Growing Beyond the “Usual Suspects:” The Colorado Progressive Coalition

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Every action breeds its own opposite. This is certainly true for the arena of politics and public policy. Action: encouraged by a string of successful initiative campaigns restricting the rights of women, low-income families, people whose first language is not English, and gay and lesbian people in Colorado, religious political extremists from the evangelical movement decided that our state was fertile territory for increasing cynical “divide and conquer” efforts in the mid-1990s.

Reaction: fed up with the rise of right-wing political power in our state, a small group of community activists founded the Colorado Progressive Coalition to organize diverse communities to counter mean-spirited right-wing efforts and build a more proactive vision of justice and equality in our state.

From the beginning, CPC wanted to do more than just protest; we wanted to unite diverse communities, generate progressive policy alternatives and secure social, racial, economic, and environmental justice for all. Our focus was to be on organizing the people most affected by injustice.

Today, CPC has a statewide membership representing some 35 labor, religious, civil rights and community organizations, as well as 3,000 individual members across the state. Our work involves educating and organizing communities, building progressive coalitions, conducting policy research, lobbying elected officials, and getting out the vote. However, getting to this place required a lot of critical self-reflection, quite a few risks and some painful choices. A small, multiracial group of anti-racist activists, including us, shared responsibility for redirecting the public work and realigning the leadership practices of CPC during a period of dramatic organizational change. This is our story.

Most of our founding members were the “usual suspects,” self-identified progressives—largely middle- to upper-class whites, comfortable and well educated, often living in segregated neighborhoods. CPC said that it wanted to include the voices of young people and people of color, but most of our founding members had little or no contact with these communities. CPC’s problems were rooted in this contradiction.

To its credit, some in CPC attempted to build several local organizing networks that drew lots of interest from people of color and students. These activists of color were able to explain complex policy issues from a personal perspective and mobilize support in their communities for progressive alternatives. But at CPC’s membership meetings—where the major decisions were made—they were silent. Meanwhile, the “usual suspects,” who rarely attended local organizing meetings, were prominent voices at the statewide meetings where updates were given and where decisions were made. Our white members clearly felt comfortable acting like leaders. The youth, people of color and women doing the actual organizing work for the organization did not feel as confident.

Rather than asking what we as an organization were doing—or not doing—to support the active involvement of people of color, many white members would ask instead, “Aren’t they [people of color] committed to the issues? Why aren’t they here, and why don’t they speak up?”

At the same time, Soyun, especially, faced a lot of scrutiny from the membership. Her legitimacy as one of the organization’s directors was frequently challenged. Soyun was often criticized—though never directly—for being “abrasive” or “difficult,” while Bill was “articulate” and “constructive.”

By the way, Soyun is a Korean immigrant who grew up in the D.C. area; Bill is white and from a low-income, single-parent family in Maine. We brought diverse community and political organizing experiences to the job—Soyun’s work with youth in a Mexican immigrant neighborhood, Bill’s in political organizing and as a civil rights lobbyist at the state legislature.

Rather than leaving, Soyun gathered a small group of women of color as a support group. The women were interested in getting more involved in CPC, but only if important structural issues were addressed. The idea of forming a committee to discuss what CPC should look like emerged from this gathering. In the summer of 1998, the Multiracial Organizing Committee (M-ROC), a space where people of color and white anti-racists could talk openly of their feelings about the organization, held its first official meeting.

This committee was one of the single most important factors in CPC’s survival and subsequent success, eventually becoming a driving force behind the organization’s strategic planning process. M-ROC participants agreed that since CPC hadn’t addressed how to be a multicultural organization from the beginning—and had developed in form and culture the way many white organizations do—we would have to be willing to close it down and start over if necessary. It was our hope that, by changing the organization from within, we would not have to leave CPC or watch it close down but instead see it flourish in ways the founders could only imagine.

At first the resistance to the challenge to “walk the talk” surprised us. People who spoke of marching with Dr. King in the 60s and professed support for communities of color found it difficult to examine who made the decisions, how resources were allocated, and what our unstated cultural rules were. An unstated assumption was that many were, in some way, “post-racism.”

They wanted to reframe the debate from a focus on race to youth-versus-elders, or “diluting leftist ideology.” The process was intensely bitter, with a lot of resistance from people who considered themselves “enlightened” on social justice issues. They didn’t want to shine the spotlight internally and couldn’t understand why the leadership structure was even being questioned. In defending their vision of the organization, several people took part in destructive personal attacks. The resistance was understandable but not acceptable—racism masked the reality of unearned privilege that is inescapable for any white person. To consciously challenge personal and societal racism, one must actively swim upstream or be carried downstream by the strong current of the status quo.

