Obama, ‘Half [US Poverty] in Ten’ and Me…

[I am committed to parlaying a lifetime of community building and social entrepreneurship into assisting the incoming Obama administration, ‘Half in Ten’ and associated anti-poverty groups in their efforts to cut US poverty in half within ten years. Hence, this letter to Lisa Donner, Executive Director of ‘Half in Ten.’ Any reader who has suggestions or contacts that might help me with my social ambition is encouraged to send me feedback!]

“Dear Lisa,

Why am I writing to you? Because you are the Executive Director of the Half in Ten campaign. And because I am a successful community builder and a proven social entrepreneur. I want to help you, your partner organizations and the new President work to halve poverty in the next ten years. But I need your help (and theirs) in working out the best way I can help.

As a starting point, I attach my Resume to indicate what I have to offer. I see several possibilities, which I set out below, and I hope that you (and others receiving a copy of this e-mail) may be able to find the time to review those with me.

My focal issue is that I am a problem-solver, rather than a theorist or ideologue. I want to do what I can to assist in ensuring that, alongside the many good folks and institutions that already exist to advocate policy on how to cure the causes of poverty in the US, there is a complementary effort to tackle the immediate symptoms of poverty, and that that effort is driven as much as possible by pragmatic policy-making based on real grassroots experience.

As I say, I am writing to you in the first instance in your role as Executive Director of Half in Ten. It may well be that you say there is someone more appropriate with whom I can exchange. And for that reason, I have copied this e-mail to a few other people. But you seemed to me to be the best starting point!

I know this may all seem a little presumptuous, but I am one who believes that, sometimes, the only way to help solve a problem is to be direct and persistent, while remaining charming and respectful, but always a passionate advocate – even when it is advocating me! So, please forgive my forwardness. I feel strongly about this.

Why now? As you will already know, Melody Barnes, President-elect Obama’s choice for director of his Domestic Policy Council, recently delivered a keynote address at a national board meeting of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in which she affirmed the new administration’s commitment to cut poverty in half.

Even if the speech had not been made, it is well known that tackling poverty will be a major commitment of the new administration. What that means is that there may soon be a rapidly-formed and major effort, quite bluntly, to direct a lot of money at the problem of poverty in the US.

This promises to be one of the largest programs of its kind since the days of FDR. There is a little by way of modern template. A lot of policy regarding implementation of the program is very likely going to be made on the hoof. I would suggest that it’s going to need a whole team of committed and proven grassroots community builders, who listen, learn and are not afraid to make decisions, when there is either too much or too little information available on the ground.

While the potential availability of new money and drive is to be welcomed, you will know better than I that there are inherent dangers. Much of the work with hunger and homelessness is currently being undertaken at the grassroots level by tightly-knit networks of established non-profits.

Sure, they need money. But I think that the distribution of that money – to them and to individual applicants – needs to be handled with sensitivity, so as not to upset the inter-relationships that already exist; to ensure that the funds are directed in the most effective and efficient manner; to respect the dignity of the recipients; and so as not to impose upon the grassroots volunteers a bureaucratic mentality which they may not understand, and which could stymie their best efforts.

In other words, and in my opinion, I would hope that there will be as much emphasis on policy-making from the ground up, as from the top down. And that there will be active efforts to enroll experienced community builders to act as a buffer between government and the non-profits.

In-the-field development troubleshooters who, on the on hand, know how to talk to those in need and those helping them on the ground, without talking down to them, and who, on the other hand, have experience in translating grassroots experience upwards into regional and national strategy, and who are comfortable addressing Washington policy groups such as yours. Frankly, values-driven professionals like me.

Why me? I have been a community builder since I was 16 years of age. I have an extensive background in social entrepreneurship at the grassroots level. And I have spent more than my fair share of time making and advocating policy in regional and national circles.

