Civil Liberties (May 03)

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This morning, I heard that the successful 38-year-old network of Head Start programs, which the current administration is trying to creatively dismantle, has been warned to shut up about it.

In a May 8 letter, Windy Hill, the Associate Commissioner of the Head Start Bureau at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, attempted to intimidate Head Start staff and parents by incorrectly stating that any lobbying or advocacy that they might engage in would violate conditions of their funding and national law.

I hate to say I told you so, but in our March e-Newsletter, I expressed alarm about the erosion of our civil rights and liberties.

A few of our readers were unhappy about this. Some even accused us of being unpatriotic. One gentleman suggested that I “stick to my knitting,” by which he meant the narrower details of “nonprofit management” issues.

Well, we think the protection of civil liberties is our “knitting,” and the Head Start story is a case in point. It’s a particularly poignant case because of the deep principles of community participation and activism that Head Start embodies.

Our civil liberties are what allow us to assemble, and to form opinions about and take action on all of the issues that affect our lives. And the basic norm of democracy is that individuals should have equal chances to influence those collective decisions that affect them.

Nonprofits have an important role in ensuring participation, and should provide the venue for participation — constantly enlivening our national fabric of multiple dialogues, interest groups and communities. Whether we pursue the local advancement of the arts of Southeast Asia, provide for the safety of abused women, advocate for clean air or, like Head Start, provide early education in economically, geographically and culturally marginalized communities, we help to shape and add to the texture of life. We also attend to equity of access to the things that allow us to participate fully in life, things like education, food, health care and affordable, decent housing.

A healthy democracy requires three legs. The first is a government sector largely organized around majority opinion, but sensitive to the needs of minorities. The second is a market sector, largely organized around production and profit. And finally, a healthy democracy has a third sector driven largely by the free association of people looking, among other things, to protect the interests of those whose voices or interests are not being well represented or protected in the market or government or both.

Thus, nonprofits play an important balancing role. Our ability to associate as organized power groups, and to develop, adopt and speak opinions sometimes oppositional to the status quo, are protected by the rights provided by the Constitution . . . our civil liberties.

Since the inception of this sector, there has been a crucible of core values that too often remain unspoken–values like engagement, inclusion, equity and freedom of expression. My assumption has always been that all of these are the guarantors of democracy, and I also associate this sector with a constant drive for a more just society. The Nonprofit Quarterly strives to bring these same values into discussions about management, because a powerful sector, like a powerful organization, is one that organizes and manages itself towards a purpose.

In the same way we wouldn’t expect the Harvard Business Review to ignore the profit-making purpose of the business sector, we can’t ignore the purpose of this sector, which, simply put, is the engagement of ordinary people in public life. And in the same way that the business sector guards against contextual restraints, so should we.

When the Nonprofit Quarterly promotes advocacy as a core competency, or pushes nonprofit managers to shift accountability streams to ensure the constituents play a role in decision-making and direction-setting, we don’t do so in a vacuum. These functions are central to our ability to act powerfully as the third leg of our teetering stool of democracy.