to make any of these situations better, it also won’t create more resources for any of these things – because as we can see, we are already don’t have them. The only way to get what we need is to stop blaming each other and come together. By doing this, we can begin to understand how we got here and what we need to do to change it. We only get what we are organized to take and we aren’t asking for anything but the basics that we need to live. You are right to sense that the priorities of the powers and principalities are not working in your interests. But the refugees are not to blame.

Let us not allow ourselves to be motivated by fear. Let us now allow ourselves to be motivated by despair. Let us not be fooled into thinking that there isn’t enough to go around. Love knows no boundaries and no borders. Let us feel and be motivated by love. And in doing so work for a world in which the last, whomever and wherever they are, shall be first.

Discussion Questions:

Pennsylvania has a flat tax system meaning that whether your family makes $15,000 or $15,000,000 dollars, we are all taxed at the same rate. Do you think that is fair? Why or why not?

Has anyone in your family/anyone you know ever held a job that hurt/polluted themselves, other people, or the air, land, and water? How do you feel about the choices that we have to make to survive?

What is the history of your family? How did your ancestors come to be in the US? Were they brought here by force as enslaved people? Were they immigrants? Refugees? Are they Indigenous people?

Have you or someone in your family gone to war? How did it impact you/them? What were the stated reasons for the war? What were the real reasons?

Sources and further reading:

A Persian Quatrain for the Times


My hands are not clean

You know what I mean

Appearance only matters

Truth is rarely seen


We importantly convened

And then our rooms were cleaned

By low-wage workers

That we claim somewhere in our schemes


We drank on the patio till late

Local and organic all the food we ate

A chance encounter with a ‘dozer* operator

Was a chance for the self-important to denigrate


Our ancestors’ bodies were commodities

Now we treat economics as an oddity

It doesn’t seem to glitter

Like the Ivory Tower scraps we codify


Yawning at our own contradictions

Yelling to each other we are above affliction

I write this on a computer

Built in slavery conditions


Below immigration trails are money flows

Hatred reigns when competition grows

We reject material reality

To obsess over celluloid woes


At base is a question we rarely debate

Who benefits from our acceptance of this fate?

As we play at loyal opposition

We maintain the hegemony of the corporate state


What would freedom be like?

What would freedom be like?


“Freedom is never voluntarily given from the oppressor

It must be demanded by the oppressed” – MLK


Freedom is connection

Our natural genius would shine

Because it hasn’t been stunted, suppressed, or squelched

It would not be illegal to be homeless

But to allow homelessness to exist

Families can heal and children grow up without shadows

Freedom over our time

Our goal to know what is real

Instead of to produce illusions

My freedom wouldn’t come at the expense of yours

Or yours at my expense

Freedom is trusting our leaders and our neighbors

Because our neighbors are our leaders and we are theirs

As much food as we need (and not more)

As much housing as we need (and not more)

Science and technology are the people’s tools

To solve, to heal, to sustain

Not to perpetuate injustice and inflict harm

Freedom would be curing cancer

Instead of making it an industry


Health in abundance

No need to escape your town, your hood, your past, your demons

Freedom is the right to beauty

Freedom is when loving is easy and hating is a struggle

The right to water

Determination and faith

Instead of coercion and fear

A mass awakening instead of a mass extinction

Children won’t have the opportunity to learn racism

Or that their mothers aren’t as important as their fathers

Or that they are not as important as adults

Freedom is the right to create, instead of working third shift, rushing all the time

Worth is measured by how much something helps

Freedom is breathing full breaths, unencumbered by asthma, fear of bombs and drones, pollution

True work is serving others

Green is everywhere, not money, but leaves

Humans don’t put humans in cages

Instead of berating ourselves for not thinking like the rich

We could shift our focus on the how to see each other, know each other, trust each other

It would be when assembling, speaking and voting are avenues to real results

Instead of a sorry comfort for our poverty

It would replace halftime shows with cheering for our children

It could never be built on the chains of others, the sweat of others, the soil of others

Freedom is balance

Freedom is the ability to assert our will

To make life on earth not a vicious competition for individual survival,

But a collective endeavor to ensure the survival of our species and our planet

Thinking about Brazil

A year ago today I spent much of the day on planes coming back from 10 glorious days with the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil. I attended their National Congress and spent a few days visiting MST settlements with a delegation put together by the Friends of the MST.

The MST is one of the largest social movements in the world, with over a million members. The movement has won land for over 350,000 families, and has a three part program: reclamation of land, collective production and transformation of society. The movement celebrated its 30th anniversary during the time I was there, and the National Congress functioned as a massive birthday party, agricultural fair, political education school, and a time of strategy, visioning, and building community.

The trip I took one year ago could not have come at a better time for me on my personal/political journey. I am someone who has found myself driven to collective action through my own early life experiences in the context of my family, and an early visceral sense that there were larger forces and structures at play on the people in my household, which were invisible to me at the time. My experiences within organizing communities in Philadelphia and throughout the country have provided both beautiful and extremely painful experiences – sometimes feeling more like the culture of a dysfunctional family than a force for good and liberation.

Over the last few years in particular, I’ve been driven to evaluate and transform myself, and my approach to and practice of organizing, after asking myself the question “If we (loosely defined as those working for social justice) were in charge tomorrow, what would that be like?” and not liking the answers that come to mind.

