Tag Archives: National Welfare Rights Organization

Understanding the True Values of Fran Piven

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.


Power and Paradox of Cloward & Piven “Breaking the Bank” Strategy

Toronto Fran Piven is a brilliant scholar and political theorist, still vitally engaged

Glenn Beck crazy about Fran Piven

Glenn Beck crazy about Fran Piven

at the cutting edges of her work while still affiliated with CUNY’s Graduate Center, and someone I count as colleague and friend over our 40 years.  We spoke months ago.  She called for advice about how to handle the sudden interest in her work by Glenn Beck and sneak artist video bloggers who had tricked their way into her home pretending to be students engaged in the same pursuit of truth and justice.

My advice:  water off a duck’s back – ignore it.  The old Huey Long axiom, as quoted by the great LSU historian, T. Harry Williams:  “there is no adequate defense for a public attack.”  In essence let it go.

Fine advice that was!  It now develops some of the whacks have been threatening enough to require Professor Piven to report them to the FBI, which knowing Fran, she would not have done lightly. My rule of thumb for the Beck crowd had been “delete” and “ignore.”  God knows where to draw the line these days.

The irony of all of this is that we are dealing with the power of an article that Fran wrote with her partner Dick Cloward in The Nation in the 1960’s which argued famously for a so-called “break the bank” strategy to achieve what I now call “maximum eligible participation” and in this case that mean the very basic achievement of the full benefits in the welfare system of the time that eligible families were entitled to receive.  “Breaking the bank” was a rhetorical flourish essentially arguing within both a kinder liberalism of that time, hard as it may be to believe now, and a more palpable fear, particularly of race and riots in the urban core, that government policy makers would inevitably be forced to attempt to calm and co-opt the poor and therefore raise the grossly inadequate benefits to something more humane.  Is that radical?  Hardly!  It was a fine piece of strategic thinking coupled with the kind of phrasing that attempted to force policy change and organizers into action.   Fran should be proud of the power of that piece, no matter how mangled and misunderstood by Glenn Beck and his followers.

The irony obviously is that at the time Fran and Dick were both fierce and patient advocates of such a strategy in the face of their disappointment that in fact the leadership and organizers of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) under Dr. George Wiley though sympathetic to the aims and paying lip service to the advice would neither adopt nor implement the strategy.  This led to long, fascinating, and bitter debates.  As a young organizer with NWRO being a part of these late night discussions at places like Bucky’s Town, Maryland and elsewhere was exciting and dramatic as organizers picked sides and struggled with the issues and devastating arguments that Fran would make or the passionate positions that Dick would take.  In the end of the day they were critical of both NWRO and organizers in general in many of their subsequent works for having been “distracted” into building organization, rather than following the arc of movement and protest to the maximum levels of pressure for change.

So now paradoxically, Beck is essentially blaming Fran Piven for a strategy that was brilliantly articulated, yet left her sometimes seemingly bitter because it was a strategy that was  effectively discarded.  Fran has written that in fact NWRO and its organizers were less useful in increasing welfare rolls than the waves of VISTA volunteers assigned to Community Action Programs around the country who signed up many eligible families for welfare not for any political or policy reasons, but simply because it was what they thought they were supposed to do in the War on Poverty.   There is a clear record of this in Fran’s lectures, remarks, and writings for decades, such that many of us as organizers have often chafed at the arguments and been equally passionate in the rebuttal that we were not simply chasing members and dues rather than creating change and power, as she and Dick sometimes seems to argue.  Being interviewed by a conservative writer for a piece published last year, he was astounded to find that Cloward and Piven were not the St. James version of the Bible that guided us in the work at that time.

All of this would require Beck and the right wing zealots to actually read more of Cloward and Piven than an article in The Nation. It is probably easier to ask for civility as many are doing now in the wake of these threats to Fran Piven than to actually ask people to read her work and face reality both then and now.

Of course conservatives should be very careful what they are asking by once again raising Fran’s ideas and advocacy to the forefront of discussion in these times.  This time around it might be different.  Organizers might take a hard look and debate anew some of these old arguments and find there are some blueprints worth adopting and finally putting into practice.