In 2005, I researched and presented a four-part radio series on the subject of alleviating the immediate symptoms of poverty. That effort led to FOCUS On Poverty,which I spent much of the ensuing three years advocating to various groups (including yours and the Center for American Progress) and the Presidential Campaigns of John Edwards (whose national campaign headquarters were just across the road from where I work in Chapel Hill) and Barack Obama.

I am committed now to devoting the next four to eight years of my life to doing what I can to help you, your colleagues and the Obama Administration reach the goal of halving poverty levels in the US, with, as I say, an especial focus on alleviating the immediate symptoms, and supporting (or building) the structures and processes that can assist in ensuring there is solid input from grassroots policy-making, and the wisest distribution of assistance to the existing efforts on the ground.

It may well be that what I am describing already exists, with a team of people like me committed to the same ideals and goals. In which case, please just point me in the right direction!

Alternatively, these may be ideas that are under consideration, in which case I would be delighted if you (and others receiving copies of this e-mail) could perhaps begin with me a conversation that might lead to some enactment that could include me, and other grassroots experts like me.

What are my options?

1) Approach the Obama Administration direct. Already done. I have completed the online job application, and left a note on Change.gov with a few ideas about an anti-poverty approach at the grassroots level.

One of my primary concerns is the dignity of potential recipients. I know of many families in the Appalachians who struggle to make ends meet. They are certainly eligible for assistance. They are primary targets for existing and new anti-poverty programs. But they are too proud to admit the fact.

They would never own to needing help. Indeed, they have a universally dim view of charity and liberals. And even though they know in their hearts no Republican will ever help them, they consistently vote Republican because they don’t trust politicians who assume they know what is best for them and appear to be out of touch. Plus, they need to keep up appearances.

Any effort seriously to reduce poverty is going to need to be able to employ language, processes and structures which respect these grassroots practicalities and accommodate this and similar cultural mindsets – and that, in turn, could well require consensus builders like me, who are comfortable negotiating with peoples of all sorts of different social backgrounds.

Anything that you or others can do to help my efforts in these regards, and with the Obama Administration, would be much appreciated.

2) Find room on the bus with you or your partner organizations. Indeed, I noticed that the Center for American Progress is looking for a Director of its Poverty and Prosperity Program. While I admire the work of CAP, and feel that I am qualified for the position, I am, quite honestly, not looking to spend as much time in Washington as the job description seems to suggest.

I recognize that the work of the Director, as described, has an important support function in filtering, co-ordinating and consolidating disparate ideas before they reach the Obama administration itself. Indeed, I would see participation by grassroots policy-makers in such work by the CAP as an important part of keeping government strategy relevant. But I’m not sure it’s the direction I would wish for myself at the moment. Not as a daily occupation.

I’m looking to spend more time on the front lines of social instability. So, I would prefer to be out in the field, talking with grassroots people and organizations, confirming what works and what doesn’t, and determining real needs. Only then would I want to feed upwards into policy-making circles (in Washington and elsewhere), and subsequently, helping with the effort to distribute downwards.

If my reading of the job description in question is wrong, or if CAP (or one of its partner organizations in Half in Ten) is looking to open up a position as I have described it, then I would immediately be interested.

3) Create my own effort, with help from the likes of your organization, its partners and the Obama Administration.

Now, while I have a healthy regard for the talents I have been given, and the experience I have gathered, I like to think I’m also sufficiently self-aware to know my limitations.

I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers. My greatest ongoing development project is myself. I am always listening and learning. In that regard, it might be presumptuous for me to talk about setting up an entity, which may well be duplicating what is already being done, and could be stepping on toes.

That is why I have been sharing these particular thoughts with colleagues who specialize in the raising and distribution of funds for non-profits.

My preliminary thoughts run along the lines of setting up a small team which would assist targeted areas. Immediately, I am looking at the network of non-profits working to alleviate homelessness and hunger in Raleigh and Durham, in North Carolina.

What I envisage is liaising closely with those organizations, agreeing their needs, and then, through existing contacts, establishing direct relationships with small donor foundations around the country.

