How to Live in an Oligarchy

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A flood of articles and blogs rocked the internet recently declaring the US is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy whose politics are completely dominated by the economic elite.  They cite a groundbreaking new Princeton study that found that the political opinions of average non-wealthy US citizens have essentially zero statistically significant impact on policy.  Although this confirms what most people already knew about the growing influence of money in politics and economic inequality, the zero number is devastating.

I asked myself, is my life’s work organizing working-class people to build political power completely meaningless and futile?

But then I actually read the study itself, because I’m a nerd.  When I finished, I realized it confirmed exactly why I need to do this work.

The authors of the oligarchy study never actually say that average middle and working-class people don’t matter in US politics.  What they say is that unorganized average people don’t matter.  But organized people do.

In fact, they conclude that a mass-based membership organization that stands up for everyday people can be equally matched head-to-head with a corporate lobbying group.

Here’s what the study actually says.

Gilens and Page use statistical data to test four competing political science theories about US politics:

  1. “Majoritarian Electoral Democracy”:  The will of the majority of people is carried out by a functioning democracy with apple pie, bald eagles and shit.
  2. “Economic Elite Domination”:  Politicians don’t give a damn about the opinions of average people unless they happen to align with the interests of the wealthy few, whose opinions are all that really matters.
  3. “Majoritarian Pluralism”:  There is a chorus of voices of different organized interest groups that generally ends up representing what the people as a whole want
  4. “Biased Pluralism”:  There is a chorus of voices, but you can hear a loud and distinct upper-class accent.  Monocles and feather boas abound.  Economic elites have more interest groups representing them, so policymaking tends to favor the wealthy.

They describe our political system as both #2 and #4.   They measure this by comparing actual policy outcomes with the political preferences of middle-income citizens, the wealthiest 10% of citizens, interest groups representing businesses, and interest groups representing broad memberships of people.

The numbers don’t lie—the kind of democracy you learn about as a kid in school just doesn’t describe reality in the United States today.  The support of a majority of average voters doesn’t make a policy more likely to be passed at all, but the support of wealthy elites does.

But then this begs the question:  Why do food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, student aid, public housing, even public schools and libraries, still exist?  Surely not out of the goodness of the hearts of America’s all-powerful millionaire oligarchs?  Maybe these programs were created back when political power was distributed more evenly, when democracy still worked, and they remain only because economic elites have not yet been able to completely dismantle them.  But then how do you explain the recent expansion of healthcare to millions of uninsured paid for largely by raising taxes on the wealthiest 2%?

The answer is interest groups, who have a strong impact on policymaking.  According to the Gilens-Page study, literally the only way for working and middle-class people to influence American politics is by organizing ourselves into groups that can match the political clout of economic elites.

Groups of people without political power, from exploited immigrant farmworkers in California to disenfranchised black communities in the Jim Crow South, have long known that the only thing they could do to change the oppressive political and economic systems they lived in was to organize themselves.  In fact, the most celebrated leaders of America’s great social movements, from Cesar Chavez to Martin Luther King, have worked to bring together unorganized people who thought they were powerless to build strong organizations in which the powerless became the powerful.

As a whole, the study finds that the political preferences of interest groups don’t reflect overall public opinion.  In fact, their data shows that the most powerful lobbying groups representing industries and corporations negatively correlate with the average citizen’s wishes—they stand against the majority of people on most political issues.  But mass-based interest groups that represent millions of real people who make up their membership, such as labor unions or the American Association of Retired People (AARP), have a high correlation between what they push for on Capitol Hill and what average citizens want.

The problem is that among interest groups, the former is nearly twice as influential as the latter.  The study notes that “the composition of the U.S. interest group universe is heavily tilted toward corporations and business and professional associations.”  However, the authors stress that it is not because public interest organizations are inherently weaker than corporate lobbyists, but simply that they are outnumbered.  They calculate that “the average individual business group and the average mass-oriented group appears to be about equally influential”, but there are roughly twice as many powerful corporate interest groups as there are powerful public interest groups.

And unfortunately, as Gilens and Page point out, the mass-based public interest groups with major influence in Washington are mostly labor unions, whose memberships have been declining for decades.  With the shrinking of organized labor, fewer low and middle-income people are organized into political groups today than ever before.

Note that the very rich don’t need to organize.  The data shows their policy preferences, reducing regulations on businesses, taxes on high earners, and barriers to international trade, have a major impact on policymakers even before interest groups are taken into account.  Although the wealthy have less need to organize, they are in fact more organized, with many more lobbying groups representing their interests.

But the harsh reality is that in a political system like the one we live in, poor, working-class and middle-class people have no power without organizations.  None.  Period.

