In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

I've been frustrated with Greg's series, at first because it seemed to me that he was out to `take down' something that I've put a lot of myself into. I worked in the PIRG world for many years--all my adult life. I was one of the people who built Grassroots Campaigns. I've since moved on from GCI, into a new life; but it still means a lot to me. I've had the kind of experiences that simply can't be nailed down in a few blog posts; Greg, on the other hand, worked for us for ten weeks.

But I'm also frustrated because as he pieced together his critique, I knew that it was something that essentially rings true. And the period of time that Greg worked for us was one of the most intense phases in all my experience with this model. It was intense enough to burn me out almost entirely. In the course of an extended, heated off-blog discussion with Greg, I decided that I would try to help this discussion by providing some context from above. (This is cross-posted from Kos.)

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Strip-mining the Grassroots (conclusion): Toward a progressive canvass model

bumped - Matt


(This will be the final post in this series. I apologize for the delay -- my time was taken first by YearlyKos and then in preparation for my next series.)

Grassroots Campaigns Inc's canvassers are out in twenty some-odd cities right now, wearing Democratic National Committee t-shirts and asking citizens if they 'want to help end the Republican majority.' They tell people that they are 'working to build support for this November's elections'; they imply that they are part of the DNC's 50 State Strategy, and they claim that a 'big show of grassroots energy' in the x days before the election will ensure victory for the party. Finally, they say the best way to help is with a $100 check made out to the DNC.

This is all rather misleading.

First of all, GCI's canvass campaign is entirely separate from the DNC's 50 State Strategy (more about this separation here, 1/3 of the way down); it's not a field organizing operation, but a financial base-building operation. And as with most base-building operations, most of this money will actually go to cover the canvassers' own overhead -- the DNC's benefit is primarily in the long-term, from the new donors added to its membership rolls. When it comes to influencing the 2006 election, those $100 checks would be far more effective if given directly to state or local parties.

The underlying justification for the campaign is that each donation is an investment that strengthens the donor's bond with the Democratic party. But so far in this series, I have  argued that this is an unhealthy investment relationship. These canvassers are not trained to articulate the Democratic party's message, and they are uninformed about the state and local politics. They are instructed to direct every conversation towards the maximum possible donation, and to cut off conversations that don't appear to be headed that way. The young, passionate management staff works for less than minimum wage, 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, and almost inevitably burns itself out. The result is a system that is efficient at getting names onto a list -- but at what cost?   

This canvass campaign is adopted from the same model (developed by the PIRGs/Fund for Public Interest Research) that has driven much of the non-profit progressive world for decades. Some have argued that this model of activism is a fatal shortcut that has inadvertently helped to strand the Left in a quagmire of civic disengagement. But we need models for effective collective action, now more than ever. This post will look for a way forward, towards a professional, sustainable, progressive model. (It will be specific to the DNC's campaign, but I believe it's an example of the kind of rethinking that is needed throughout the world of this model.)

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Strip-mining the Grassroots (pt 6): Joiners vs fighters (or: civic conscription)

(This is the sixth in a series of posts about a particular breed of ground operations that is increasingly popular among progressive organizations. I'll argue -- and I'm not the first to do so -- that this model of 'grassroots' activism is unhealthy for the progressive movement; that it saps vital energy and does not effectively advance our cause.)

In this series, I've written about the PIRG/Fund canvassing model, which is currently being outsourced (through Grassroots Campaigns, Inc) by the DNC and MoveOn for their field operations. In my first three posts, I described how these canvassers appeal to potential donors about the urgency of a given cause, but ask only for monetary contribution, even though this money is just used to pay for the operation itself. In my fourth post, I discussed the unsustainable working conditions in these operations. In the last post, I analyzed the canvass model as a wholly top-down operation in which each participant is interchangeable and all interactions are scripted. In this post, I'll contextualize this curious form of 'activism' within the history of American civic life.

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Strip-mining the Grassroots (pt 5): Grassroots Campaigns, Inc's canvassing model

(This is the fifth in a series of posts (cross-posted from DailyKos) about a particular breed of ground operations that is increasingly popular among progressive organizations -- its clients now include the DNC and MoveOn. I'll argue -- and I'm not the first to do so -- that this model of subcontracted 'grassroots' activism is unhealthy for the progressive movement; that it saps vital energy and does not effectively advance our cause.)

In this series so far, I've written about the DNC's recently-relaunched direct fundraising campaign, which is operated by an organization called Grassroots Campaigns, Inc (GCI). In 2004, GCI's campaign claimed to be engaged in the cause to 'beat Bush,' when in reality the money it raised essentially only paid for itself. I've described this operation as being shallow (unengaged in healthy progressive activism), narrow (focused only upon raising money), and driven by unsustainable working conditions. But GCI's 2004 campaign didn't just happen out of nowhere--it is part of a long tradition of 'grassroots' campaigns, the most recent in a history that might be uncomfortably familiar to many of you...

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