In 2008, President Obama and his team made a huge mistake by demobilizing the movement-like swell of volunteers who had animated his campaign. He shouldn’t make the same mistake twice:
President Obama was indeed a transformational candidate. He now has a second chance at being a transformational political leader, one who runs toward and embraces the messy possibilities of populism and year-round grass-roots engagement or simply continues to try and push away and repress such demanding forms of democracy.
Read the full essay here.
On June 23, 2011, Van Jones and MoveOn.org launched a new force for change in America. I covered the launch event for the great website HyperVocal. Read my piece and share it around.
This article appeared in the June 13, 2011 edition of The Nation.
From the vantage point of national politics, it would appear that the greedy, inequality-dependent version of capitalism, which just two years ago was teetering at the brink of extinction, has managed to survive, even tightening its grip on our so-called democracy. After all, the most striking quality of the status quo is its perpetual resilience. So it’s even more striking when viable alternative models blossom from grassroots organizations led by the low-income people and people of color most often locked out of the status quo. It’s potentially revolutionary when these alternatives point to a new vision of real economic democracy.
One prime example is the $80 million “community economy” created by the Alliance to Develop Power, in western Massachusetts. ADP is a membership organization comprising roughly 10,000 mostly low-income African-American and Latino leaders. Traditionally, ADP does what most community-organizing groups do—address issues that negatively affect their members, agitate for change and build their base for the next fight. But in its twenty-two-year history, ADP has done things a bit differently. “At the end of every issue campaign, our goal is to create an institution that our members control,” says outgoing executive director Caroline Murray. ADP members don’t want to continually fight those who own the economy. “We want to own stuff, too,” says Murray.
It all started with housing. ADP was organizing public housing residents to demand that basic safety and repair standards be met. In 1995 some leaders realized that the law allowed nonprofits to buy federal properties to keep them affordable. Today ADP owns 1,200 units of housing, structured as tenant-run cooperatives. Meanwhile, in 1997, when going over the budget for its first housing cooperative, ADP member Terry Allen was shocked by the sizable line item for landscaping. “Why don’t we mow the lawn ourselves?” he asked. So ADP started a member-run landscaping business, a worker center for immigrant day laborers and several food co-ops. Today, 106 people are employed in ADP’s community economy and, perhaps most notably, their economy continued to grow even when the national economy contracted. This year there will be fifteen new jobs for ADP members to fill, weatherizing homes with money secured from the local utility company through an organizing campaign.
ADP is expanding its community economy based on ideas generated by other community-organizing groups. For instance, ADP’s growing work on weatherization was learned from People United for Sustainable Housing, in Buffalo, New York. Since 2005 PUSH has acquired more than fifty dilapidated housing units and lots to transform into affordable green housing. Community residents have learned building trades and even joined construction unions based on apprentice work refurbishing the homes. Meanwhile, in the third-poorest city in America, PUSH is showing that poor people can be at the cutting edge of the twenty-first-century economy.
Similarly, ADP will soon launch a money services bureau, following the example of Communities Creating Opportunity, in Kansas City, Missouri. There, in response to a lack of mainstream banking options for low-income residents and rampant payday lending with exorbitant interest rates topping 431 percent, CCO is creating a small-dollar lending program financed by regional banks and run by community leaders. In Kansas City neighborhoods that don’t have a single bank branch, the CCO program will soon provide loans ranging from $300 to $2,000. The interest rate will be 36 percent—still high, but much better than 431 percent. CCO has learned a lesson similar to ADP’s: organizing can’t just be about opposing problems; it must create community-owned solutions.
ADP will also start an urban farming program based on models in Kentucky. In that state, small family farmers belonging to the Community Farm Alliance won tobacco settlement money to transition to vegetables and other new crops. But local grocery stores kept buying their produce from out of state. At the same time, the mostly poor, black residents of West Louisville weren’t even getting the frozen, cheap stuff (while the Louisville metro area had an average of one grocery store for roughly every 13,000 residents, West Louisville and East Downtown had three grocery stores for 80,000 residents). CFA started a farmers’ market in West Louisville to connect rural farmers with urban consumer needs, which also created jobs for young people in the neighborhood. The alliance is launching a for-profit food distribution company that will service other food markets.
Similarly, in Buffalo, the Massachusetts Avenue Project has trained more than 350 young people in gardening, food systems and business while using vacant lots to grow and sell more than 5,000 pounds of affordable fresh produce to residents in the community. MAP also packages its own chili starter and salsa, sold in grocery stores throughout the region, and a new aquaponics facility will yield 25,000 tilapia in the coming year.
