In Response to Activism Inc and CanvassingWorks .org
by Lockse, Thu Oct 19, 2006 at 11:12:38 AM EDT
So, a book just came out that trashes the organization for which I worked for eight years. Dana Fisher's Activism Inc argues that the Fund for Public Interest Research--along with the Public Interest Research Groups and Grassroots Campaigns Incorporated--is engaged in a rootless mode of activism that is "strangling progressive politics."
I have some problems with this.
My first problem is that Fisher has made some pretty bold, broad claims--and backed them up with really bad writing. This review by Jim B in Counterpunch is probably the most insightful and generally on-the-mark piece you'll find on the matter, and he says:
"It is an analytically incoherent book... a shallow, muddled, unrewarding account."
But that's just my first problem. Jim B continues:
For all its weaknesses, Activism, Inc. provides a useful stimulus to debate and reflection... [If] her characterization of the Fund for Public Interest Research's canvass operation is accurate, then the Fund...represents a truly counterproductive force sucking energy out of the progressive movement it purports to strengthen.
This is my second problem. Even though Fisher's arguments are sloppily made, at times vague and at other times shallow, her characterization of the Fund is in fact largely accurate. If anything, it doesn't even fully expose the true problem.
The Fund recently put up a page in its defense: CanvassingWorks.org. The website makes a couple of specific responses to Fisher's argument -- for instance: their point that 75% of the Fund's canvassing is for the PIRGs would seem to break her frame that "outsourcing" is the problem. (It wasn't a very useful frame anyway.) But the rest of this website was written years ago, and is repeated in every campaign - it's a rap, just like the raps that the canvassers take to the door to direct people as quickly as possible to donations. Raps are designed to answer any question about the "model" as quickly and broadly as possible. Part of this rap is simply the standard recruitment line into Fund/PIRG jobs--but other parts are used to ask employees to "volunteer" until 9pm every night, to shame them when they ask for a day off, to force them to pay office expenses out of pocket. But this rap hides a real vulnerability - and you can see that most clearly when the site actually tries to grapple with the implications of Fisher's conclusion, which is not that this work is "just not for everyone," but that it is actively causing harm even to those who want to stick with it. Observe how they react to this: Woody Holton writes that "Fisher's contention...is so redolent of just what the oil and chemical companies, the gay bashers, and the right-wing religious zealous want us lefties to believe." That's such an absurd insinuation! Rather than just respond to Fisher, they had to turn her into "Them." It's rhetoric designed to kill dialogue. But this dialogue needs to happen.
The Fund's vulnerability reveals itself in the very name of the website: "Canvassing Works." Of course canvassing "works"--not even Fisher is saying "canvassing doesn't work." And of course a number of people working in the progressive movement have come from the Fund. But what many are questioning is whether FFPIR and GCI are failing in the responsibilities that come with being the largest employer of progressive activists, whether they are actually making the best possible contributions to the progressive movement, and whether those people who've made it out of the Fund have done so in spite of the problem. In response to those questions, the rap can only make assertions.
And in that way, Activism Inc has actually let The Fund off the hook. Fisher gives us somewhat useful data (showing that attrition rates of Fund staff are nearly 90%, and virtually none of the Fund's clients has hired any staff from the canvass pool), but rather than asking hard questions, she made this an intellectual exercise, clinging to the "outsourcing" issue and making broad inactionable observations about the problems with the Left. The real problem here is that this system is simply not accountable to any of its thousands of staff and hundreds of thousands or even millions of "members." Fisher pitters around this fact, and when it comes to the big question--Do the ends justify the means?--she simply asserts that they do not. This allows the Fund to assert right back with the rap.
Enough raps. In my last post, about GCI's 2004 DNC campaign, I wrote about how hard we pushed our canvass- forgoing things like voter registration, volunteer recruitment, party advocacy, and even basic human decency with regards to the way we treated our staff. Were we helping to beat George Bush? Not really. Was what we were doing still a good thing for the Democratic party? Yes--in the narrow sense of an expanded donor file. Was it helping to build a better movement? Three months ago, I didn't know. Now, the more I look at it with a critical eye, without deference to the rap, the closer my answer is to "no."
That is not an assertion. I've seen ruthless union-busting of canvassers who had proven their commitment to this work. I've found myself rooting for the DCCC canvassers who protested in demand of minimum wages. I've been shocked by the stories of employees managed with abject disregard and even abandoned when in need of protection. I've realized that almost every one of the dozens of people who I personally hired for two different GCI/MoveOn campaigns walked away feeling like they'd been used--even "violated." I worked with these people, trained many of them, and I know they didn't quit those campaigns because they weren't committed enough, or "didn't get it"--they 'got it' pretty hard in fact. They saw it wasn't working, and they found that they were not allowed to help make it better--because no one, not even MoveOn, was accountable to their commitment. Altogether, I've become ashamed that one of the central lessons of my years of training--recruit, recruit, recruit--has allowed PIRG/Fund/GCI leaders to fall into the attitude that since there are always more people to fill the ranks, there's no need to form relationships based on respect and trust.
