By Paul Rogat Loeb
Over the years, people have often asked me what social change groups Isupport financially. I've pulled together an informal list and thoughtit just might be helpful to you and others who get my regular articles.The end of the year is often a time when people often figure outdonations (though most of the groups I support are too politicallyengaged to be tax-deductible), so this seemed a good time to send it.Plus if you haven't finished your holiday shopping, it's fun to givepeople a donation in their name to a good cause, rather than one moreobject they may or may not need.
So here's a sample of some of the national groups andcampaigns that I've been donating to (not counting good local Seattleones, like our wonderful homeless newspaper Real Change). As you cansee, I focus primarily on groups that do a particularly good job ofengaging people, particularly people who aren't necessarily politicallyinvolved, as opposed to simply advocating for good policies. I've alsobeen supporting political campaigns that I think can make a difference.As we've seen the last seven years, electoral politics matters hugely,but we also need to build strong and durable citizen movements, andI've focused a fair amount on organizations that help with both.
Of course there are loads of great groups that won't make thislist, including some I give to, so if your favorite group is left off(or if you disagree with some of those I'm supporting), just supportthose that most embodies your priorities.
First, you should definitely have your phone and wirelessservice with Working Assets/Credo. The company was founded specificallyto raise money for progressive causes, and has given away $50 millionsince their inception (subscribers vote each year on where the moneygoes). The company also does lots of additional engagement projects,from voter registration drives to email action alerts, and their topexecutives are good and committed people. Signing up with them helpssupport all sorts of good causes.
Speaking of organizations, I don't know if you're familiarwith the environmentally-oriented auto club, Better World Club, butthey're a great alternative to AAA, which despite its wholesome image,spends major resources lobbying for new road construction and againstnon-car transit options. I found out about Better World through the NPRshow "Car Talk," and they contract with pretty much the same network oflocal towing companies (I've had no problem when I've neededassistance), give out similar free maps, and have other comparableservices. But they also donate to environmental causes, encourage theirmembers to speak out on them, and even have a roadside service optionfor bicycles, though I haven't had to use it as yet.
So on to some organizations, some well-known and others not:
They aren't that well known, but I love Institute for PublicAccuracy http://www.accuracy.org/. With a staff of just six people,they do a wonderful job in securing a media presence for progressivealternative perspectives. Every day they fax and email releases to anarray of media outlets, containing three or four experts weighing in ona specific topic, generally one related to breaking news. The mediaoutlets then contact the experts, generating significant coverage. WhenI???¬??ve been on their releases I???¬??ve gotten everything from the BBC and thelargest newspaper chain in Japan, to the God-awful Bill O???¬??Reilly showon Fox, major commercial radio outlets, and alternative networks likePacifica.
Most people have heard of MoveOn.org by now. They draw plenty of heatfrom the political right, but that???¬??s because they???¬??re probably the mostsingle effective progressive social change organization in terms ofgetting regular people involved. They did get in trouble this yeartrying to be too cute with the headline of their General Petraeus ad(though Petraeus is giving exactly the kind of political cover to theBush administration that Generals Maxwell Taylor and WilliamWestmoreland did for Johnson and Nixon during Vietnam). But no group inrecent years has engaged more ordinary people in progressive politics,particularly new participants, and they're working continually to gettheir over 3 million members not only to sign petitions and email theirCongressional representatives, but also to take additional stepstowards involvement, like participating in local activist networks, orjoining the phone banks whose seven million phone calls helped shiftthe House and Senate in 2006. They do this all with a tiny nationalstaff (less than a dozen people at one recent point), and I've donatedto a variety of their efforts from general support to specific targetedcampaigns. (The political right promotes the myth that they're justpuppets of George Soros, but although Soros did contributesignificantly to their 2004 election efforts, their primary base hasalways been donations from regular members).
I don???¬??t share the theology of Sojourners (traditionalist Christian,tending toward evangelical), but no one has had a greater impact ingetting conservative Christians, including evangelicals, to think aboutpeace and social justice issues. Founder Jim Wallis has been anamazingly influential prophetic voice. Together with the organization,he really has created powerful ripples for change in a constituencythat has been the core grassroots base for people like Bush and Cheney.
