Thursday, September 27, 2012

Commitments

Posted by Kim Klein

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar and the end of a ten period called “the days of awe” which begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Yom Kippur starts with a service called Kol Nidre and that service begins with some version of this statement:


“This is the time we set aside to take an account of our souls. To what purposes have each of us devoted our lives? Are we on the road to accomplishing these purposes? Have we allowed ourselves to be distracted from the goals that each of us has set? Or has the time arrived to set new goals? All the vows and commitments that I have made, all the responsibilities and purposes that I have set for myself, may it be that they have been for the good. But during this day, I will examine them and consider their value. If they are indeed still worthy, I pledge to pursue them whole-heartedly. If any of them need to be set aside, I pledge to do so responsibly and with compassion for all whom my actions affect. ” (Rabbi David Cooper, Kehilla Synagogue, Oakland, CA)

This kind of examination recognizes that something which may have been very good for me years ago may not help me at all now. I thought, “What am I devoted to now and how has that changed in the last number of years?” It is so freeing to think that I can change course. And this freedom is extended to our community and to our entire planet. In the latter case we know we must change course as the decisions we made which brought us to this point will not serve us going forward.

One commitment I made 24 years ago remains solidly in place today. Because of the vagaries of the lunar calendar, this year Yom Kippur fell on my anniversary. My partner, Stephanie Roth, and I discussed whether we should continue to keep our commitment to be together, or set that aside. With little effort, we decided this was one commitment we should keep. Deciding to keep a commitment comes with a renewed effort to pursue it whole heartedly, and with great joy, I recommit to the love of my life, a person who has helped me in all my other commitments and helped me become a much better person all around.

I also recommitted myself, whole heartedly, to the continued exploration of what it means to live a life grounded in commons values. After the service, we walked along Lake Merritt, on the public sidewalk to the public transportation that took us home. This year I made a new promise at Yom Kippur—to use my car as little as possible. I know this will help me walk more, but will require more planning and more time. I think this is why I have not made this promise before. However, if we are to change course as a society, I have to do my little part and walking, biking, taking the bus or subway, seems a good change.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mitt Romney's 47%: A Low Estimate?

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

We all heard about it. Mitt Romney was secretly taped during a campaign event, where he said he wasn’t campaigning on behalf of the 47% of Americans who “paid no income taxes” and who are “dependent on Government”.  And we’ve seen the backlash- part of which involves pundits explaining that this percentage of the American people pay no income taxes mostly because they’ve already paid through the payroll tax system.  So we get it. Income tax or not, the vast majority of Americans pay their fair share of taxes.  But what about the logic behind the second half of that statement- that 47% of Americans are dependent on government and feel “entitled” to some sort of government assistance?  What Romney, and most of the proceeding news coverage, failed to mention was that the percentage of Americans who have benefited from a government-funded social policy is actually much larger than 47.

This article , titled “We are the 96%” and published today in the New York Times, summarizes a 2008 research survey by Cornell Survey Research Institute that found that 96 percent of Americans have taken advantage of some sort of social policy that was funded by the federal government. This is true across party lines- the percentage of Republicans and Democrats who benefitted from at least one policy was almost identical.  

Yet what differs is not actual benefit, but ideology.  The article notes, “conservatives were less likely than liberals to respond affirmatively when asked if they had ever used a ‘government social program,’ even when both subsequently acknowledged using the same number of specific policies.”

And it is this division in what each party thinks the role of government should be that causes some of the vitriolic rhetoric that courses through both Presidential campaigns. The illustration of one party of “makers” and another of “takers” is a popular one.  Yet the research shows that most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, are both.  We all pay in; we all take out.  Perhaps if we all took that fact to heart, we could begin to come together to create policies that lead to the most collective benefit. 

The article’s authors, Suzanne Mettler and John Sides, say it best [emphasis added]- “Instead of dividing us, our experiences as both makers and takers ought to bind us in a community of shared sacrifice and mutual support.”

Head here to read the full article.  




Friday, September 21, 2012

Vote With Your Mission

A big surprise for many people, and certainly for me when I first learned it, is the sheer size of the nonprofit sector. About $1.4 trillion goes through 1.9 million organizations just in the United States every year. People who work for nonprofits are about 10% of the workforce. But we are not a major factor in elections and this year, the California Association of Nonprofits (CalNonprofits) has started a program to change that.