Respect and trust. This is the point where the rap dismisses these critics as "complainers," inexperienced and naïve. Point to the near-total attrition rates, and the rap's response is: "Social change is hard work - just read the writing of Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony." (Not everyone can make it as a martyr.) But point to the narrow ends of our campaigns--not educating, not building infrastructure, not investing in the canvassers, just signing people up--and the rap's response is "this is just a business, and we just provide this one service." This triangulation is an effective way for PIRG/Fund/GCI to absolve itself from any concrete responsibility (outside of getting more names on the list)-and it allows the leaders to shirk both the professional standards of business and the true challenges of social change.
Recently, I've been going through all my materials from eight years of work with the PIRGs and PIRG groups, and I came across this quote in Ralph Nader and Donald Ross's seminal book, Action For A Change, which is the book that basically started the PIRG movement:
The emergence of capabilities and outlets for citizenship expression has profound application to ... activity-on-the-job citizenship. Consider the immense knowledge of waste, fraud, negligence, and other misdeeds which employees of corporations, governmental agencies, and other bureaucracies possess. Most of this country's abuses are secrets known to thousands of insiders, at times right down to the lowest paid worker. ... The complicity of silence, of getting along by going along, of just taking orders, of "mum's the word" has been a prime target of student activism and a prime factor leading students to exercise their moral concern.
This was central to the original idea of PIRG: student activists could work together with "citizen activists" in a structured environment to expose the corruption and failures of government and industry. Now, three decades after Nader wrote that book, a new set of "capabilities and outlets for citizenship expression" has arisen in the blogosphere. It was only a matter of time before PIRG itself became a "prime target" of activists "exercising their moral concern"; I never expected to be on this side. But at this point I see it as my responsibility--as an activist and as a believer in PIRG's mission--to break the "complicity of silence" and ask questions (something that never happens any more inside a PIRG/Fund/GCI campaign).
Questions like: does Fund/PIRG/GCI have the resources to run better campaigns? Does Fund/PIRG/GCI have the money to not just give its employees the cafeteria option of health care--but to actually pay for it? Does it have the money to create a well-staffed and technologically-adept administration, so that its employees aren't plagued regularly with mistakes? Does it have the money to reimburse its employees fairly for gas, to pay up-front for the expenses of running an office, to equip them with the proper resources that they need?
I think that the answer is yes, they can. This is supposedly a healthy, even thriving network--its clients are the best funded on the Left--yet, all visible appearances and policies suggest an organization that is still scraping by without the ability to take care of its employees' basic needs. But I simply don't know the truth. In eight years, in positions of executive management, I was never aware of what happens to the money; I only know of two, maybe three people who know what happens to the money--and that itself is close to the root of the problem. I would love to be shown hard evidence that my belief is wrong, that the Fund is "stretching its dollars" as responsibly and effectively as it can--but don't expect that evidence to be forthcoming on canvassingworks.org .
I believe it's the responsibility of other PIRG/Fund veterans to push these questions forward, as well as these: How do the incentives of database-building for Telefund shape the priorities of GCI and Fund campaigns? Does the ownership of Telefund and GCI profit from their contracts? What are the formal channels through which the Fund/PIRG/GCI can receive, evaluate, and act upon feedback? Could the leaders keep more and better staff, and get better work done, by making the job more sustainable ( i.e. less than 12 hours a day, 7 days a week)? Can we build a progressive movement without respecting the commitments and intelligence of the people working within it? And what will it take to get Fund/PIRG/GCI to uphold their own responsibility over the progressive movement's most important natural resource?
(Peter Levine, in his balanced assessment of Fisher's book, asked one more vitally important question:
"Could canvassing actually be made more effective if it became more democratic?" We have seen compelling arguments on these blogs that the answer is "yes." Yesterday in the American Prospect, Heather Booth once again defended canvassing itself against Fisher's argument--but she also subtly distanced the Fund from other canvassing operations, and concluded with this note: "So is every canvass perfect? Of course not. Is there room for improvement? Of course there is. ... As with all our tactics, we need to take a hard look at canvassing, fix what is wrong with it, and build on what is best about it." Agreed. But that's not happening internally. We need to push for more accountability--externally and internally--so that the hard work of improving the canvass can begin.)