query: progressive suburban organizing

colist at comm-org.wisc.edu colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
Fri Sep 8 08:34:42 CDT 2006

[ed: thanks to Harry for replying to Gail's query.]

From: Harry Frank <harryf at sover.net>

I thought this was interesting in general and may apply as an approach 
to your work.

Harry Frank
Community Organizer
Vermont Children's Forum

Activist Messaging: CGI and a Moment of Transition

By Dan Kornfield

The International AIDS Conference, the largest gathering of scientists 
and policymakers discussing HIV/AIDS, recently concluded its biennial 
conference -- dubbed AIDS 2006 -- in Toronto. A much smaller and newer 
group, the Clinton Global Initiative, will host its second annual event 
Sept. 20-22 in New York City. CGI 2006 will be an invitation-only event 
intended to bring influential and wealthy people -- star CEOs, 
celebrities and former and current heads of state -- together with 
activists. The objective is for each participant to make a defined 
commitment in at least one of four social categories: global public 
health, energy and climate change, poverty, and religious and ethnic 

These two gatherings, occurring in the 25th year since scientists first 
began to grapple with HIV/AIDS, represent the sunset of one grand 
activist strategy and the dawn of another. The first strategy, which was 
evident at the AIDS 2006 event, has sought to transform the world by 
appealing to a sense of moral obligation, and has relied primarily on 
governments to be the agents of change. The second strategy, pioneered 
by CGI and others, seeks to transform the world by appealing to a sense 
of personal empowerment, and is looking primarily to corporations as the 
agents of change.

Ultimately, these two strategies likely will blend into a third approach 
that combines elements of both obligation and inspiration. This third 
approach will be heavily shaped by new views, still evolving, on 
corporations' responsibilities in preserving human rights.

The Traditional Approach: Taking on the World

The participants who gather at events like AIDS 2006 tend to strike a 
motivational tone imparting a sense of urgency and dire obligation. 
While this approach is borne up by statistics and has, in fact, been 
effective in attracting millions in government funds, it is a poor 
motivator for individuals and an even worse one for corporations. 
Further, it places the AIDS research community in a difficult position: 
The rhetoric risks generating as much ambivalence as action among the 
public, and possibly demoralizing the activists who have devoted 
substantial parts of their lives to working on the problem.

Historically, the message that has been conveyed by AIDS activists -- 
including those at the recent Toronto conference -- is that the tragedy 
of the disease has reached incomprehensible proportions and that, though 
many will die regardless, efforts must be continually redoubled to help 
as many people as possible. Though nods are given for progress that has 
been made, the persistent theme is that many of the most powerful actors 
-- particularly governments and corporations -- are still failing to 
meet what activists cast as their most basic obligations. Medecins Sans 
Frontieres, for example, titled its briefing document for the AIDS 2006 
conference "Too Little for Too Few."

Or, as Pedro Cahn, the new president of the International AIDS Society, 
phrased it: "We will not accept a 'Schindler's list' for HIV in which 
the lives of those who receive treatment are saved and others are left 
behind to suffer and die."

While the approach makes a clear moral appeal, the general tone of 
urgency -- and frequently, thinly veiled exasperation at the state of 
affairs -- may be reaching the limits of its utility from a 
psychological perspective, particularly after 25 years. As activists for 
other causes (such as preserving the environment) also have found, 
success rarely lies in unchanging predictions of coming doom. Some may 
be motivated -- for a while -- to take action, but over time, a sense of 
being overwhelmed in the face of such enormous need tends to push many 
toward disaffection, if not despair. The risk is just as great for the 
activists leading the charge as for those who follow behind them. The 
perpetual, vague, high-stakes cheerleading in which the AIDS community 
historically has engaged eventually sounds tinny and shrill, and is 
exhausting for all but the exceptionally motivated and resilient.

