Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Listening Campaign

It’s November. The wet, rainy season is here, and the business of survival for Seattle’s homeless has become that much more grim. November also marks the beginning of the Real Change winter fund drive. We’ve set an ambitious goal of raising $180,000 by the end of December. It’s a lot of money, but we have a lot of friends.

This has been a year of intense activism at Real Change. We’ve seen the level of desperation on the streets rise dramatically. We’ve taken risks and pushed ourselves to nearly the breaking point. We’ve fought hard to defend those who survive outside of Seattle’s over-capacity emergency shelter system against the Mayor’s brutal policy of homeless sweeps. We’ve built alliances across issues, linking Seattle’s new jail to homelessness, growing inequality, poverty, and race.

We’ve taken strong stands, and we’ve made a few enemies, but we’ve made a lot more friends. This month, for example, we were honored by Jobs with Justice for our work in "leading the movement for social justice." The winter fund drive is an opportunity to learn from you. How can we deepen our grassroots support and be even more effective? How can we broaden our allies?

Is our organizing, our newspaper, and the caring community that we help create worth your support? What would make it better?

A Brief Parable

Last week, a number of us here at Real Change went to court to deal with last June’s Civil Disobedience demonstration at City Hall. There was an overnight encampment to protest the Mayor’s homeless sweeps policy — our third in nine months — followed by fifteen homeless people and advocates going into the street.

The event was a media grand slam, and marked a decided turning point in press coverage of the issue. Three months later, we received our sentences of 24-hours community service.

When Rev. Liljenstolpe, one of the fifteen arrested, spoke to the city employee who handles such things, he explained how we’d been allowed to choose any non-profit we wanted, except for Real Change.

“Oh, Real Change,” she said without irony. “They’re bad.” How so, he asked?

“They do a lot more than they say they do.”

Building for Power

Real Change has always been an activist organization. Our mission is to provide opportunity and a voice to low-income people while taking action to end poverty and homelessness. Over the past year, however, the stakes have been higher, and the organizing has been different.

The Real Change Organizing Project, launched in November of last year, leverages our strongest assets — our vendors and readers and our institutional capacity to engage and mobilize — into a valuable resource for economic justice organizing.

We agree with the Mayor on one thing: no one should have to live in a tent. Yet, the shelters are full, and everyone knows it. Affordable housing has grown increasingly scarce, the economy is tanking, and those at the bottom — those who will seldom find work and even then only at a poverty wage — have been relegated to a distant, invisible netherworld of misery and pain.

We have organized relentlessly. While Seattle has hurtled down the path of growing inequality, we have defended those who have nothing. We understand that the growing economic vulnerability of the middle class and the abandonment of the poor are, at bottom, the same issue.

Making the Connections

In a time of declining economic opportunity, our newly launched No New Jail campaign makes the links between the disproportionality of people of color in our homeless shelters and prisons and the growing trend toward the criminalization of the poor.

The $220 million the city plans to spend on the construction of a new jail, and the $19 million or more that will be spent to operate this facility, is better spent upstream on programs that rebuild lives. According to the Department of Justice’s own statistics, one in ninety-nine Americans is already behind bars.

We don’t see these people. They are the wreckage of a system that abandons and punishes its most vulnerable and least privileged, and relegates them to lives of reduced economic opportunity.

The No New Jail campaign builds an economic justice movement across race and class. We recognize that homelessness, incarceration, reduced economic opportunity, declining social services, and the growing racialization of poverty are all linked. When the Mayor criminalizes outdoor survival, cuts programs that offer support to those most at risk, and says a new jail for misdemeanor criminals is inevitable, we clearly see the connections.

We envision a movement for economic justice that places the needs of the most vulnerable at the center and builds for power based on mutual self-interest. None of Seattle’s neighborhoods wants a new jail. We understand that increased incarceration is and expensive and ineffective solution to the problems in our streets. There is a better way forward.

We’re Listening

We believe that those of us who work for economic and racial justice can unite with the Seattle neighborhoods to elevate this issue and force the city to consider more enlightened alternatives.

Over the next year, here’s what you can expect from Real Change:
  • We will continue to aggressively fight the Mayor’s cruel policy of homeless sweeps, and demand that the city provide real alternatives to outdoor survival.
  • We will build and support a movement for economic justice by engaging new activists, cultivating allies, and building relationships based upon our mutual self-interest.
  • We will make the links between declining economic opportunity, the racialization of poverty, reduced social services, and increased incarceration.
  • We will help meet the survival needs of Seattle’s most vulnerable by providing opportunity to more than 350 Real Change vendors each month.
  • We will engage those vendors and their customers in the important work of building a united movement for economic and racial justice.
The work is happening. We need your support, and we want to know how we can be more effective. Over the two months of our winter fund drive, my first priority as Real Change Executive Director is to hear from you. Our grassroots base of readers, vendors, and other allies is our life’s blood. We need to know what you think.

Call me at 441-3247 x202. We can talk on the phone, or if you’d rather, meet in person. Email me at with your ideas and feedback. Go to to find out when our next meeting is and come see our work for yourself.

Real Change needs three things to be at our most effective over 2009: an effective strategy, the resources to organize, and a whole lot of friends. All of this depends on you. Real Change is an enormous asset in the fight for economic justice. Help us make the most of what we have.

It’s not to late to join Real Change and Sherman Alexie for breakfast this November 12th at the UW Husky Ballroom. Tickets are $50. Help us make this event the show of grassroots support that we need. Email for details.

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