Friday, October 5, 2007

A Call To Get Real and Build for Power

Seattle is an extraordinary city. A compassionate city. A liberal city. A city committed to ending homelessness. There are numerous organizations that make Seattle somewhat exceptional. SHARE/WHEEL, with their two tent cities that frequently move to different neighborhoods, have made homelessness visible and actively challenged us for more than a decade to grapple with the reality of poverty in this city. Real Change has created a vehicle for people to build relationships outside of their normal class comfort zones, and has challenged people’s stereotypes regarding the very poor while keeping the issues before the public. A broad and deep community of activists, advocates, and service providers have built an unusually comprehensive response to homelessness and poverty. Local government — city, county, and state — has demonstrated a strong commitment to providing the resources to end homelessness, and a Ten Year Plan to accomplish this has support from the faith community, government, human services providers, and from the philanthropic community, and some in the business community as well.

Despite all of this, our local context is dire. A development boom that serves the interests of upper-income people is in full swing, with more than 4,500 new condos coming on line over the next three years at an average price of $750,000. Seattle is losing at least two units of affordable housing each year for every new unit created through the nonprofit and government sectors. Income inequality in Seattle is widening at a rate that far surpasses the national average.

There is no broad and inclusive organizing strategy to address fundamental issues of housing affordability, wage issues and inequality, the civil rights of the poor, and the common good. Moreover, there is no real vehicle for people to combine — homeless, poor, low-income, middle-class and affluent — to define their self-interest and fight back. Homeless advocacy and more general anti-poverty and working class activism rarely meet at any point. Whatever organized constituencies exist to defend the interests of low-income people are insufficient to challenge the “Seattle consensus.” This is our long-standing pattern as a city of saying yes to corporate interests while engaging in ameliorative strategies to blunt the desperation of the poor with shelter, services, and low-income housing. Strategies to “end homelessness” are in some cases controlled by those whose interests are unclear. As a result, the issue of homelessness in Seattle is mostly narrowed to the reduction of visible homelessness. Questions of who is in charge and who benefits are too seldom asked.

While “building the political will to end homelessness” has been an often-repeated phrase in Seattle for a number of years, there is no ongoing opportunity for non-specialists — housed and homeless alike — to engage, strategize, and build for power.

A New Vehicle for Activism
Several decades of homeless activism have revealed two common mistakes that prevent us from building the power we need. The first is the idea that the only legitimate challenge to homelessness can come from homeless people themselves. The other is that homelessness is a complicated technical issue that is better left to the professional advocates. Both paths lead to different forms of isolation and prevent us from reaching out to and including all of those who have a stake in addressing ever-widening inequality and the extremes of poverty that we see as the result.

Real Change’s greatest strength is our ability to engage and build relationships across class. We stand with one foot in the world of our 270 or more homeless and very low-income vendors who sell the newspaper each month, and the other in our broad readership that tends toward middle and upper-income professionals. We all have a stake in working toward root solutions to issues of declining housing affordability and increased inequality. We all have a stake in protecting our civil and human rights, especially for those of us who have the least.

We will build an organizing project that focuses on these issues while developing a base of activists who will work together across class. This will include vendors and other homeless and low-income people and their more affluent allies. Regular bi-weekly meetings, supplemented by a flexible committee structure to move projects ahead as needed and provide additional opportunities for engagement, will offer a space where community can build and find support for new ways of making change.

The organizing project will use a decision-making tool that maximizes transparency and the opportunity for group ownership while minimizing the frustrations that often result from poorly managed process for the sake of process. Secular consensus has a strong history of being effectively used in large cross-class organizations that do not necessarily have any background or expertise in consensus decision-making. This process offers an excellent framework for teasing out and discussing points of difference, bringing people who are at different levels of understanding along together, and efficiently resolving conflicts that stand in the way of action.

This group will work toward developing a campaign structure that addresses housing affordability, wage issues and inequality, and human and civil rights. We are in the initial stages of refining the concept, and are working toward a first meeting in November. We’re interested in your feedback and ideas. Please call or email Tim Harris at 206-441-3247 x202,, or Rachael Myers at x201, Or you may comment publicly here.


