New Orleans There was a full-page profile of sorts on Frances Fox Piven, now an 86-year old professor emeritus of political science of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The headline was, “The Unlikely Revival of a ‘60’s Radical” with the subhead of “Not All Liberals are Ready to March with Frances Fox Piven, The Progressives’ Guru.” I’ve known Fran Piven for fifty years since I was a young, 20-year old head organizer for the Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization, the largest affiliate of NWRO, the National Welfare Rights Organization. For organizers, Fran has never been out of fashion, so the notion of a revival is somewhat bizarre, a little bit like claiming Columbus discovered America when the natives have always known and claimed this land as their own.
I can imagine Fran having mixed feelings about reading this piece. She called me when the James O’Keefe crew had tried to scam her to compare notes and ask for my advice, which given the fighter she is, was likely less welcomed since I counseled, “ignore it, it’s water off a duck’s back.” In the Glenn Beck and Fox News attack days she joined me as one of their verbal punching bags a decade ago, so at least she would be happy this wasn’t a frontal attack. But being identified with liberals and seen as having any standing – or interest – in the Democratic Party would have surprised her.
I don’t need to defend Fran Piven. She’s more than able to defend herself and can eviscerate most in any debate. She has never shied away from her positions. Nonetheless, Fran and her writing and life partner, Richard Cloward, deserve to be understood as both what they stand for, and who they really are. The article and perhaps some of her new followers don’t fully appreciate their arguments. Yes, she believes disruption is tactically important, but that’s because she believes in mass movements as vehicles for change for the powerless, especially the poor, and mass movements are notoriously unpredictable. Movements alter the status quo and change the normal equations and calculations of power. That’s why they work and find their own water level. That’s why I have worked so hard to build organizations, so they are ready to exploit the opportunities when movements arise to accelerate the opportunities for change.
Fran and Dick were not anarchists. Certainly, they were willing to argue with organizers. I know because I’ve been part of those arguments, but they believed in organizers and organizations, despite taking shots at how both spent their time and resources. As organizers, we could appreciate the value of committed advocacy and strong positions, so that was all fair and made us better at the work.
Seeing Fran as one-dimensional, as some of her critics and fans try to position her, is a misunderstanding of Fran Piven and her contribution to us all. From welfare rights through ACORN and beyond, Fran would never refuse an opportunity to be present and engaged. She never required perfect agreement or sycophants, because she believed in acting, organizing, and the fight itself. The one quote in the Times that captures Fran without contradiction was the ending lines when she says, “Working on any political project is enormously fun. You don’t have to win for it to be really terribly satisfying. You get good friends. You do the right thing. You test your courage.”
These sentiments more than the hundreds of thousands of words she has written or in my case stated to me directly, made her – and Dick – invaluable as counselors and touchstones for us as organizers whether we followed perfectly any particular path they might have advised. We knew they were with us regardless. They believed as we believed. They hoped as we hoped and dreamed as we dreamed. They wouldn’t fold. They were warriors committed to the cause. We honored and respected them.
For fifty years, she could always be counted on without reservation. Regardless of anything else, she didn’t need you to be her friend, but she valued you and you, her, as a comrade.