People’s Assemblies in Jackson, Mississippi: Welcome, What Do You Have to Say?
In a city marked by centuries of exclusionary politics, Black organizers have built People’s Assemblies to bring local residents into direct democracy as they grow their leadership, shape priorities, and build community power.
JACKSON, A MAJORITY BLACK CITY—at over 80 percent—and the capital of Mississippi, sits at the intersection of resistance to oppressive systems and the building of a new vision for community governance. In Jackson, Black people have long resisted slavery, segregation, and oppression, including the 1963 sit-in at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter, during which protestors were violently attacked. At the same time, Black leadership has been core to reimagining power from the first labor union in Mississippi organized by Black Jackson washerwomen in 1866 to the democratic worker ownership of the cooperative movement. Even today, Black leaders continue to lead struggles for safe drinking water and other basic rights.
The Jackson People’s Assemblies build on this history by offering the spaces for community members to come together, name the challenges they are facing in their communities, and together imagine solutions. In this way, the People’s Assemblies are more than just community gatherings or a form of community engagement. People’s Assemblies are not one-time or rare occurrences, but a consistent practice that builds community muscle for both organizing and governance. The practice is part of a broader movement, including efforts in the Southern United States through the Southern Movement Assembly and in the global South including in Puerto Rico. They bring together a critical mass of community members who are building power in the act of identifying issues and developing actionable solutions.
That power co-exists with local government systems, sometimes in opposition to how government is functioning, whether at the local or state levels. Other times, there is collaboration, as with Jackson’s late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, who used the People’s Assemblies as the space to inform his priorities when running for office in 2013. His son, the current Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, also supports the practice as one that brings community solutions to the surface. In either case—opposition or collaboration—the consistent co-existence is critical because it deepens the roots of community power.
Rukia Lumumba is the daughter of the late mayor and sister to the current one. She leads the People’s Advocacy Institute, a community organization in Jackson that now holds the coordination of Jackson People’s Assemblies.
“Assemblies are not based on political party or leaning or the ability to vote. You can be any age, have a criminal history, citizenship doesn’t matter. But you must believe in this place and work for the common good. Decisions of a People’s Assembly must not harm anyone.”
– Rukia Lumumba
People’s Assemblies in Jackson persist as an integral part of building toward a co-governance that recognizes the power of communities to see the problem, identify the solution, and organize toward its reality—and where government recognizes that power. As Makani Themba, one of the early supporters of the People’s Assembly in Jackson, shared, the People’s Assemblies aspire toward “co-governance where folks have meaningful authority over the decisions that affect their lives.”
THE PEOPLE’S ASSEMBLY PROCESS in Jackson and in the South has a long lineage. Assemblies are connected to practices of community governance visible in the resistance by enslaved people, in labor organizing, and in the Civil Rights Movement. Indigenous practices throughout the world have centered community governance, and as Makani Themba said, “Everything good we can learn about governance comes from Indigenous peoples.”
Enslaved people held secret assemblies or prayer circles “to express their humanity, build and sustain community, fortify their spirits, and organize resistance.”1 The practice continued in different and more public configurations through Reconstruction and into the 1960s as part of campaigns led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). A common thread throughout these gatherings over time has been the exercise of self-determination by Black people who had faced the constant disregard of their humanity by both the government and the dominant community. It was during this time that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party formed, independent from the white- dominated Democratic Party.
In the mid-1990s People’s Assemblies emerged in Jackson and throughout Mississippi through the leadership of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) and the New Afrikan People’s Organization (NAPO). Both groups were grounded in a vision for self-determination of Black people in response to the colonization, economic exploitation, and white supremacy that Black communities were subjected to in the United States. At this time, the population in Jackson was changing and it was becoming a majority Black city. With that demographic shift, MXGM and NAPO recognized the need to build community voice and power. The assemblies they formed, starting with the Human Rights Coalition, were a practice of that self-determination. They moved beyond a representative democracy to direct or participatory democracy through guided facilitation and without a hierarchical structure or decision making process.