There is only one thing we can do to save ourselves from oligarchy.  Organize.  Organize like someone who’s realized that nobody in power gives a shit about what you think.  Organize like someone who’s realized that individualism only serves powerful individuals.  Rebuild the organizations we’ve lost, grow the organizations we have and start the organizations of our dreams.  Organize bigger, organize smarter, organize people who have never been organized before.  Organize the hell out of everything.  We can’t afford not to.  Because without organizing, there is literally no such thing as democracy.

 

The Problem with Community Service

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This weekend I took a group of high school students out to clean a beach next to a toxic slag heap Superfund site that will hopefully be cleaned up by the EPA in about a decade.  It’s one of the last remaining natural wetlands in California, home to endangered species, and in the process of being restored by the Nature Conservancy.  The beach is largely cut off from pedestrian access by decaying industrial sites and marked by the towering smoke stacks of a power plant.  I rarely meet youth from the surrounding low-income immigrant neighborhood who have ever been there prior to volunteering to clean it up.  Hopefully someday it will be restored for public access, but for now the city government seems intent on developing more crap on top of it.

For me and my organization, bringing students out to this site for cleanups is more about engaging them in the broader environmental battles in the community.  But we do the cleanups because that’s what the students tell us they want to do.  Young people in America have a deeply ingrained idea of what community service is and what it isn’t.  Teenagers are endlessly told to go clean the beach and give soup to the homeless and help children with their homework.  They’re told it’s the alternative activity to gangs and drugs and they need to do it to get into college.

The commonly accepted form of community service is about being helpful and doing what an adult tells you to do.  It’s not about generating controversy or engaging in power struggles or advocating for deeper change.  In fact, youth are explicitly discouraged from doing those things by both their educational institutions and their parents.  Community service, as it’s practiced, is about accepting the society you live in and trying to ameliorate the problems it’s created, not about challenging the conditions of that society and how it could be different.

Why are we telling youth to clean up natural habitats we allow corporations to pollute?  What kind of a country makes children sell magazines to shore up the cost of the schools we’re unwilling to pay more taxes to fund?  If we really believe all human beings deserve enough food to survive, how do we justify cutting food stamps while asking students to volunteer at food pantries?

Sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that as a country we’re taking the people most capable of questioning our assumptions and re-imagining our world and keeping them busy cleaning up the shit we’re creating.  Maybe it comes from our condescending assumption that young people can’t make up their minds for themselves about anything contentious, that youth wanting to participate in anything that looks “political” must be the product of manipulation and brainwashing.

I want a world where high school student groups like National Honor Society and Key Club speak at school board meetings and march in rallies and write letters to the editor and get out the vote.  I want a world where guidance counselors tell students to serve on a city commission to build their college application and city councilmembers actually appoint them.  I want a world where parents suggest helping at a soup kitchen on Christmas and campaigning for a higher minimum wage on Election Day.

I’m not calling for an end to community service.  I’m calling for a radical opening of our understanding of what it means to serve our communities.  I’m calling for a broadening of the role we expect youth to have in our communities.  We should be asking young people to take the role of leadership in the public sphere, producing new ideas and participating in decision-making.  That’s the kind of service we admire in business leaders and elder statesmen and public intellectuals but feel uncomfortable with youth engaging in.

More and more schools are requiring community service for graduation because in a world where students are bombarded with messages about competition and achievement and test scores it’s worth teaching there’s more to life than earning good grades to get a high-paying job.

But educators, nonprofits, and parents should be teaching young people that the community doesn’t just need your menial labor, but also needs your ideas.  And your courage to raise your voice and challenge us to build a better world is by far the most valuable service you can give to your community.

In Defense of Optimism: How I Became Disillusioned with Disillusionment

martin-luther-king-and-malcolm-x1This blog gets its name from a famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote:  “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Today I’m thinking about the hope and faith held by Dr. King and the importance of optimism.

I read a great story about King today:

Harry Belafonte tells a story in his amazing memoir, ‘My Song,’ about King being challenged by his SCLC deputies on his accelerating radicalism generally, and the Poor People’s Campaign specifically, just a week before he died…  Belafonte quotes King telling the group, gathered at the singer/actor/activist’s New York apartment: ‘What deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.’  When Belafonte asks what that means they should do, an exhausted King tells him:   ‘I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.’

This is the kind of optimism that looks with wide open eyes at the reality of the world and decides not to dismiss it and withdraw from it, but to engage it and reshape it.  King realizes he is fighting to be part of an America plagued by poverty and war.  But he not only believes that marginalized people can be included in this society, but puts them in the role of heroes: those who through their liberation and inclusion can lead the movements needed to heal it.

