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Warning: Public service is a social change liability

In honor of his inauguration, Obama is advocating an increased dedication to public service. Local activists share what he's not telling you.
Hamdi Mohamed

Hamdi Mohamed

Jody Hall, founder of Cupcake Royale, at her Ballard shop.

Jody Hall, founder of Cupcake Royale, at her Ballard shop.

To commemorate his inauguration, President Obama asked Americans to participate in his National Day of Service on Saturday. And that was just the start: He used the event to kick off what he hopes will become an ongoing nationwide commitment to volunteering.

But his call to action should come with a warning.

What Obama didn't mention is that volunteering often leads to advocacy and community organizing; activities that can mean a series of dramatic life changes for unwitting participants.  

It starts innocently enough, with an issue you feel compelled to do something about. For Cupcake Royale owner Jody Hall, that issue is the cost of health insurance for small business owners. Hall, a former Starbucks employee, says that when she was shopping for insurance, she was surprised by “how little we got in terms of health care benefits for almost twice the dollars [of corporate plans]. And these plans only covered medical — not dental and vision, which were included in my [Starbucks] corporate packages.”  

Rather than “blame yourself,” you fight back. Hall became active in Washington CAN, a social, racial and economic justice organization. She became an outspoken advocate for affordable health care, even meeting with the Obama Administration and testifying before Congress. Through her involvement with Washington CAN, she became a founding member of the Main Street Alliance. What began as a coalition of Washington-state small business owners dedicated to ensuring that the policy positions of small business owners are heard by legislators. It is now active in 15 states.

You realize that there are times when “courageous public action” is needed. A term coined by the Seattle-based Faith Action Network (FANWA), which engages in social change for a more just and compassionate world, courageous public action is defined as activities that combine bold public outreach/education and advocacy.  

For years, WA CAN had been advocating the closure of outdated tax loopholes for banks in lieu of budget cuts to health care, social service and education programs — without success. So in April 2011, CAN spearheaded a Week of Action: CAN members and dozens of allied organizations spent a week on the Capitol Campus, marching, rallying, meeting with legislators and disrupting budget proposal hearings in both the House and Senate. The week culminated in a 12,000-person rally, after which several dozen protesters spent the night in the Capitol Rotunda. Ultimately, they succeeded in forcing the closure of a loophole, which saved Washington tax payers millions of dollars.

Joshua Welter, communications director for Main Street Alliance, a CAN ally, says that bold organizing was crucial to CAN’s success: “It’s been important to raise the level of agitation to change the conversation [about loopholes]…There is no doubt in my mind that closing that one bank loophole would not have happened were it not for the sustained, persistent, ongoing street-level action over the last three years.”

You find your voice. Hamdi Mohamed, a Somali refugee, says that members of her Tukwila Somali community can sometimes feel ignored, devalued, and powerless. But Mohamed has found an antidote — OneAmerica, an immigrants’ rights organization. Since becoming involved with OneAmerica in 2009, Mohamed has produced organizing events, doorbelled, phone banked, registered voters, testified before Washington State’s Redistricting Commission and more.

When Somalia was struck by famine in 2011, Mohamed organized her own event — a fundraiser that generated $4000 for relief efforts. “If I hadn’t had the OneAmerica experience, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Hamdi says. “Organizing gave me a voice.” 

And help others to find theirs. “Now,” Mohamed says, “People in my community come to me for information… How did you put together that event? How do I do this or that?”

In the end, you find yourself thinking that maybe it’s true: A small group of committed activists really can change the world. Or, as Hall says, that Margaret Mead quote was right.

She would know.

Want to join hundreds of like-minded citizens, and lobby state legislators on your pet issue? Most of the groups highlighted above are sponsoring lobby days in January and/or February. Check their websites or call them for more information.

Lisa Arnold is a Seattle-based consultant (at Lisa Arnold Consulting) to community organizations focusing on grassroots organizing and fund-raising. She can be reached through lisaarnold@lisaarnoldconsulting.com .


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Comments:

Posted Sun, Jan 20, 3:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Great article! Here's hoping that more and more direct service volunteers will deepen their involvement and become vocal advocates for social change! Don't just feed the homeless or paint a classroom; lead the charge for an end to homelessness and a broader investment in education.

Meredith

Posted Sun, Jan 20, 3:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Church groups and others have been doing this type of work for decades without the fanfare that big city NW liberals need to show the world they care. About time they started pulling their weight.

Djinn

Posted Sun, Jan 20, 3:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, lots of people have been doing this work for decades and even centuries, including big city NW liberals. Churches are one type of organization among many.

Nonetheless, this article kindly reminds us that advocacy plays an important role in the world of public service and should be attended to just as much as other types of service.