WellstoneAction does great regional trainings for progressivecandidates running for office, including people who've never runbefore. Founded by the children of the late Senator Paul Wellstone,they continue his mission of trying to broaden citizen participation.If we're trying to bring new people into politics, they need to learnthe necessary skills to run effective grassroots campaigns. No one doesthis better.
If you've ever felt that progressive organizations end up being lessthan the sum of their parts come election day, America Votes is anantidote. They bring together major environmental, labor, socialjustice, and peace groups to register voters and get them out to votecome. In 2006 they involved 250 different groups--from Acorn and theAFL-CIO to the NAACP and the Sierra Club--to coordinate and magnifytheir impact. And they reached 13 million voters in key swing states..
Democracy for America does similar work to MoveOn, but are a bit moreface-to-face focused. They grew out of the 2004 Howard Dean campaign asa way of keeping participants involved, and do a mix of excellentaction alerts, their own campaign trainings, and general organizing.They're smaller, but more intimate than MoveOn. And they put lots ofgood energy into building local community.
Speaking of Howard Dean, the media may have buried his careerfor trying to shout over a noise-filled room after he lost the Iowacaucuses, but I love what he's doing with the Democratic NationalCommittee. He's trying to recreate the Democrats as a genuinegrassroots organization as opposed to one relying primarily on mediaconsultants and ad buyers, and to do it nationwide, and he's doing thisdespite major opposition from DC insiders. I don't know if he'llsucceed in recreating a Democratic party where people actuallyparticipate on a local level???¬???like they used to do in the old politicalmachines, but without the corrupt ward bosses. But if these horizontalconnections grow enough, we'll see state parties strong enough toactually begin to call the shots on a national level. And to maybe evenmake possible genuine primary fights when incumbents get too complacentand refuse to lead. This is a long-term process, and may not succeed,because the Democrats have let their base atrophy for decades. But forall my frustrations with the timidity of Senate and CongressionalDemocrats, I've felt great supporting the DNC in building that basicinfrastructure of volunteer coordinators and grassroots organizers thathas the potential to both revitalize the party, and help shift itsdirection.
I also think it's important to support individual candidateswho we like, and not just leave this to the big money donors. Theinternet really has made the small donor model more possible, so Ioften use it to add my small contribution to those of thousands ofothers. I'll sometimes give directly to the Democratic SenatorialCampaign Committee or Democratic Congressional Committee, who thenfunnel resources to appropriate campaigns. But I can't say I alwayslike their choices, so more often I'll pick specific candidates who notonly seem to have a decent chance of winning, but also more closelyreflect my values. Those tend to be the ones featured in the emails ofMoveOn or on the pages of politically oriented blogs like the Daily Kos.
I've also been giving some to the presidential campaigns, justbecause the stakes are so high. I like to think my money is going notonly for ads (where my dollars feel a pitiful drop in the bucket), butalso for the campaign infrastructure that actually coordinatesvolunteers, gets people out to vote, and in the case of both theEdwards and Obama campaigns, goes to some lengths to try to buildgrassroots movements that might stick around, no matter who ends upgetting the nomination. As you've probably gotten a sense from recentarticles of mine like Hillary Clinton and the Politics ofDisappointment and Hillary Clinton and My Visa Bill (updated in aBaltimore Sun piece last week, entitled Hillary Clinton and the Ghostsof 2006), Hillary is my distinct last choice of the Democraticcandidates, though still better than the Republican field. I've beengiving most of my money to John Edwards, who I think has taken thestrongest recent stands. I loved how when he spoke to a Seattle unionaudience, he led with not with economic issues where he knew he'd getan enthusiastic response, but with more challenging positions on theIraq war and global warming. A recent CNN poll also flagged him as theonly Democrat to beat all four major Republican candidates. I've alsogiven some money, though a lesser amount, to Barack Obama, who I likeas well, and who really does seem to be bringing new participants intohis campaign in an exciting way, especially younger voters. I was quiteimpressed hearing Obama in Seattle recently, and think he could be bothan effective candidate and president. And though I'm wary about theyway "unify America" rhetoric can blur real policy differences andinterests, I just read a very thoughtful recent piece that links it toObama's community organizing background and suggests it might actuallybe the soundest approach in a nation where people have beendeliberately polarized for short-term political gain..
