Sunday, October 19, 2008

Organizing to End Poverty, 21st-Century Style

Wednesday was National Blog Action Day on poverty. Since I work at an anti-poverty agency, I had a lot to say about the topic, and I've been writing about how to end poverty all week. Here's the conclusion: It's necessary. It's possible. But it will take more than my agency can do, and more than politicians will do on their own.

Strategy 3: A New Social Movement

Even well-meaning liberal politicians consistently put other issues over poverty. Just a week ago, we saw the majority of Congress vote to give $700 billion to banks--with hardly a thought about the new wave of homeless people that are about to created, as banks evict people from houses on which the mortgages have been foreclosed.

Poor people and their allies don't have the money to buy politicians' attention. What we do have is numbers. Especially in an election year, elected officials run scared when they hear a large number of people all clamoring for the same thing. This election is almost over--but your Representative in Congress and most of your state and local officials face elections again in 2010. For them, the election never stops. That gives us an opportunity.

We have a long history of social movements for change in this country. In my lifetime alone, we have the Civil Rights Movement and antiwar movement , the women's and gay liberation movements, the antinuclear movement, movements to abolish nuclear weapons and to support people's movements in Central America, and the movement against global corporatism and for global democracy. We can learn lessons from them about how to get large numbers of people organized: not just for a rally or demonstration, but for the long haul.

We can combine those lessons with 21st century techniques. Meetups, viral messaging, DIY video, databases, Facebook pages, other online social networks, and yes, blogging: we can take advantage all of these techniques to get people to act as one. Technology does not replace face-to-face organizing: it empowers organizers. MoveOn does it. The Obama campaign has done it. We need to learn how to do it, too, but not to get candidates elected and then to forget about them. We get them elected, and then we hold their feet to the fire of public outrage.

It's not only the politicians who need to feel the heat. Banks that evict good tenants just because the owner of the house where they rent is in foreclosure need crowds on their doorsteps, at their stockholder meetings, writing Wikipedia articles about them, doing Michael Moore-style name it. Employers that keep wages down and squash unions, media that spend endless inches of print or minutes of air time on the lifestyles of the rich and famous but haven't a moment to spare all week for the poor...the possibilities are endless.

There's a lot of work to be done. If you want to join in but you don't know where to start, write me for suggestions. As a rabbinic saying states, "It is not incumbent on you to finish the task, but neither are you free to abstain from it."

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