“Aspirational Agreements”

Lake Buckhorn, Ontario  Sometimes language is not your friend, but a head fake to turn you from hard reality to some soft slush in the swamp of misunderstanding and mirage.

Over and over again during the ACORN Canada staff retreat the term, “aspirational agreement,” came up in different contexts from the organization’s engagement with various government authorities and corporate executives they had been pushing in one campaign after another, despite the fact that the very term is a contradiction in concept. An aspiration is a hope and sometimes a prayer, a wish and a wannabe, a goal rather than a plan, and something in the clouds that may never find the ground. An agreement is a commitment, a contract, and a binding glue between parties, hopefully operating in good faith, that represents a purpose, a plan, and real consequences for success or failure. An “aspirational agreement” is really nothing at all. It’s a promise on the schoolyard with fingers crossed behind the back. How does anyone in authority ever say something like this without a blush, much less find anyone listening with anything other than rage?

Listening to the reports found this falsehood cropping up over and over when the discussion involved governmental or corporate commitments to developing affordable housing or living wages for example, but nowhere did it seem to populate the conversations more densely than when “community benefits” agreements were on the agenda. Community agreements are not easy to win, but they are critical in trying to hold the feet to the fire of both governments and private, corporate developers, who, frankly, are in the business of over promising and under delivering. Developers are always self-interested and specialize in building castles-in-the-sky to get permission in the clouds and then excuse their failure to deliver based on the facts on the ground. Governments over promise on the short term to maintain support through the next election and hope to outrun the future on the long term. All of which makes the ability of community and labor organizations to win clear community benefit agreements on new projects and proposals in as clear and committed terms as possible, especially when it comes to jobs, housing, wages, social services, parks, and other amenities that are critical to people every day regardless of the profit-and-loss statements to investors later or the election returns in the by and by.

Lake Buckhorn

In Canada, and the United States and other countries are little different, everyone in power seems to be adopting the language of community benefits while running away from true commitments and signed, binding documents as fast as possible. “Aspirational agreements” are the perfect term for deception and disingenuous double-speak signifying nothing.

We’re certainly not fooled, but the effort to deceive certainly makes our work harder and the campaigns more conflicted, since now we have to spend time, energy and resources pulling the crust off before we can get anywhere close to the heart of the matter.


Movements and Campaigns are Important but Funders Everywhere Starve and Misdirect Them

New Orleans   Morocco got me thinking about this problem, but it’s global, it’s pernicious, and it’s probably one of the major things still manufactured in America where the model is made. Money and the people who handle it are undermining and misdirecting actions, campaigns, leaders, and organizations. Yeah, yeah, what’s new, right? I can hear you way over here.

Nonetheless, I still think it seems to have gotten worse in the decade since the Great Recession due to the concentration of wealth over recent decades, the conservative and risk adverse climate of domestic and world politics in the intervening years, and the general cluelessness about what’s on the ground and what matters. There’s more money needed, less available, and fewer willing to take chances on the work.

Part of it is lost in the metrics of global NGOs and foundations. Not believing in action or struggle the work becomes subsumed in bean counting seats on a bus and people attending conferences and workshops. The analytics become web visits, Facebook likes, and retweets as people talk to themselves rather than creating a self-interested base that will fight for the work. Leaders are ever more the educated, articulate and presentable spokespeople and communicators conscious of their own “brand,” rather than the indigenous and enraged emerging from the base.

Talking about the judge’s dismissal of a suit against the Black Lives Matter movement, the judge was implicitly clear that the suit could have gotten traction if the policeman had sued a parallel and supporting institution if they had been part of the mayhem. An example from another movement would be suing one of the Tea Party groups that won a tax exemption after the right attacked the IRS for foot dragging on their applications for a free ride, rather than the random Tea Party groups when they were first springing up. And, why do these groups arise up? In order to provide funders a tax exempt vehicle to dip their feet in the water of the action without having to fully dive in. The activists are left volunteering, while the “suits” are able to collect the money. The judge and the commentators essentially ignored the wink-and-nod involved in all of this, and of course it was not his job to weigh the consequences of what this means for those actually demanding change and trying to win it.

One of our favorite meetings in Rabat, Morocco was with Betty Lachgar, a principled, firebrand activist for individual rights in the country for women, non-religious, and the LGBT community. Hers was a movement that she said was supported by the 50 “members” who were part of it. It was also clear from her remarks that she was a darling of international NGOs and regularly invited all around the world to speak about their annual actions as a favored, “designated leader.” No questions, she was a warrior, but all of this had to send a message to her that there was no need to do the even harder, if less courageous and outrageous work, of doing the outreach to build a base to demand the change. Not surprisingly, as our meeting ended and informally a number of the Organizers’ Forum asked if there was a way to make donations to her movement, she volunteered that there were a number of organizations that were willing to receive donations and funnel them over.

Such fiscal agents are another convenience for the donors and a risk for the organizations themselves. Domestically, the hypocrisy is often worse, since increasingly a number of donors refuse to use intermediaries, forcing fledgling campaigns and movements to either starve or fall in line.

In dealing with so much wealth in institutions and individuals, in the name of making change, why is it too much to ask the giver to share the risk, rather than the organizers and activists? When we watch the billions given in political campaigns, why is it too much to ask donors to forego the tax deduction in order to make sure the money gets to those who make the change, rather than those who organize the meetings and reports about the work of the changemakers?