Sally said...

"Homeless advocacy and more general anti-poverty and working class activism rarely meet at any point."

Indeed, that's the whole problem. Many people choose to talk about "homelessness" as though it were a distinct problem that had no precedents (in the true sense of that word). Whoever's talking about it exercises their own choice of which cause to assign: addiction, mental illness, laziness, whatever. The definition is usually one which the speaker does not associate with him/herself, which certainly helps keep those homeless people at an emotional distance. Even if you're working on wage or housing issues which anyone with their eyes open knows are related to the high incidence of homelessness, you can keep those protective fences up and not deal with the ultimate horror of homelessness, because you're just working in your specific area.

And then there's the language we use in talking about poverty issues. One specific example is the phrase "working class." Just who owns the definition of that phrase? When an educated, white, relatively-high-income white male--sorry, Tim--refers to the "working class", I (female, non-college-educated, having worked for 45 years as a mostly low-wage, non-professional office worker)get a little pissed. "Working class" is, admittedly, not quite as classist/elitist a phrase as "the masses" (which I last heard used only a few years ago by a white, college-educated organizer), but it's language that divides and feels patronizing to those who may see themselves as being so labeled. Maybe we should ask those people WE think represent this class (or any other) what THEY want to be called. The Repubs got where they are mostly by being strategically clear and directed in their language ("family values", etc.) so that their target audience felt included, not excluded. We can do that also if we let go of our intellectal pride in outmoded, complex, and patronizing language. If we want to include people, we can't keep using the same old liberal code words. Forget the 70s sociology textbooks; this ain't graduate school.

So are we just going to blog about this and trade emails or are we going to actually organize a really large, broad-based group and GO PLACES so people will know we're here and join us? (Or fight against us, which at least acknowledges that we exist.)

Tim Harris said...

Point well-taken. But someday, just for kicks, I'll show you my social security annual earnings statement, and we'll marvel at it together.

I'm eager to get started as well, but at this point, my priority is to kick ass on our October 24 breakfast event so I can continue paying staff and stuff like that. Hence, the November time line for a first meeting.

Mike said...

Who are "we" and where do we find "them" to ask them what they would like to be called?

utaurban said...

For similar reasons, I personally prefer "handicapped" and "on the dole" to disabled and very-low-income. I happen to think it was unfortunate framing, but it's understood by people who are listening. Point is, I don't want to spend a lot of time reframing terms while the energy is rising. This is an emergency.

I want to see cross-class focus and cooperative action more than anything else. For now, I'll throw "people who are" in front of homeless, and "peers of" in front of working-class. Happy it's coming together.

Sally said...

In answer to Mike, "we" means you and I, and "they" means whoever you or I are talking about--or talking to. Kind of like asking someone whether they want to be called by their first name or title or last name -- common courtesy. That way, I get to decide whether I want to be called "working class."

Bill said...

well, since the group most famous the past 6 years for the banner, "creating the political will to end homelessness" is ours, by choice, I ought to address that. In 2001 we had a summit that reflected a community round table on homelessness (David Bloom hosted). That of course means all that spokes (it's a verb,gimme room here, spokes as in a wheel) out of homelessness and is further made crisis because of homelessness. That round table met with 350 people in 2001, formed our Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness (ITFH-- yes, seemingly exclusive if you do not count yourself "faithful") and subsequently created the Committee to End Homelessness in King County (CEHKC), which truth be told has been taken over by "players" who had hearts ever-slightly inclined to help and heads geared toward power/excess/legacy. Bad mix. So our real present dilemma is not creating a monster new org and the hoisting of a new demi-god leader to guide us. Our dilemma is and will be allowing ourselves to be re-rutted into top-down power. We also have decided to use space and time similarly requiring that they produce big visible results, broad and immediate, here and now. We slipped into this crisis over decades, and we will only exit via the long-term, sometimes chipping away because it is like stone or ice. We are meeting in the same space quite a bit these days. Another meeting? Perhaps, but not as replacement for what we are doing. Sure, some of YOU will not see progress I make like I won't see what progress YOU make,.. so we ought meet now and then and offer hope and marry strategies and report successes. What has bothered me the most since 2001 is the way we feed on each other. Take the City Council campaign. While she is not perfect -- and no others are either -- Venus Velasquez as a council candidate is one of our own in that she has been behind the scenes with us hammering out a dedicated human services funding stream in King County. I know. I've been beside her. Yet in public too many of "us" dis her, say she doesn't cut it, and so now we have business backing the ex-huskie Harrell, who has NO record of helping with human services. We feed on each other and WE are our worst enemies. That's why we started an education campaign, "affirning charity, compassion, and justice," because justice advocates made, "charity isn't enough" their mantra and the fights continued, at the expense of,..WHO? The poor. So if we meet collectively, let's not assume there is some perfect strategy. NOT POSSIBLE! The perfect strategy is living out in practice what we claim to be our "better than what we see now" values and ways of being. When we can start that and stop ripping each other in public view, maybe we have some chance. And this isn't some claim that faith communities do this latter work better --- uffda. Faith communities need being reminded as much as any. So set aside the "who is who" debates and get to the core: We are presently guided by the most self-serving and our goal is to change that. Let's do that.