In 1999, M-ROC assumed the lead on developing CPC’s internal anti-racist training and joined the organization-wide strategic planning efforts, which took a year of facilitated meetings, questionnaires to all members, and in-depth interviews with strategic allies—people and organizations that believed in the mission. We gathered input from several hundred people in all. The input from community allies and people loosely connected to CPC but choosing to keep an arm’s length away from the membership was weighted equally with existing members’. Also, we recognized M-ROC as CPC’s experts on building an anti-racist organization, with the power to make recommendations for change. Both proved very important in the final plan, guaranteeing that voices from people of color and anti-racist allies had direct access to the strategic planning process and could make recommendations for change to be accepted by the larger organization.

The strategic plan led to four major goals, one of which was to expand our own and the broader progressive community’s race and class diversity. Additionally, issues would now be examined through a race and class lens first, evaluating how they would broaden our membership among people of color and low-income people.
It was a really bumpy ride, but what it gave us was a beautiful roadmap.

The strategic plan gave us a blueprint for the future that allowed us to prioritize issues based on racial and economic justice. We decided to put money into our organizing effort with youth and people of color first—even though there are considerably fewer financial resources for this kind of work. We also decided to pay staff organizers out of our general funds, challenging and educating potential donors to make funding available for our infrastructure so that we can build an inclusive organization.

We are aggressive advocates of affirmative action in all aspects of the organization: staffing, internships, membership, and program development. We often hold internship and staff positions open until people of color from within the neighborhoods can fill them. We have an intensive internal training program—we’d rather bring people up from the base; many CPC interns have became staff members. We also take organizational transformation seriously; our stand as an anti-racist organization is brought into every coalition effort that we join.

We prioritized three communities for our organizing: people of color, low-income people, and youth. If our goal is to make lasting change, we must be structured so that people from these communities lead our efforts.

Accordingly, people who do the organizing work that brings more people into the organization are given preference for seats on the board—and those are predominantly people of color. Another way we were able to increase the number of people of color on the board was to redefine our notions of power. In the past, organizations invited to have a seat on our board were generally large, with lots of staff and resources—and, not surprisingly, mostly white in membership and leadership. But for us, the real power lies in affiliations with grassroots organizations such as Padres Unidos, a largely immigrant women’s group doing powerful work with little money.

Since implementing the strategic plan, our membership has more than doubled. Roughly 50 percent of our membership, 75 percent of our board, and 80 percent of our staff are people of color. Half of our members are low-income or working-class, and one-third are 30 years of age or younger—including several hundred youth who are part of Students 4 Justice, our youth-led youth organizing program.

CPC has also grown its budget significantly since the shift, to over $300,000. And our first significant statewide victory began in one of the lowest income communities in the state, with a door-knocking campaign that led to one of the nation’s strongest anti-racial and ethnic profiling laws. None of this would have happened without real participation from the grassroots.

Each day that passes it’s more obvious that without institutionalizing CPC’s commitment to being an anti-racist organization, we wouldn’t be a multiracial one. Our organization has been dramatically transformed in all areas, and this translates into practical results: the depth of our membership in communities, the real connection between people and the issues, and the increasing respect we get from those holding political power. We’re more inclusive, more real, more relevant, and more powerful. Plus, its a lot easier to go to work these days knowing that CPC is modeling an organization that doesn’t replicate internally many of the problems and challenges of the broader society.

We learned just how far CPC had come when celebrating our fifth anniversary several months back. There was a standing room-only crowd of 500 people, with phenomenal diversity and dynamic energy. The breadth of those supporting CPC excited attendees, and some of our founders told us how proud they were to see how CPC has grown and become a truly multiracial organization.

Looking forward, we have adopted leadership structures and practices that identify, nurture and promote indigenous leadership. We’re committed to building an organization where everyone feels included. Right now, we are training new people to fill our co-director positions in the not too distant future.

We’ve rejected the old theory that if you’re really committed you’ll work for (next to) nothing. Recognizing that people of color are in the struggle for the long haul, but still have to feed their families and pay rent, we’ve put together a model benefits package that goes beyond the usual health, dental, and vision to include flexible hours, personal time, cultural holidays, generous vacations, sabbaticals, student loan repayment, childcare, and pensions.

Finally, we’ve affirmed that holding white people accountable for inappropriate or hurtful behavior is not primarily the responsibility of people of color. At CPC, our white staff and membership hold each other accountable and take a leadership role in dismantling systems of racism and white skin privilege.

In everything we do, we strive to follow the call to model the society that we seek to create—even if that means swimming against some very strong currents.