The MXGM/NAPO model of People’s Assemblies was part of a larger framework outlined in the Jackson-Kush Plan which had been developed to guide Black self-determination and economic democracy. The three components of the plan were:
» Building People’s Assemblies
» Building an independent Black political party
» Building a broad-based solidarity economy2
The Jackson-Kush Plan described the combination of the People’s Assembly gatherings and engagement in the existing political system with an independent Black political party as dual power. The plan recognized the necessity of imagining and creating a larger community- driven and liberatory vision, while also participating in the system as it existed.3
The Jackson-Kush Plan’s commitment to a solidarity economy and developing autonomous community power was inspired in part by examples from around the world. It drew from work in Latin America to fight authoritarian and exploitative practices through cooperative economics grounded in “social solidarity, mutual aid, reciprocity, and generosity.”4 It also used lessons from the Mondragon Federation of Cooperative Enterprises in Spain, applying them to the context and experiences of Black people in the U.S. South by prioritizing the creation of cooperative enterprises, green development, urban farms and markets, land trusts, and expanding the public sector.
At the same time that the People’s Assemblies were becoming a consistent community and political presence in Jackson, other communities, mostly in the South, were practicing People’s Assemblies. Known as Peoples Movement Assemblies (PMA), these gatherings were inspired by global social movements, including an assembly at the World Social Forum in Brazil in 2001.
Starting in 2006, the PMA model of organizing was applied at Social Forums in the United States. At the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in 2010, 100 PMAs convened more than 10,000 people. Out of this process, representatives developed a Social Movement Agenda. People who had participated in the PMA then brought the practice home to their communities and facilitated assemblies focused on issues from immigration to health to environmental justice.5
Today, with its coordinating home at the People’s Advocacy Institute, Rukia Lumumba sees the current practice of People’s Assemblies as critical to “collective governance, moving towards community-led governance.”
If one were to draw a family tree of People’s Assemblies, many branches of assemblies would emerge that have drawn people together to build community and political consciousness, freely express the challenges and oppression they experience, and think collectively about what they can do about it. The roots of People’s Assemblies are in the power of people to exercise dignity and self-determination, from Indigenous communities to enslaved Black people to communities in the global South to New England town meetings. The fruits of that tree, some with a long ripening time, are changed material and political conditions, as well as change in how governance is not just experienced, but held by people in community.
The People’s Assembly Experience
A PEOPLE’S ASSEMBLY HAS THREE ESSENTIAL CHARACTERISTICS. First, it is described as a mass gathering, and in the Jackson People’s Assembly model the goal is that at least one-fifth of the population of a defined geographic area joins an assembly. Large numbers of people coming together is a show of power and force, as well as being critical to the democratic process. Sometimes an assembly can include 50 people, sometimes as many as 175. A second characteristic is that it is a space for “addressing essential social issues.” The purpose of an assembly is not just a listening space, but one where participants design solutions. Finally, the commitment of the People’s Assembly is to direct democracy or “one person, one vote.”6
“When you walk into a People’s Assembly, no matter who you are, what you look like, how you’re dressed, you immediately feel valued and appreciated and welcomed. It’s ‘Welcome, what do you have to say? We want to hear it.’” described Brooke Floyd, the Jackson People’s Assembly Coordinator and part of a coordinating team based at the People’s Advocacy Institute that plans and facilitates assemblies. The assemblies prioritize sharing a meal–“before we talk,” Floyd emphasized–and offer child care so that people can be fully present and participate. They also support basic needs with resources like bottles of drinking water when the city is on a boil water notice.
Consistently creating a space that is welcoming and where people know their perspectives matter has been core to the sustainability of the Jackson People’s Assembly (JPA). With that grounding, the JPA can also offer information and the political education that prepares community members to more powerfully engage with the systems that impact their lives. In between assemblies, the JPA makes a point of sharing information about how these systems work and what decisions are being made. One of Floyd’s roles is attending Jackson City Council meetings, then reporting back to the community what she heard and how decisions will affect them.