Called “Vote with Your Mission”, the effort is to get 100% of nonprofit staff, board and volunteers to vote. We know that our sheer numbers would make a big difference in the outcome of elections.

To sign on, nonprofits must commit to doing two of the following six things:

1. Ask all staff, board members, volunteers, and constituents to vote.

2. Adopt the slogan, "Vote with Your Mission," with the tagline, "Nonprofits are led by ideals and values for changing the world. Vote with the ideals and values that lead you."

3. Provide on-site nonpartisan voter registration materials for staff, board members, volunteers, and constituents.

4. Add to the organization's list of responsibilities for its board of directors: "Voting in every election while you are on the board."

5. Allow up to two hours of paid staff time to vote on Election Day. For non-voters, the time can be used to help co-workers or neighbors get to the polls, or to participate in "get-out-the-vote" activities (for any cause or candidate).

6. Post the Vote with Your Mission poster in your lobby, on your door or window, in your clinic, in your newsletter, and elsewhere, or create your own poster.

To me, there are two simple ones that don’t require any effort: #1 because how hard is it to ask people to do something, and #5, which is the law. Surprisingly, the fact that giving people time off to vote is the law has come as a big surprise to many executive directors!

As my colleague pointed out in the last blog post, Sept 25 is National Voter Registration Day. The people who have designed it are hoping it will become to September what Earth Day is to April. A good friend of mine says, “voting is the gateway drug” and I really agree with this analogy. Voting is certainly not everything and, in some ways, it isn’t even that much when measured one vote at a time. But every vote is important, and once you vote, you tend to be more involved in many other ways.

If the “47%” that Mitt Romney so easily dismisses, or even the larger 99% that he is very clearly not part of, ever want to take back our country, one of the first steps will be taking back the ballot box.



Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Roadblocks to the Polls


I am very pleased to introduce Caitlin Endyke, Program Assistant at the The Building Movement Project.  Caitlin has recently moved to NYC from New Hampshire and is helping me with the commons work at BMP.  She will be writing for this blog every Tuesday and she begins today.  Welcome, Caitlin! 

Last week, I cast my first official ballot in New York City.  After living here for almost a year I finally had my registration switched from my small New Hampshire hometown, and this was the first election in which I was eligible to vote here in NYC.  I knew that my experiences voting here would be different from those in my hometown. For one, I was fairly certain no one I knew personally was in the running- a big change.    What I did not anticipate was how hard it would be to actually get to the polls.

I was about as proactive about switching my registration as, I think, most people are.  A few months after moving and getting settled I printed the form and proceeded to let it sit on my desk for another few months until I finally mailed it in.  I got my approval letter in the mail a few weeks ago, and I was looking forward to the day when I would be able to cast my first official vote as a New Yorker (thinking, wrongly, that day would be November 6th).

That was until I walked into my office last Thursday and was greeted by my colleague with a surprising question. “Did you vote?”, she asked.

“…Um…vote for what?”

I consider myself fairly informed.  I work in a community where politics are regularly discussed. I chastised my friends in 2010 for not voting in the midterm elections.  I try to follow local politics.  Yet I had no idea there was an election happening that day in my city (a local primary, but still).  I was used to driving through town at home, seeing the street corners slowly fill up with lawn signs from various candidates.  Usually, I was pushed toward the polls by people I knew who were running (though who were not necessarily people I voted for).  I was not used to Election Day simply passing me by. 

That was my first obstacle.  After I found out I needed to vote, I started looking up where my designated polling place was and checked to make sure my voter registration was active.  This part was less straightforward.  As a first time voter in the state my “identity had yet to be verified” (an intimidating phrase to find next to your name).  After some Googling and visits to various voter-help sites I still had little idea what this meant.  As someone without a government issued ID that showed my NYC address (I nostalgically have been holding on to my NH license), I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bring something else to verify who I was and where I lived.  I settled on a trip home to gather a pay stub before I headed to the polls, unsure if that would be sufficient. 

Turns out I didn’t need any of it.  I showed up, gave my name, signed next to the image of my signature from the voter registration form (a high-tech surprise), and proceeded to fill out my ballot with no problems.  Every volunteer in the room was pleasant and helpful.  My polling place, “Camp Friendship Hall”, even had that small-town school gym feel.