Many activists are cynical people.  It’s hard not to be, organizing reluctant people to fight uphill battles against a powerful status quo.  Anger is an important motivator.  But people are never truly called to action without that seemingly-impossible combination of anger and hope: An understanding of the world as it is, and a deep belief in a vision of the world as it should be.

In fact, optimism itself is fundamentally necessary to the spread of a worldview that supports progressive change.

Conservatism is deeply dependent on pessimism.  The foundation of the right-wing narrative is pessimism: basically those promiscuous gay birth-control-using kids these days and all those dangerous criminal brown and black people are taking over America, crumbling its moral foundation and taking all our tax money to spend on drugs.  Therefore, beef up the prisons and the military, dig your heels in on traditional practices, and slash the social safety net.  The fact that most people believe teen birth rates, drug use, and violent crime are rising right now when they’re actually all plummeting in the US is a testament to the power of conservative fear messaging.  Every time you spread the idea that this country is going to shit, a Republican gets elected somewhere.

I was raised with pretty cynical politics.  For most of my life I believed that America was irredeemably racist, materialistic and violent.  My political consciousness developed largely through 3 national moments: The dismantling of civil liberties in the early 2000’s and horrifying start of the Iraq War, the failed push for immigration reform in 2006 when I started watching cable news and was stunned by the swell of public hatred towards immigrant families, and the financial crash in 2008 and following years of heartless austerity as I worked to get a public education in a system that was crumbling around me.  Disillusionment came easy.

It took me actually doing work to make me disillusioned with disillusionment.  I worked on campaigns that beat bank lobbyists to pass legislation raising tens of billions of dollars in federal student aid and defeated big oil at the ballot box in California.  I stood behind Nancy Pelosi at her press conference in San Francisco to announce the passage of historic health care reform.  I helped organize Oakland residents to force big developers to guarantee thousands of living-wage local-hire jobs targeted at those who needed them most.  I turned out the vote to raise enough revenue to finally balance California’s budget so the youth I work with today are dealing with how to restore budget cuts in their schools, not how to make them.

And sure, I was a very small part of each of these victories and I know they each would have happened without me.  But not without a lot of people like me.  The real transformation was not the impact I had on this work, but the impact this work had on me.  It made me see myself not as someone passively affected by the conditions of the world around me, but as an agent of change.  It made me believe in the power of people like me, young people and people of color, to be neither the villains nor the victims in the story of my country, but the heroes.  I began to believe in a different story, one that ended happy.

I deeply believe that the forces of peace and equality and enlightenment throughout history tend to win in the end.  I’ll admit I’m going on faith and a loose grasp of history given to me by what’s left of California’s public education system.  But I believe victory in the battles we fight today will one day feel just as inevitable as the battles fought by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

Practicing optimism is not just about motivating yourself or feeling happy.  It’s about changing the dominant narrative about our world.  It’s about telling stories of hope where we are the good guys and we win.

So the next time you see some corny Upworthy link that says “This 3 minute video will restore your faith in humanity” maybe you should watch it.  We could all use our faith in humanity restored sometimes.

Playing the Inside Game as an Outsider

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This week I read two of the most interesting articles I’ve seen in a while.  The first is an interview with the founder of Health Care for America Now (HCAN), the alliance of major organizations created to pass healthcare reform, easily the biggest public policy change in a generation, which closed its doors at the end of 2013.  The second is a profile of the Working Families Party (WFP), which many credit with the surprise victory of Bill de Blasio, the populist mayor-elect of New York, who ran on a message of fighting economic inequality and is seen as a symbol of a new era in America’s largest city.  You should really read them both yourself, it’s hard for me to do them justice.  But both pieces made me reflect on the idea of “the inside game” and “the outside game” in politics

Some activists believe only in the inside game (lobbying, legislative analysis, running for office), while some believe only in the outside game (organizing, protesting, moving the public through mass communications).  Like many others, I believe social change is only possible with a combination of both.

But more importantly, I believe that it must be the same people, the same organizations, at the same time, that play both the inside game and the outside game.  We cannot be content to have some people within our movements doing electoral politics and others doing grassroots organizing.  The inside players will become out of touch and unaccountable to the grassroots, while the outside players will become marginalized, ineffective and powerless.  We have to build organizations that can play the inside game as outsiders.  Organizations that engage with the Democratic Party and have the weight to sway elections, but that maintain independence and don’t take marching orders from Democratic elected officials.

From the profile on the WFP:

“Like many who came out of the 1960s left, Cantor came to realize that community organizing and movement building were both indispensable and insufficient to win lasting change. He still identifies with those movements, but his distinctive aptitude has been to find ways in which the electoral process can advance progressive goals. “I feel we’re in a long line of people going back to the abolitionists: the populists, the suffragists, the labor activists, the civil-rights workers,” he says. “These were all extra-parliamentary movements. We strive to be like them, and we recognize we have to contest for these values through the state, through elections. That’s what most people think politics is. That’s our role.”