When the Constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxes and representation declared that the Negro was 60 percent of a white person. Today another curious formula seems to declare he is 50 percent of a person. Of all the good things in life he has approximately one-half those of whites; of the bad he has twice those of whites.                                                            —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967)

Employment

  • Unemployment: “The unemployment rate for blacks has been twice that of whites for more than 20 years. It was above 10 percent from 1974 to 1997… In part, this disparity reflects differences in educational attainment. However, substantial differentials persist even among blacks, whites, and Hispanics with similar levels of education, which may reflect discrimination.”(CEA 1998)
  • Median Wage: “The median black male worker earns 74 percent, and the median Hispanic worker earns 63 percent, of the median for white men… The median wage of all black men has changed little relative to that of all white men since 1979. However, relative pay of college-educated black men has fallen by more than 10 percentage points… ” (CEA 1998)
  • Occupational Profile:  “Relatively high percentages of white and Asian men are employed in managerial and professional occupations, whereas black, Hispanic, and American Indian men tend to be concentrated in ‘lower-skilled,’ lower-paid occupations of operators, fabricators and laborers… ” (CEA 1998)

Economic status

  • Median Family Income: The median income of black families as a percentage of non-Hispanic white median family income is less than 60 percent, about the same in 1997 as in 1967. Hispanic median family income has fallen in absolute terms (and relative to that of non-Hispanic whites) since 1972. (CEA 1998)
  • Poverty Rates: Nearly one in three black children (30.9 percent) and more than one in four Hispanic children (28 percent) are poor in America, compared to 13 percent of white children and 14.5 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander children.(CEA 1998)
  • Wealth: In 1993, households maintained by whites were more likely than those maintained by blacks or Hispanics to own stocks or mutual funds, have equity in their home, or hold assets in a retirement savings account…In 1993, the median net worth of white households was about 10 times that of black or Hispanic households. (CEA 1998)

Health and health care

  • The “Medical Divide”: People of color in the U.S. receive lower-quality health care than whites, regardless of similarities in income, age, insurance status, and severity of conditions.  Unequal treatment outcomes are linked to the bias, prejudice and stereotyping expressed by health care providers toward minorities. (Smedley 2002)
  • Life expectancy at birth: “For both men and women, whites can expect to live longer than blacks… Although life expectancy has increased substantially for all groups, the differences between groups increased during the 1980s, particularly among men… Black men and women have the highest death rates from heart disease and cancer.” (CEA 1998)

Education

  • Segregation: Almost 50 years after Brown struck down the doctrine of “separate but equal,” 40 percent of all U.S. public schools remain “intensely segregated” (over 90 percent mono-racial). (Gordon 2000)
  • Curriculum Access: “Except for Asian Americans, students of color are underrepresented in advanced math and over-represented in the least advanced classes.” Whites comprise 52 percent of students in pre-algebra and algebra courses, compared to 35 percent of African American and 31 percent of Latino students in these classes. (CEA 1998)
  • Teacher Qualifications: “In Los Angeles, where 70 percent of students are Latino, only 22 percent of teachers are. Chicago is one of the only major cities in the U.S. with a majority of teachers of color.” (Gordon 2000) “Teachers in schools with higher percentages of students of color are less likely to have majored in or minored in, or to be certified in, most subject areas.” (Gordon 1998)
  • Educational Attainment: “Asians and non-Hispanic whites are more likely to have completed education beyond high school than are blacks, Hispanics and American Indians. In 1997, nearly half of Hispanics aged 25 and older had not completed high school.” (CEA 1998)

Attitudes

  • Media:  “Even on racial issues like affirmative action, racism and asylum policy (which made up 0.9 percent of overall coverage), the majority group was still afforded far greater opportunity to televise their opinions than the population most directly affected by those issues… Among U.S. sources quoted on minority policies, whites made up 87 percent, far ahead of blacks (8 percent), Latinos (4 percent) and Asians (1 percent). Even in reports specifically on racism, 59 percent of quoted sources were white Americans, 29 percent were African Americans, and 6 percent were Asian Americans, with no Arab Americans, Latinos, Native Americans or other minority quoted at all.” (Howard 2002)
  • Opinion Polls: “While nearly seven in ten whites (69 percent) say that blacks are treated ‘the same as whites’ in their own community, this view is held by only 41 percent of blacks. This gap between black and white opinion on this question is a long term fixture of American racial opinion that has shown only a modest narrowing in the past thirty-five years.” (Gallup 2001)

CEA. 1998. Changing America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being by
Race and Hispanic Origin. Washington, DC: Council of Economic Advisers. (w3.access.gpo.gov/eop/ca)
Gallup Organization. 2001. “Black-White Relations in the United States: 2001 Update.” Report presented July 10, Washington, DC.
Gordon, R. 1998. “Education & Race.” Report for Applied Research Center, Oakland, CA. (www.arc.org/downloads/RaceandEducation.pdf)
Gordon, R., L. Della Piana, and T. Keleher. 2000. “Facing the Consequences: An Examination of Racial Discrimination in Public Schools.” Report by ERASE, Applied Research Center, Oakland, CA. (www.arc.org/downloads/ARC_FTC.pdf)
Howard, Ina. 2002. “Power Sources.” Extra! May/June. (fair.org/extra/0205/power_sources.html)
Smedley, B., A. Stith, and A. Nelson, eds. 2002. Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. (www.nap.edu/catalog/10260.html)

Soyun Park is a co-director of Colorado Progressive Coalition (www.progressivecoalition.org) responsible for CPC’s youth and community organizing programs. Bill Vandenberg is co-director, handling CPC’s political and administrative functions.