In this way, I would hope to create personal and ongoing partnerships between foundations who have money to give but no capacity to research appropriate recipients, and deserving anti-poverty causes, who are unable to sustain their own sufficient fund-raising efforts.

In due course, I would see this initial effort possibly expanding into a people and web-driven clearing house, marrying private and public money, through a knowledgeable clearing process and structure, with the enormous but disparate grassroots anti-poverty effort, in a fashion that does not interfere with that effort on the ground.

As I say, these are early thoughts. But, as with so much that I anticipate will be happening in the coming months, a lot is going to be needed to be put together in a short time period. I’m trying to do my bit to respond as quickly and as effectively as I can. And that means that much is still on the drawing board! And again, I would be grateful for any advice, support and assistance that you and others could give to this effort, if this is believed to be a useful way forward for me.

I want to help. I hope you can help me. I thank you for taking the time to read this far. And I truly hope this e-mail will lead to fruitful progress. I look forward to your response. Happy New Year!

All the best,
(Peter Geoff Gilson)”

Published in: on December 30, 2008 at 5:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

Community Building and Obama

What follows is a post I uploaded to the Obama Transition site, http://change.gov, making some suggestions about how his administration might focus its proposed public works program on historically disadvantaged communities:

The proposed public works program will the largest of its kind since FDR. There is no modern template. Policy will be made on the hoof. I have spent several years working and living in historically disadvantaged Appalachian communities. Some thoughts:

1) Don’t let policy-makers assume they know what is needed and wanted at the grassroots. Ask. Put people on the ground to find out.

2) Don’t just focus on the causes of economic disadvantage and poverty. Address the immediate symptoms also.

3) We are a proud people. It’s dignity that matters as much to us as money. Don’t just throw money. Take the time and make the effort to set up structures and processes that empower our communities to help their own.

4) We’re not going to be able to give everyone a job. We are not going to be able to cushion all the effects of this recession. So, along with creating jobs (and by the way, some of us have three already…!), focus on efforts also to allow us to build and maintain community.

For example, what about a program to support small communities in their efforts to build multipurpose community centers?

5) Make it easier and more dignified for welfare recipients to apply for and receive that helping hand. One-stop, omnibus applications for Food Stamps, Food Bank, housing benefits, and the like. That can be completed at home. Where coupons are received at home. Possibly to be completed at the same time as IRS forms?

6) Enroll community-builders who know how to mobilize at grassroots level, and are also comfortable and experienced with translating grassroots experience upwards into regional and national policy. To be honest, I have applied with Change.gov to be just such a community-builder/policy-maker. Don’t put the whole program into the hands of professional academics and bureaucrats, who may never have wielded a hammer.

For more, go to: http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/blog/FOCUS08, or http://focusonpoverty.blogspot.com.

Good luck to us all!

Published in: on December 30, 2008 at 5:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Better Than What?

Something tells me that, in the coming months, we @ The Weave are going to be told by senior management that we should be happy with what is happening (or not happening) in our co-op because “we’re doing better than…”

Better than what?

Better than other grocery stores? Better than other co-ops? Better than other businesses in Orange County? Better than conventional capitalist big-box stores?

Better than what?

What is the measure by which we should be measuring the sanity of the decisions being made in our co-op? And what standard should we apply to the manner in which those decisions are being made?

Since we are told, over and over again, that we are better than conventional capitalist enterprises, I think it fair to make the comparison between strict capitalism and the sort of social entrepreneurship I believe we espouse.

And frankly, I’m troubled that we are not seeing a lot of difference between the way our senior management is responding to the troubles facing us, and the manner in which conventional grocery stores are reacting:

1) We’re seeing a lot of decisions being driven by fear. When instead we should be spreading the responsibility for decision-making, and enrolling our owners and workers. So that the burden does not rest on just a few shoulders.

2) As a consequence of the fear, we’re seeing a lot of knee-jerk, short-sighted reactions. Instead of calmer, more long-term planning. Which can only be engaged in if you have on board with you all those upon whom the long-term planning will depend. Namely, our workers, our owners and our customers.

