The Government Should Use Private Funds to Invest in Organizing

Many applauded when President Obama announced his new initiative, My Brother's Keeper, to support opportunities for young men of color. According to the White House:  “By the time they hit fourth grade, 86 percent of African American boys and 82 percent Hispanic boys are reading below proficiency levels compared to 54 percent of white fourth graders reading below proficiency levels.” The plan includes lining up millions from private foundations, such as the Ford Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Annie E Casey Foundation

It's a laudable effort, but how about we add some secret sauce? The $200 million that ten foundations are planning to invest could back not only innovative service programs, but also cutting-edge community organizing.  

Why organizing? It can stop further severe cuts in basic government services, like food stamps. It can win the restoration of previously-slashed services, as VOICE-Buffalo did by securing more day care dollars for low-income parents. It can hold public officials accountable, as MICAH did by bringing a lawsuit to force Wisconsin transit officials to include transit in their highway planning. And it can help make sure that when we increasingly rely on private entities to take for functions formerly performed by governments (like public private partnerships) that these ventures remain accountable to voters. 

Young men of color need good, old-fashioned basic government services as well as innovative programs. Take just one example: transportation.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and others are saying that there is “zero” chance of a transportation bill passing this year. But young men need transit to access jobs, schools and worship. My Brother's Keeper should support transportation organizing.

Or take quality public schools. Here in Missouri, our legislature is very unlikely to fully finance its own formula to help local school districts. The same is true in many states.  Additional support for organizing that seeks to reclaim, refund and reform our public schools would be an enormous help to African American and Latino boys.  

If My Brother's Keeper invests in quality community organizing, it could pay long term dividends, by helping to make sure that the community is involved in the program from the outset. It could also teach minority men and boys the arts of community organizing—tools that will help them to better advocate for their self-interest.

Barack Obama became president in part because he learned organizing techniques. He should make sure his bold new initiative uses—and spreads—those same methods.

Laura Barrett is the executive director Interfaith Worker Justice.


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