But what troubles me is how difficult and unclear it was for me to get to that point, especially as a person who was determined to participate.  I didn’t receive anything from the city telling me it was Election Day or informing me of what I might need to bring with me, given my slightly special circumstance.    In the wake of all the new voter ID laws (including one in my home state) that are seemingly and unfortunately sweeping the nation, I am thinking of how much harder this process would have been with stricter requirements. What happens to the people who don't have the luxury of having a pay stub or photo ID on hand?  Isn’t the ability to vote the most basic of rights in a democratic society? Figuring out who to vote for should be the hard part, the thing that requires the most time and contemplation.  Getting to the polls should be easy.  Unfortunately, some states are making a concerted effort to make sure that is not the case. 

National Voter Registration Day is September 25th.  Let’s use this opportunity to help ensure that EVERYONE has access to the ballot box this fall. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Reality TV And Public Infrastructure: A Prisoner's Dilemma

Last week I indulged myself in a habit that really has no redeeming value but at least is not fattening—I channel surfed. I came to the end of the final episode of a show called Bachelor Pad, which is apparently where all the rejects from “The Bachelor” go. I have watched “The Bachelor” which is a show about good looking people who cannot find love except in exotic locales while being filmed. Bachelor Pad is not about winning love, but about winning money.

The part I watched was fascinating. The two finalists, Holly and Michael, are on stage and they are given a challenge by the show’s host, Chris Harrison. At stake is $250,000. Each finalist is given two words: KEEP or SHARE. The rules are simple: if they both say “share” they get $125,000 each. If they both say “keep” they get nothing. If one says “keep” and the other “share” the one that says “keep” gets it all. The choice is clear: If you trust each other you will both win. But if you don’t trust the other person, you both could lose. But, if you think the other person trusts you and wants to share, you could win more money by betraying their trust.

There is much drama, smoke, audience reaction, drum rolls and the like, but finally the contestants come back out to reveal their decision. Holly goes first. She says she and Michael were a team, she believes they could not have won without each other and so she says, “SHARE.” Michael uses his time to excoriate everyone on the show. “I did this myself” he says at least a dozen times. “No one helped me, no one liked me. I flew under the radar and none of you thought I would ever be in this seat. I had no help.” He reveals his word, “KEEP.”

I will never know what is true about what happened on Bachelor Pad, but I do know that Michael’s sense, “I did this myself. I had no help” is way too pervasive in real life. Fast forward to yesterday when I am at a wonderful conference sponsored by CalNonprofits (the California Association of Nonprofits) where Executive Director, Jan Masaoka, is speaking. She starts with a question of the 300 people assembled: “How many of you work for a nonprofit?” 99% of hands go up. “How many of you have been helped by a nonprofit?” Only about 2/3rds of hands go up. Jan is clearly surprised and proceeds to name things brought about or run by nonprofits: libraries, PBS, the recognition of the civil rights of women and people of color, many hospitals, the fact that we are safer on the freeway because of drunk driving laws and seatbelts, that the public has access to beaches and wilderness—just to name a few things. She asks again, “How many of you have been helped by a nonprofit?” Most hands go up, but I still see a few Michaels in the crowd.

Michael, I don’t imagine you are reading my blog. But if you are, let me tell you, you did not win that money alone. You may have played brilliantly, but the game was designed by someone else, the sponsors who provided the money you won were solicited by someone else, and the television technology on which you showed the kind of person you are in front of millions of people was developed with public and private funds over many years.

There is almost nothing that any of us are able to do by ourselves. Even something as private as using a toilet is made possible by an elaborate sewer and wastewater system run by the government. That Michael thinks he won the money by himself is fine. It makes for interesting “reality” TV. But that any person who works in and around a nonprofit would think they have not been helped by an enormous infrastructure funded by taxes and donations, and run by government and community based organizations is a problem. As we go into this election season, let us remember that actually our biggest contribution is the degree to which we work together. Let’s hope the word we choose every day is “SHARE.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What's Your Common Good IQ?