“The People’s Assembly helps build power,” said Gus Washington, JPA Assistant and part of the coordinating team. “We want people to feel confident and bold when engaging with their government … we stress that this is an opportunity to participate in your care as a community member.”
Topics for each year’s People’s Assemblies are decided through an assembly at the end of the year, with the flexibility to be responsive to what the community is experiencing, which has become especially necessary during the pandemic. Seeing an alarming rise in violence done to and by youth, including the violence of young people being sent to jails and prisons, the priority emerged for a youth assembly. The coordinating team then checked with young people in the community who reiterated a desire for an assembly focused on issues they were experiencing.
Following the first youth assembly, the need for an assembly for women and caregivers arose from the deep sense of grief experienced by those losing children to violence or incarceration. The coordinating team worked to make that assembly space one of care and healing, offering a beautiful meal, access to therapists, and massages, in addition to the chance to begin developing solutions.
Strong facilitation skills are essential to supporting People’s Assemblies. The coordinating team reflected on how setting the space as one that is safe to be open and vulnerable requires different approaches when bringing together young people, women and caregivers, LGBTQ community members, or other affinity groups.
Another element of People’s Assemblies is an intentionally nonhierarchical process. All participants are treated respectfully as community members, not according to a role on the coordinating team, or holding elected office, or any other position. “When given the chance to speak, I spoke, too,” said Floyd, the JPA Coordinator. “We make every effort to show that this is not about us, this is about community.”
Since 2006, when the JPA became a more consistent process, there have been at least three assemblies each year. Some years call for more. Since 2018, more than 31,000 community members have engaged in People’s Assemblies. In fact, participation actually grew in virtual assemblies during the pandemic.
People’s Assembly as Action
ALL OF THE INTENTION AND WORK that goes into setting the JPA as a welcoming space for community members to share their perspectives is for a clear purpose. Natt Offiah is Lead Organizer at People’s Advocacy Institute and long involved in People’s Assemblies in Jackson.
“The People’s Assembly is a space for governance, to collectively make decisions,” said Offiah. “We communicate that this isn’t a place like a town hall where decisions will be made about you and for you.” That message about the purpose of the JPA is a constant refrain, ensuring that anyone who enters, whether a consistent participant or new to the space, understands why the space exists.
The solutions that emerge from the JPA are meant to be pushed as change in policy and practice at the city level. The assembly is not the end of the process, but informs year round work to advance the decisions made at those gatherings into real change.
“That is an automatic given,” said Floyd. “It’s a long process, people meeting and convening, getting ideas together, getting a plan together, and then presenting it as a full proposal with the complete community buy-in and approval. Nothing is done without the community saying so. Any time I’ve gone before the council it’s because the community said we are ready to go.”
Addressing the Infrastructure Crisis in Jackson
In 2013, one of the issues plaguing Jackson was crumbling infrastructure, including roads filled with potholes that residents had to swerve to avoid and water pipes that leaked, resulting in contaminated drinking water and low water pressure. Boil water notices– letting residents know that tap water had to be boiled before they could safely drink it– were a common occurrence. Unfortunately, the impact of a lack of investment in public infrastructure continues in 2022, with Jackson residents unable to consume the city’s tap water in a water crisis that has drawn national attention.
The disinvestment in infrastructure in Jackson is part of a larger story of government neglect of necessary public goods. This disinvestment is racialized. In analyzing the present day water crisis in Jackson, Makani Themba wrote: “Its roots are in Jim Crow, the separate that was never equal, where everything from water to parks to food and even air in our communities receives less investment, less protection, and less access. Broken levees in New Orleans. Toxic water in Flint. Crumbling buildings in eastern Kentucky. This is beyond a crisis in infrastructure. It is a crisis in justice.”
An idea emerged from JPA’s process of community members coming together to define the issues they are facing, as well as possible solutions. Community members thought a small 1 percent increase in the city’s sales tax could raise sufficient public funds to kick start efforts to repair water pipes, streets, and other infrastructure. Although sales taxes are regressive in nature and the funds raised would not fully address the need, community support was already baked in because the solution came from a People’s Assembly.