3) Too many decisions are being made incommunicado. The support that we seek for the long-term answers can only be forthcoming from people who are fully informed of the real situation.

4) The biggest asset we have over conventional capitalist corporations is the loyalty of our workers, owners and customers. You can only retain that loyalty with communication. You will lose it if you poison it with measures that upset your owners (such as removing the Consumer-Owner Discount) and your workers (being made to work harder and more days, for less money – with no incentive at the end of the year).

So. At the moment, and in my opinion, we are acting like any other conventional capitalist chain store. We may be acting a bit better than Wal-Mart. But is that what we want to be the measure of our success in dealing with these challenging times?

Or should the measure be that we are acting as the best co-op we can be? And in that regard, could we @ The Weave – as a co-op – be making better decisions, in a better way?

More co-operative decisions, in a more co-operative fashion?

Published in: on December 9, 2008 at 10:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development?

If President-elect Obama can reach out to Hill, Bill and assorted Republicans, I hope he will reach out to John Edwards.

For all my joshing in 2007 and 2008, the fact is that John Edwards is an inspirational leader and a super-capable innovator.

Of course, I do not condone what he did. The deceit he pulled on his supporters and the pain he must have caused his family.

But we are in a crucial moment in our country’s history. We need every pair of hands we can get.

There are politicians who have come before, and have committed far worse deeds. John didn’t start an illegal war. He does not have blood on his hands.

In this time of everyone uniting for the common good, let’s forgive and move on. I truly hope that John is made the new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

As the post below reminds us (from transitionsingovernance.org), HUD was one of John’s areas of specialty during his Presidential Campaign. And goodness knows, we need someone who can lead from the front to help get all of us out of the current housing mess.

Barack, pay heed. John, good luck!


“Former Democratic Senator and current 2008 Presidential Candidate John Edwards says his proposal to “radically overhaul” HUD, in part by eliminating at least 1,500 jobs, would improve the lives of millions of people in public housing.

On his website, John Edwards has called the Department of Housing and Urban Development a “Symbol of bureaucracy and mismanagement.”

Also, in a quest to reduce the number of employees as HUD “by at least 1,500″, Edward’s wants to institute state-run regional authorities.

Finally, Edwards also says HUD should reduce its use of contractors. The candidate says reliance on contractors contributes to “cronyism” at the agency.

Published in: on December 6, 2008 at 9:45 pm  Comments (1)  


A little bird tells me that senior management are thinking of making more efficient use of staff in this recession by introducing reduced shifts and a seven-day work week.

Of course, I could be wrong. I hope I am. I was enjoying my little moment of retirement after this past year of contribution to the governance of our co-op for free.

If, however, I’m right, then respectfully it is time for all workers and their department managers to join as one and say to senior management: Enough is Enough!

Enough of this nickel-and-diming. Enough of squeezing the workers, without asking them what they think. Enough of asking us to work harder for less money – when I see no evidence that one senior manager has taken a similar pay-cut.

Enough of trying to make minute savings at our expense, when not one sensible thing is being done to reduce the two enormous costs that are sinking our co-op – the operational costs of the Food House, and its attendant debt.

It is time to wake up and smell the roses. Expansion was a mistake. It is time to stop, take breath, and then devise a plan to split up what we have created, and spread the cost around more manageable chunks.

Frankly, if we do not decide to do this right now, then before the end of this year, our creditors will be forcing it upon us.

In any event, if my information about this latest nonsensical move is correct, then I will be demanding that we have a full meeting of the co-op, where all of the financial information is put before us, and we can quiz the people who are making these idiot decisions.

I would remind senior management one more time of the decision-making process that exists for employees. Important decisions that affect our workplace are supposed to involve us. So. Involve us. Re-institute the full co-op meeting you canceled earlier this year.

Published in: on December 4, 2008 at 10:29 pm  Leave a Comment