But of course elections don’t lead movements, movements precede elections.  HCAN began building the momentum for healthcare reform in 2007, while the presidential election was over a year away.  They managed to bring all the Democratic candidates together around roughly the same healthcare plan.  Edwards’, Clinton’s, and Obama’s policy proposals on healthcare were surprisingly similar, and this was no accident.  Even the differences between candidates disappeared once it came to actually passing the law (Obama opposed the individual mandate as a candidate, but ended up adopting it and fighting for it as president).

However, when movements and elections are timed well, they provide a point of access for millions who would never otherwise participate in movement-building activities like attending rallies.  An electoral win becomes a symbolic moment, a turning point that gives people the feeling of an inevitable tide turning.  Bill de Blasio’s stunning election in New York City may have been the first time average people felt like the momentum created by the Occupy movement had led to a real victory.  After 15 years of building the infrastructure to win progressive victories at the ballot box outside of the Democratic Party establishment, the WFP was perfectly positioned as public outrage over economic inequality had finally begun to take hold.

The hard part is that movements depend on perfect timing.  Movements must be sustained by organizations, but it’s immensely difficult to start a new organization in time to capture a movement’s moment of opportunity (at least an organization of the size necessary to have real power).  So perhaps the most effective large-scale movement-building organizations are those like HCAN and the WFP, which emerge by bringing together coalitions of existing community groups and labor unions in order to scale up rapidly.  These organizations had membership bases, relationships with key local players, experienced staff, and a fundraising machine before they even launched.

Yet simply getting all the key players in the same room is not nearly enough.  Some of the biggest failings in the campaign for health care reform (loss of the public option, inadequate subsidies to make insurance plans affordable) came from the Obama administration dismissing the value of the outside game.  Despite Obama’s community organizing background and his team’s talking the talk about everyday citizens getting involved, in practice the administration has taken a very insular, inside game approach to governing.  With HCAN taking a subdued approach and all the outside game action coming from the Tea Party, there was virtually no pressure on the left to hold firm to the principles of healthcare reform.

From the profile on HCAN:

“This was a huge misunderstanding by the Obama folks about power and political dynamics, just a fundamental miscalculation and blindness that was really destructive.  The president’s personality is to be conciliatory. Until the summer of 2011 and the grand bargain collapsed, he always wanted to be conciliatory. He also had people like Rahm Emanuel and Jim Messina in the White House who wanted to totally control everything and did not want any on the left pushing them. But power works differently. They would have been in a much stronger position if they could say, “We’re being pushed really, really, really hard from the left, and so this is the best we can do.”  And then cut final deals when they had to.”

Without the outside game holding a hard line, those playing the inside game are impossibly weak in negotiations.  But being an ideologically pure and independent outsider is not enough either.  Frederick Douglass famously said “power concedes nothing without a demand”.  Yet too often our lists of demands are empty noise shouted from outside the building, barely heard by smirking suits inside the halls of power.  Demands are only demands when they come with credible threats to their targets.  One of the most credible threats is an electoral machine that actually has the capacity to end the career of a politician that crosses it.  That was the source of the Tea Party’s power, and is similarly the source of the WFP’s power.

Maybe the biggest lesson from these two stories is that our work is never done.  A few weeks ago, Health Care for America Now closed its doors, declaring its mission accomplished.  Of course it’s difficult to keep a coalition together after the campaign that created it is won.  But even with the Affordable Care Act, the US healthcare system will likely continue to lag behind most industrialized nations in affordability, access and quality.  If the Working Families Party had gone home satisfied after their signature victory of ending New York’s harsh drug sentencing laws in 2004, they would have never made it to their golden opportunity last year in the aftermath of Occupy.  But this speaks to the fundamental difference between the WFP and HCAN: The WFP grew from a vision of an organization, not a vision of a campaign.  An organization that can play the inside game and win a seat at the table of power while maintaining its independence and values through an authentic grassroots base on the outside.

We don’t need more inside game organizations or more outside game organizations.  What we need are organizations that can do both, that can stand on power and on principle.

9 Ways to Explain Your Nonprofit Job to Your Family this Holiday Season

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It’s that wonderful time of the year when young adults prepare to have public judgment of their life and career decisions become a major topic of conversation among a large group of people they barely know (i.e. their extended family).

So, if you’re a budding medical doctor, congratulations!  You have a commonly known, widely socially accepted and financially lucrative career path and can stop reading now.

On the other hand, if you make less money than some of your friends in food service, working at an organization no one has ever heard of, for a cause that’s too political to be seen as polite dinner conversation in the first place, here’s a helpful guide to help you navigate the awkward conversation.

