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

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

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For years, WA CAN had been advocating the closure of outdated tax loopholes for banks in lieu of budget cuts to health care, social service and education programs — without success.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.


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