The then newly elected Mayor Chokwe Lumumba agreed to push the idea forward, securing the support of the City Council. A referendum vote in January 2014 yielded overwhelming support with 90 percent of voters agreeing to the sales tax increase. Eight years later, only around $11 million in sales tax revenue has been collected to fund infrastructure improvements in Jackson, a fraction of what is needed to address a problem that will require billions of dollars.
The solution was important but not enough to address the infrastructure problem. Furthermore, as allowed in Mississippi state law, a state commission took over the disbursement of the sales tax revenue. That commission can decide where and for what purpose those funds are distributed, which means the support of city infrastructure is always uncertain.
The People’s Assembly process showed its power in moving a community-driven solution with the sales tax increase. The outcome, however, reminded the Jackson community that broader support from state government leaders and more resources are necessary to address an issue as large and entrenched as the longtime disinvestment in city infrastructure.
From People’s Assembly to the Office of Violence Prevention
In 2018, JPA held an assembly on safety and violence in the community. Political education was an important element of the assembly, setting the focus of the conversation on the city budget and how public resources were being prioritized. As the city’s police budget grew, other program budgets had shrunk, yet the rate of crime had not decreased.
Political education laid the groundwork for a conversation about what the community could be doing differently. The idea of intervening before violence became an issue emerged from the People’s Assembly. Through the assembly, community members named the lack of adequate mental health care, domestic violence interrupters, and conflict resolution facilitators in Jackson as underlying issues that, if addressed, could prevent violence from occurring.
The work that happens in between People’s Assemblies started, and even through the pandemic, organizers were able to put together a plan, draft a proposal drawing on models in other communities, and raise resources including at the city. The #FundCommunities campaign grew out of the People’s Assembly and has resulted in new community-based programs aimed at violence prevention. One example is the Strong Arms of Jackson Credible Messengers initiative, which with leadership by people directly impacted by the criminal legal system, provides training, mentoring, and resources to community members similarly impacted. A partnership between PAI and Operation Good and Safe Streets has resulted in the Cure Violence program, which addresses community conflicts with a violence interruption model.
As part of the #FundCommunities campaign, organizers pushed the City Council and Mayor’s office to acknowledge the need for an Office of Violence Prevention, rather than increased police funding. The goal, according to Rukia Lumumba, is for the funds to go to community- based organizations that can lead the work that the People’s Assembly process identified as necessary. The campaign won the commitment from the city of $750,000 regranted from the National League of Cities to support this effort. More funding is necessary, especially since the community has seen how interconnected community needs are, including not just crime prevention, but also housing insecurity, health issues, and low access to education resources.
“We have an overwhelming sense of urgency about everything,” said Brooke Floyd. “Violence is #1, but when you ask for $750,000 and people don’t even have clean drinking water, it becomes a thing where people are fighting for drops of water.”
Power in Partnerships
Critical to the success and sustainability of JPA is partnership with other community organizations. The People’s Assemblies do not belong to any one organization, though in its current formation, the People’s Advocacy Institute, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, and One Voice Mississippi support and staff the necessary work to make assemblies happen.
Outreach and communication with the Jackson community is an ongoing process, including reporting on the City Council meetings, door knocking to let people know about an upcoming assembly, and reporting back as the solutions that come out of assemblies become policy proposals.
Other organizations bring their relationships and knowledge of community needs to the planning process, as well as their outreach capacity in keeping community members informed. For the recent affinity group assemblies for young people and for caregivers, it has been important to deepen partnerships with other organizations leading work with these communities, both for outreach and for facilitating the assembly.
“We have to think about how do youth engage with policy and government in a way that protects their safety and autonomy. [The process] looks more like building relationships and opportunity,” said Gus Washington.
The JPA, as named earlier, is part of a larger family of Peoples Movement Assemblies that are both expanding in numbers and geography and deepening sustained assemblies over years. The Southern Movement Assembly is a mass assembly that has been holding annual gatherings in the South since 2012, and is anchored by the organization Project South which works in collaboration with other groups. The JPA and the People’s Advocacy Institute count themselves as among the many members of the Southern Movement Assembly.
