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Tides Brings Visionaries Together to Contemplate the Progressive Future

With its one-of-a-kind "Momentum" conference, Tides is tapping the progressive community's brightest minds to tackle the nation's biggest challenges.
 
 
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Tides, the unique hybrid philanthropic institution headquartered at the Presidio in San Francisco, will host its third " Momentum" gathering next Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, July 20-22, at the swanky W Hotel in the South of Market area of San Francisco.

"Momentum" is an invitational gathering of progressive donors and advocates focused on cutting-edge ideas and innovative practitioners in the social change field. "Momentum" aims to create a "forum where some of the most creative minds in the progressive community come together to challenge, inspire and energize each other."

"Momentum" comes at an important juncture, amidst the controversy surrounding the Obama candidacy and his perceived tacking center or rightward as he attempts to appeal to wider audiences after a bruising marathon Democratic primary season. A big question for the innovators and funders who will attend "Momentum" will no doubt be: What are the most creative and pragmatic innovations that need to be teed up in order to address the myriad problems the nation faces, whether it be in health care, mortgage crises, job loss, climate change or many more issues that are crowding the progressive and national agenda?

And perhaps more to the point: Where do progressive ideas and innovative approaches fit into the Obama campaign and potential presidency? How much heat do progressives apply during the campaign leading up to November to ensure that progressive values and vision are in play? And what is the strategy, come Jan. 20, if Barack Obama is in the White House? When Bill Clinton got elected 16 years ago, many thought, mistakenly so, that many of the problems of Republican rule were solved, especially when a lot of their friends and colleagues went into the administration in key policy positions.

While Tides is a nonpartisan entity and no campaigning or endorsements will be part of the "Momentum" proceedings, it seems clear that the potential change of power in the country after eight long years of right-wing conservative rule will serve as the backdrop for the presentations.

To find out some specifics about what "Momentum" is going to be about this year, and who some of the progressive innovators are, AlterNet's Don Hazen sat down with Drummond Pike, the longtime head of Tides and the creative force behind "Momentum."

Don Hazen: Let's start with the big picture: What's "Momentum" all about?

Drummond Pike: "Momentum" is about the intersection of the progressive community and the current social and political landscape. What does it all mean? How can we achieve success? How do we move forward?

"Momentum" is an educational conference where we bring funders, leaders of key nonprofits, think tanks and activist organizations together into the same room and expose them to a set of new and emerging ideas. And there will be updates on things of which we are already very aware. For example, Tanya Harris, the head of ACORN /New Orleans, is coming to tell us, "Here's where things are now in New Orleans, nearly three years after Katrina."

DH: So why Tides as the convener? How does Tides' experience and role enhance this conversation?

DP: "Momentum" reflects the role of Tides as an intermediary. We are engaged in philanthropy. We granted $93 million dollars last year and manage grant-making for more than 400 individual and institutional donors. At the same time, we provide financial infrastructure and management tools to more than 200 nonprofit projects and activities. Tides also promotes the development of green nonprofit centers nationwide.

DH: And how will "Momentum" be structured?

DP: We've decided to do something quite different than at previous gatherings. It's not going to be the conventional, representational progressive conference with three plenaries and 95 workshops on every topic under the sun. We at Tides have a significant reach. We'll be bringing together some of the brightest lights and the new, interesting thinking about some of the central issues of the day. With "Momentum," we are creating a venue that's about new ideas. Take Back America is about every constituency having an opportunity to say, "This is what I've been working on for the last 20 years," and that's great. That is community building and consciousness-raising. But "Momentum" is the only event in the progressive community that really focuses on new, innovative thinking -- ideas that need to be considered and have an audience.

DH: Let's try to get a sense of who some of these innovators are and what they are.

DP: Jacob Hacker, resident fellow at the Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies and a fellow at the New America Foundation, is coming. He is doing some extraordinary work on trying to figure out how we get universal health care: What does it take to get from here to there, legislatively, in terms of policy objectives; what are all the things we have to do to actually move that agenda? That's just one example. We're going to be really pushing some new thinking. Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning director of the indie film "Taxi to the Dark Side," which examines the controversial death of an Afghan taxi driver at Bagram Air Base, is speaking. He also produced "Enron." Ken Cook from Environmental Working Group is coming as well as Daniel Levy, who has served as an official member of Israeli delegations for peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

DH: At first I got the sense that some of the people you're talking about are slightly below the radar. But I get the feeling that you're talking about some well-known figures.

DP: That's right: For example, John Edwards is going to be there.

DH: Right. He's the kickoff guy on Sunday night.

