As citizens across Pennsylvania face economic struggles and inequitable public policies, Pennsylvania Stands Up is investing in people and developing them into powerful leaders.

Carrie Santoro, executive director of Pennsylvania Stands Up, shares how this organizing strategy helps to build a multi-racial democracy that works for all and why donors should focus on grassroots power building. 

Q. Pennsylvania Stands Up is a statewide organization with local chapters. Tell us how this model works and why it’s successful.

We live our values and build power from the ground up. That means that each of our chapters takes on different campaigns based on capacity and their communities’ priorities. 

Each chapter is led by a team of seven to nine local leaders, dues-paying members who take on increased responsibility and ownership. We recruit volunteers by establishing our chapters as a political home for grassroots organizing. We provide engagement and training, one-on-ones, and member-leader ladders, while engaging our volunteers through chapter meetings, events, and community gatherings. We also bring our volunteers into the decision-making process. They help set their chapter’s agenda and ensure that we take on issues that are important to them. They provide political education as canvassers and phone and text bankers. And they lead the way in rapid response to local and national events by joining rallies and demonstrations, circulating petitions, and participating in mass meetings. Each chapter selects two representatives to serve on the Delegates Assembly, a statewide strategy body that determines priority issues for our organization. This grassroots decision-making process ensures that we balance the importance of having a unified program with our commitment to meeting our communities’ needs.

Our model is successful because our reliance on bottom-up decision-making empowers our members and gives them a sense of ownership over our organization. Locally and statewide, they choose our priority issues. That’s how we build a Pennsylvania that works for all of us.

Q. Tell us about the campaigns your chapters are working on and why donors should pay attention to these issues.

One of our most important campaigns is Whole Home Repair. The groundbreaking Whole-Home Repairs Act was introduced by one of our founding members, Sen. Nikil Saval. Employing our proven methods of co-governance, we brought together impacted community members and partner organizations from the PA Climate Equity Table to co-draft legislation that addresses two of Pennsylvania’s biggest crises: Housing and climate injustice. 

The Whole-Home Repairs Act keeps working people in their homes, makes their homes safer and more energy efficient (lowering environmental impact and utility bills), and streamlines their access to resources. Working closely with Saval, we utilized an inside-outside strategy to build overwhelming bipartisan support, and the Whole-Repairs fund is now available to low- and moderate-income homeowners and small landlords who guarantee affordable rentals. It is the first of its kind in the nation and we hope it will become a model for other states. In July 2022, we secured a historic $125,000,000 to fund the program with Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature. Now it’s up to us to grow this path to scale. 

This year, we will work to implement Whole Home Repair and make it permanent. We’ll use this opportunity to list-build, help working people access funds, and do political education so our new base understands how Whole-Home Repair came to be: Co-governance. 

Donors should pay attention to this issue because it is popular across race, place, and ideology. According to a poll by Data for Progress and People's Action, 76% of Pennsylvania voters across party supported the Whole-Home Repairs Act. Its success demonstrates what we can achieve through long-term investment in governing power for working people.  

Q. What efforts are you most proud of? What are the biggest challenges you’re facing?

We are immensely proud of our leadership development program. We prioritize developing leadership skills and empowering the people closest to the pain: Young people, BIPOC folks, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. We move members through a member-leader ladder with thoughtful, intensive trainings throughout the year through our Leadership Academy. In 2022, we developed 11,704 volunteer leaders, 96 of whom are still active. We also hired three members as full-time organizers and four as regional field directors. Finally, we held bi-weekly staff trainings to foster the development of the people who make our victories possible. We empower our people to become undeniable leaders in their communities and bring in new contacts, who will become leaders themselves in an ongoing cycle of empowerment.

One of our greatest challenges is organizing in rural areas like northeastern Pennsylvania and Lancaster and Berks Counties. These areas have been written off by many organizations. But we believe they are full of promise. They are home to rural farms that will soon experience generational turnover; small, diverse cities; and immigrant populations who contribute significantly to the economy and culture. Our teams have thousands of meaningful conversations with voters, educating and empowering them to take action on important issues like Whole Home Repair, corporate accountability, and ending solitary confinement. Investing in our people in rural areas is worth it, and in time, it will change Pennsylvania.

Q. As you look ahead to 2024 and beyond, what are your main priorities in Pennsylvania?

Our main priority is changing the narrative on social good and the economy. Time and again, we’ve found that voters' top concerns center on these issues. Working people are feeling economic pain. Our people deserve to know who is responsible – and to have the chance to fight back.

Corporations and billionaires, enabled by their sycophants in office, take from working people at every opportunity. They refuse to pay a living wage or provide benefits. They pollute our air, water, and land, disproportionately impacting people of color and working-class communities. They engineer a cost of living crisis while dodging taxes. And they dump millions into creating racist, fearmongering narratives designed to keep the working class divided by race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Good government helps working families – programs like IRA, CHIPS, and Whole Home Repair. Corporations try to distract us with hateful rhetoric because they have a lot to lose in paying their fair share. But when we organize across race, place, and generation, we can see what they try to hide: That there is plenty of money for everyone to have a good life.

In 2022, PA Stands Up took on a leadership role with the “PAYBAC” (People Against Yass, Billionaires, and Corporations) Table, a coalition of people-powered organizations ready to hold corporations and billionaires accountable. Looking ahead, we see a major opportunity to organize. We’ll use values-based messaging and deep canvassing to connect everyday economic pain to public policy solutions for our people. Together, we’ll empower our communities to force billionaires’ and corporations’ influence out of our political system. 

Q. What would you tell donors about supporting grassroots organizing and power building?

We believe that grassroots organizing is the only way to truly build power for working people from the ground up. Governing power is not just a buzzword. It’s our North Star, guiding how we interact with our communities, plan and develop our priorities, organize to build long-term power, and staff our organization. We know that power is organized people and organized money, which is why we are investing in building a long-term infrastructure of year-round, neighbor-to-neighbor campaigning. We use proven methods like deep canvassing, where we have vulnerable, courageous conversations and together make meaning of the pain and struggle we’re all experiencing. We talk to people about values before politics and we don’t shy away from addressing race and the economy – especially taking corporate power head on. That’s how we establish trust and build a base in our communities. We see every election as an opportunity to build long-term power by talking to people about what’s important to them. The more thoroughly we establish trust, the more our community members will look to us to help them understand how “big picture” politics impacts their daily lives. 

Our grassroots organizing is vital, but it’s also expensive. Day by day, we’re growing our base, developing new leaders, and building power for our communities. By investing in PA Stands Up, you’re investing in empowering working people across race, place, and generation. You’re playing an essential role in building a Pennsylvania that works for all of us.