Impact and Sustainability
Evolution in Governance
The JPA’s impact can be measured in multiple ways. There is the power of building community connection and voice through both political education and the process of imagining solutions to the problems they are experiencing. That has an impact on the overall health and wholeness of a community, as people exercise the self-determination that has been core to the People’s Assembly process from the days of the prayer circles led by enslaved people. In this way, the JPA is demonstrating a different form of governance than the one that most people experience in their interactions with traditional systems of government.
Another measure is in the ability that the People’s Assembly process creates to both push and partner with local government. The mass gathering and movement that is central to the People’s Assembly is a powerful organizing strategy that pushes government leaders to pay attention and be accountable to community demands. The size, consistency, and clarity of purpose of the People’s Assembly helps it function as a form of co-governance, as the assemblies help put the broader community in a power-holding and governing relationship with government systems.
“When you walk into a People’s Assembly, no matter who you are, what you look like, how you’re dressed, you immediately feel valued and appreciated and welcomed.”
– Brooke Floyd
Through the JPA , “people feel more connected to influence change and actually have a voice,” said Halima Olufemi, a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Director of Participatory Defense at the People’s Advocacy Institute. “There used to be no way I would go to a council meeting because I thought nothing would change. I can see power shifting from ‘they won’t do anything’ to ‘what can we do?’ People are reimagining what it means to have ownership in their own lives.”
Several People’s Assembly partners described an evolution that moves to reimagine what government and governance can be. They see the JPA as moving toward a liberatory system of governance that is a more direct and people-powered version of democracy. The Jackson-Kush Plan saw the pillars of the plan as building toward autonomous self-governance and “radical participatory and horizontal democracy,” not reliant upon oppressive systems and capitalism. In this way, the People’s Assemblies are a mechanism to transform government to a system that is authentically of the community.7
“It starts as working with government, and then moves to self-governance,” said Olufemi. “I believe in co-governance until a certain point. That can only work for an amount of time; then we have to be strong enough to operate on our own.”
Changing Community Conditions
Successful community-driven policy change and organizational growth is another measure of success, and several policies and commitments have emerged from the People’s Assembly process. These include the recent agreement to support the Office of Violence Prevention, including some initial funding to support efforts led by community organizations.
Other solutions that have emerged from the People’s Assembly process are embedded in community organizations, such as the Strong Arms Credible Messenger program and the Operation Good and Safe Streets Cure Violence program, which were designed by and are now operated by community members who participated in assemblies. In each of these cases, community-driven efforts were able to find an organizational home and move quickly to fruition outside of city government because of their connection to the People’s Assemblies.
People’s Assemblies have pushed for processes within Jackson that are more inclusive of the community, including the city’s first participatory budgeting process in 2019. JPA and the city of Jackson worked together to build a participatory process that engaged 13,000 community members and offered creative design processes, including a Monopoly-inspired game. The proposal that came out of the process won the support of the mayor and city council. Planning is in place now for the next participatory budgeting process. Similarly, changes to the city planning process were inspired by People’s Assemblies, which now includes community participation.
Sustainability and Power
Part of the power of the JPA model has been its longevity and its roots within a larger practice of mass assemblies in the South.
“Mississippi is a special place,” said Rukia Lumumba. “People in Mississippi have been taking care of themselves for centuries. The People’s Assembly offers another opportunity to take care of themselves, along with the infrastructure, consistency, resources, and collective process for this care.”
She envisions making the People’s Assembly a formal part of government and governing in Jackson through an office at city hall “so that the weight of the assembly has more impact. It would be a given that people need to be part of the decision-making process, not something we need to push. You couldn’t make a decision without referencing the assembly.” Within this possibility, the tension between government and governance emerges.
“Whenever you start to institutionalize anything, power starts to go away,” worried Halima Olufemi. Yet she recognized that the backing of government can support People’s Assemblies, and that sustained funding to support the outreach and organizing necessary would be a benefit.