DP: Yes. The thing that many progressives like about Edwards is that he drove the issue of economic justice into the dialogue, and he aims to keep it there. He's developed a campaign including working with ACORN and other leading groups to keep this issue visible. The big picture goal is to cut the U.S. poverty rate in half in 10 years.

DH: Apparently Obama got Edwards' endorsement in part because he agreed to that 10-year commitment on poverty. Is that going to be part of the dialogue at "Momentum"? How can Edwards and "Momentum" -- assuming Obama gets elected -- help Obama and progressives work together to reach this goal?

DP: That gets into a larger, more general question that I think AlterNet and others are talking about, which is, "OK, we're at this moment in time. There's an opportunity for the kind of change that most of us haven't seen in most of our lives. How do progressives relate to that?" When Carter came in, and again when Clinton came in, the only two Democrats in the White House in last 30 years, the progressive community didn't quite know what to do.

I remember the feeling when Clinton came in, that when progressives go into the administration, everybody tends to get quiet because they are driving the policies from within the administration. But I don't think things work that way. You can have all the best intentions, but without outside pressure, policy change just won't happen. We're looking at a very different situation than when Carter or Clinton came in, with a slim majority that quickly went in the other direction. Besides, today is more like the '30s than the '90s. What do we do? I think we need to be very noisy and to actually drive ideas in a stronger way than progressives have done in the past.

DH: So how noisy should progressives be between now and November, versus how loud on Jan. 20 -- again, assuming Obama is elected, which, of course, isn't a sure thing.

DP: What really matters is going forward after Jan. 20. Tides, of course, is nonpartisan and doesn't endorse candidates.

DH: Here at AlterNet, our readers are hugely interested in the perceived move to the center or the right by Obama. Even the L.A. Times recently had an article about Obama abandoning his brand of change since he became the presumptive nominee. So it's not just progressives who are wondering what's up.

DP: I understand how they would drive toward the center between now and the election. Obama is an African American who has to worry about the Bradley Effect, and there are plenty of other things that could make him vulnerable. But if he doesn't stand for something, he will be in trouble. People have voted for McCain because they thought he stood for something. Voters, even though they disagreed with what he stood for, liked the fact that he had the moxie to stand for something.

Practically speaking, there is not a whole lot people can do between now and the election. Obama should be criticized, appropriately. But what's really going to matter is after Jan. 20, when there are real opportunities to do things. Many are hopeful that there will be a good Congress. In economic and political terms, there are more opportunities for change than there have been for a long time. But to make the gains, the progressive community needs to be loud and impolite. We can't just stand and watch.

DH: What are your criteria for new and innovative? Are there people who have brilliant ideas but nobody knows who they are? Anybody come to mind that you've got coming that you want to talk about?

DP: Well, you know Rob Johnson; you know his background with (George) Soros and the Senate Finance Committee. He'll explain the mortgage crisis. Most of us don't really understand what happened. Rob developed a slide show, which explained how the banks got themselves into this mess. That's one example.

Then, there's a young man, Eboo Patel, who is a Rhodes Scholar, grew up in suburban New Jersey. He wrote a book called Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation about fundamentalists. He grew up as a Muslim in America. As we know, Arabs and Muslims are the new bad guys in our movies, the new pariahs in many social categories. Patel believes that reconciliation or dialogue across religious lines is a really essential part of what needs to happen to change some of our attitudes. He's a really interesting guy, and he founded the Interfaith Youth Core. ... He's very thoughtful about what the American experience uniquely has to offer.

Do you know Angelica Salas? She's a wonderful, dynamic, 30-ish young mom in Los Angeles -- great, thoughtful organizer of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles (CHIRLA). She's one of the people who organized the huge pro-immigration demonstrations. As you know, comprehensive immigration reform was recently defeated in Congress. So the big question is, "Now what are we going to do?" It's interesting seeing this issue from the perspective of someone who walked across the border when she was 5. She has grown up and is now driving voter registration efforts and helping to lead the immigration reform movement. It is challenging to understand what might be the viable elements of immigration reform in the future. Public perception is so important. If you explain to people the details of what would be required by people -- all the steps that would be necessary to get on the path to citizenship -- around 70 percent say they support it.

DH: Yes, the hard-core anti-immigration folks were successful in framing the issue around amnesty, which is not something U.S. voters favor. But, of course, it really isn't amnesty at all. There needs to be far more effective communication on immigration -- communication and organizing.

DP: Then there's the effort to organize the car wash workers, led by Jon Hiatt, general counsel of the AFL-CIO. He's a very smart guy pushing to get car wash workers in L.A., part of the so-called informal workforce, some labor protections including some wage minimums.

DH: You mention the progressive movement. Do we have a movement? Where is it headed?

