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"It is Mass Movements that Make Change Possible" - an interview with Nikil Saval

Nikil Saval always wanted to be a writer. Armed with a Ph.D. in creative writing from Stanford, he successfully wrote for The New York Times and the New Yorker, and published a fascinating book about the evolution of the modern office, but it was his stint writing social criticism and political commentary for the literary magazine N Plus One that persuaded him to take a more active role in politics. After the debacle of the Iraq war, he marched in protests and anti-war rallies, but he soon realized these had a limited impact on moving the needle on public policy.

Saval, who has represented the 1st district in the Pennsylvania State Senate since 2020, searched for better ways to obtain political power and became a labor organizer, representing hospitality worker for Unite Here. “I helped with research, campaigning, contract negotiations. It was my first taste of what change was possible with organizing,” he recalls.

His real shift into the political sphere came with Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016. Saval, who continues to be a member of DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) says that, for the first time, “there was a candidate whose views I closely shared.” He appreciates President Obama’s historic candidacy and achievements, but nevertheless has had ideological differences with his presidency.

“Bernie was the first candidate who had experience with social movements. He understood that social movements were influential vehicles for change, and he was also willing to be influenced by social movements. Mass movements for change are more a feature of the global South than the United States.”

While campaigning for Bernie, Saval had the opportunity to knock on doors in Philadelphia neighborhoods and realized that the candidate’s ideas had widespread appeal. After the 2016 election, he founded “Reclaim Philadelphia,” a grassroots organization built along those same ideals of criminal reform, prosecutorial reform, social and environmental justice. The organization’s efforts paid off in 2017 in the historic election of progressive Larry Krasner as the District Attorney of Philadelphia.

“The election of Donald Trump energized many progressives to participate in politics. We recruited many people to run for state and local offices. Philly did not turn out in 2016; all of us wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again.”

In 2020 friends suggested that Saval himself run for office and the time seemed right. “We’re very fortunate that in Pennsylvania we have a professionally run legislature where office holders are supposed to be involved full time in their job,” he says. “I have to say I underestimated how much power is invested in state government. A lot of my work is helping my constituents navigate a very difficult, sometimes broken welfare system. Another huge part of my job is driving investment into local projects and communities.”

He adds, “I also underestimated how much you can get done as a minority party.” In Pennsylvania, Democrats are in the minority in the Senate, but Saval has found some success and common ground with Republican members on the issue of affordable housing and introduced the Whole-Home Repairs Act in 2022, legislation which aims to provide eligible residents with grants of up to $50,000 to make health-and-safety focused home repairs.

“But the margins of finding common ground are diminishing,” he says, “and certain issues are polarized to an absurd level – abortion rights, voting rights, LGBTQ rights. A lot of the sentiment is being driven at the national level and are pushed by national organizations.”

As a member of the DSA, does Saval feel that ‘socialism’ as a term gets unfairly vilified in the U.S.?

In one respect, socialism in the United States has never been more popular!” is his surprising but accurate reply. “Self-avowed socialists now hold office at both state and local levels, including in states you might not think of, like Texas and Florida. Remember that in 2020 a socialist won the state of California during the primaries.”

He adds, “A lot of the ideas that democratic socialists have been promoting have come to fruit. In 2016 the Democratic presidential candidate was not in favor of the 15$ minimum wage. Today that is a reality in three states with several other considering similar increases. The Green New Deal was an idea of the DSA, and I think it would be fair to say that it is one of the main reasons why the Inflation Reduction Act was able to be put through. Serious action on climate change has also been possible because of the efforts of socialists. Despite the specter of socialism or communism as practiced in the erstwhile Soviet Union or the Eastern Bloc, many people in the U.S. are actually being governed by socialists and that experience has redefined socialism for them, which is mainly guaranteeing human dignity and human rights.”

Saval rues the fact that a socialist didn’t get the opportunity to govern as President. “What people forget is that American socialists come from a history of organizing. We learn the skills of building consensus. It is all about finding a common language.”

“A lot of the more visionary things that have been achieved in this country have roots in this theory of change. It is mass movements that make change possible.

What does he think of the growth of an anti-democratic and intolerant strain in American politics?

“I recognize that real harm is being done at the state level. The initiatives against trans people in Florida, Montana, Tennessee, book banning, the assault on voting rights - I’m shocked that so many rights are being rolled back. This is a truly serious challenge to the foundations of American democracy. We have to be fairly creative in defeating these movements. And they have to be defeated, because in a Trump or DeSantis Presidency we will barely be a democracy. To do that we have to be unapologetic about what we believe in, and what we stand for.”

He adds, “But I am an optimist. I think a lot of work is being done at the local level to push back against such initiatives. In Pennsylvania that work started in smaller cities with the nurses, who both organized and stood for office. What’s needed going forward are new frontiers in labor organizing, whether it be unions at Starbucks or Amazon or UPS. The advantage to this is not just change at the workplace but also that these are people who will knock on doors and campaign at the grassroots for progressive ideas.”

Happily, Saval sees South Asians as getting more and more engaged in the political process. “It’s not just running for office. I was recently at a labor movement conference and one of three founders was a South Asian. On the panel I was on, three of the five panelists were South Asian. We come from a very proud history of overcoming unbelievable odds fighting against colonialism. I hope we bring that shared history with us when we enter politics.”

To learn more about Nikil Saval or to donate to his campaign, click here.

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