In February of 2005 I found myself on the final panel at the Momentum Conference in California. The conference was billed as an intergenerational gathering of donors and activists meeting to reflect on the election and develop effective philanthropic strategies for social change. It was an important moment for the liberal and progressive world, a time of grief and grand vision.
I had just spent the previous three months organizing the national mobilization, www.TurnYourBackonBush.org, which brought over 5,000 people from 47 states to the Inaugural Parade to turn their backs on the President's motorcade. At the start of the panel, we listened to a Power Point presentation by Rob Stein. The presentation included lots of data on how the right wing invests in framing, messaging and media strategies, credits these investments for the right's success over the last decade and then explains why similar investments by the left are so critical for future success. After the presentation, as one of the four panelists, I briefly explained why investing in grassroots and democracy-building organizing would lead to victorious social change movements and significant political change and also challenged the Stein analysis. I explained that organizing people to be involved in the decisions that impact their lives is the way to create strong effective democratic institutions and it is these institutions, groups and movements that will be capable of challenging the right wing. I explained that there is little understanding let alone funding for organizing across the political left in our country. Finally, I explained that the right wing has invested significant resources in organizing people into their growing right wing movement. But I couldn't help but think I wasn't getting through.
Six months after Momentum, Bush's popularity is at its lowest point in his presidency according to national polls. Yet, we are facing a consolidation of power behind Bush's brand of Republicanism. And with this consolidation comes cuts to critical programs and services and real threats to our civil liberties and our basic human rights.
Stein's analysis has much in common with the book "Don't Think of an Elephant" by George Lakoff. Subtitled "the Essential Guide for Progressives" the book has become just that, the guide to liberals and Democrats working to "take our country back" from conservatives and the Republican Party. In the book Lakoff calls on liberals to build the framing and messaging infrastructure that can outmatch the conservative's. Stein and other wealthy liberals have answered his call. As I learned from the Washington Post, Stein's Lakoff-inspired effort, the Democracy Alliance, has already raised 80 million dollars (from 80 or more individuals) to invest in liberal think tanks, and there is another 120 million on the way. This 200 million dollars will be a boon for professional organizations that are good at framing, creating talking point memos and policies. They have studied the Republican right and they believe that the liberal left must mimic the right wing in order to win.
But is it really true that well-heeled think tanks, rather than grassroots organizing, are the main reason for the resurgence of the right in America? And should we look to the right's solutions for the left's problems?
It is not too late to raise these and other important questions. It is critical that we challenge this approach and other approaches that aim at finding the panacea to what ails the left in our country in new big-budget organizations. And it is not too late to educate and inspire donors to do what no other generation of philanthropists has done: adequately fund social change movements in this country.
As a community organizer I know there are no silver bullets when you develop strategy. I know that grassroots groups and emerging movements are successful when strategy is developed by a diverse group of people committed to exploring new and creative ideas and taking action together. I know that most groups have trouble funding their basic operations let alone hiring organizers. And I know how far grassroots groups can stretch a dollar, not to mention a thousand (and none that I have worked with ever got a shot at stretching a million).
As a donor I know how exciting new ideas are - especially when I am told that I can make a real difference. But I have also learned that as a donor there are many groups that are doing great work that without our support will never get mentioned in the Washington Post let alone accomplish their critical mission.
200 million dollars would fund 1,000 grassroots organizers for five years (each making 40 thousand per year - more than most organizers currently make). One thousand full-time organizers could strategically support existing and new grassroots efforts and emerging movements, strengthen and build new coalitions, plan and implement creative campaigns, and develop media strategies and framing to challenge the right wing and build effective alternatives.
Such an investment would not be a silver bullet or panacea. There are no such things when it comes to democracy building. However, if these same donors, and others like them, could learn about other approaches to social and political change, we might actually create meaningful and lasting change together. Creating these opportunities, along with significantly funding movement building and grassroots organizing, are two important challenges before us.
But those of us who believe in organizing as the way to build democratic power can't wait for the wealthy donors to support us. In fact, the focus on liberal donors as the main source of liberal power is part of the problem. Their help is important - but we need to move ahead regardless.
For more insights on learning lessons from the right and building a powerful progressive movement check out this article: Wrong About the Right by Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bhargava.