DP: We have a progressive community. We're not a movement at the moment. People often use the word movement when what they mean is a community of organizations made up of people who care about these issues and are driving an agenda. A movement is when you get people out on the streets supporting your efforts. We have a lot of elements of a movement -- including national organizations, media, online communities and emerging leaders. I'm really excited about the next generation of leaders that I think are coming up, and we're trying to make room for them.

DH: Do you think there is a big problem for the progressive community -- that there are too many of us aging baby boomers standing in the way? Do we have to make room for young people to get in? Do young people need to carve out their own positions?

DP: I think a combination of things needs to happen. I think that young people need to build their own organizations. Not everything was figured out by people like you and me 20 years ago. So yes, new organizations need to emerge: The League of Young Voters is a good example. I do think that there is an emerging generation. I think they need to push us aside and that's great, but I don't think we're holding anybody back. I think there are lots of opportunities, and there is going to be a changing of the guard, even for well-established organizations.

DH: In your materials, you underscore the hard issues of making change. Do you have thoughts about how bringing people together like this increases the chance of change?

DP: What we're aiming to do is to get the right people in the room. A substantial number of the people attending will be part of the funding community, and a large portion will be from nonprofits. And, they will be in a collaborative environment, experiencing the same download of new thinking -- engaged and not in isolation.

This is going to be a different kind of conference. There will be no introductions to speak of; there will be no comments couched as questions from the audience. Everything will be one big plenary session for the presentation of ideas. People will come to announce a new campaign. It's a very different format, which really focuses on content, and there really isn't a venue for that. Hopefully it will be a different kind of experience. I hope people will identify and share their thoughts. The progressive community is only as good as the ideas it promotes.

DH: One of the challenges to change is what we refer to as the silo effect -- this narrowing of issues, the difficulty of connecting various single-issue constituencies on behalf of an overall agenda. One issue that comes to mind is the problem of water, which, so far, has not been central to the climate debate. One of the causes of the problem is funding; many funders fund very specific, narrow issues. If the funding is narrow, and there's no funding to cross-connect among the ideas, we don't get very far. Can you talk a little bit about how the funders and the idea people and activists might grapple with that and think of a broader, bigger vision? One that can get us further than everyone focused on getting a small piece of legislation or small part of an agenda?

DP: Absolutely. I think it depends a little bit on the field. There are some areas that lend themselves to that kind of thing. But I agree. Fresh water is a huge issue. It's a social equity issue, but it's even more than that. It relates to climate change, but it's different and it's huge. Certainly, water politics underlie a lot of what's going on in the Middle East. And people almost never talk about that.

The silo challenge is a huge issue within the entire arena of philanthropy. What I hope we'll bring to "Momentum" are people who are able to connect more dots -- leaders who can see the social dimension of environmental issues or the climate change dimension of an economic issue. I think there'll be some people like Lawrence Lessig, who will be pushing beyond campaign finance reform, to restrict the role of lobbying in the democratic process, to make all sorts of things that lobbyists can take off their taxes have to come out of their firm's profits instead. You know the effect of lobbying in Washington, and the corporate welfare system that it's become. We're not going to get much social change unless we deal with this problem. Donors who fund health who are attending "Momentum" are going to hear about health from a lot of different perspectives that they wouldn't usually run across. And that's the point: to get people out of their normal outlook and into an environment where they can think together.

DH: So to sum up, what's the message? What do you want people to think about the conference? What do you want to have communicated to the audience? Basically, what is it that people should come away thinking about in terms of the progressive vision for the future? How does it all fit together?

DP: This is a moment in history where there's more of an opportunity for change than any other time I can recall in my adult life. Progressives cannot be silent, going into this prospective victory in the fall. If the Democrats do take back the executive branch ... and there's a Democratic majority in Congress, it's a tremendous opportunity. We can't be quiet. And we have to figure out what to be noisy about.

Democrats and progressives been out of power for so long that we are simply used to being the opposition. And we have not authored significant thoughtful strategy about how government can become the solution to social problems and how it can drive the social agenda toward more equity and a more diplomacy-driven international role. We need to create an opportunity where people can come together and talk about these ideas.

Hopefully at "Momentum," we'll encourage a sense of what's possible to do out there and ground it in solid policy discussions, but also ground it in the tools and strategies needed to get it out there. Maybe in the future we'll need to get all of the constituency-based organizations in the same room. But "Momentum" is about new, nontraditional ways of thinking -- new approaches to things that people haven't aired broadly either in the funding community or in the publishing community. Getting them out of the silo and into broader dialogue -- that can become the basis for being noisy in the future.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

 
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