Privilege and Oppression

Modern Government Suppression of Progressive Social Change

Photo: Wikimedia Commons. via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons. via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)

I’m currently reading Jaclyn Freidman and Jessica Valenti’s incredible anthology Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape and many of the writers mention how influential INCITE’s seminal book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded has been on their thinking.

In particular these authors point out that community organizations (e.g. rape crisis centers and incest resources) that rely on government funding have to temper their desired calls for change, with blander and more moderate proposals.

These organizations used to operate with a mentality of “us,” but now have a client/worker model that adds significant distance and contributes to depoliticization.

One of the biggest issues is that it funnels nearly all funded efforts to supporting sexual violence survivors with services, rather than also including funding for addressing root causes of the violence (e.g. “macho culture”).

This diversion of activism to only providing social services, also happens across the whole nonprofit and grassroots organizing realm.

Unfortunately, I’m seeing firsthand how this process only continues to increase.


Expanding the definition of “lobbying”


This week I attended the Environmental Health Disparities & Environmental Justice Meeting put on by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which convened people from community organizations, academic institutions, and government agencies.

This specific meeting was intended to “Set an action agenda for EHD [environmental health disparities] and EJ [environmental justice] research.” Meaning how can organizations tie their research to real action.

Facilitators and participants mentioned that one of the most common refrains from these gatherings is that “government agencies don’t provide enough funding to take action.”

In this context, the action they are referring to occurs when organizations find environmental justice/health disparities in communities and then they want to address them.

However, the U.S. government is very unwilling to fund actions that directly tackle these challenges, mainly because that would mean criticizing polluting industries from tire manufacturers to pork producers to fracking companies.

At one refreshingly open session “Conflicts over Research that Identifies Community Impacts of Environmental Exposures” (i.e. research that could hurt a company’s reputation), people talked about getting shutdown/intimidated by both government and industries representatives.

Government officials get their funding from political leaders, so if these same government officials accept research that condemns corporate funders of politicians, well then their own funding is in jeopardy.

Also, as the meeting organizer NIEHS discovered, industry will do all in its power to stifle any findings that identify potential damaging impacts of their practices.

This session felt like a release for all participants to finally talk about this issue openly, since it seems to only be talked about outside of the offices.

While this one session packed full of people at all ends of the organizational spectrum seemed to invigorate both me and other participants with its truthful analysis, the next session quickly brought us back to reality.

The next session innocuously titled “Using Research Results to Improve Environmental Public Health” talked about recent policy decision for many government agencies to expand the definition of “lobbying.”

Anything that has a “call to action,” gives data to an EJ group advocating for cleaning contaminated sites, etc. will now be classified as “lobbying.”

This change came about due to House Republicans objecting to the use of some grantee funding by research groups (e.g. a tobacco researcher identifying who the tobacco lobby funds).

Now if I was part of an organization receiving government-funding trying to present findings at a public hearing and saw that action needed to happen, with these new rules I would be forbidden from doing so.

The tension and disbelief in the room was palpable. Folks were incredulous that these new policies were put into place since it endangered all of their EJ and EHD work.

Though everyone who came to the mic to speak was against the policy, the facilitator just said they were just presenting what the higher ups had decided based on the current “political climate.”

So if you’re like me and keeps a small bit of hope that our government institutions might start to shift in a positive and action-oriented direction, then these new rules are a pretty stark reminder events are continuing to go in the wrong direction.

To me this is another clear indication that we have to find ways to escape reliance on government grants and contracts because conservative elements will, for the foreseeable future (due to the entrenchment of conservative influence at all levels of government), seek to increasingly diminish how much we can act for justice.

The outrage at this meeting from government, academic, and community partners was a nice sign, unless we have the ability to speak out and address neutrality, then policies/research will bend towards injustice.

So while the distancing from government funding creates new challenges for our already cash-strapped organizations, it is important to remember there are other successful funding models (e.g. member dues).

Even though our institutions may wish to suppress social movements, at this meeting right now I am again reminded that the majority of people want significant changes and are willing to speak out.

We just have to continue speaking out and mobilizing both in our internal and extended communities.

By Drew Serres

Drew Serres began working on Organizing Change to combine his dedication to showing impactful organizing practices with his passion for learning. Find out more about him at the About Page and see his updates on Twitter and Google+