ADP has proven that local grassroots alternatives can be scaled—combining innovative ideas from around the country to build a significant community-based economy. ADP’s businesses even turn enough of a profit to fund significant portions of the group’s organizing work—which will ensure that ADP’s model keeps growing. But beyond the impact in western Massachusetts, ADP and these other examples point to a new economic philosophy for America, where we the people aren’t owned by business and capital; instead, we the people own the economy.
At a time when it’s hard to find progressive inspiration nationally—when propping up the wealthy and the status quo is repeatedly privileged over more equitable alternatives—the grass is a good deal greener outside Washington.
The immigrant rights movement is in a frenzy over a recent piece on Truthout written by some of the young undocumented students pushing for passage of the DREAM Act. In the essay, Jonathan Perez, Jorge Guitierrez, Nancy Meza and Neidi Dominguez Zamorano turn their anger at the DREAM Act’s failure not on the Senators who failed to vote for cloture, or on the Republican Party in general which has backed down on support for immigration reform. No, in the tried and true tradition of circling the wagons and shooting ourselves, the DREAM activists are attacking the mainstream immigrant rights movement.
Let me stop here and clarify that I do not believe unanimity in movements is a good thing. Healthy and vibrant debate, and even dissent, is essential — not only in creating a spectrum of ideological perspectives and thus appealing entry points for all different sorts of people to join the movement, but also because debate and dissent keeps a movement accountable. It’s important that we remember there would have been no Civil Rights legislation but for Malcolm X and the Black Panthers whose relative extremism made Martin Luther King and his adherents seem more reasonable to the powers-that-be. At the same time, Malcolm and the Panthers also pushed King to be more radical — an essential force in keeping the mainstream Civil Rights movement from being dangerously co-opted by the liberal establishment.
That said, there’s a difference between dissent and disrespect. The DREAM activists have crossed the line.
The DREAMers (as they’re called within the immigrant rights field) have a litany of critiques of their mainstream colleagues. Mainstream immigrant rights groups are part of the “non-profit industrial complex” and thus beholden to capitalist structures and foundation interests, instead of challenging them. Mainstream groups are not staffed by undocumented immigrants, yet claim to speak for undocumented communities. And mainstream leaders, the DREAMers claim, are not “putting their bodies and lives on the line” for reform while the young undocumented activists are.
For the record, I think that the direct action on all parts of the immigrant rights movement (DREAMers included) has been largely tame and uninspired, with a few exceptions like the Trail of Dreams, in which four undocumented students walked from Florida to DC to demand reform. The power of direct action in past movements, including the often-correlated Civil Rights movement, wasn’t that it was large or dangerous. It was that the direct action was beautiful, powerful — like a physical metaphor of injustice played out before people’s eyes. If you’re not allowed to eat with white people at a lunch counter, sitting at that lunch counter is a visual illustration of the rights you want and how wrong it is to deny them. For undocumented immigrants who don’t have the right to work or vote or live in America, marching in the streets doesn’t have the same visceral power. In fact, unfortunately, seeing millions of immigrants take to the streets in 2006 was arguably a wake up call to Americans either hostile toward or unsure about immigration reform who all of the sudden realized just how many immigrants we have in our country. Arguably, instead of inspiring compassion, the marches inspired a backlash.
Still, make no mistake about it, everyone on every side of this movement marched and many took arrests. Meanwhile, leaders within the mainstream immigrant rights and grassroots organizations organized strategy sessions over the past four years to explore more aggressive and effective tactics for direct action, studying models from Eastern Europe and Latin America. I am sure that each of these activists — volunteer leaders in these organizations as well as paid staff — would gladly put their lives on the line for this cause in which they believe so deeply, if they only knew what to do and how it would make a difference. The DREAMers weren’t any more sure on this tactical level.
Second, yes, the mainstream groups (including grassroots organizations in the Fair Immigration Reform Movement grouping as well as Washington-based organizations) are for the most part staffed by documented immigrants. In several cases, these staffers are children or grandchildren of immigrants. And in some cases they’re white guys. It’s appropriate to scrutinize this (especially the white guys leading immigrant rights organizations phenomenon). However, the grassroots volunteer leaders of these organizations are undocumented, and the best of these organizations are truly led by these members. What’s more, if we’re going to get into an identity politics breakdown, while the young DREAM Act leaders are mainly those who want to go to college and thereby gain citizenship, the undocumented members of most “mainstream” grassroots immigrant rights groups are low-wage workers who are struggling to make a living and support their families and were not going to be helped, immediately or ever, by a DREAM Act that helps kids on a more elite path.
And yes, the immigrant rights groups being critiqued are 501(c)3s. So are lots of the groups critiquing them. But more importantly, it was these very same 501(c)3s that incubated and trained the DREAM Act students, hosted their meetings and supported their travel, provided media support and in countless other ways encouraged and facilitated the DREAMers’ work. At the same time, many of these 501(c)3s are deeply critical of the limitations on non-profits, the challenges of funding, etc. Still, they are working within the system we have right now to push the boundaries of what’s possible and win change.