 

1. “This will look great on my grad school application!”

Many of the olds are under the impression that getting a graduate degree is a smart economic choice.  Whether you’re really planning on it or not, allow your family members to believe you’re going to grad school.  This will keep a glimmer of hope alive in their mind that whatever it is you’re doing now is only a temporary transitional phase.  If there’s anything we learned as teenagers, it’s that the only reason any sane person would actually care about helping their community is to accumulate feel-good credentials to use on their college applications.

2. The bait and switch

Sure, some of your college friends working in the private sector may be making 2-5 times as much money as you, but you’ve got a solid job and that’s more than a lot of people can say.  This tactic taps into the fundamental emotion behind your family’s scrutiny: Fear.  Here’s how it works.  First, when asked about your life, explain how you’re living in a tent in Zuccotti Park or are taking a brief holiday break from chaining yourself to ancient redwoods.  After the horrified backlash, tell them actually you have a job with a nonprofit organization.  In comparison, it’ll sound like investment banking.

3. Start a political argument

Say you’ve got conservative family members who even if they could understand the mechanics of what you do at this “job” of yours, would be deeply morally opposed to it.  Now I know nobody likes to argue politics with their family.  But if you distract them with some sweeping abstract debate about immigration, LGBT rights, Obamacare, etc. you can totally avoid having a specific conversation about yourself and your job.

4. The Obama

On the other hand, say you’ve got a progressive family who is down with the overall idea of someone out there saving the world, they just would prefer you to be doing something a little more… professional.  Most people know Barack Obama did some fluffy nonprofit thing in his youth.  And being the president of the United States is about as professional as you get.  This one works kind of like the grad school tactic, but instead of advanced education, you tell them how your current job is preparing you to run for public office.  Your grandma will get at least a few years of bragging to her friends before she catches on to your bullshit.

5. The straight up lie

Many of the family members you see during the holidays are people you only see once or twice a year anyway.  Would it really be so bad if they were under the not-exactly-true impression you were working for Google?  Prepare by watching The Internship so you have some (possibly exaggerated) details to casually mention in conversation about what it’s like to work for Google.  Important: If there are closer family members that actually know what you do, make sure they’re in on the lie so they don’t blow your cover.

6. Get them to understand how miserable being a doctor or lawyer is

This one requires some advance planning.  In the months leading up to the holidays, talk to all your friends in med school or law school or in their first couple years of work in one of those highly respected professions.  Slowly gather horror stories of cutthroat classmates, rampant adderall abuse, 80+ hour workweeks.  To top it off, bring a practice LSAT test and get your family to take it together instead of playing Apples to Apples after dinner.  Works like a charm.

7. “When the revolution comes, no one will be poor!”

Sure, maybe your working-class family is upset that they went deep into debt to allow you to be the first generation to go to college and by being too idealistic you threw away your one shot to provide financial security for you and your family.  Assure them that the imminent Marxist revolution, which you’re a key player in, will eliminate the class structure.  Once the means of production are seized from the bourgeoisie, no one will be poor, including you!  They’ll totally understand where you’re coming from.

8. Crocodile tears

During the holidays, people get pretty emotional and generally give a shit about other people more than they otherwise would.  So when your family pops the question about your work, stare deep into the distance, fake a sniffle or two, and say, “You know, during Christmas I just think about how many children out there don’t have much to be happy about right now…”  After trailing off, give a serene gaze around the table straight into their eyes and say with finality: “And then I remember why I do the work I do.”  Okay, so say your nonprofit isn’t anything about children or poverty.  This can easily be adapted to just about anything.  Work in environmental sustainability? “You know, during Christmas I just think about how many white Christmases we really have left before Santa’s workshop will be submerged under the melting icecaps…”

  1. The long way

Alright, so maybe you actually care if your loved ones understand the work that you pour your heart and soul into and want them to support and appreciate what you’re doing with your life.  In that case, it might be a little harder.  Most regular folks don’t have any experience with organizations like the one you work for.  Many of our families have education, language, or cultural barriers that make it difficult for them to grasp terminology like “I do development and strategic communications for a social justice organization”.  Our loved ones are often in the midst of a difficult process of developing their consciousness about complex issues like poverty or sexuality or race, and hold conflicting worldviews that they’re trying to reconcile with one another.

First off, no matter what, your family cares about you, and their concern is ultimately motivated by wanting you to be happy, even if they have a poor understanding of what really brings you happiness.  Before explaining anything complicated or technical, tell them how much you love the work you do, how happy it makes you and how meaningful it is to you.

