In 2020, POWER Interfaith, a multifaith grassroots movement bringing together congregations across Central and Southeastern Pennsylvania, turned tumult into opportunity by re-imagining the work of social justice.
Under the leadership of Executive Director Bishop Dwyane Royster, the organization fought for pandemic protections in Black and Brown communities, demanded police accountability following the murders of George Floyd and Walter Wallace, and shepherded a robust voter engagement program that touched hundreds of thousands of people. Through the latter, POWER Interfaith helped tip the scales on Philadelphia’s two ballot questions last November — ending stop and frisk policing and creating a civilian oversight committee for law enforcement.
According to Royster, 2020 was a year that affirmed all of POWER Interfaith’s hard work. But with the rise of voter suppression and anti-critical race theory laws across the country, he understands the job is far from done.
“They’re absolutely pushing back with everything they have,” Royster said. “I mean, the made up battle about critical race theory [in] reality is just taking a look at how racism has impacted systems over the years where it’s kind of baked into the American society.”
Last year, POWER Interfaith led a multifaceted campaign for justice following the death of George Floyd that opened up conversations about equity, demanded equality under the law, and encouraged thousands of people to vote. Since then, the Brennan Center for Justice reports that 18 states passed dozens of restrictive voter laws. Parent groups continue to storm school board meetings over critical race theory. And here in Pennsylvania, low-income students and students of color continue to fight for fair funding in education.
As POWER Interfaith noted in their annual report, and Royster affirmed, race is at the center of everything they do.
“In our society, we assume that if people are different, then somehow or another, they’re deficient,” Royster said. “There’s no deficiency in diversity. There’s no deficiency in difference. We should actually be celebrating those differences and leaning into those differences and making the most of those different things and appreciating all cultures.”
Earlier this year, Kendra Cochran, POWER’s director of civic engagement, went on national television to discuss the recent spate of voter suppression laws passed in the wake of last year’s election. She told the interviewer that legislators passed the new laws to keep Black voters and other people of color from casting a ballot.
“Back then we had Jim Crow and today we have James Crow, Esquire,” Royster said, paraphrasing author Michelle Alexander. “The same Jim Crow principles just being dressed up in fancy suits with people with fancy degrees and fancy titles.”
To that end, Royster is hopeful but cautiously optimistic about the future of democracy. Hyper-partisanship worries him, and he’s concerned about the federal courts. But to the extent that people engage in democracy itself — come out to vote, reshape the country, make it work for everyone — the Bishop does have hope.
Royster also has other fights to lead, including the one for fair and equitable funding in Pennsylvania’s school districts. After learning years ago that Pennsylvania’s fair funding formula wasn’t fair — leaving behind Black and Brown children and those in low-income communities — POWER Interfaith took up the cause. Last June, Royster, along with several others from the organization, was arrested protesting in Harrisburg. Next month, he’s preparing, as the issue finally comes before the courts.
For those who argue that more funding won’t fix education, Royster offers the example of pandemic education. “The fact that in the Lower Merion School District, every child already had the technology in their house to be able to go immediately to being virtual and it took over a year for us to get all of the children the tools that they needed [in Philadelphia],” Royster said.
Royster always understood that after 2020 things weren’t going to be easy — change never is. But with POWER Interfaith, he continues the fight for voter rights, for fair funding, for equity in health care during the ongoing pandemic, for climate justice, and so much more. To push his ideas even further into the public sphere, the Bishop now has a podcast, “Black Faith, Black POWER,” which discusses race and faith with area clergy and community leaders.
Bishop Dwayne Royster continues to be an agent of transformation and change. “I believe that we’re actually going on the cusp of creating something new and beautiful and wonderful,” he said.