Will They Listen Today?

16 11 2011

The laws today are more complex than when the Peace Development Fund began funding lobbying by grassroots organizations in 1988. Nonetheless, public foundations like PDF may support public charities which engage in lobbying—another strategy to use in movement building. Last year’s Citizens United Supreme Court ruling added even more money and influence buying into politics. Yet people—not corporations “who are people too”–have the right to say what they want to say. Especially in the upcoming election year, we need to be sure that all voices are heard. As the Occupy Movement shows us, speech can, and should, trump money.

from PeaceDevelopments, Spring 1988

 “7000 Letters – Swinging the Vote”

Last summer, Senator Alan Dixon of Illinois received 7,000 letters from Chicago voters in the space of seven weeks, demanding that he vote “no” on Contra aid. When asked if those letters could influence a man who had voted “yes” three times before, his aide said: “This is not a poll. This is the very thoughtful input of 7,000 people who have taken the time and used their personal feelings to express it in writing to their Senator. Their feelings are something he has to listen to… they will have a major effect on his vote.” In fact, Senator Dixon did listen – he voted “no” to Contra aid in the February ’88 count.

In a time when many citizens feel powerless to influence policy, it is heartening to realize that our elected representatives do listen – and not just when they are up for re-election. True, public opinion alone rarely changes policy; we only need to look at the massive public support for the Freeze, or the ERA, or an end to the war in Nicaragua. But when people get truly motivated to do something to make their opinion felt – take to the streets or to their telephones, write letters to editors – they can have influence in Washington.

Lobbying is one of several kinds of action, and at the right time it can be very effective. The Peace Development Fund has an educational and charitable tax status that allows us to use a small portion of our revenues to support lobbying activities. Many peace groups we have funded include lobbying as part of their work, but increasingly, groups are being organized for lobbying purposes only. They research, strategize, and respond to legislative issues, and sometimes help to draft legislation. Often providing a direct and vital link between Washington and the grassroots lobbying groups keep in regular contact with legislators while building the strong local base needed to put through key legislation. Some groups spring up around immediate, single issues, calling for urgent, widespread action; others are organized to respond consistently to issues that arise in the context of a more distant goal.

This fall, PDF and the Pacific Peace Fund (PPF) rallied to the call for funds by Countdown ’87 – a massive, nationwide campaign to defeat Contra aid organized by a coalition of groups working for peace in Central America. In the space of a few months, Countdown ’87 successfully mobilized tens of thousands of citizens across the country to contact their congress people. Neighbor to Neighbor, a previous PDF grantee working together with Countdown ’87, targeted twelve members of Congress and six senators, all of whom were considered swing-votes (Illinois’ Senator Dixon being one of them). Using its “Tupperware” approach to politics, it organized 117 house parties in Chicago alone for “the majority who think Contra aid is wrong but aren’t doing anything about it.”

PDF and PPF also support the less dramatic efforts of organizations designed to apply continual, persistent pressure for the long term. Two examples are the 20/20 Vision Project [editor’s note: now a project of EarthAction] and the Peace Missions. “20/20” combines education with action through its postcard campaign. With $20 a year and a commitment of 20 minutes a month, you can receive each month a brightly colored postcard giving all the information you needed to write a letter or make a call to your congressperson; you can also get involved on the research and strategizing level. “20/20” now has projects in several states and has been endorsed by national organizations. Using a different strategy, the Peace Missions provide training and logistical support for weekly lobbying trips to Washington. Originating in Rhode Island, the Peace Missions concept has spread to nine states over a period of three years and, with a new organizer’s manual put out by the Coalition for a New Foreign Policy in Washington, is eagerly seeking new chapters.

In another kind of linking, the San Francisco Freeze found itself with an excess of resources and all its representatives were voting right on the issues. So this fall, they raised money in Northern California to defeat Contra aid in two swing-vote districts in Nevada and Michigan, sending their funds through Countdown ’87. They plan to adopt other “sister districts” as need arises.

“But does all this really make a difference?” we so often ask, as we reach once again for a pencil to sign a petition, lick the stamp for a letter to Congress, or pick up the phone for a call to Washington.

The answer is definitely YES, however it may seem otherwise. People in the peace movement get discouraged – they see, for example that all their efforts to stop the arms race have barely been able to stop the building of new weapons. They forget how long it all takes. Historically, legislative efforts that succeed in bringing about significant change are the last stage in a long process. Before then, there has to be a real turn-around in public opinion through education and consciousness-raising and committed action of many kinds. When the public comes to accept the alternative policy, lobbying is very effective, even crucial, for changing policy.

And the effects of lobbying go beyond making a difference for one vote or another. Besides providing opportunities for people to learn about particular issues, putting together a lobbying campaign can also help build and strengthen grassroots organizations. As people get more active in the political process, they gain a better understanding of how it works and what its limits are, becoming more effective agents of change. Furthermore, as people become more involved, their senators and representatives in turn are forced to become accountable to them – or face serious threat of removal from office. As Senator Dixon’s aide said, “Their feelings are something he has to listen to… they will have a major effect on his vote.”

PDF grantee Center for Artistic Revolution

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Why Can’t Progressives Get Traction?

