National People's Action—The Long View for Lasting Change
By Alyssa Figueroa
Q&A: The director of NPA describes their long-term plan to create a new economy and reclaim our democracy.
What would it take to have an economy that really works for people, and not just corporations? For starters, it takes understanding how the conservative movement strategically built the economy we have, which serves the 1 percent.
That’s why the recent work of National People’s Action, a network of grassroots organizations founded in 1972, is so important. NPA’s network has about 100,000 members and hopes to grow as they prepare to build an economy that benefits all people, which is encapsulated in their ambitious and strategic Long-Term Agenda to the New Economy.
What has made the conservative movement successful and what should progressives be focused on achieving? I sat down with NPA’s executive director, George Goehl, to learn about the answers to those questions, NPA’s new agenda, and how we can organize to reclaim our democracy.
Alyssa Figueroa: National People’s Action released its "Long-Term Agenda to the New Economy," with pretty big goals, from demanding racial justice to requiring corporations to serve the public good. How possible do you think it is to achieve these goals?
George Goehl: I think they’re totally possible, but they are also long-term. When I took over the organization we were about dead, and so we spent five years rebuilding. But we felt like the next leap we needed to take in terms of strategy and vision needed to do an even better job of engaging our base in that conversation.
We got hundreds of our members to commit to spending a year really dissecting and learning from the corporate conservative agenda and how we ended up with this economy. And we always say, this isn’t a conspiracy theory — it’s a conspiracy. This was a plan they developed, and it worked. So let’s understand what happened to us, how they did it, and what we can learn from it.
And then we built out this vision, and it felt like so much of the work that organizers do and progressives do is built around what’s winnable — what can we win vs. what do people need. So as long as we’re only focused on what we can win, we’ll win that or less. Never has the head of a bank would say, after we demand that they put $50 million into neighborhoods, “Well, let’s put a hundred million.” We never got more than we demanded, so we needed to demand more. And we kind of needed a compass that pointed us towards what we’re trying to get, and then what are the steps to get there.
What really flipped a switch for the base was these guys weren’t just focused on aggregating profit, that they were trying to amass power. And even though all the banks don’t like each other or all the oil companies don’t like each other, they were in agreement that they, the corporations, needed to not just win the profit game but the power game. And I think that really helped people to think about that, and it helped me.
And so then we looked at, what would it look like for us to change the questions we ask before we get in campaigns, which would traditionally have been, would this fight improve people’s lives? or build the organization? or raise money to be order to sustain the organization? And then we thought about the other questions we need to ask, so one of them we really added in that process is, if we won on this fight, does it take power away from the opposition, which we would largely define as big corporations and would it shift power to people?
So to some extent, there’s these long-term goals around things like public control of the economy, corporations serving the public — that is where we want to end up. NPA has been around for 40 years, if they would have known that when they started and said, okay, we’re going to be around for 40 years, here’s what the first five years look like, here’s what the next 10 years will look like. What we know is this long-term agenda building process has had a transformative effect on people. People are contributing more time and money to the organization, and there’s an energy in NPA because of this agenda. So we are now trying to assemble a set of steps or moves over time that shift power to everyday people and therefore shift what is possible.
So we think all that’s doable.
AF: Do you feel like our political climate is right or you’re fighting against all odds?
GG: I think the political climate is simultaneously horrible and full of opportunity to create the change we need. National politics and our economics are pretty depressing. And yet, I don’t have any doubt that if you push this many people across racial, gender, generational lines down this hard for this long, there are going to be uprisings like Occupy or Wisconsin, they’re going to happen. But we’re thinking, how does that happen within a strategy so it’s not an episodic moment where they try to give us some relief so we shut up and go away, but creates a shift that results in more everyday people being in charge.
AF: The agenda states that structural reforms will lead to structural transformation. When it comes to change, do you believe making steps within the oppressive structures will ultimately change them?
GG: I think so, yeah. I’m not sure I would have said that three or four years ago or 10 years ago. But I would say a long-term structural reform strategy that included a focus on shifting worldview is a credible pathway toward transformative change in our political economy. But, it has to start with transformative long-term goals, or you’ll end up in the wrong place
As an example, if we secured legalization for [undocumented] 11 immigrants that led to a true path of citizenship, won some real money in politics reforms and made voting incredibly more accessible, we think that alone would change the playing field. That combined with real success around shaping the dominant worldview would be a big deal. From there we’d have to know what’s next—how we build on those codified shifts in power.
We actually had somebody go back and look at how corporations started on what we call structural reform pathways. One is deregulation. So we started to look at deregulation and how they started winning all these tiny little deregulation reforms that you wouldn’t even notice, but they were just chipping away at the public sector step by step. And at a certain point they just reached the tipping point. So not only were they creating more opportunity to profit, they actually had more control over the public sector and over government. You wouldn’t even have known it was happening, and I feel like what’s happened was a revolution. It just happened slowly. And they didn’t need to do any protests because they were in charge.
AF: What structural reforms will you be focusing on this year?
GG: We’re certainly focused on immigration reform. That goes without saying. We are looking at money and politics. We’re focused on corporations paying their fair share of taxes as a means of increasing public control over money. We’re asking how do we shift significant capital from what’s now in private control (through privatization and other means) back under public control? And then try to figure out how do those resources not just go to the old economy? We think one key component of the new economy is moving resources to both more local and community control and to public forms of control. This could include a broad set of ownership designs such as worker cooperative, locally accountable small businesses, and participatory budgeting models.
