Technology in the Service of Social Change

Santa Cruz   I drove over the mountain, as they say in this area, and ended up on the top of a hill with a dramatic view of the valley and water, while visiting the stunning campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. I was there to talk to students who are part of the Everett Program there, where ACORN is new partner, along with other nonprofits. My other motivation was an effort to get a better grip on what the program was all about, as a rookie to the enterprise.

I had gained some sense of the operation over the last year through a series of Skype calls and emails. We are fortunate to have three of the Everett Program students working with our organizers in Bengaluru, India this summer to help create a CiviCRM database for ACORN’s 35,000 member hawkers union there, so this also offered the opportunity to meet the interns face-to-face and shape the effectiveness of their upcoming two months in India with us.

The background I learned from the director, Chris Benner, and veteran staffer and organizer, Katie Roper, indicated that it had been a program for several decades at UC Santa Cruz, but has recently been expanding. Every fall, they begin with about 100 students and by the end of the spring quarter they have about 30 ready to embed in various projects. Historically a lot of the efforts have been California-based, so ACORN is a beneficiary of their growth and expanding vision. Being on the ground I was able to do an early pitch for a team in 2018 to work out of New Orleans to support the tech needs of our organizing both domestically and internationally, which was a nice piece of lagniappe.

Most interestingly was the opportunity to talk to the students for a minute and more importantly to hear their questions and get a feeling for what they were thinking. Spoiler alert: they have a foreboding sense of the world and how it views change and organizers who are part of that process.

Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of classes and groups of young people, but now in the Age of Trump and hyper-polarization,  I was still surprised when the first question asked me whether or not I had ever been threatened in the work and how frequently organizers were assaulted. Later in the session, another young woman asked a question that went to the heart of whether or not a young person in their early 20’s could even play a role in the work and whether or not it was worth the risk to jump into the struggle. At one level, this is encouraging. Young people are taking the temperature of the times, and learning that it’s not pretty out there with love, flowers, and constant applause. If these kinds of questions are any true sampling, they are less naive, and therefore will be better prepared, if they take the leap into the work, to weather the constant storms and flying brickbats. On the other level, it is worrisome whether in these beautiful, redwood towers, people might feel intimidated and fearful of taking the plunge to work in the hardscrabble countrysides and mean streets of the city.

We need an active army of organizers and people ready to work in the allied trades, and that was my message: there’s a role for all of you, but everyone has to put their shoulder to the wheel and help to win the fight in this struggle. I hope they heard me. We need their help.


Continued Global Oppression of Non-Profits

people-holding-hands-standing-around-globeMexico City     This was another rough year for nonprofits in many countries around the world. 

Ever since the Organizers’ Forum visited Egypt, after the revolution, and we visited with the outstanding Center for Trade Union and Worker Services that is the central nonprofit supporting the development of an independent labor movement in that country, I have received regular emailed updates and status reports from them, and it’s often a trail of tears.  Their leader was jailed for some time, and they continue to push back against constant government harassment and false accusations.

Reports from Russia indicate that the closures of nonprofits there continues unabated.  Even very straight-laced, mainline outfits like the Carnegie Institute for Peace, active for decades in Russia, where the Organizers’ Forum also visited some years ago, has pulled up stakes.  Environmental and other groups continued to be hammered.  Some activists with whom we visited have relocated to operate from other countries for fear of jailing and losing their children. 

Under the Modi BJP government in India numerous nonprofits have been targeted, once again largely on fabricated financial issues and often about foreign money.  Greenpeace which had been very effective in advocating around the environmental crises and air pollution issues has been starved of funding and support.  Even the Ford Foundation has found itself under glare of governmental criticism, which must have been shocking to them, but is undoubtedly chilling as they look at the profile of their grant making in the country. 

In China, nonprofit organizations have been required to have a governmental partner in order to operate, rendering any notion of independence moot.  There is the possibility of change though since a draft law has been published in the fall which would offer some definition and protection for charities and promises to allow them to begin to register directly rather than coupled with a governmental partner. 

Observers are watching the results of the election in Myanmar closely.  Under military rule, nonprofits and others were closely watched for any potential criticism of the military and financial support.  Maybe there’s hope here as well.

I have to wonder in the rage for randomized trials of effectiveness and measurement of all manner of metrics for nonprofit performance how much credit nonprofits are getting in some of these countries just for surviving against state power.  Too often politics falls off the list of deliverables, yet political threats and tensions have made many nonprofits and their work around the world essential.  Others make compromises to be able to operate in countries with reactionary or repressive regimes, leaving nonprofits involved in social change and advocacy to sink or swim on their own.  There is no simple formula for change around the world or one size fits all way to measure the obstacles that must be overcome, and they are legion.