Face Time

18 08 2011

“We are more than just a grantmaker,” says PDF Executive Director Paul Haible. “We are partners in the peace and social justice movement.”

From the Peace Development Fund’s earliest days, PDF has visited with and advised grantees, encouraged networks such as our current initiative, BASE (Building Action for Sustainable Environments), and above all, LISTENED.

1985 Meg Gage and Linda Stout

Our model of philanthropy involves direct funding, advocacy where appropriate, and partnerships built around mutual respect, sharing of resources, and transparency of planning and decision-making. This article from 1985 highlights the person-to-person work that, over three decades, has made PDF unique among foundations.

from Peace Developments, Fall 1985

Learning Person-to-Person

“Visiting peace groups on site, in the communities where they work and live, sends valuable information both ways,” said Meg Gage, the Peace Development Fund’s executive director. “It gives us the chance to learn more about grassroots groups and the current state of the country’s peace movement.

“And in these visits the groups get to see us as people, to realize we are not Big Daddy Peacebucks. Though we have been a source of funds for hundreds of peace organizations, we are also engaged and active people much like themselves,” Meg added.

Making sure that our donor’s money is used responsibly and effectively is a high priority for the Peace Development Fund and [its sister organization] the Pacific Peace Fund (PPF). We have developed many ways to encourage effective use of our grants, such as researching, monitoring and consulting by mail and phone. But good as these long-distance methods are, we also try to observe conditions directly for ourselves through site visits.

Kim Klein, Exchange Project

Being in an organization’s actual working space can tell an astute visitor nearly as much as meeting the people themselves. The Bucks Alliance for Nuclear Disarmament (BAND), outside Philadelphia, has created a peace center consciously designed to reach a wide spectrum of people. Some groups work in places bristling with militant posters. By contract, BAND’s office is an open, pleasant, business-like environment where anyone would feel at home.

“As for BAND’s productivity,” says Paul Aicher, a PDF board member who visited the group with Meg Gage, “the number of activities listed on a wall chart and the number of people doing them speak volumes.”

PDF’s contact with one important Freeze organization in New York had led us to conclude that one strong person was orchestrating the whole enterprise. A visit by Andrea Avvazian, director of PDF’s Exchange Project, taught us something different. Though that individual does indeed exert a major influence, in fact there is a strong sense of shared leadership in the group.

PDF and PPF are located in the northeast and northwest corners of this vast nation. Through site visits we have been able to learn far more about regions of the country that are distant from or offices. For example, we once believed the Midwest to be a fairly homogenous region, until a staff person from PDF visited there. “Minneapolis and Chicago are not in the same region,” she was told firmly by one person. “We have nothing in common with northern Illinois,” said someone from southern Illinois.

In this way we learned that there are at least four “Midwests,” each with its own character and needs.

PDF Staff Members

Groups that host site visits from our funds benefit from the meetings, too. For one thing, we serve them as a window on the peace movement. Peace workers in northern Maine or rural Arkansas can feel very isolated in their effort. Such people love to hear news from the rest of the peace network; it gives them a sense of support, solidarity and hope. Because of our special role as hub and connector of grassroots peace activity, our Funds can talk – and literally have talked – about Maine in Arkansas and Arkansas in Maine.

Another boon to both PDF and the groups we visit is the appreciation which they stir in us. It is very energizing and gratifying to experience directly the fruits of our own labors, to see our support making such wonderful work possible.

Andrea Ayvazian, Exchange Project

This sense of appreciation for the work we see during site visits has taught us to balance carefully our judgment of groups we have visited with judgments of those we have not. “Whenever you visit a group and meet it members,” says Pat Close-Hastings, executive director of the Pacific Peace Fund, “you almost always end up liking them, and you are tempted to become their advocate. It can give them a great advantage in the competition for funding. A funder needs to be able to make fair decisions, which sometimes means turning down people you like.”

Perhaps the greatest benefit to local peace activists from our site visits is the way our coming affirms their sense of being worthwhile and needed. Taking the time and expense to see them at work sends a message as eloquent as words, and their gratitude for this extra expression of support can be very moving indeed – often shown in hand-printed welcome signs, special lunches prepared with care, and warm hospitality in their homes. “You’ve come so far,” a minister from remote Centertown, Kentucky, said over and over to Andrea Ayvazian with deep feeling. “You’ve come so far.”

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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.