And then there’s a sustainability lens, so we have something in place now called community development block grants and HUD disperses this money to local governments and then here in San Francisco, there’s a debate around how that money’s going to get spent. It’s a good and important program. We’d like to see something more like new economy block grants that are basically dollars invested and focused on the transition economy — these grants would include a lens on community control, racial and gender justice, and sustainability.
A tiny structural reform we’d think would be important is currently in no states in the country now do corporations have to disclose how much they are paying to the state in taxes. So they come and get crazy subsidies and benefits and say, oh, we create jobs. We don’t even know how much they are paying in taxes now, but giving them additional subsidies. To address this, we’ve got bills we’re introducing in a set of states that would make them disclose how much they pay now. And obviously that’s not our ultimate goal: transparency. But we think that is the kind of strategy we’re trying to develop, building fights that help change what’s possible in the next fight.
AF: For getting money out of politics, what are NPA’s pathways to get there?
GG: First is building bottom-up campaigns in cities, counties and states where there’s analysis around the corporate sector, race and sustainability. And tax policies are very different in cities and states across the country.
So build campaigns that go on the offensive to make sure Verizon or Sears or Walmart or whoever it is paying their fair share in taxes. So there’d be mass political education to build a base that really understands the political dynamics, and can drive policy victories and help shift the narrative to truly name the ways that abusive corporations are at root of our current struggle, and that there are clear things we can do to fix this. You launch those campaigns, and at the local level people will be winning in some places, and playing defense in others, but we’ll all be in the struggle and aggregating those campaigns into a national story.
So the question we are asking is, how does work in Kansas and Ohio and Michigan and Rhode Island all add up in the story where everyday people around the country are not just wringing their hands or saying this economy’s a drag, but are actually going into the streets, going to the statehouse, doing direct action at offices of corporate tax dodgers and move solutions forward. And one of the tricks on anything with taxes is states pit each other against each other just like countries do, and so figure out how do we get enough activity going in enough states that it makes it a lot harder for corporations to do that.
In addition to the NPA part of this, we’re trying to figure out how do we get a broad enough set of allies doing this so basically there’s nowhere for corporations to go hide. We need every state to have an expectation that corporations are going to pay their fair share of taxes. And then meanwhile, that is connected to a civic engagement strategy to move these issues into the 2014 and 2016 elections because if we don’t, it’s going to be tough terrain.
But then there’s a challenge that a lot of people don’t feel good about the role of government. So there’s an opportunity to exploit and then a challenge to address. And the questions on the role of government come down to racism. Instead of running from tough conversations around race, let’s move into them. So that’s the kind of complexity we’re trying to add to our thinking — is like what does this fight allow us to do? Does it move us into the narrative that maybe we’ve shied away from historically but we need to go toward?
One of the things we’re doing to make sure we’re looking ahead is more scenario planning around the next bubble or financial crash because our history is really around banks and the financial sector. When the financial crash hit, progressives were not prepared. There was no infrastructure, hardly any organizing infrastructure. NPA and ACORN were the only groups with any real history on the issues. So, we were not collectively prepared to turn a terrible moment into the levels of structural change that we need.
We don’t have any doubt there’s going to be another bubble or crash. So there’s a set of people that are doing scenario planning around how to be prepared. We think you have to bust up the big banks. We think you have to build state banks and we think now they have to be controlled by the people.
AF: How viable do you feel the stock transaction tax or Wall Street tax is?
GG: We probably need to win some money in politics reforms first. I mean that’s what’s interesting about a long-term agenda. It’s quite possible you win the Wall Street tax by working on 10 things that have nothing to do with the Wall Street tax.
Perhaps the way to win the Wall Street tax is pass citizenship for undocumented immigrants, you get money out of politics, you win these voter reforms, and you build incredible electoral capacity. You can argue that is a strategy, and then maybe you don’t even have to talk about the Wall Street tax the whole damn time.
AF: As a national movement that pushes for community organizing, what is the key to balancing the local vs. national organizing?
GG: If we’ve done anything right, it’s actually hiring people on our national staff who come out of local organizing first. So there’s a deep respect for the kind of work and craft and the care that has to happen. Because the further national you get, the more removed you are from people’s everyday lives. So I think you have to have a staff that understands people. I think you’ve got to know that the local should drive.
So I think it’s just being really thoughtful about the balance. We’ve had moments where I think we were like leaning a little too hard toward the national first, and then we course corrected. Then there are times where we’re just being a little too patient for the local. For us, that also means we have an ongoing process between the national leadership and the local leadership. It’s a constant conversation.
The fun thing about being in NPA right now is there’s an insatiable appetite to figure out how do we do this in a way to create transformative change. Everybody’s basically waking up just deeply dissatisfied. And they should be. The politics and economics of now should make you deeply dissatisfied.
So you just have a group of people asking hard questions. It’s intoxicating to be around, and I think it’s actually one of the reasons why we’re growing. Hopefully, we’re doing it well, but I think it’s actually the nature of the moment. You simultaneously see crazy oppression and also crazy opportunity. And so we should all be thinking bigger and differently about what’s possible.