Days after an election marked by acrimony and fueled by misunderstanding, even hatred in many of our states, it is good to remember the many grassroots groups who have found ways to work together and thrive. They are a lesson for our political parties.
One such group thriving today, the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center, was profiled and funded by PDF in 1986. Just seven years old at that point, they were starting a Nonpartisan Education and Organizing Project, citing previous failed attempts at getting groups working together. Establishing relationships of trust, they found, was key to moving forward.
Would that our legislators took a page from this book.
from Peace Developments, Winter 1986-87, No. 14
“Working for Solidarity in South Dakota”
South Dakota is a state where farmers and ranchers, low-income families, Native Americans, and environmental/peace groups have been fighting separate battles with the state legislature – and losing them – for decades.
Now the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center is getting those groups to work together, through their Nonpartisan Education and Organizing Project, in order to bring about needed reforms.
Previous attempts at uniting the separate groups into a single voice have failed. But a recent grant from the Pacific Peace Fund had helped hire Dolores Bullert as the new coalition organizer for the project in northeastern South Dakota, and she is “the right person in the right place,” according to Tim Langley, director of the Peace and Justice Center. “She is a farm wife, knows low-income problems, has been in community action programs, is related by marriage to the Native American community and has worked on the reservation – and everyone knows her because she’s been active around here for 20 years.”
A woman who says she “gave up gardening in order to plant ideas instead,” Dolores Bullert knows her territory, and the people in it. And this time, the strategy is different.
“Many times the philosophy seems to be to relate the issues – show how military spending affects jobs, leaves less money for education, and so on,” Langley says. “We’re finding that, in addition, we need to connect the constituencies, the people themselves, to establish a relationship of trust.
“Our strategy is to place our organization at the disposal of the other groups, to let their agendas become our agendas. We’ll help the farm group fighting radar installation, the low-income group fighting for child care. When we bring the leadership together in the spring, there will already be a bond there, a cross-pollination. Then perhaps we can develop a workable platform that all of us can stand behind in solidarity.”
The disparate groups do have one thing in common already: a sense of powerlessness. For the farmers of South Dakota, as in most of our farming states, future prospects are not encouraging. Farm foreclosures and grain elevator failures are on the increase, and many of the small towns that dot the farming landscape are “visibly dying.” For the Native Americans in that state, unemployment hovers around 80 percent. State services and income subsidies are minimal for the nearly one-fifth of the population below the poverty level.
South Dakota has the lowest wages in the country, no corporate or income taxes, no ceiling on interest rates, and does little to protect the environment. All this goes to make the state a prime target for exploitation by uranium and gold-mining interests, toxic and nuclear waste disposers, military contractors, “and anyone else with capital and clout who wants something for nothing.”
It also makes it a state where the people are beginning to realize they must join together, must “summon the political will” to do something about it.
The South Dakota Peace and Justice Center has already laid some excellent groundwork for change. “We have always attempted to place peace organizing in the context of other related issues and of a shared vision of the just society,” Langley says. Since its inception in 1979, its members have worked on a broad range of issues: for the nuclear weapons freeze, for higher Aid to Dependent Children, against a nuclear waste dump, for Native American rights, for farm aid. They have produced a handbook on economic justice, focusing on underemployment, hunger, and the farm crisis in South Dakota.
Now the center is building on that broad-based groundwork, modeling their new Nonpartisan League after the one that galvanized and revitalized neighboring North Dakota in 1915.
A good beginning has already been made. Several candidates friendly to the Nonpartisan Project’s first-draft platform made it into the legislature in the recent elections, and in 1988 they hope for a majority. But meantime there is a lot of “gardening” to do – not only planting ideas but nurturing them along, toward a bountiful harvest.