Burned Out By the PIRG

A thoughtful comment

The thing is that it actually is very efficient. Customization takes time, and the model works, so why customize? This blog criticizes the model so much, but why do you think they have been around for 30-something years? The model works, raps work, following the model will get you some degree of success.

That’s part of what is frightening, though–the fact that the model is so calculated and completely successful. The low-retention rate is expected and individuality is discouraged. The problem is that the PIRGs take advantage of natural human traits (e.g. guilt, compassion, loyalty) and twist them to help the organization grow without any consideration for the actual humans they are affecting.

n. another great quote

From the FFPIR.info website:

There is no sin in making a living changing the world. There is no sin in being able to eat, and pay your rent, and go to sleep at night without worrying if the power is going to be shut off tomorrow. Activists who eat, who get sleep, who have a place to live, and know that they can put gas in their car (for however long we have it) tend to do much better work than activists who are starving, hungry and poor. It’s the Rockefellers who have sold activists on the notion that you have to be poor, and that’s for the precise purpose of making you ineffective.”

-Mike Ruppert

m. Keep the comments coming!

It’s encouraging to see current and former staff posting comment reflections of their experiences.  The more, the merrier!

If you wish to even write a post – please leave a comment.

10. Is an organization as large as PIRG really “grassroots”?

Like many other former employees, I struggled with that question.  Every day we were told that what we were doing was soooo progressive and soooo grassroots.  But it never really felt that way.

I personally think the groups that are locally-based and made up of community members tend to create the most meaningful change.  You see, the problem with PIRG is that they will place canvassers, organizers, or advocates in a random city that they are not familiar with.  They are then, in many cases, barely expected to brush up on the local politics and force the same national PIRG agenda down people’s throats.  Sure, the state PIRGs do some decent work on state and municipal legislation here and there, but for the most part, every state PIRG’s website looks identical.

The PIRG/Fund/GCI have strangled the left.  Money that could have been granted to and spent on smaller non-profit organizations working on truly local issues has somehow found its way over to the PIRGs because, well, they know how to ask people for money, and do it often.  Sure, they advocate on some decent issues, but why can’t they just stick to the federal level unless they revamp the way their state PIRGs work?  If I would suggest anything to senior staff at the PIRG: make your state offices more reflective of the state you are representing.  Become a part of the fabric of the community – don’t just exist to fulfill cold numbers for the overall national goals.

-posted by CaliforniaDude

9. A good quote from “Lockse”

Not unlike my own blog, many accounts of the PIRG – oft more scathing than mine – exist on the internets – especially in response to the stories on the Fund canvass office in LA that was working to unionize and Dana Fisher’s book, Activism Inc.

In any case, a poster Lockse has a great thought on why the PIRG/Fund/GCI model is so caught up in recruitment:

“Altogether, I’ve become ashamed that one of the central lessons of my years of training–recruit, recruit, recruit–has allowed PIRG/Fund/GCI leaders to fall into the attitude that since there are always more people to fill the ranks, there’s no need to form relationships based on respect and trust.”

“It takes a certain kind of person to be an organizer…”

It’s no wonder the PIRG is so aggressive in their entry level recruitment.  That’s because they have a pretty low retention rate.  Like many before me, people get fed up and leave.  Now think about it.  If so many entry level staff leave before their time is up, maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with the working environment.  But this thought never seems to cross the minds of those in leadership positions.  That’s because most of these people have, for whatever reason, been able to stick it out for so long, and know the PIRG model as the only organizing model on the planet.

Don’t let them fool you again. Don’t let them think you are worthless when it comes to working on a campaign.  You can be an organizer and not work eighty hours a week.  There are many different ways of organizing communities and getting constituents excited about different policy issues.  Though PIRG has many good ideas, in order to be truly successful you ALWAYS have to think outside the box.  The PIRG does its best to discourage that.  Don’t think that their way is the only way.  There are still many other kinds of career opportunities out there to create social change – and get paid what you deserve.

The job

I realize that there actually isn’t a lot I can say about the job experience itself, because a lot of what I would describe would give much of it away.  As much as it would add to the story, I’m not going to risk calling anyone out (but boy, would I love to).  So let’s just get down to brass tacks.

