Witching Hour interview: Fighting economic injustice with attorney Shawn Sebastian

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Witching Hour: Shawn Sebastian

Presentation: How Capitalism Is Designed to Kill (Most of) You
Iowa City Public Library — Sat., Oct. 13 at 10:30 a.m.

Workshop: Existing in This Economy
Merge — Saturday, Oct. 13 at 2 p.m.

Shawn Sebastian will host two events in Iowa City this weekend. — photo courtesy of Witching Hour

The 2018 Witching Hour festival will present Center for Popular Democracy attorney Shawn Sebastian for two events, discussing the root causes of economic justice and how workers can fight back, on Oct. 13.

With over 10 years of experience fighting for the empowerment of workers and the disenfranchised, Shawn Sebastian will bring his expertise to Iowa City for two sessions. He will deliver the presentation “How Capitalism is Designed to Kill (Most of) You,” a free event open to the public at the Iowa City Public Library from 10:30-11:30 a.m. In the afternoon, he will lead the workshop “Existing In This Economy” at MERGE, from 2-3 p.m. That event is free for pass holders or pay-what-you-can at the door (suggested donation $10).

Ten years after the financial crash of 2008, American workers are still struggling to meet basic needs and continue to face attacks from Wall Street and Washington D.C. Many feel powerless in battling the tide of economic injustice.

“We have not fully recovered from the 2008 crash,” Sebastian told Little Village. “The hole we were put into, the hole we were thrown into by the financial industry 10 years ago, we have not gotten out of yet. The wealth that was lost, no one has recovered from that. Everyone is poorer than they were, especially black families have had almost all of their wealth wiped out.”

For years big businesses and their lackeys in media and political office have repeated abstract economic concepts and talking points to convince American workers that the economy is strong. According to Sebastian, this is a dangerously false assumption. While President Donald Trump and Republicans insist that everything is great, he said, most Americans do not share this optimism based on their own daily struggles.

Sebastian said, “When most people think about if the economy is working for them, they’re thinking about their wages, how to pay for healthcare, whether or not they can pay for education, whether or not they can find a home or pay rent, whether or not they can take care of themselves, give their children a better life than they had or take care or their parents.”

For many Americans, the economy is not working and these needs are far from reach. In his Witching Hour events, Sebastian will attempt to dispel the economic myths and describe the realities of facing workers so they confront them.

“How Capitalism is Designed to Kill (Most of) You” will discuss, according to the event description, how “the roots of inequality and racism are intertwined-how American capitalism couldn’t exist without racism, and how racism continues to be used as a tool to further economic policies that drive inequality.”

“We are in a unique moment in history with our economy where unemployment is at record-low levels but the economy is not working for most people,” Sebastian said. “I want to talk about the reason behind that and how we can change that.”

According to Sebastian, there are three main factors for why the economy is failing American workers. 1) The dismantling of unions and collective bargaining power for workers. 2) The increased power and consolidation of companies that control our lives and our wages. 3) The dismantling and undermining of public goods.

From the ’50s until the early ’70s, labor unions bargained for higher wages that secured a decent living for workers. Since that time, there have been organized attacks against unions and workers’ rights led by corporations and legislators. In recent years, social services and public assistance have been slashed or eliminated altogether.


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The second event, “Existing In This Economy,” is described as “overview of the issues” as well as a discussion on “ways to build locally-rooted economic justice campaigns that are relevant to the lives of working people and can effectively take on concentrated wealth and power.”

Sebastian’s interest in the work he has performed stems, he said, from his “formative experiences in Iowa.” His parents emigrated from India and moved to Ames. In the early 1980s, Sebastian’s father was laid off and the family endured financial difficulties. This period left a deep impression on him.

“It was really difficult when I was really young,” Sebastian said. “When things were most difficult for us, we had food stamps and public assistance. Because of the public resources that were available to us, I feel like we were able to succeed and thrive.”

Sebastian’s father later found employment at the Iowa Department of Transportation inspecting bridges and has worked there for over 30 years. His mother worked as an educational assistant at an Ames preschool catering to low-income children and children with disabilities. Sebastian attended public schools in Ames and later went to the University of Iowa.

“Growing up, I went to public schools. Ames public schools are incredibly high quality and I feel like my public education was as good as private school education.”

After graduating UI in 2004, he traveled to Bangalore, India to work for the Best Practices Foundation. He returned to the United States to work at the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation. He attended New York University School of Law and has lived in the Big Apple for the past nine years. He became a fellow at the Open Society Foundations’ Justice Initiative and subsequently joined the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) where he continues his work.

CPD was launched in April 2012 to drive an “innovative pro-worker, pro-immigrant, racial and economic justice agenda.” Since their founding, they have partnered with over 50 progressive groups and unions in 38 states to move community policy in a progressive direction. Sebastian helped get CPD’s Fed Up campaign off the ground in 2014 and became its director.

“The Federal Reserve is the most powerful economic policy maker in the country,” Sebastian said. “Before Fed Up, there wasn’t really an organized effort on behalf of workers to advocate the interests of workers. For the past four years, we built a national campaign and a national coalition of community organizations, labor unions and think tanks to fight for full employment and drive down the unemployment rate.”

While CPD does not have any partner organizations in Iowa, Sebastian sees the Hawkeye State as an important battleground in the fight for workers and the disenfranchised.

“Iowa has a huge role to play in opening up political possibilities to address deeply entrenched trends that didn’t start with Donald Trump but are decades old,” Sebastian said.

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