They may never understand the details of most of your day-to-day work, but they will understand stories.  Share with them an anecdote about a person whose life has been touched by your organization and how they’ve changed as a result.  Give them an example of an issue you work on—the problem and its root cause, the long-term vision of the solution, and the small things you’re doing right now to get there.  Tell them the story of your favorite day at work and why it deepened your conviction to do what you do.

Get them to see that this isn’t just a short-term phase by talking about supervisors and mentors you have at work who are a few years further along in their career than you are and the ways you want to develop your skills to reach their level.

Assure them that you’re still growing and being intellectually challenged by bringing up some of the big things you’ve learned through your work.  Give an example of how you’ve applied on the ground the knowledge you gained during the education that they supported you through.

Then when you feel like they’re beginning to get it, turn the conversation to their work.  Ask them how their job is going, what their career goals and dreams are.  Show them the same genuine empathy and respect that you expect from them.  Love them for how different they are from you on the surface and maybe recognize that at a deeper level your values are more similar than you think.

Happy holidays and keep doing what you do.

Shut Out: How Community Organizing is Losing Young People

I originally wrote a completely different post that was my typical whining about why more young people don’t go into grassroots organizing.  I decided to scrap it and start over.  I often accuse my generation of wanting the immediate feel-good of direct service and charity, the socially-accepted professionalism of law and government, the comfortable removed intellectualism of academia and think tanks.  But after reflecting on it for a bit, I decided to set down my glass of haterade and re-examine the barriers within the nonprofit sector that actively keep young people from working as community organizers.  I think that’s a more constructive conversation to have.

I wanted to write about this because I’m becoming painfully aware of how much my employer struggles to fill organizing staff positions.  Yet at the same time I know so many unemployed and underemployed young people.  What’s the problem?  Wasn’t Obama supposed to inspire a whole generation of kids to become community organizers when they grew up or something?  Maybe it’s time for me to stop blaming my generation and start talking about the root of the problem and real solutions.

What’s the problem?

We’re reaching a dangerous time in America’s social movements.  The veterans who run many of our organizations cut their teeth as young people in the 60’s and 70’s at the height of progressive activism.  Today many of them are on the verge of retiring or already doing so.  To keep alive the organizations built by the blood, sweat and tears of those who came before us, we’re all going to have to step up.  Yet as we reach an era with perhaps more potential for progressive change than any other since the 60’s, opportunities for the next generation of movement leaders are limited.

More than anything, there’s a need for organizers on the ground.  No social movement has ever succeeded without organizing people.  You can have brilliantly crafted policy and flawless legal arguments but without heat in the streets, there is no movement.  Power responds only to power.  And without money power, people power is all we have.

So what would I do if I was a young person looking to get into this type of work?  Obviously go to Idealist.org, like any other do-gooder who doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing.  So I did that.  I searched for “organizer” and filtered by “Entry-level position” anywhere in the US.  I only came across 72 hits and after reading through them, almost none of them were what I would classify as organizing.  Most involved providing charitable services or doing administrative work.

Generally the vast majority of community organizer job postings I see require 2-3 years of experience.  But where we’re supposed to get those 2-3 years of experience I have no idea.

Why are so few organizer jobs entry-level? 

Most community organizing nonprofits, like mine, are relatively small local groups in a particular city or region.  They don’t really have the capacity to train people who don’t already know what they’re doing.  There’s no Human Resources department, no instruction manual, no large cohort of new employees fresh out of school you can train all at once every year.  And in a tough field like grassroots organizing where people often work for a year or two before realizing they can’t make the cut, nobody wants to take risks on people.  Even worse, when an organizer leaves the job, it severs many of the relationships they built in the community, and some members/leaders leave with them.

Unlike for-profit corporations, nonprofits can’t raise money by selling stock to investors who want to take a risk with the promise of future gains.  It’s hard for nonprofits to take the long view and investing in young talent just isn’t worth it in the short-run.  And as much as we like to think we operate as broader social movements, we really operate as individual organizations out for ourselves.  Why pay to train someone who’s probably going to be working for some other organization five years from now?

What’s out there for a young aspiring organizer?

Opportunities for people who want to start organizing usually lie with large national groups that have the scale necessary to train lots of new staff.  For example larger unions like SEIU and AFSCME, faith-based community organizing networks like PICO and DART, or the PIRGs and their broader Public Interest Network.  At one point ACORN was probably the biggest trainer of new organizers, but they’re gone now.  And unfortunately, labor unions, faith-based community organizing groups, and the PIRGs are all shrinking.  Some important training programs like the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) have also shrunk significantly from their former reach.

The other option that fills job postings for people looking to enter social movement work is as a canvasser doing grassroots fundraising.  Of course they’re willing to take a risk on us when our job description includes raising our own salary.  What is there to lose?  Although canvass offices provide a point of entry for countless young people into activist work, they have high turnover since many people find the work somewhat unpleasant.  Canvassing also teaches a limited skill set: canvassers get great at making initial contact with other people and getting them involved at a basic level, but never learn how to build relationships, develop leaders and deepen their commitment.