Of course none of these electoral donations sever the linkbetween money and politics, which we have to do if we are going toreclaim America. By far the best approach is the Clean Elections modelthat I described in Soul of a Citizen, and which has worked wonderfullyin Maine, Arizona, and Vermont. If you raise enough $5 contributions inthese states, you now get public resources to run a competitivecampaign. The approach has brought wonderful new people into politics(I recently heard a great presentation from an Arizona teacher who wasable to run for state rep only because of this process, but could nowbe a rising political star). And it severs the link between campaigningand having to constantly do the bidding of wealthy donors. PublicCampaign is the great group that coordinates the national efforts (withgood work from a reenergized Common Cause and from the campus effortsof Democracy Matters). Many states also have local Clean Electionsefforts that are coordinated through Public Campaign. On a hopefulnote, all the Democratic candidates have said they'll back the CleanElections approach, although Hillary Clinton only signed on afterCommon Cause ran major Iowa ads on the subject, and it will clearlytake a sustained grassroots effort to make this happen.
All of the groups and campaigns I've mentioned so far aremulti-issue, because the challenges we face are so profoundlyinterconnected. But there are also some issue-specific groups that I'vealso been supporting.
I'm working a lot on global warming, as you may know. And moregood groups spring up on the issue each day, like the 1Sky coalition,or the Focus the Nation project that's planning a day of nationalteach-ins January 31. The Climate Crisis Coalition puts out aparticularly useful weekly digest of relevant news in terms of relatedscience, new energy initiatives, and citizen and political efforts, anddoes it on an absolute shoestring. But of all the good environmentalgroups, the Sierra Club seems the most genuinely participatory andgrassroots???¬???which is key for me. Most of these groups lobby and takegood stands, but the Sierra Club really puts energy into developinglocal chapters, which means it connects people to each other and thenencourages them to take the lead. Sierra Club has also been in theforefront in creating labor-environmental alliances, as in itsBlue-Green Alliance with the United SteelWorkers, who along with SEIU,do more innovative organizing projects than any other unions inAmerica.
In fact, the UnitedSteelWorkers have a new Associates Memberprogram, Fight Back America, which anyone can join for $40 (less ifyou're a student or unemployed), and which both builds their base andgives you a connection with union activism even if you aren't in one(or if you're in a union that's doing little to build socialmovements). The other major union-oriented group that anyone can joinor support is Jobs With Justice. They do great work buildinglabor-community coalitions, and have local offices in 23 states.
I also belong to the NAACP because they're still the majorforce working for racial justice and these issues are far from solved.Results is a great grassroots non-partisan lobby group on global andnational hunger issues And I'm a card-carrying ACLU member becausewell--after what Bush, Cheney, and their appointed judges and justiceshave done to the constitution, we have a long way to go to get back toa balance that Thomas Jefferson would have approved of. (interestingly,somewhere around a third of the ACLU's new post-9/11 members have beenself-described political conservatives.)
Finally, we need strong forces pushing outside the electoralarena to get us out of Iraq and to prevent future destructive wars.Lots of the multi-issue groups I've mentioned make this a major focus,but there are also some excellent specific ones working on war andpeace issues, like Peace Action (formerly Sane/Freeze, the largestnational group focusing just on peace issues), and True Majority(founded by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's). I'm not a pacifist, butThe War Resister's League has carried the banner of peace activism for85 years, and I always admire what they do. And there are some localfriends, The Backbone Campaign, who are probably a bit harsher onmainline elected Democrats than I am, but have initiated wonderfullyinnovative efforts with puppets and processions, that have developed anational presence. I also support a couple of primarily Jewish peacegroups that are definitely pro-Israel but push for a major shift fromcurrent Israeli policies), Americans For Peace Now and Brit Tzedek.
Hope this list is useful. If you don't like some of thegroups, I've suggested that's fine, and I hardly expect you to give tothem all. But I thought this might offer a useful window into somecitizen engagement efforts that I admire and try to support.
Have a lovely holiday