“We would need to be careful if it did become a requirement, that it is always people-led, doesn’t become an appointed position. With leadership sometimes it’s not about who can lead the people forward but about their popularity. When you start institutionalizing, they take away pieces and make it their own, taking away from what it was in the beginning.”
To Makani Themba, institutionalizing can mean having authority independent of the city: “I don’t think of it as a matter of city authority or control. I think of it as part of the governing process, because they are recognized as an independent authority, which doesn’t mean the city has control over it.”
But the city “should allocate money toward it,” Themba stressed. “Right now, there’s no city money for People’s Assemblies. We raise that money.”
Without the fundraising held by the People’s Advocacy Institute and the partnerships in the community, the power of People’s Assemblies would be limited. It takes resources to get the word out and offer the welcoming spaces that assemblies are known to provide. The organizing that carries the solutions from a People’s Assembly to formal policy proposals or programs requires paid staff to be sustainable.
The question of whether organizing power can coexist as institutionalized power will be one that the JPA partners continue to explore as they seek to make the practice more sustainable.
More Branches to the Tree
Just as the JPA has been informed by assemblies and other forms of community governance over time, other communities have been inspired by Jackson to initiate their own People’s Assemblies.
Organizers in Dallas have formed a People’s Assembly to address community safety. Similarly, the Lansing People’s Assembly in Michigan has named priorities that center community safety by funding community programs and mental health support, as well as naming livable wages and economic opportunity as underpinnings of community health.
Groups in Durham, North Carolina, have held a People’s Assembly focused on health care access. Florida Rising and the New Florida Majority have formed People’s Assemblies throughout the state that have focused on multiple issues and emphasized building independent political power.
An institutionalized assembly process is in place in at least one community. The city of Newark, New Jersey, has created a city office that coordinates People’s Assemblies in partnership with a consortium of community organizations.
“People in Mississippi have been taking care of themselves for centuries. The People’s Assembly offers another opportunity to take care of themselves, along with the infrastructure, consistency, resources, and collective process for this care.”
– Rukia Lumumba
THE JACKSON PEOPLE’S ASSEMBLY–and other mass assembly processes–offers a more robust process of participation than existing systems of government have been able to design and implement. From the welcoming space to offering political education to the practice of direct democracy, the JPA is a process that not only engages the community but is dependent on the mass participation of community members for its very existence. As such, it works as a countervailing force against our country’s consumerist and transactional approach to citizenship.
“Every time we have a People’s Assembly you can feel the gears turning in people’s minds,” said Brooke Floyd of the coordinating team. “People want better, they just don’t know how to get it. It’s not that people don’t want to vote or be involved with politics. It is intimidating–this state tries to make sure that the people who are being hurt the most don’t know anything, keep them not involved, keep them uneducated so they can’t fight for what they deserve.”
The assemblies build relationships and trust among community members, as well as the confidence in the community’s ability to impact the systems that affect their lives. Along the way, the assemblies have created a unique inside/outside dynamic, as they push city government toward policies it would not necessarily enact on its own.
The political education, along with the storytelling, trust building, and deepened relationships that happen through the Jackson People’s Assembly build the knowledge and power to counter intimidating political processes. Through the People’s Assembly model, the Jackson community is not just informing government, but changing how government functions.
1 “Jackson People’s Assemblies Overview” (Organizational document, Jackson, MS), 2.
2 Kali Akuno for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the New Afrikan People’s Organization, “The Jackson-Kush Plan: The Struggle for Black Self-Determination and Economic Democracy” (Organizational document, Jackson, MS), 4.
3 Akuno, “Jackson-Kush Plan,” 8.
4 Akuno, “Jackson-Kush Plan,” 9.
5 Seth Markle, Foluke Nunn, Emery Wright, Ruben Solis, Stephanie Guilloud, “Peoples Movement Assembly Organizing Handbook” (Organizational document, Atlanta, GA), 7.
7 Akuno, “Jackson-Kush Plan,” 10.