Of course the biggest advocacy groups in the country really do have the money to invest in young people if they wanted to.  (Think the Sierra Club, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, etc.).  But they typically don’t do much grassroots organizing or hire significant amounts of organizing staff.  They prefer to contract with canvass offices to build their membership.

Don’t my endless hours of activism in college count for anything?

Often when young activists finish school, we find the social justice organizations we want to work for don’t take our student activism seriously as real work experience.  It’s devastating to those of us who poured our hearts into this work, while struggling to balance our activism with paid jobs and studying.  But it might be justified.  Most campuses have little to no opportunities to work with well-organized groups that have experienced organizing staff who can serve as mentors.  Many of the best and brightest young activists are sucked into the black hole of student government.  Student activists often graduate with lots of experience planning workshops and movie nights and speaker panels but few of the tangible skills required to win a real issue campaign.

At best, many organizations that claim to do campus organizing will have one staff person assigned to tons of campuses across a whole region, so they spend little time on the ground building relationships, developing leaders, and investing in their skills.  Movement organizations aren’t willing to seriously invest in students while they’re in school, so young people don’t gain the skills they want.  Then young people don’t have the skills they want, so they’re not willing to take the risk to hire them.

So after graduation, many student activists end up unemployed or underemployed.  Maybe we do Peace Corps or Teach for America because even though those organizations are deeply flawed, at least they want us, and kind of stalk us a little bit, which is nice I guess.  Or we end up working in government or charity nonprofits or going back to grad school.  Or slaving away at some dead-end low-wage job just like the people who write all those obnoxious articles scoffing at humanities majors said we would.  Or with a sigh we acknowledge that our parents were right all along and that our pipe dreams of fighting for justice and equality were unrealistic, and we should just settle down and work as a desk-monkey at some faceless corporation and one day buy a house with a white picket fence and a golden retriever.  Either way, a critical opportunity to become an organizer has been missed.

Is there a solution?

Here’s the point I’m trying to make:  We need more young people to become organizers.  But a lack of young people wanting to be organizers isn’t the problem.  (At least not the whole problem.)  There are tons of young people already out there with the right personality type and natural talent who would be willing to give this work a shot and might become badass organizers if seriously given the opportunity.  Here are my recommendations on how to provide those opportunities:

1.  Invest in on-the-ground organizers who spend quality time at high schools, community colleges, and universities.  Tap into the young activists who want to contribute to your work, help them develop tangible skills, and build relationships with the youth you’ll need to staff up your organization someday.  Sure, not all organizations have interest or expertise in youth organizing.  But then why not give some funding to a local organization that does directly work with youth to plug their members into your campaigns? (Side note: Someone should start a nonprofit that specializes in student organizing and contracts with all the big progressive advocacy groups in the country to organize student activists around their issues.)

2.  If you have interns, give them real responsibilities that are the type of things you expect incoming junior staff to already know how to do.  Think: if I hired this person in two years, what skills would I need them to have?  Yes, sometimes you just need help databasing sign-in sheets from your events.  And yes, sometimes it takes longer to train someone how to do something and clean up the mess when they fuck up than to just do it yourself.  But if you view interns as long-term investments in future staff rather than short-term exploited labor who you’ll never see again, you might find that the benefits eventually outweigh the costs.

3.  Link temporary training opportunities to permanent job opportunities.  Develop organizer-in-training programs that allow you to both train and assess people, reducing the risk of hiring entry-level staff.  But make sure those programs have the possibility of a real job at the end of them.  This is probably the most difficult one to implement:  Where’s the budget to pay these people?  Who’s going to supervise them?  In large cities, community organizations and unions could pool resources and hire someone to run an organizer-in-training program that plugs a cohort of students into local campaigns every summer and then pipelines them into whatever job openings are in the area when they graduate.  In a less urbanized environment like where I work, there might not be enough organizations to do that, but on the flip side, if we train local organizers, we directly reap most of the benefits because they don’t have many other places to work except for us.

This might all seem like a lot of money to spend on a bunch of wayward millenials who might quickly change their minds and decide they don’t want to work for you after all.  But that’s the nature of investing in the future.  Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.  Here’s one way to make it more likely to pay off:  If you’re spending all the time and money to grow your own staff, don’t be afraid to recruit them aggressively.  Big corporations give out free Chipotle burritos at their info sessions at college campuses.  Teach for America literally hires student interns whose job is to recruit other students.  But if you’ve been intentionally working with young people, you don’t need any of that—you have direct relationships—take them out to lunch and say “Hey, what do you think about working for us when you graduate?”  The reality is, most young people don’t know what the fuck we’re doing with our lives and could probably use the help thinking it through.