The AIDS community's apparent need to continually face its challenge in 
totality is rooted in history. In the 1980s, the disease was not well 
recognized or understood, and few people took the risks of acquiring it 
seriously. The activist groups that did grasp the scope of the issue, 
such as ACT UP, resorted to bold and creative measures to attract media, 
and ensuing public, attention to their cause. The strategy was partly to 
show the issue in all of its raw ugliness -- an effort to generate a 
sense of moral shock and mobilize immense resources -- and partly to 
humanize the disease, through sufferers like Ryan White.

The strategy was, obviously, effective; few today would dismiss HIV or 
AIDS as a problem of global proportions. But just as obviously, the 
spread of the disease has not been brought under control. The challenge 
now emerging is that, precisely because the proportions of the pandemic 
are so widely recognized, governments and public-private initiatives 
seeking to battle it can find that all but the most ambitious targets 
seem unsatisfying or even paltry. As a result, many wind up setting 
unrealistic goals, performance falls short, and the feeling of perpetual 
failure and disempowerment is reinforced.

Consider, for example, that the International AIDS Society's Cahn has 
said AIDS 2006 participants "must keep pressure on the G-8 leaders to 
follow up on their commitment to achieve universal access to prevention, 
care and treatment by 2010."

Now, it requires little cynicism to question whether the goal of 
universal access by 2010 could be achieved. In fact, it is unlikely that 
even the G-8 leaders who made the pledge truly believed it would be met. 
The goal, which was set forth at the G-8's 2005 summit in Gleneagles, 
Scotland, constituted a revision and extension of previous funding goals 
that already were obviously failing. But politically, it would seem 
easier for world leaders to announce a splashy, unrealistic goal than 
pare down funding when the spotlight was on them. And for their part, 
the activists at AIDS 2006 appear to be operating on the principle that 
-- even if the stated goal cannot be met -- the higher the aim, the more 
that will be accomplished. This principle, however, does not necessarily 
hold true in public policy.

This penchant for grand but unrealistic targets is not unique to the 
battle against AIDS. Under the directorship of Andrew von Eschenbach 
(now the acting head of the Food and Drug Administration), the National 
Cancer Institute stated its goal as "to eliminate suffering and death 
due to cancer by 2015." The choice of phrasing displayed an utter 
disregard for the scope of issues associated with such a complex disease 
and embarrassed the entire body of scientists at the institute.

Charade goals can play well in politics and motivate governments to 
respond in meaningful ways, but they do not play well with businesses 
that, by definition, must take financial commitments and contractual 
obligations seriously. On a range of issues -- wage disputes, emissions 
standards and intellectual property rights among them -- multinational 
companies have found themselves caught between activist demands they 
cannot fulfill and activists' disdain for their compromises and 
counter-offers. Suspicion, if not outright stalemate, results.

 From Schindler's List to Santa's List

The Clinton Global Initiative adopts an entirely different tone and 
approach to goal-setting. The initiative, which was organized last year, 
is intended to motivate entrepreneurs and recognized trendsetters to 
address social, environmental and political problems of global scale. 
CGI's marketing efforts have been designed to generate excitement for 
the annual conferences themselves and keep attention focused on 
outcomes. Celebrities are invited to give the event glitz, heads of 
state to give it pomp, and businessmen to give it heft. Once all these 
people are gathered, they blow their trumpets and give gifts to the needy.

The approach of the CGI is markedly entrepreneurial. Those who sign on 
to tackle certain projects are given the right to take credit for 
creativity and tangible successes, and there are incentives to continue 
with their efforts. The tragic element in global problems is 
de-emphasized in discussions; rhetoric instead favors the potential for 
new ideas and action. In many ways, the initiative seeks to appeal to 
righteous vanity rather than duty. For instance, former president Bill 
Clinton referred pointedly to the "dedication and integrity" of 
participants in a letter accompanying CGI's first annual report, 
released in February, and said all had come to the conference "armed 
with ideas and enthusiasm that were contagious."

