Talking with Amanda Devecka-Rinear
I remember when you told me you were moving back home and building an organization in the aftermath of Sandy. How did you come to that decision?
I’d been living in D.C., working with People’s Action. My grandma had a mini-stroke, so you said I could work from New Jersey, which I really appreciated. We gave notice at our D.C. apartment on October 1, 2012. Sandy hit on the 29th. My dad’s house got totaled. He had to move into my grandmother’s house, so we all moved in together.
Living here, I saw a burst of activity after the storm. Then everything stopped. There wasn’t on-the-ground organizing in the places most impacted by Sandy. People donated supplies and helped demolish houses, but we had a political problem. The governor was mismanaging recovery funding, the federal level wasn't working. You can’t donate a coat to fix that. I was like, Oh, geez, that's the thing I know how to do. As soon as it became clear, it was difficult to live with not doing it.
You just described the blessing and curse of being an organizer. Once you know how to get people together and organize to win things, seeing people not do it drives you nuts.
I felt like there was a hand on my back pushing me. I left People’s Action in August. The Sandy anniversary was October. If Governor Christie got to take a victory lap at the two-year anniversary, all the work we needed to do would be harder. And they were ending the measly rental assistance they had. So we did a direct action. Then we won rental assistance.
Tell me about your part of New Jersey.
South Jersey and the Shore is where we organize. It’s not the part of Jersey people picture if they're driving through to New York. We have a giant forest called the Pine Barrens, where there are cranberry bogs. We have amazing blueberries, strawberries, raspberries. Corn and tomatoes, we’re famous for our tomatoes. There’s recreational and commercial fishing. There’s great music, like bluegrass, almost Appalachian music here too.
It's tradition that people from Philly or New York come in the summer, but development got out of hand. I live on an island in Barnegat Bay, it’s about 50 residents. In the ’80s, the house next to my dad’s got torn down, and this monstrosity that took up the entire lot went up. That’s Mike. He’s a great neighbor, but I remember how upset my family was that summer. I remember a feeling of loss. Something had changed, and we were never going back.
Now those worlds live over each other. There's still the tight-knit local year-round thing, and layered over that is an increasingly wealthy tourist industry.
These days, it seems like Americans are building organizations that are either conservative or progressive. There aren’t many organizations designed for a political spectrum. My sense is that NJOP decided to welcome people who don’t agree on everything, but agreed that something needed to be done after Sandy. Is that accurate?
Most of the counties badly impacted were in this South Jersey and Shore area. There’s a debate among New Jerseyans about whether or not there’s a region called central Jersey, I’ll spare you that. South Jersey and the Shore are not what we’d call progressive. People might think of New Jersey as Democratic because of how we go in federal elections, but we’ve had Republican governors, and this place where most people were hurt is politically mixed.
Like you, I came from more explicitly progressive organizations. But that would have left a lot of people out. My community was a patchwork with gaping holes, and all of us were living with that. Sandy, climate change, the overdose death rate — we all have to be at the table to fix it.
I’ve been thinking about what we could learn from the kind of organizing you and I grew up with, which often included people with different worldviews. We all have unique experiences to bring forward right now.
The more people who tell their stories, or learn they’re not the only ones struggling, the more we can do. I'm worried now with COVID. With Sandy, the disaster was bad, but the storm after the storm was worse.
What do you mean?
We saw major health impacts right after Sandy. People had PTSD or breathing problems from mold. Then the stress of trying to navigate the disaster made people sick. We’re almost eight years out, and I know people who haven’t started reconstruction. People aren’t going to the doctor now, which I understand, not to overload the system, but what's going on with their health? What will kids need to right themselves in this new world? I don't know what our economy will be like, but I do know those stimulus checks won’t be enough.
I was talking to Heather McGhee last night, and I asked what meaning we can take from what’s happening now [politically in the pandemic]. Like how the financial crisis showed us that Wall Street was under-regulated. Her answer surprised me: That there’s a need for strong government in our lives. Does that resonate with you?
We have to understand that we are the government. Because we're voting, we're teachers, we're sanitation workers. The more we jump in the ring, the better things will be. So I hope the meaning we take from this is that helping each other in this way is what matters. That's what government can be, when we’re the ones doing it.
A lot of people wonder, “What can I do?” So, Amanda, what can people do to engage in this way you’re describing?
Three things. If you've got that feeling, that hand on your back, and you know you can jump into action now, do it. Number two, isolation and blame are your worst enemies. Pull people out of that. Finally, figure it out as you go. Trust and move together. That's what we have to do.