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.

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From Washington to Rural PA: Candles and Congressmen

11 02 2011

It has never been unusual for Peace Development Fund grantees to go to Washington for a demonstration or to meet with their congressman.  What was unusual—and still is for many grassroots groups—is to get funding to make the trek.  PDF has a proud history of funding groups in isolated areas to foster connections to the larger social justice and peace movement.

“The trip to Washington in this PDF article from 1984 was memorable on many levels,” says Bob Borzok today.  “I brought home a large poster and still use it from time to time.  Last year I took Russian, and showed it to my professor from Volgragrad University.  She is in her late twenties, and I thought she’d be interested in knowing what was going on over here on this side of the world during that time.”

The Peace Development Fund, like many groups, focused on the nuclear arms race in the early 80s.  Mr. Borzok’s group, PDF grantee the Nuclear War Education Group (NWEG) of Tioga and Potter Counties, evolved into a more general stand for peace.  Today, the Peace Education Group (NWEG’s successor) sponsors an annual Candlelight Walk for Peace.  People hold candles and walk from one end of the town to the other, ending with a message by a local pastor and Christmas tree lighting.  Adds Mr. Borzok, “The event has actually gotten much larger than back in the days when we were more or less protesting.”

Says Bryn Hammarstrom, the Peace Education Group co-chair, “Our area is in the heart of the Marcellus shale natural gas development, and much of the area’s political activity/momentum has shifted to stopping the drilling in NY or limiting the environmental impact of the exploitation in PA.”

Yet through 30 years of acting for social change, the residents of Tioga and Potter Counties five principles for rural organizing that this article talks about still hold:

Move the meetings around.

Publicity is more important than meetings.

Reach people where they live.

Vary the activities.

Take time out for fun!

That’s still how we get to peace.

From Peace Developments, Winter 1984-85

“Working for Peace in Rural Pennsylvania”

Bob Borzok lives in farm country and cares about the arms race. One day he went down to Washington from his home in Pennsylvania to talk to his congressman, Joseph M. McDade, a powerful Republican on the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

After listening to the argument that the U.S. needs a huge arms build-up before it can negotiate disarmament, Borzok answered, “In Tioga County farmers know that if you’re going to tear down a barn, you don’t start by building a new roof!”

How do you work for peace in a rural area? Plain speaking and common sense like Bob Borzok’s certainly help. Nonetheless, by all accounts from grantees  in places like Sweetwater County, Wyoming or the mountain country of southwest Virginia, such work is not easy.

The basic hindrance is isolation. People in rural, conservative regions who share a common interest in nuclear disarmament often live geographically far from one another and psychologically even farther from the concentrations of peace activities and strong support systems found in the cities.

If the problem is isolation, then the solution is connection. When Bob Borzok and others formed the Nuclear War Education Group of Tioga and Potter Counties in the spring of 1982, they were connected by one central article of faith: “We believe that our efforts can change the direction of the arms race.” After about six months of educating themselves on the issues, this group of physicians, farmers, public school and university teachers, homemakers, and others started to bring the issues to their larger community.

A skillful approach in such outreach is crucial. This farm country in northern Pennsylvania is solidly Republican. Instead of horrifying people with visions of holocaust, a tactic that probably would have backfired, the Nuclear War Education Group carefully connected with people’s other concerns. For example, it showed a slideshow on the civil defense crisis relocation plan to the Lions and Rotary and asked, “What would actually happen in our community if this plan had to be put into effect?”

When Borzok returned from his visit to Congressman McDade, he shared his experience with his neighbors at the local Grange. Because they have “duly sworn to protect the resources of the land and the rural life we love,” the Charleston Valley Subordinate Grange of Tioga County subsequently adopted a resolution condemning the arms race and supporting a nuclear freeze.

After much experience and success with such local outreach, the Nuclear War Education Group cast its net far wider. With a grant from PDF the group held a conference last spring of peace groups from all over Pennsylvania’s huge, sprawling Tenth Congressional District. Comprising ten counties and lacking any city which serves as a hub of communications, the Tenth District presents a formidable challenge to coordination.

The conference met this challenge well, drawing many participants and creating a district-wide steering committee and communications network for the region’s peace groups. A second grant from PDF has helped to pay for a newsletter and other costs of the new network.

After nearly three years of practice, the Nuclear War Education Group has learned a good deal about working for peace in a rural area. Here are some of their conclusions:

Move the meetings around. With long working days and with long distances to travel, rural people find it hard to get to meetings. Not everyone will come when you alternate the locations of meetings but people in isolated corners of the countryside get a chance to participate and to feel included in the effort.

Publicity is more important than meetings. Small rural newspapers are hungry for substantive articles and good letters to the editor. Many people will not go to meetings, but almost everyone reads either the paper or the “penny saver.” So even though only a small number of people might come to a film about the nuclear issue, hundreds will read the article detailing the film’s message when it appears in the paper.

Reach people where they live. Many farmers will not feel comfortable on a university campus, but they might discuss the nuclear freeze at their Grange or at a church meeting.

Vary the activities. A colloquium is an important medium for some kinds of people, while coffee house events draw others.

Take time out for fun! Working constantly on the subject of nuclear war can become grim. It helps now and then to put aside Mutual Assured Destruction, megatonnage, throw weight, or the prospect of nuclear winter, and to gather instead for a potluck supper where people can bring the kids and just enjoy each other. “I have met some terrific people in this work,” says Dennis Murray, one of the founders of the Nuclear War Education Group. “It is very important in a rural area to find like-minded people, to know that your neighbors care.”

The coming together of people who care remains one of America’s oldest and healthiest traditions. From Crooked Creek, Pennsylvania to the “global village,” it is by such connection that peace will be won.