This is not to say that the annual CGI event is all fluff. Beneath the 
glitz and fanfare, and at the heart of discussions about health, 
poverty, ethnic and religious conflicts and climate change, the goal is 
to extract from participants a one-year commitment to finance specific, 
strategic projects -- and then hold them to their pledge. Returning 
attendees will be expected to give an account of their activities since 
the last meeting, and the CGI has a full-time research staff that tracks 
their progress independently.

Applying the management theories often used in business, CGI stipulates 
that financial commitments must be tied to projects that meet three 
criteria: Objectives must be original, specific, and measurable.

Though the CGI is still a new effort, the approach appears to have been 
quite successful so far. By February 2006, six months after its launch, 
CGI had secured more than $2 billion, with 30 percent of the money 
coming from corporate donations.

How long the trajectory can be sustained is an intriguing question. But 
it is worth noting that CGI's motivational approach derives in part from 
principles that were used in ancient Athens: deft manipulation of glory 
and shame. Like the Athenians, who limited the size of political 
decision-making bodies to the number of people who could hear a speaker 
talk without screaming, the organizers of CGI seek to keep the 
invitation-only gathering sufficiently small that each participant's 
presence or absence is noticeable. The initiative also encourages 
participants to take on assignments that, while daring, are achievable. 
There is a degree of social pressure in both cases. For participants who 
made a commitment, it would be gauche to show up the following year with 
empty hands and no success stories. Failure to show up -- or, more to 
the point, failure to be invited back because of poor performance -- 
would be deemed even worse.

The Clinton Global Initiative and activists at AIDS 2006 share a common 
objective: both are trying to shape the expectations that society places 
on the powerful in relation to the needy. The tone of the CGI approach, 
however, is crafted to be more compelling for businesses than the 
approach traditionally used by activists. For one thing, it gives 
corporations the opportunity to take the public relations offensive 
rather than forcing them quickly to a defensive posture. It also appeals 
to those who see potential connections between a corporation's 
philanthropic efforts and future business markets.

Of equal significance, there are indications that the CGI organizers 
have studied the history of activist movements and are attempting to 
avoid falling victim to the same problems. For instance, a focus on 
"strengthening governance" that was part of the 2005 agenda has been 
replaced this year by the focus on global health. CGI leaders may have 
concluded that that "good governance" is too large or vague -- or the 
timing too premature -- to be a stated objective for private strategic 
action. The grand but elusive goal, intrinsic to the success of the 
overall mission, has been pared down to one of its smaller, more 
achievable, components.

There are, naturally, limits to the effectiveness of this approach as 
well. Given their responsibilities to employees, shareholders and 
others, corporations cannot play Santa -- or Daddy Warbucks -- without 
constraints. But the dark side of their growing involvement in issues 
that previously have been viewed as the responsibility of governments 
sets certain precedents that cannot but impact the expectations that 
society places on business.

Despite its early successes and the long-term advantages that the 
approach adopted by CGI offers for businesses, the "private empowerment" 
strategy cannot completely replace its forerunner, with its emphasis on 
government action.

Toward a Third Way: Social Issues, Government and Entrepreneurship

Until now, activists have relied primarily upon governments to restrain 
and guide business activity -- to implement regulations safeguarding 
people and the environment. But increasingly, activists are partnering 
with businesses to address such social issues more proactively, and even 
reversing the flow of accountability: Businesses are slowly becoming the 
ones to demand regulation and good governance. Several major 
corporations -- General Electric Co., Royal Dutch/Shell, Exelon Corp., 
and Duke Energy Corp. -- all have begun to ask Congress to pass carbon 
cap legislation, for example; others are demanding that governments of 
developing countries where they operate allocate certain percentages of 
the oil revenues they collect for social services.

Businesses generally do not want to be held responsible for problems, 
such as global health and poverty, that they view as government's 
responsibility. That said, corporations now are becoming more directly 
involved in these issues due to a confluence of factors -- changing 
attitudes toward corporate power in the era of globalization, the impact 
of market campaigns, the realization by corporations that some of their 
vital production sources and markets depend upon stable social 
conditions in developing nations. But there remain very real and 
practical limitations on what they can achieve without government 

During the next few years, the frictions between the old 
(government-oriented) and new (business-oriented) activist strategies 
will play out on a distinctive battlefield: the effort to define the 
responsibilities of business toward human rights. Ultimately, what will 
emerge will be a new social contract for multinational corporations.

