Burned Out By the PIRG

Reader comment RE: interview

I recently interviewed for a job with the PIRG and I found it very beneficial that interviewees were asked to canvass for forty-five minutes during the process. Not only does it allow the interviewers to focus on objective qualifications (how many signatures did each interviewee obtain) that are extremely important to them and the future of their campaigns/livelihood, but it also allows the interviewees (like me) to understand that a) They are serious about canvassing, b) canvassing is not for everyone, c) if you do not like canvassing you should not take another step in their organization.

I believe a majority of our generation is idealist and would enjoy being a part of a non-profit and “doing good” in their community. Canvassing during interviews in a perfect test for the interviewee to decide important questions (“could I do this every day over summer?” and “do I believe canvassing is the most effective action to achieve social change?”–if your answer is yes you have found the perfect place to work).

My answers were no and no.

A comment from “Eastie”

Want to submit a story of your experience with the PIRG/Fund/Green Corps/whatever PIRG department you worked for?  Email burnedoutbypirg@gmail.com.

Anon, they ARE saying each community is the same. And that’s a huge part of the problem (or rather, “the model”). You’ve swallowed a bit too much of the Kool-aid and exhibit a disturbing amount of the Fund’s trained passive-aggressiveness.

I was a former Environment fellow, sent to start an office in a small Midwestern town during the election and told to register 2,500 black people (yeah CVP and Progressive Future… and Work for Progress and god knows what other name they gave it that particular week). We quickly realized there were only 2,000 people (according to the census polls) in the town who declared themselves ‘African American.’ Most people were either already registered, too young, or felons. The Fund gave no consideration to basic demographics. There had been no prior scouting. Not to mention there were 2 Obama offices (English and Spanish) within a block of us.
When we mentioned this to our RD, we were told to “find more turf.” We had an awkward run-in at Kinkos with the office one town over, who was under the Prog Fut guise (or Work for Progress… I forget which) registering minority and college-aged voters. We’d been canvassing door-to-door in their neighborhoods a day or so earlier. Even better was that our CVP RD and their PIRG RD shared a room in the same office, yet for some reason “Hey, so… you’re in town A because we’re in town B and canvassing your turf?” never came up. We were essentially self-cannibalizing.
When we pointed this out, we were at first told to “be flexible,” “find more turf,” “hire new canvassers/fire the ones that weren’t making quota.” There was probably something about sticking to the rap in there as well. The ordeal was never acknowledged as a huge mistake–which it undoubtedly was.

In the end it was all about the numbers. We hated those nightly conference calls where the Big City rattled off their thousands and the smaller towns were woefully behind their quotas (the one that was breaking even was doing so because they were registering mental patients at the hospital).
Success in the Fund has NOTHING to do with hard work or competence–which is precisely why so many kids walk away from the ordeal so thoroughly disillusioned. Rather, it’s how well you are able to conform–without question–to “the model” and parrot their lofty-sounding rhetoric. There is no room for creativity, compassion, or independent thought. Success with the Fund is brought about by completely giving up the ability to think for yourself. As PIRG anti-progress said: they’re called “bots” for a reason.

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.

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.