I’ll admit I understand the problem more than I understand the solution.  What I do know is this:  If our movements are going to survive, our organizations will need to take the long view and intentionally invest in a comprehensive pipeline that provides meaningful roles in our movements for young people.

Who Jacked the Word “Responsibility”?

Conservative politicians use the word “responsibility” a lot, especially to sell policies that punish people—for being poor, for being immigrants, for being sexually active women, etc.  If you’re poor, it’s your individual responsibility to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps and get more money, it’s not our social responsibility to give you food stamps so you don’t like… die and whatnot.

Effective political messaging taps into the universal values we hold like freedom, fairness, compassion, etc. that go deeper than our political affiliations.  That’s how you move people who might otherwise disagree with you.

Responsibility messaging resonates strongly with me.  Responsibility was the single most important value I was raised with.  If I could magically create a wordcloud of everything that came out of my mother’s mouth when I was a child (after removing some heavy cussing) “responsibility” would probably be the most commonly uttered word in my formative years.

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My mom’s friend Dana babysitting me and my brother at our home in Oakland in the 90′s

But I was taught a different kind of responsibility than the right wing likes to talk about.  I had a single mom who was working, going to school, and raising children all at the same time.  I admired her individual grit and determination, but also the responsibility of her circle of friends who all pitched in to collectively help raise me and my little brother because my mother gave birth earlier than they did.  Now my mom owns her own home and has an empty nest, and it seems like every month she’s letting a new friend crash at her house until they get back on their feet.  My understanding of the word responsibility comes from the incredible women I was raised by.  It means stepping up to care for our communities in times of need.

The kind of responsibility I learned growing up was not my responsibility to myself, but my responsibility to others, to my family, to my community.  In elementary school I was packing my own lunch, doing my own laundry.  These are things you can reasonably expect a 9 year old to do, the basic tasks of taking care of oneself to not be a burden on others.  But by the time I was a teenager, greater responsibilities were expected of me.  I was cooking dinner every night for the family, making sure bills were paid on time every month.  I stepped up because my family needed me.

I think the right-wing is stuck in what I would call Elementary School Responsibility.  It’s a worldview where responsibility is not about community, but about the individual.  Or as my mom would say, “How to wipe your own ass”.  In their worldview, responsibility is about taking care of yourself alone.  It’s making sure you personally go to a good college, get a job where you make a lot of money, own things like houses, and don’t end up in jail.  Apparently if you get any help doing any of these things, you’ll never learn the true meaning of responsibility.

Unfortunately, this definition of the word “Responsibility” has become the dominant one in America.  But it wasn’t always this way.  On a hunch I looked up historical trends in the usage of the phrases “Your responsibility” and “Our responsibility” in American texts using Google NGram.

YourResponsibilityNGram

“Our responsibility” was the more common usage through most of our history.  The phrase suggests collective action to care for the needs of a larger community.  It grew gradually over time, with spikes during national crises like WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII.    “Your responsibility”, meaning taking care of yourself, takes off suddenly in the early 1970’s and becomes the dominant usage at the beginning of the Reagan Revolution.

Growth of real hourly compensation for production/nonsupervisory workers and productivity, 1948–2011What’s fascinating about this graph is that it mirrors historical trends in income inequality, union membership, the real value of the minimum wage, and other economic data that shows that sometime in the early 1970’s there was a change of direction in America.  Something snapped, where average working families’ incomes no longer grew along with the nation’s economic productivity, as they had throughout American history until that point.  For the last 40 years we’ve been moving rapidly away from a “We’re in this together” economy and towards a “You’re on your own” economy.

 

Those terms were coined by economist Jared Bernstein, but we could just as easily call it an “Our Responsibility” economy and a “Your Responsibility” economy.

This didn’t happen naturally.  Somebody jacked the word “responsibility”.  Or more accurately, a whole generation of right-wing politicians, academics, lobbyists and media commentators did, intentionally and effectively, as part of a comprehensive effort to slash the social safety net, gut regulations, cut taxes on the wealthy and lower wages.  Words matter.  As a people, we’ve allowed our language to be corrupted, and have abandoned “our responsibility” in favor of “your responsibility”.

Now I think making sure over 30 million people can see a doctor when they get sick even if they can’t afford it is the definition of responsibility.  I also think the Republican idea of responsibility these days looks like this:

But we can take back the meaning of responsibility, just as we can correct our course after four decades driving down the path of widening inequality and cold individualism.  We can provide education for our children, take care of our loved ones when they’re sick, and allow our elders to rest.  We can, and in fact, we must.  It’s our responsibility.