As a rule, corporations would prefer not to deal with legal and 
normative obligations above and beyond those placed on them by national 
governments. Nonetheless, as businesses become more directly involved in 
social and health problems around the world, some are adding their 
voices to activist calls for a recognized international standard to 
avoid arbitrary interpretations of their obligations that change with 
time and place.

The issue, therefore, becomes one of defining the minimal obligations 
and ethical mores to which businesses will be held. For example, is a 
"right to health" a basic human right and, if so, what is a 
multinational's resulting responsibility toward its employees, 
customers, suppliers and neighbors? Furthermore, how does this 
obligation translate into management and reporting standards? and so forth.

The answers to these questions are emerging from several directions. One 
is ISO 26000, a corporate social responsibility standard, currently 
under development, that is expected to be published in 2008. Another is 
the work of U.N. Special Representative John Ruggie, who will release 
his final report in the spring of 2007. A third is the Global Reporting 
Initiative, which was recently released in its third iteration. There 
are others as well, and they are generally converging to form a 
consensus point.

Over time, new questions and concerns will emerge from this consensus. 
Among these will be arguments, already being voiced in some circles, 
that corporations' involvement in social issues should remain limited: 
Corporations are powerful actors but cannot be held accountable by 
democratic processes. Therefore, as the business human rights debate 
wanes, a debate about the relationship between business influence and 
political power may come into its prime.

Send questions or comments on this article to analysis at stratfor.com.

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> From: "Gail Schechter" <gail at interfaithhousingcenter.org>
> I am seeking information on campaigns or organizations in affluent and 
> predominantly white communities in the US that engaged in furthering a 
> politically progressive agenda (e.g., affordable housing, fair housing 
> and increasing racial/ethnic diversity, anti-poverty efforts, 
> environmental clean-up, energy conservation, electing progressive 
> candidates, women's rights, disability rights, etc.).
> I am myself the executive director of a suburban Chicago fair and 
> affordable housing advocacy membership group that was founded in 1972 
> by individuals and clergy at the grassroots level to promote fair and 
> affordable housing. In recent years, I've organized citizens campaigns 
> in several white, affluent suburbs of local residents (most notably, 
> in Wilmette, to redevelop an old college building/convent called 
> Mallinckrodt) who feel strongly that affordable housing and diversity 
> are the "right thing to do," even if there are not in their own 
> apparent self-interest. I've found this to be very hopeful -- as well 
> as contrary to the traditional canard that people only organize based 
> on self-interest (and the other "truism" that white suburbanites are 
> conservative and defensive at best, and racist at worst). Having also 
> been raised in, and organizing in, low-income integrated urban 
> neighborhoods or predominantly communities of color, I see both sides 
> -- and the fact that progressive organizing in *both* types of 
> communities needs to be nurtured to make for a healthy overall 
> *region*. But the left-leaning academic, public policy, and 
> philanthropic sectors primarily focus on "inner-city" communities or 
> low-income suburbs -- which, I feel, prevents any real redistribution 
> of resources and power, and ensures that the rich and poor stay where 
> they are. I am hoping to gain the opportunity to do some year-long 
> research to document stories, organizations, and campaigns 
> specifically related to suburban organizing. I'd like to be able to 
> use this to outline how the process of community organizing is similar 
> or different to urban organizing, and propose ways for the two to work 
> together.
> I deeply appreciate any examples you can share with me of contacts or 
> publications that I can pursue further.
> Thanks very much,
> Gail
> Gail Schechter
> Executive Director
> Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs
> 620 Lincoln Ave.
> Winnetka, IL 60093
> Phone: 847-501-5762, ext. 406
> Fax: 847-501-5722
> gail at interfaithhousingcenter.org
> www.interfaithhousingcenter.org
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