13 07 2011

As we go into the next election cycle, many on the Left who were enthusiastic about the advent of President Obama and a new political time are now disenchanted and reluctant to re-engage in the mainstream political process. An article from Peace Developments in 1998 suggests that the preliminary lessons from the Peace Development Fund’s Listening Project remain unlearned.

from Peace Developments, Spring 1998

“The Listening Project: Exploring the Pre-Millennium Potential of Progressive Movement-Building”

The United States has not seen a progressive social change movement strong enough to gain substantial victories since the ‘60s. At time sit is hard not to think that we are losing ground as economic inequality becomes more marked and attacks on immigrants, poor people, and organized labor increase. While the progressive movement won critical victories in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the backlash from those successes resulted in the regalvanization of the Right. The progressive movement became ideologically fractured, and in the absence of a uniting vision, the Right was able to win popular opinion about a series of narrowly focused, reactionary ideas based on its own self-interest. As we grow closer to the millennium, PDF is increasingly concerned about the Left’s ability to build real and lasting progressive change.

PDF believes that there are several barriers that inhibit progressive work from achieving greater impact. To name just a couple of those barriers, too many organizations are working in isolation, disconnected from each other and from larger national issues and information, while many of the Left’s victories have been local, leaving a serious need for more regional and national successes. It is in this context that PDF believes it is time to be asking harder questions of ourselves. How can we create consequential change on a national level? How can we make the transition from localized and disconnected work to a strong, broad-based, progressive movement that has the power to transform the national landscape?

Out of the desire to answer these questions – to make sure PDF’s efforts are targeted most effectively to create lasting change – arose the Listening Project. The Listening Project was designed specifically to hear from social change organizers and activists, across a spectrum of sectors and from around the country, to gather thoughts on movement-building in today’s political and social milieu. People’s responses have been intriguing and informative, and have also raised additional, critical questions.

What Is a Social Change Movement?

Listening Project participants are being asked, “What does the term ‘social change movement’ mean to you?” There are some widespread commonalities as well as interesting differences in how people are thinking about social change movements. A common vision seems to be the most necessary characteristic according to respondents, without which people are not connected. The great majority of interviewees feel that, for the most part, progressive work remains disconnected, lacking a shared analysis, consciousness, or vision.

Barriers and Challenges to Building a Broad-based, Progressive Movement

In the “Undoing Racism” training of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond participants are asked to define racism. As their ideas and thoughts are written down, it is clear that people have extremely diverse ways of thinking about racism. Such a varied analysis has colossal implications for undoing or dismantling racism. How can people and organizations that have widely different views about racism work together to dismantle it? Language is very important for developing a shared understanding of issues, and many people have suggested that much more effort must go into creating a common framework for understanding such issues as poverty, racism, and class before we can work together in a meaningful way.

Many interviewees mentioned the need for simultaneous, multiple approaches to progressive social change work. Despite the acknowledgement of the need for diverse roles and strategies in movement-building, there was an overall belief that the various sectors are not interested in connection to one another. This is definitely a point of tension, and a perceived weakness among the Left. Many people are working with the opinion that their strategy is the most effective path toward change, without understanding the synergistic role of the various progressive sectors. For example, without grassroots organizing, there will be no base of people to push progressive policies through, yet there are few policy organizations that outreach to and receive input from the grass roots.

Perhaps one of the most talked about barriers to building a broad-based movement is the challenge of articulating our message. A large majority of interviewees in the Listening Project are talking about our lack of influence with the media. Our work, very simply, is not being reported. This is a devastating problem resulting in serious public misconceptions about truth and reality and an under-representation of the successful progressive work that is happening. People advocated the need for more media savvy and an increase in alternative media projects.

The second aspect of the challenge of articulating our message lies in how we craft our communications and our campaigns to resonate with people and to create links across difference. What are the issues that lend themselves to coalition-building and connecting diverse constituencies? Can we organize around those issues? Some of the issues that have the potential to build bridges are living-wage campaigns, environmental justice, education, and defeating the anti-democratic Right.

Wedge issues pose a serious challenge to the goal of building a broad-based movement. There are huge numbers of organizations that stay away form critical issues in fear of losing membership. Many interviewees expressed the need for help in dealing with high levels of homophobia among their membership. Along the Bible Belt, for example, although organizations may successfully organize around economic justice issues, they avoid working on a gay rights case lest their membership dwindle. In order to address wedge issues and keep them from splitting us apart, many interviewees emphasized the need for extensive education around cultural and oppression issues: This is the pre-work that must be done before a broad –based movement can truly coalesce, they said.

Geographic isolation increases the challenges presented by the lack of a common language or analysis and the efforts to connect oppressions. PDF’s Exchange Project all too often sees groups attending regional workshops, realizing for the first time how many communities face struggles similar to their own. In the Northeast, where the population is highly concentrated and consists predominantly of urban and suburban communities, isolation is not a problem. But the Southeast, Southwest, Midwest, and Northwest have predominantly rural communities. In these regions, groups need more resources and more opportunities to come together.

Surprisingly high numbers of interviewees mentioned factionalism, ego, and turf issues as major barriers keeping progressive work from coming together. When individuals or organizations are more interested in their individual successes than in the greater good, movement-building can be extremely difficult. Unfortunately, these are barriers for which interviewees have no, so far, offered solutions.

As we bring the Listening Project to a close later this spring, we look forward to sharing what we are hearing and learning. In publishing and distributing the findings for the Listening Project, it will be a tool for individuals and organizations interested in movement-building. It will be an examination of the trends in how people think about progressive movement-building, and the implications of those trends. We hope it will spark further dialogue and planning, encouraging others to look at their own work.





Rancor Gets Us Nowhere

5 11 2010

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.