As a campus organizer, you’re expected in the first week and often second week to run a massive recruitment drive – bringing students in to volunteer and/or intern on the different StudentPIRG campaigns and attend the “Kickoff Meeting”, or “General Interest Meeting (GIM)”.  Tabling in a student center was the most effective way of reaching out to students – many other student organizations at the campus would do the same thing.  The other tactics included class raps, which basically consisted of interrupting a class to talk about the PIRG chapter and have students fill out an interest card, and phonebanking ALL of the contacts you made during recruitment to get them to say yes to volunteering for an event and attending the GIM meeting.

I do agree with the PIRG on this principle – the sooner you reach out to someone who signs up to volunteer, the better.  This is a fundamental of every successful campaign.  But for one single organizer to implement with students who were just learning the ropes, it was exhausting.

There was a script for every kind of interaction possible – from speaking to classes, to phonebanking, to training students to table, to training them on how to communicate.  There were so many methods that I often forgot exactly what it was that we were doing this for.

The campus organizer is also expected to run an internship program, complete with a weekly class – a great incentive to get students involved in leadership positions (and get course credit!) on the three plus campaigns you were expected to run in a semester.  This did take a lot of weight off my back, but don’t you worry – if my staff director saw me being able to take a step back, there was always some other thing to do.

What’s not mentioned in the job description is that in addition to worrying about your campus and students – you’re expected to play a role in recruiting future entry-level PIRG staff.  We’d be assigned to another campus – curiously not our own – and expected to “ID”, if not stalk – dozens of potential staff by researching Facebook profiles, student organizations on campus, and so on.

And let’s not forget the best part of all – when students on campus go on break for the summer, you’re expected to be a canvass director for those three or so months.  Oh joy!  Throughout the year, you’re also expected to squeeze in ten days of door-to-door or street canvassing, which is intended to train you for the summer.  Are you serious?  That’s really enough time for someone with no fundraising experience to be ready to run their own canvass?

In many cases, my colleagues struggled to find summer housing and worry about the rent for their current living situation because they were asked to run a canvass in a completely different city.  Many people would end up semi-homeless for that entire summer, crashing on couches or in the canvass office.  Lucky for me, I didn’t stick it out for the summer.

I mentioned this before – don’t let PIRG fool you when they say “Oh, well we’re activists – we’re not here to make a lot of money!”  But PIRG is a massive organization, if you weren’t able to figure that out already.  They subsist on a massive canvassing operation of regular donors, and get quite a lot of grant money from federal and local benefactors and foundations.  If I had been working for a small, truly grassroots organization, I would have understood the pay cut.  But these guys are not lacking in funds.

PIRG takes advantage of an entry level worker’s naivete – they advertise the starting salary right around 23,750 – but in the first year, much of that salary is your “health earnings” which go to paying your premium.  Though this is common practice at many other organizations and companies, it’s not very clear until you receive the first paycheck.  So you don’t walk home with much in your bank account.

The PIRG also funds an almost fully subsidized vacation in Aspen close to Christmas.  For a week, you get free housing, food, and discounted activities at the resort.  In your first year on staff, you cannot use your vacation time until the completion of your first year, so you could “borrow” time to go to Aspen.   Sure, Aspen itself was awesome and debaucherous.  But couldn’t the money they spend on this be better off somewhere else?   I’m pretty sure they do Aspen to ensure everyone takes the same time off.  Forget about seeing your family – you can get drunk and screw your co-workers in Aspen!

Having worked as an intern with other organizations and in a legislative office – I was already prepared for this line of work being much more than the standard 40 hours a week.  After a while, I found it egregiously insulting by how much responsibility I was asked to take on by my staff director and how little I was receiving in compensation.  60 hours was a slow week – 75 was the standard.  When I wrote the director of one of my summer internships for an organization that did similar constituent and legislative organizing as PIRG, she was aghast and concerned for my well-being.  “Having the chance to take on leadership and responsibility in an entry level job is not something you come across that often.  But what you’re expected to do is just ridiculous.”