We have just 55 days until Election Day. That leaves less than two months for each person to decide who should lead our country for the next four years.  There are a lot of factors to base that decision upon, as the candidates differ on almost every major platform- from plans to recover the economy to laws regarding women’s health.  But perhaps for this election cycle, we should remove ourselves from the combative campaign rhetoric and stop thinking about how we can support one particular candidate.  Instead, we should concentrate on how we can cast our votes for the Common Good.    But what does that look like? Does it mean more parks and shared public spaces, or should it concentrate on policies that promote a rough social equity?  How does the history of our country reflect this vision? Which nations’ policies most reflect a commons-based approach? Which country in particular measures its success in Gross National Happiness?  Take Compasspoint’s Common Good quiz to test your knowledge and find out more!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Let's Put Mission Before Money

A new and very important report has just been compiled by Road Map Consulting, the DataCenter and the National Organizers Alliance called, “Wages of Peace and Justice.” It is a national compensation survey of social justice organizations done in June 2012. (To download the Executive Summary or purchase the full report, go to www.roadmapconsulting.org)


Most of the organizations surveyed had budgets under $1,000,000 and although organizations from 29 states participated, most the organizations were in New York or California. The median salary (meaning the same number above as below) for Executive Directors of social justice organizations was $67,000 and for development directors, $57,000. 92% offer some kind of health insurance, 82% offered dental insurance and 53%, vision. Over 1/4th of organizations also paid for alternative medicine such as chiropractic or acupuncture.

The report is interesting for many reasons: first, who is not interested in what other people earn? And second, many of the people this report surveyed are people I might know, so it is more interesting than the usual wage and benefit surveys which show that people who work in giant organizations make large salaries—a fact that is depressing and unhelpful.

But most interesting was from a commons view, a key question: “how strongly do your policies reflect your values?” Needless the say the responses to that were mixed, with 60% of organizations saying they pay a “living wage” but only 22% feeling that their salaries were “generous.” A more humble 23% want to increase salaries.

I have struggled for years to figure out how to decide what kind of incomes people in social justice work should make, including myself. Using criteria of fairness seems obvious, but fair to whom and compared to what? The median wage in the United States is $26, 364, the lowest since 1999. Median household income is $46,000.

This puts most full time social justice professionals at a wage more than twice that of the people on whose behalf they ostensibly work. On the other hand, with the education and skill level required of executive directors, even in small organizations, and the kind of jobs these same people could get at larger and more mainstream nonprofits, their wages seem a little low. When you factor in college debt that many young people are carrying, or the cost of having children, or the cost of retiring, wages tell only part of the story.

I used to have a lot of judgments about salaries and, I admit, that six figure salaries for nonprofit staff still may provoke a snide comment. But the issue from a commons lens is not what any one person makes but how can a society help the majority of people feel financially secure? In addition to all the important social justice work any of us are doing, we all have to work on a number of universal issues: health care is at the forefront; but also day care, family leave, education through college and the like. Other developed countries have this; and some countries even have some of these things enshrined into their constitutions. The first step is to stop asking, “What should I make? What do I deserve? How much do others like me make? What do I need?” and start asking, “What structures does the society have to have in place to allow all of us to pursue meaningful work?” Start with mission, rather than money. We are very creative people and I know we can figure this out.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Labor Day Reflections

My partner and I had a party for friends the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. About 50 people came and we ate, drank and laughed. I don’t usually enjoy these kinds of parties, especially when I am one of the hosts, but I really enjoyed this one. All the people who came are activists of one sort or another—some have regular “day” jobs and do their activism on the side. Others are full time paid staff at various social justice nonprofits, and still others, like me, are consultants to a wide variety of liberal and leftwing nonprofits. I know that we all follow politics very closely but at this party no one mentioned anything about the presidential election, the Republican primary, the California budget crisis—nothing. The talk was of vacations, children (there were quite a few babies at the party), how beautiful our yard is looking, how old our dog is getting, transitions from jobs to retirement or one job to another, or, in several cases, from having a job to being unemployed. Most of the conversations were lighthearted and joking and some were more serious, but they were not political. It was as if we wanted to all take one day off from event thinking about or commenting on the venom and bile that characterized the Republican convention and a day off from wondering if Obama will win or debating just how really different he is from his rivals.


I am a big believer in conversation, and it doesn’t entirely matter to me if the conversation is serious or silly. Conversation comes from the Latin word, “conversare”—to turn, ie to turn together, to turn to one another, to face one another. Conversation establishes trust between people—if we can joke around and laugh with each other, we are better placed to discuss values or commitments.

I am ready now to engage in serious and robust conversation with all kinds of people, and in large part this is because I have been on vacation, I have rested and I feel good, and I have reaffirmed that I have a community of people who have my back and I have theirs. We ate and drank together and we remembered that we care about each other. Could there be a better use of the Labor Day holiday?