In 2007, the first time comprehensive immigration reform failed, I was working for the Center for Community Change (which organizes the Fair Immigration Reform Movement and is now a leader in the national Reform Immigration FOR America campaign). As leaders and staff from grassroots groups were literally in tears about the demise of a path to citizenship, a staff person from another immigrant rights group publicly condemned us “Washington insiders” for “working behind the scenes” and “selling out” the immigrant community. Huh? Do you think that’s how it works? That the “mainstream” immigrant rights groups have all the power and are happily accepting atrocious terms like guestworker programs and harsh border enforcement and deportation rules, working behind the scenes to actually screw over their constituents — the very folks we’ve all worked tirelessly for decades to help? It’s one thing to criticize. It’s another to be naïve. Mainstream immigration groups held meetings with the White House, organized hundreds of thousands of calls into Congress, held demonstrations and a huge rally in Washington, got unprecedented mainstream press endorsements, but still couldn’t pass comprehensive immigration reform. Come to think of it, the DREAMers suggesting the “mainstream” immigrant rights groups are remotely mainstream betrays a deep misunderstanding of these dynamics.
Personally, I’ll go on record believing that the entire immigrant rights movement (CIR supporters and DREAMers alike) should not have tried for legislative victory at all this year. The backlash from 2006 and 2007 was too strong and, though perhaps less severe than under the reign of the Minutemen, more widespread thanks to the visibility of the Tea Party and increased audience of Fox News. Somehow, even though over 67% of Americans support comprehensive immigration reform, the anti-immigrant climate was too strong to be overcome. Immigrant groups should have spent the past two years on a longer-term majoritarian strategy to change the mainstream climate, rather than a Hail Mary minority interest strategy to persuade Congress that Latino votes were dependent on reform. Just as the vocal Tea Part has been exerting disproportionate power over the political discussion, the vocal anti-immigrant forces — albeit fringe — drowned out the numerically significant but culturally powerless supporters of justice.
Still, everyone gave it their best shot. Everyone. And, all parsing of tactical and strategic choices aside, perhaps the best thing that can be said for the “mainstream” immigrant rights groups was that they kept fighting, hard though it was, for a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants — maintaining their principles and justice and equality and not giving up on winning for the entire community. The DREAM Act kids, unfortunately, felt held back, and wanted to win the DREAM Act even if it meant pushing aside comprehensive immigration reform. Interestingly, the DREAM Act would have only helped the DREAM kids — while comprehensive immigration reform would have helped the DREAM kids and everyone else. I really admire the courage and boldness of the young DREAM Act leaders — but I wish that, in the aftermath of a collective and hard defeat, they weren’t acting like petulant children.
As many of you who read this site know, since the Movement Vision Lab and I left the Center for Community Change in January 2010, I’ve been contemplating the most strategic role that I can play to advance social change in America.
I believe that significant, transformational social change only happens through significant, transformational mass social movements — the kind we’ve had in American history but don’t have today.
And what’s clear is that, among many movement elements missing in the progressive field today, every major social movement in the history of America or anywhere else in the globe has had a robust program of consciousness raising. Whether it was the 40,000+ paid political educators who traveled the Midwest during the Populist Movement to explain why the economy was failing small farmers. Or the Brookwood Labor College the radicalized workers leading to the union movement in the early 1900s and inspired Civil Rights leaders to create the Highlander Center which played a similar role in that movement. Or the feminist consciousness raising groups organized in living rooms across America in the 1970s.
Progressive social movements by their very nature struggle against the dominant ideology and philosophy of the status quo. In order to build an informed and active mass movement, we not only need alternative ideas and analysis — but alternative ideas and analysis that are delivered in a compelling, accessible and popular way.
With this in mind, I present for your feedback a working concept paper on the Movement Vision Lab’s “Center for Popular Popular Education.” Read it. Share it. And then fill this page with comments — your constructive thoughts on the movement analysis within this proposal and the sets of activities proposed as a response. In the Freirian tradition, popular education (let alone a proposal to do popular education) can’t just be a one-way street!
I’ve posted the entire proposal, including the proposed budget, to be as transparent and participatory as possible in developing this plan. In addition to seeking feedback on the concept, I am currently soliciting funding — so if you’re reading this and have feedback you want to share privately OR would like to provide funding (at any level) please contact me.
A final thanks to the organizations that have already endorsed the Center for Popular Popular Education and expressed enthusiasm to work with us going forward. There’s a great field of groups that already do political education in some form and a great field of groups who want to do more. We’re excited to join the mix!
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