Tim Harris said...

Nice post Bill. I love that people are talking about these things.

I don't think anyone wants to create another group for the sake of creating another group. But my sense is that we need to do three things:

A.) Stop talking about homelessness as though it were unrelated to the poverty, inequality, and growing economic vulnerability that affects all of us.

B.) Stop being so fucking polite and reluctant to speak truth to power, even when it's power that's ostensibly on our side.

C.) Open this thing up, with real roles for homeless and low-income people and those of us who aren't professional advocates.

If we can do these things, we're looking at a whole different game.

Anonymous said...

Tim Said to Bill and I say to Bill
1. The Proverty Industry is Huge.
2. Too many peole are doing just fine withing these so called CARE for the Homless Agencies.
3. Tim is write we must all stand up to all (even those who "say" they care.
4. Nothing has been done in any substanct.
5. How do i know all this...I live with my partner and we both have AIDS and soon we will have to leave Seattle because rents are Again skyrocketing and who allowed all this phony (let us build and they won't use their cars) that was the fat pig who sits in Our Cities Mayor's office.

The big problem is.....most people are not effected yet and as we rapidly approach the same situation as friends I know in other Cities like SF, NY who live JUST TO PAY RENT. That where we in Seattle will be within a year. Thank god our least is not up until next Sept. Then were out of here....and we are very sad to even think about leaving our home because it has been stolen by Greedy Assholes like the leaders of Seattle, King County and let us not forget the State and all the whores who run this State.

We do not need any more Agencies, organizations to keep stealing the moneies for thier own self interest.....(their do nothing jobs with great benefits and most non profits are union...go figure)

It is not that there is not enough money, its who is wasting all the money and who is making sure working classes and disbled are pushed out of Seattle....Oh the City Business Groups....We all need to stop shopping downtown and let the retailer know why. I will never go downtown an spend a penny ever again.

Sally said...

What does "uffda" mean?

True, we don't need yet another organization. But we DO need an umbrella name for all the dozens of orgs appearing at hearings/writing emails to politicians/etc., so we can look like one large mass with real swords rather than a bunch of small groups each with their own needles.

And...believe it or not, some fulltime advocates are also low-income people. Let's try to cut the stereotyping.

Tim Harris said...

Jesus Sally. Perhaps you'd like to comb the other 100,000 words or so of this blog for additional semantic lapses. It's a rich treasure trove of less than lawyerly use of language.

The point is that we need a participatory and grassroots movement, and not top down professionalized advocacy that doesn't build power.

If the way we're organizing now is so damned effective, Bill, why are people feeling so fragmented and disempowered?

Real Change isn't creating a new organization. We're shifting the organizing we've always done to be more grassroots, inclusive, and strategic, and to build for power across class. We need to shake up the advocacy status quo, and we're not really looking for anyone's permission to do that.

Anonymous said...

You alienate a whole lot of potential advocates Tim to use the word 'inclusive' in your post.