By Zach Bernstein
Joel Segal has spent the last several decades answering a question that plagues activist organizations while he worked on Capital Hill as well as out in the field—how do we get things done? His vast wealth of experience with outreach, activism, and policymaking at every level of government has allowed him to gain a thorough understanding of how to make change actually happen. Segal is a problem-solver, utilizing a systemic understanding of issues to craft policy solutions to resolve those problems with a conviction that we can overcome barriers facing the voters through collaboration and setting a goal to make change happen. Segal was recently hired to take on the campaign of the National Coalition for the Homeless “Bring America Home Now“—a comprehensive strategy to end homelessness in the United States.
Show them how to solve it, and how to pay for it,” he said. “Get experts together and write bills—but do it with the people impacted. Then you’ve got to pass the bill.” Segal’s intense focus on helping those experiencing oppression is what sets him apart from most other policymakers in DC. “We can’t dance around be nice to the system,” he said. “You’ve got to shine a big mirror, show them this is what you’re doing to people.” Making people aware of the struggles of others and amplifying the voices of the oppressed is a major part of Segal’s strategy, one which lends itself to a model of social justice which is intent on making things happen.
One of Segal’s major achievements has been as a pioneer of the universal healthcare movement and as a co-writer of the original Medicare for All Bill as a staffer for Rep. John Conyers, introduced in Congress in 2003. Segal’s fight for Medicare for All began when he was kicked out of George Washington University Hospital for being uninsured. After the experience he promised himself he would start a universal healthcare movement—and he did just that. He began by meeting and getting to know other uninsured people online, then he began attending meetings of the Gray Panthers, an activist group, with whom he discussed the possibility of fighting for universal healthcare. He started holding town hall meetings on the issue, and eventually launched his campaign with a speech on the steps of the Capitol with Rep. Barney Frank and then-Rep. Bernie Sanders.
Four weeks later, Segal was hired to the staff of Rep. Conyers, with whom he traveled to congressional districts around the country, holding town halls to promote the cause of universal healthcare. He brought together people who were uninsured, activists, and members of Congress. Segal firmly believes in the power of town hall meetings—they “take the emotion and anger and frustration, and bring it right to the doorstep of elected officials and civil society leaders,” he says. More importantly, town halls transform people’s feelings. “People aren’t going to talk to homeless people,” he remarked. “You have to bring the pain and suffering to them.” Segal also advocated for a systemic approach: “Always try to show how structural deficits create an amazing amount of trauma and pain that is immoral. Just because you have a system that’s in place doesn’t mean that it’s a moral system.”
The next step is to organize around policies, says Segal. Mobilize in the streets, and then pass reforms, he says. Segal is insistent that legislation should be the most important goal of the movement, saying that while suburban activists may deny the importance of policy, legislation has the power to make a real difference to the lives of people living in shelters or on the street. Always tie your activism to legislation, always march with a purpose, he said. That’s how you create a movement.
Segal centers his activism around building passionate communities. In order to build a movement, “you’ve got to find the right people,” he believes. Building communities and families with similar interests, compassionate hearts and sometimes a little humor is the key to successful organizing. Segal cites his Jewish heritage and upbringing as a major inspiration for this philosophy. For thousands of years, he explained, the Jewish people survived by laughing, by caring for each other, and by enjoying life—even in the face of great adversity. This is the sort of community Segal seeks to emulate in the movements he creates. “You don’t build a community by being corporate,” he said. Building a community by fashioning relationships with one another is how you create a successful movement. And, he pointed out, by building those relationships, people who aren’t necessarily invested in the specific issue will offer support if they like the person pitching their support and if they have developed a connection.
But it’s not always such smooth sailing for Segal—he is as aware as anyone that the work of an activist can be discouraging. But, he said, “righteous indignation will keep you going.” He recalled some work he did in Congress, when he and others plastered the halls with a laminated picture of an uninsured family. That’s what keeps him going, Segal reflected. There are poor people, sick people, and seniors in this country with no rights to healthcare or housing—“and those are things they can’t live without,” he said. “We’re the richest country in the world, so we’ve got to figure this out.” “Go where the pain is, keep with those people, walk with them,” he said. Doing that, seeing and understanding the hardships they are going through, should get you through any discouragement.
It’s important to Segal that he always walks with the people he’s trying to help, never above them. He always is sure to organize “the people at the tip of the oppression” first in order to build communities based on love and care. In one story he told, Segal started up an emergency winter shelter by taking over a park with about 120 people from a shelter, promising the people living in tents they wouldn’t be left out in the cold. The key, Segal recalled, was going directly to the people in the tents and teaching them how to organize, how to do TV interviews and other such skills. Segal is well-practiced in building bridges, especially with people with whom he, or the organization he is working with, might have little in common. “Respect the person when you first meet them and ask them what they are working on,” he said. The most important thing, he advised, is to ensure “everyone benefits from the work you are doing. That’s how you build a coalition.” He will work to organize diverse communities to put in place legislation that fundamentally changes the injustice that every unhoused person in America understands and has to overcome with BAHN.
“The problem with this country is we evolved into a Reagan nation,” Segal said—a nation where you look out for yourself and no one else. “How do we get people to care about each other again?” Segal wondered. “How do we get that back, just caring about each other?” That, Segal emphasized, is the crucial work of any activist but especially those working on behalf of a traditionally marginalized group. Not only must we fight for our political goals, but to do that we need to build coalitions, build power and in the end build families. By creating families of people dedicated to a cause, we can get things done. We can bring the pain of the people to the doorsteps of the powerful; we can get people to understand that pain; and most importantly we can write bills and pass laws to alleviate that suffering. Segal firmly believes that we can make the world a better place by working with one another. “There’s nothing more powerful than caring about each other,” he said as he begins his journey to Bring America Home.