Speaking With Many Voices

A meeting of diverse non-profits in Washington, D.C. on March 15-16 helped breathe life into often-frustrated activists pushing to improve the plight of the downtrodden, increase peace, economic and racial justice and champion assorted social justice causes.

But the gathering of progressives-to-moderates, civil rights and faith-based groups doing voter registration, education and mobilization called by the non-profit National Voice was more than a progressive love fest. It was a chance for an often-fractious bunch to consider the broad canvas of social good they paint upon -- and a common concern.

That common concern is a vast one: the state of American democracy. Several hundred people attended the summit for discussions, workshops, speeches and Ben & Jerry's ice cream breaks. National Voice is a 10-month-old group based in Minneapolis that is devoted to assisting non-partisan, non-profit and community groups with civic participation. It will not exist after this election season.

The task for 2004 will be getting more folks engaged in the political process and breaking through cynical messages at a time when people want change and want to be connected, activists and analysts asserted. The participating groups do not endorse candidates, but they clearly envision a world with protections for workers and the environment, a less antagonistic foreign policy, and different federal spending priorities.

Labels, Language and Operational Unity

Putting the organizations assembled in a nice box wasn't easy. Is the NAACP voting arm a civil rights group or progressive group; is the National Council of Churches a faith group, "prophetic" group or progressive group? Regardless of labels, the clear consensus in meeting rooms and lunches was that the needs of ordinary people are going unmet.

"A whole of people who never saw themselves as poor -- working families -- are losing income, losing jobs. Jobs are being shipped everywhere else," said Jim Wallis, executive editor of Sojourners magazine and convener of The Call to Renewal, a faith-based group devoted to poverty eradication.

"All of our faith-based providers are overwhelmed. The soup kitchens and shelters all report tremendous increases in need and decreases in resources," Wallis said.

The meeting was a pretty diverse group but all feel this year is critical, he said.

"For us, it means the religious issues, so-called, in this election are not reduced or narrowed to marriage amendment, Ten Commandments in Alabama courthouses, prayer in schools and abortion laws. Poverty is a religious issue. A just foreign policy is a religious issue. We don't want God and morality hijacked by the religious right," Wallis added. He faults the Democrats for keeping faith out of framing of issues and faults the GOP for largely limiting faith discussions to sexual issues.

Like others, Wallis saw strength in the diversity of the gathering, which ranged from the anti-war group Code Pink and the venerable NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to the League of Pissed Off Voters, young upstart activists who published the book "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office."

Adrienne Maree Brown, co-editor of "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office," left hopeful about "pushing progressive work forward." That means a values system that defines what is progressive independent of any political party, she said. In their book, Brown and co-editor William Wimsatt blast former President Clinton for trade pacts that cost jobs, for kicking women off welfare without promised childcare, and massive incarceration. They also blast Bush and his crew for spending deficits, misplaced security policy and the voting debacle in Florida.

"It's important that we not get caught up in the party game so that we can have objective opinions," Brown said. "We have to be critical of all sides and issues and approaches."

Brown sees the need for extended conversations in the future, not just sporadic get-togethers. Others held the same view, eager for collaboration that doesn't violate their tax status and some kind of effective partnership. Though it was unclear how that would unfold, plans are at least in the works for a media campaign to promote common values.

The short-term mission is increasing voter turnout and dealing with things like voter intimidation at the polls. Eddie Hailes, Jr., a senior attorney with the Advancement Project, said the summit helped groups learn about voter purging and other barriers to voter participation. Advance work will need to be done to overcome these hurdles once voters are registered, Hailes said.

Internal differences will also have to be ironed out if significant collaboration is to take place. Darshan Khalsa, of South Asian American Voting Youth, felt more outreach and agenda setting with communities of color was needed. She enjoyed the meeting, but said more inclusion is needed. Otherwise, there is "buried resentment, buried anger, eventual splintering and you lose the groups you start with," she said.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners feels more understanding of progressive religious groups is needed. These groups offer a point of view and commitment that are important and can help frame issues, he said.

"Could this be a good year for progressives? Yes, it could be," said analyst David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank. Bositis (who didn't attend the meeting) admitted his analysis was "somewhat speculative" given elections are months away.

"Bush has really energized people on the center-left. During the 2000 campaign, he tried to hide the fact that he was a far-right conservative. But once he was in office, after a couple years it became very, very clear that this guy is an ultra-conservative," Bositis continued. "The numbers of people alarmed by that have grown, and grown, and grown. This could be a year where progressives make big gains."

Richard Muhammad is the Chicago-based editor of StraightWords E-Zine, and former managing editor of the Final Call newspaper.

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