National Paralysis, Local Healing

by Paul Olson, NFP President Emeritus

Paralysis abounds.

You see it in the endless ideological jockeying that pervades government and the media.

…In our foreign policy where, no matter what, we just can’t seem to stop waging real and surrogate war on the Muslim world, or quit militarily provoking a China on whom we are financially and commercially dependent.

It’s in our economic policy debates over whether we need to be coddling billionaires, dare use government stimulus funds to boost employment or should shred the social safety net in order to balance the budget.

And as the climate warms, fostering resource wars around the world, you see it in our adamant refusal to even frankly acknowledge the problem, let alone do something about it.

Legitimized by the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling and backed by the Koch Brothers’ Tea Party minions, paralysis has infected the whole of our political life.

We’re blocked.

Thwarted at every turn.

But we can’t give up. Disheartening as it seems, our handfuls of activists and tiny organizations must continue to act in the spirit of Margaret Mead’s remark, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Small is not only beautiful. It may be effective. No great religion has ever changed anything without being organized around small groups—synagogues, churches, mosques, the ashrams from ancient Hinduism to Gandhi, the Buddhist monasteries. Remember the Saul Alinsky neighborhood organizations. The philosophers had their academies and lyceums, changing the whole process of inquiry. Slavery was not first defeated in the Civil War but in the petition of the Germantown Friends in 1688 and in small and large repetitions of that statement until slavery was banned in the state of Pennsylvania and then in the nation. The New Deal did not begin with Franklin Roosevelt, but with Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 platform, dictated by William Jennings Bryan; with Bryan’s prior presidential campaigns; and, before Bryan, with little groups in the Farmers’ Alliance of the 1880s that became the Populist Party in 1892.

Little groups of Populists gathered in rural one-room schoolhouses and changed the nation. The Populist Party in Custer County, at its 1892 meeting. called for the public ownership of railroads, utilities and other large companies, equal rights for women and African Americans, progressive taxation, and, as part of the broader Populist movement, the use of currency to stimulate the economy. Little groups of rural people set the agenda that changed America up through the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. The era of robber barons died in rural schoolhouses.

NFP also has its little chapters that can be pretty terrific. My experience is with the Lincoln Chapter so, as a touchstone, I will describe how we work:

1. We have no officers, as the ten of us on the steering committee, each take responsibility for one nnphase of the chapter’s work. We plan the work ahead for a year, and our only official is Terry Werner, the former Lincoln City Council member, who deposits our meager funds.

2. We pass the hat at our meetings. We use the money for mailings, cookies and tea, an occasional ad, and an occasional small contribution to a speaker such as Jim Hightower.

3. We meet, as a steering committee, once a month or so to chew the fat and set up the next event. By the meeting’s end, everybody generally has an assignment.

4. We meet with the public to organize. Our first meeting with Lincoln-area NFP members and the public dealt with anti-immigrant demagogue Chris Kobach’s legislative effort—via State Senator Charlie Janssen’s LB 48, to penalize all Hispanics in Nebraska under the guise of catching Hispanic ‘illegals.’ It was, I believe, the first public meeting in the Lincoln area regarding LB 48. The discussion was great, and the meeting was followed by serious organizing initiatives by NFP, Appleseed, the churches of Nebraska, the Center for Rural Affairs, the Southern Poverty Law Center and many other groups. Since then we have conducted meetings on poverty in Lincoln and its cultural impact on our schools; the marginalizing of gays and lesbians in our community; the crisis perpetrated by the financial industry at the local, state and national levels; and how progressives ought to organize.

5. We have companionability. In July we will have a picnic, just to have fun and shoot the bull. In August, we will—as we have for decades—talk about the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear weapons in Nebraska at our annual lantern float. We will recall not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki but also Fukushima, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the flood that endangered Fort Calhoun and the Cooper Station last summer.

6. We have pretty good participation. We have had from 25-400 attendees at our meetings, and none of them have been dull. Some of them have led to serious organizing, some just to good discussion. The media does not cover us so we use emails, the Nebraska Report, and individual blogs of sorts to spread the news.

Chapters can get things started. The Crete Chapter’s opposition to anti-Hispanic racism intensified our LB 48 work and educational outreach. The Omaha Chapter has spearheaded almost all of our activity on Israel-Palestine and multi-cultural dialogue. The Grand Island Chapter managed the creation of an alternative voice in the local press and in demonstrations. I could go on.

What if Fremont had had a chapter before Charlie Janssen’s LB 48-like ordinance poisoned its air? What if Sheridan County had had groups to protest Whiteclay? What if Nebraska’s meat-packing towns had had chapters to question labor’s exploitation in the hog-butchering business? What if Bellevue had had one to question things when General Curtis LeMay and Strategic Air Command were planning nuclear holocaust to save the world from the Soviets?

Neighbors know the peace and justice issues in their neighborhoods best, and neighbors know best the style of local action that gets things done. That is what chapters assume. Three people and a good book can make a chapter. Action can make it strong.

Recently, chapter effort has crawled out of the local burrows where it begins. The bullying issue that we have worked on since 2001 has become a state and nationwide concern, and a policy issue in almost every school district in the state. This past session, the Nebraska Legislature defeated efforts to prevent undocumented residents from getting prenatal care and passed most of the anti-poverty bills before it. We were a bit of that. The work at Whiteclay that Mark Vasina, Frank LaMere and Byron Peterson started—while not exactly a chapter, those three—has resulted in a multi-million-dollar lawsuit for justice for the Oglala Lakota Tribe, and policy changes for border towns are not far behind.

These local changes are the roots of grand national changes. And in every case, they have gotten their start with small groups of committed people.

Which is why we must not, dare not give up.

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June 6th 2012

Geri - This is encouraging. Sometimes the numbers game is seen as the only game in town. It isn't, clearly.