Over the past 30-40 years, the time period in which I have grown up, have arisen three (to me, inter-related) phenomena: 1) the ascendance of neo-liberalism, 2) the emergence of the non-profit industrial complex and 3) the primacy of organizing based on identity categories. Although we don’t often look at connections between these three developments, it seems more than co-incidence that all three have occurred together. Delving deeply into the implications of this is a subject for another time.

In working to transform my own practice, I have committed to increasing myself awareness through my own healing work. There is a lot of trauma in our people, and the saying “hurt people hurt people” really is true. There is no way to move forward when we are simply acting out trauma onto each other under the guise of organizing.

There are a number of lessons that I drew from Brazil that I’ve committed to incorporating into my own practice:

Collective action should bring us back to life. It must activate us as whole people. What we do must be connected to a long term vision and strategy. It must develop us into better people – not just people who know the right things to say. We must live by a new set of values, not just speak them. We can use the immediate to secure the future – if we prioritize political education. Our work is not sustainable if we organize as individuals – we must organize as families and communities. If we can’t presume to lead our society, and not just people who look like us, then the system that we are working to transform has already won.

For me over the past year this has looked like:

  • Prioritizing 1 on 1 time with leaders
  • Building an organizational culture where values and principles are a focus internally as well as externally
  • Creating a separation between my paid work and my organizing work
  • Seeing individual expressions of oppression as symptoms, not causes
  • Focusing on my own healing work and sharing it in my organizing community

Here’s to a 2015 filled with humanization of our movements.


That’s how Monessen made me, that’s how my grandparents raised me

I was raised in Monessen, PA.  My maternal grandparents and I lived in a one-floor house on Reeves Avenue, almost at the top of a hill.  There are some huge hills out that way.  My family’s move up the hill from “down-street” (closer to the mills spewing out black smoke, poorer, and lower elevation) was a symbol of slight upward mobility that was afforded by my grandfathers’ lifelong employment at Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel.  My grandmother’s two brothers also worked in the mill (she even did a stint there during World War II when there was a shortage of male workers), and one of her brothers died in the mill, crushed by a molten hot beam.When I was 10 years old, the steel mill closed for good.  When I was 11 my uncle moved us away.  In the 2010 census the population of Monessen was 7,720, down from a high of 20,257 in 1940. Per capita income is now $16,627. My memories of Monessen as a place are fond.  I spent a lot of time outside, we grew our own vegetables, and when I tested into 4th grade at the age of 7 after being homeschooled by my grandmother, I wasn’t the only kid of color or of mixed heritage, not by a long shot.

Over two decades after I left, I reconnected with friends from elementary school on social media.  Many of them are still in Monessen or in the surrounding towns of Donora and Charleroi.  I’ll always love and care about my first friends because I grew up with them.  I notice their positive qualities and I see their shortcomings and challenges through a lens of loyalty, as is customary among friends.  Their way of seeing the world shows up in my news feed.  There are lots of family photos, struggles with health, relationship drama.  Some of them – not all – are angry about recent waves of immigration.  Some don’t like Obamacare much.  Some aren’t in favor of raising the wage for fast food workers to $15 an hour.


Surprisingly perhaps to you, there’s a lot of resonance between their views and the views of people on my block of row houses in the Cobbs Creek section of West Philly (with the possible exception of a positive, as opposed to negative disposition to Obamacare), in a city of 1.5 million people, with a per capita income of $16,509.  When there are fewer and fewer means to survive, and we don’t have answers that get to the roots of why or a way forward (instead – powerlessness, isolation, scapegoating and false solutions) we tend to become less – not more – magnanimous.   We’re influenced to believe that if we have something it’s because we outdid someone else, and whatever anyone else “gets”, whether that’s a pension, a raise, healthcare, or some form of assistance, it means less for us.   And because we don’t have any guaranteed means to survive or the power to mold the world to our benefit, as our true opponents do, that worldview has a certain logic to it.

I don’t feel the need to apologize for the people that I grew up with any more than the people who live on my block.  To do so would be insulting and dehumanizing.  At the end of the day, my people out in Monessen and Southwest PA are struggling, in a way that is similar to my people on the block.  They are not calling the shots, making laws, creating policy, buying candidates, granting tax breaks, or ruthlessly exploiting our very real and justified fears of survival.

That’s why I’m involved in a movement to create more connections between people who both the politicians and the pundits seem to want to see at odds.  To disrupt the two-sides-of-the-same-coin ideology that makes people in Philadelphia feel fear and loathing for people in Monessen in the same way that people in Monessen are made to feel fear and loathing, instead of closeness and friendship, for us.

I’m a fan of Game of Thrones.  Before the opening credits are over, we get a short lesson in each of the “sigils” of the major houses – the symbols of the people who are vying for power.   Well beneath those who are vying for power are “bannermen” – vassals who owe their service and allegiance to the feudal lords. They get their name because as they ride into battle they carry the banner of their lords – they are, in essence owned and controlled by the interests of this banner.  They do not show up as real actors in the story, but extras who merely serve a function for the ongoing quest for power between different factions of elites.

There are women and men throughout our state of 13 million people that have a capital D or capital R next to their name on the voter rolls.  That designation is the basic thing about their lives that matters to the powers that be.  It’s not all that matters to me.

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.  We must love each other and protect each other.  We have nothing to lose but our chains.” – Assata Shakur