Wednesday, August 30, 2006

the politics of organizing

In These Times has a great article this month by Greg Bloom about the half-lives of organizers/canvassers at the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGS).

It's about time that someone has done an in-depth expose of the realities of the PIRGs so-called "organizing" campaigns. The PIRGs success as moneymakers for progressive, and i'd say mainly white, issue driven organizations can't be disputed. But their practice of blowing through hundreds of young people every year to meet their bottom lines is creating a crisis for real, longlasting organizing. The PIRGs collect most of their money through door-to-door canvassing, which usually includes educating sympathetic folks on an issue in 2 minutes or less, then asking for money. How many times do these folks get plugged in to local community campaigns? I'm guessing not all that often. And sure, they get a lot of funds to lobby for legislation around important progressive issues, like health care and the environment. But how does this build power? How does this challenge the structures of power and influence and the cycles of inequity and injustice? How does this build a movement when they are union-busting their own employees?

Bloom has also written a 5 part series about Grassroots Campaigns, Inc, called "Strip-mining the Grassroots", the campaign organization that MoveOn and the DNC have contracted in the last 2 election cycles to do their fundraising and fieldwork. It's a pretty depressing story about the frustrations of the folks on the ground struggling to deal with a pretty rigid nationwide structure set up to get numbers out on election day. Improvisation or getting creative about organizing or building leaders was not part of the gameplan, nor was what to do post November 2nd.

GCI and the PIRGs have a lot in common. And they are helping to alienate a whole generation of young progressive organizers. It's a crying shame. As a former union organizer who has wondered about these multitudes of passionate young (and many not-so-young) activists who have spent a few years in labor and other movement campaigns only to get burned out on the work, i ask myself what would it take for this cycle to end? Is there a way to really do movement building AND not create a whole generation of jaded organizers?

I wrote to Bloom to ask him if there were others talking about new organizing paradigms. He says the National Organizers Alliance (NOA) has a few ideas about how to create more sustainable systems of organizing that hopefully challenge this hella patriarchal and hierarchical model. We definitely need to think of something.

Sure, organizing work is not for everyone. But organizations like the PIRGs and GCI, as well as many labor types, make this work unavailable for almost everyone. To really create a progressive, sustainable movement, we need to think about how to do things differently. A cut-throat attitude might be necessary to fulfill deadlines in tight races and in short term campaigns, but that mentality takes us nowhere if we try to use it down the road--it builds very little that is capable of being sustained past a campaign or election cycle. The folks in charge are not in it to build relationships. They want numbers. They want dollars. They live in the most present, present tense. Their "it's our way or the highway" mantra leaves no room for building consensus or promoting a diversity of views or workstyles or workers. If we are really into challenging the powers that be, we can't continue to be players in the same game, following the same rules. To play by "the master's rules" means that we are still working within the language and reality of oppression. We have to change the model. There's just too much at stake.

See also Beating Bush: Dispatches from the Grassroots Trenches of Election 2004


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