Meredith

Posted Sun, Jan 20, 7:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Now Seattle city government has banned the Mission from
serving meals because they have decided that they now
have to have a "permit" to serve the free meals that
have they had for about 74 years. So much for public
help from our society.

pete1427

Posted Sun, Jan 20, 9:29 p.m. Inappropriate

You'll find this information interesting but not surprising.

http://philanthropy.com/article/Generosity-in-Americas-50/133675/
http://philanthropy.com/article/Generosity-in-All-of-Americas/133673/

Djinn

Posted Mon, Jan 21, 11:04 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes. Many people give to their churches. This is an age-old common practice that has very little to do with the issues at hand. Unless, of course, you're suggesting that all those donations go directly to public service.

Meredith

Posted Wed, Jan 23, 10:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Feeding and clothing and housing the poor meets any sane person's definition of public service and a multitude of faiths do this, as do others. It does cost money. However, the article seems to think that being an advocate is public service. It isn't. It's politics for a cause. Public service isn't advancing a political objective, That's what partisan politics are for, the very thing that has the nation tied up in knots today. Try substituting the NRA for one of Jody Hall's pet projects and you'll get the picture.

When I volunteer at the food bank I don't take my politics with me. I'm there to help people who need assistance and they could care less about if I have a D or R or even if I have a political affiliation.

Djinn

Posted Wed, Jan 23, 10:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Regarding church funding and public service, I think you've bought into the same incorrect assumption many people do in thinking that church contributions go to public services.

They typically do not for the following reason: Churches apply for and get significant funding from the federal government to facilitate public services. This money comes with strings attached, so churches operate public services separately, whereas the donations you speak of are used for non-public service things like religious services, legal fees, and political spending.

Dominic Holden had a good article on this topic in the Stranger recently: http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/mass-uprising/Content?oid=12587024

The WA Catholic archdiocese referenced in the article is financed to the tune of 72% by the federal government while spending heavily on anti-gay political issues. They have a heavy lobbying agenda, and manage to spend exactly nothing from their collections on public services.

bigendian

Posted Sun, Jan 20, 10:38 p.m. Inappropriate

A great call to action on the eve of such an important day. I'll be out marching on MLK Day, but also trying to do what I can throughout the year. Agree - my inspiration doesn't come from elected officials, but from people like Hamdi who is an inspiration!

Posted Mon, Jan 21, 7:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Jodie Hall? The "random" small business owner that had the President visit her house and host a back yard talk? Part of the Democrat sponsored, NGO front group? That Jodie Hall?

Cameron

Posted Mon, Jan 21, 7:30 a.m. Inappropriate

When Jodi Hall speaks, think Obama policy drone.

http://westseattle.komonews.com/content/cupcake-royales-jody-hall-meets-president-obama

Cameron

Posted Mon, Jan 21, 11:06 a.m. Inappropriate

BREAKING: Different people share common goal and join forces to accomplish it. Film at eleven!

Meredith

Posted Mon, Jan 21, 12:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Unfortunately, the deal to get that bank loophole to go away included a giveway that amounted to more than what the savings for the loophole were. That's realpolitik.

sarah90

Posted Mon, Jan 21, 9:21 p.m. Inappropriate

I dunno. I see a lot of public service non profits that don't seem to accomplish much of anything ...

Don't bite my head off. There are many that do. But, frankly, respect must be earned.

Posted Tue, Jan 22, 10:52 a.m. Inappropriate

"What Obama didn't mention is that volunteering often leads to advocacy and community organizing; activities that can mean a series of dramatic life changes for unwitting participants."

Truer words were never spoken. It's a fire in your belly that almost never goes away and it really takes a lot of commitment. That a willingness to speak out - publicly - and sign your name to everything and endure many, many people who want to marginalize you because you are not "establishment."

But bless all the activists. They tend to bring the cleansing light of day to many issues that might otherwise be ignored. And, they keep a lot of elected officials more on the straight and narrow than they might be.

Melissa Westbrook
Seattle Schools Community Forum blog

westello

Posted Tue, Jan 22, 1:49 p.m. Inappropriate

"But bless all the activists. They tend to bring the cleansing light of day to many issues that might otherwise be ignored. And, they keep a lot of elected officials more on the straight and narrow than they might be."

So right on! Well said.

Meredith

Posted Sat, Jan 26, 3:30 p.m. Inappropriate

It's appalling to this citizen how many people in this country are homeless while we overspend on national defense, nearly 7x what #2 China does, or almost $600 billion more. Meanwhile, the rich have to have several if not dozens of homes and other trappings.

bricsa

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