Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Talkin' Bout Crisis Here

It’s become hackneyed to observe that the Chinese character for “crisis” is made up of two words: danger and opportunity. This actually isn’t correct. While danger works well for the first part, the second more aptly translates as “crucial point.”

This makes “crisis” the perfect description of Real Change as we near the mid-point of our summer fund drive.

There are “dangers.” A recession looms. We are entering a heated political season that will offer stiff competition for scarce grassroots dollars. There are staff transitions afoot that will be challenging. Meanwhile, we are stretched thin, and Real Change’s budget balances at a precarious tipping point.

At the risk of once again sounding like a page out of Management for Dummies, “failure” in our fund drive “is not an option.”

And, we are at a “crucial point.” Our deepening experiment in relationship-based organizing has resulted in the most powerful grassroots homeless organizing model this City has seen in more than a decade, just when we need it most.

Seattle is the definition of a global city. As the logic of the new economy widens the gap between rich and poor, the middle struggles harder to stay in place. We see the two poles of this in both the downtown condo boom and the drive to criminalize the poor. The human and civil rights crisis this represents — and the broader economic implications for us all — is profound. There is much, much work to be done.

Our mission, as I explained at a vendor meeting the other day, has three program elements. Real Change provides opportunity and a voice to low-income people while taking action to end homelessness and poverty. Let’s examine each of these in terms of the Chinese sense of crisis.

My appearance at a vendor meeting the other day was to lead a discussion on our capacity, and what we can and can’t do. We can’t be a drop-in center. Decreases in area homeless day center availability and other services have led to us trying to fill the gap. We can’t. It’s eating our front office staff alive. We’ve shifted our policy to have two hours every mid-afternoon when computers are available for use and staff is focused on being present to the vendors and meeting their needs for help and companionship. Other than this, we’re available for folks to get papers and to resolve turf issues.

At a time when we’ve gone from an average of 275 vendors a month to about 330, this is a workable survival strategy. The paper, we consistently hear, is better than ever. This month, three of our news staff will receive awards from the Society for Professional Journalists. Our circulation is at record highs and rising. We are the newspaper Seattle needs now: linking issues, supporting movement building, providing opportunity for our vendors to succeed with a paper the public respects. We’re getting it right and moving in the direction that these times demand.

A Voice
The global economy excels at delivering attractively priced consumer goods and responding to demands of investors as it undermines democracy and writes off those who are surplus. Within this arrangement, most of us lose, but those who lose the most are at the margins of the economy. They are dehumanized, criminalized, and redundant. This is a human and civil rights crisis, and Seattle’s drive to wipe out survival encampments without providing adequate alternatives is properly viewed through this lens.

At a time when those at the margins are almost always defined by others, we are providing the means for poor people to be heard. A cultural project is producing a DVD of vendor voices. Leaders who know poverty first hand are being developed through our organizing project, and are often found speaking out at events and testifying before officials. We are ensuring that the very most vulnerable — those at the most risk who have been written off almost entirely by the new economy — have opportunities to speak for themselves. Real Change is fundamentally about humanization. Building a voice for the voiceless is an essential task.

Taking Action
These are precarious times. Recession or depression could easily take disturbing trends toward the criminalization of poverty in a more ugly direction. The deepening racialization and feminization of poverty and the erosion of the middle-class holds serious dangers for all of us. This is a time to be bold. To question old ways of organizing that haven’t worked. To reach out across issue and class, build for power, and be strong.

The Real Change Organizing Project is building a relational, cross-class organizing model that respectfully combines the assets of the middle-class and the authenticity, passion, and direct experience of those most affected by homelessness and poverty. Our last protest brought 150 people out to camp overnight at City Hall. This was more than “an action.” It was a bonding experience. On June 8-9th, we’re doing it again. Our work is at the heart of the movement building that is so necessary. We are, in Gandhi’s words, being the change we want to see. A re-invention of “homeless advocacy” to work across class and directly take on poverty and inequality is, we think, the crucial work of the moment.

Over the years, I’ve found that effective fundraising is grounded in two principles. The first is that the work needs to be effective, accountable, and grounded in an authentic passion for justice. Ours consistently meets this test. Our donors have recognized this through their increased support year after year. The second is that you need to ask.

We’re asking. There are dangers. We are at a crucial point. We need your support. Please visit our website to find a safe, online giving option, and make a meaningful gift today. All gifts are fully tax-deductible. Thank you for your support.

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