Loeb’s Challenge: Volunteer to Change the World

This is Part 2 of an interview conducted in August, 1999.

Brian Davis: You talk in [your book, Soul of a Citizen] about the time constraints that people have. This is a time when we are told that many of both parents have to work and your job is not secure, so you always have to be on the lookout for that.

Paul Loeb: And you have to work fifty hours to make sure that you keep your job; you aren’t going to make enough money unless you work fifty hours a week.

BD: Exactly. And you have to plan for your retirement because there is probably going to be no Social Security around for you. How much does that play into the time that you can spend on helping out?

PL: It is a big factor. That tremendous amount of overwork and overstress is very real.

Robert Putnam, at Harvard, studied not just political involvement but all the indexes involved in community participation. You know, how many people go to PTA meetings, how many people are actively involved in churches. The animal clubs, the Lions, the Moose, the Elks, whatever, all of this participation has dropped. I just met him at a conference recently, and he said the year that this all started to drop was around 1977, and that’s when this economic shift started to occur. When the wages started dropping, the hours started lengthening.

That’s when all that stuff starts occurring, and because of that it is much harder to act now. There are only so many hours in a day.

I look at that from two ways and I try to respond to them, by first just acknowledging that it is real. And the second thing is that there are things that we can do even within the boundaries of those time frames that are still powerful.

If we go back to some of the great social movements of American history when people were working seventy, sixty, or eighty hour weeks, they had less time than we do now, and they still managed to organize, so as hard as it is—it is still possible.

The other side is that, I think is that one of the major political issues has to be that complex of stress. As I’ve been traveling around I’ve been thinking about it more and more. Everyone asks the question of time because it is real and touches everybody.

Real family values. Conservative radio hosts ask it, and everyone knows that it is an issue. If I look at America’s history, the cutting edge of most of the fights in the labor movement was for the length of the work week. They fought from the 80 to the 70 to the 50 to the 40-hour week. Some of the bloodiest labor battles and the most hard fought, were fought over the length of the working week. There were always two arguments that were made. One was that people wanted time with their families. And two was that if they wanted to be citizens of this democracy then they needed to participate.

BD: Do you see advocacy and community organizing as a dying art form? In the sixties there was training around this. In Cleveland there are a couple of organizations and the activists who come along with them. But you don’t have the broad range of different activities in this community.

PL: I see a lot of impulses for people to be involved, but again it is a contradictory picture. I mean the labor movement is certainly far weaker than it was 35 years ago. On the other hand, the new leadership is sincerely, perhaps out of self preservation, but definitely out of a far-reaching vision, committed to saying either we are a social movement or we are not.

I see people going into labor organizing who never had before. People who didn’t go to college are going into labor organizing knowing that basically we have to either be able to take back some power at the workplace or we are going to continue to be squeezed. So I see that as a hopeful development over the past four or five years, and there is definitely renewed energy and there are people trying to do things. In Los Angeles 100,000 home health care workers have signed up with the service union. That was the biggest block of people signing up with a union since the 1930’s. That’s genuinely hopeful, and not some marginal phenomenon. I see gains like that going on.

I also see a lot of interest in environmental issues: we are up and down but there is a consistent thread of people trying to get in to work on those issues, particularly when they are given the opportunities. One of the interesting things I write about in Soul of a Citizen is about Adam Warbaugh, the 23-year old president of the Sierra Club, and during his two-year term the Sierra Club dropped its average membership [age] by ten years. Not by losing the people at the top, but by bringing in people who are younger, who were just not reached out to and taken for granted. Adam, being 23, basically said we’ve got to bring people in and he did by reaching out; that is a hopeful phenomenon.

In any time historically there is going to be something of a mixed picture. I think of my 101-year old friend Hazel whom I write about. She started out at age 11 wanted to play basketball and they said “you’re 11 and girls can’t play basketball,” and she said “give me the equipment and I’ll show you.” Then in the 30’s she was a labor activist and she pioneered the first model program for Social Security, and she lived off Social Security for almost 35 years because she was a secretary and never made any money. And then she’s been working for the last forty years on a lot of environmental justice issues. I’ve known Hazel for almost 20 years, which is a good chunk of my life; a smaller chunk of hers. There have been points when I’ve told her, “these seem like hard times.”

I remember about ten years ago we had a wonderful congressman who was a social justice visionary, and he was always trying to get people involved. If there was a march he wouldn’t just show up and leave; he’d march the whole 3 or 4 miles or whatever it took. He lost by a small margin to a generally vicious person. He’s mean to the bone and he scapegoats environmental issues, and native Americans. It’s a politics of meanness that he embodies.

We knew what he was when he ran, and we knew that his victory was a defeat.

I was giving Hazel a ride home from the election that morning. I was pretty down, and I said, “Hazel, this seems like a hard time. What do you think?” And she laughed and said, “I’ve been through worse. You should have seen the McCarthy period. Yeah, this was a defeat, but I’ve still seen a lot of progress in my lifetime.” And she just talked about all of the things that have changed in the last 100 years.

BD: Do you think there has to be a low point before people will mobilize?

PL: I don’t know. You see, people can mobilize in different circumstances. They mobilize when the stories get made reality. How do the stories become reality? Sometimes when it happens to them. Or it happens to someone close in their community. Such as when Virginia’s story wasn’t real to her until this old woman dies, who was worse off than she was. I look at this woman I wrote about in Long Island who was involved in the campaign against sweatshops and picketing the Gap stores. They have these young girls in Central America working for 30 cents an hour and barely have enough food to eat, let alone enough to buy their clothes.

BD: In Ohio we have the phenomenon of forced volunteerism in exchange for food stamps. Many places don’t accept volunteers anymore because they are so overwhelmed by people who are trying to get food stamps, especially here in Cleveland.

And in our state the Welfare Reform legislation passed unanimously in the House.

So the children’s advocates, and the people who have traditionally been allies, they weren’t even willing to cast a vote against something that we in Ohio see as one of the most draconian pieces of legislation in the country.

We sanction the whole family, we take all of the money away; if you quit a job it is an automatic sanction, and even if you get another job you are still sanctioned for three months.

PL: Was there a public debate? Was there significant mobilization?

BD: The big problem with public debate in Ohio, was that a lot of the social workers supported it either out of fear that the political establishment would cut their programs or because they are funded by government.

PL: I’ve seen this and it’s very disturbing. In the social welfare sector I’ve seen a newfound timidity for fear of retaliation.

BD: Or the other was that they had developed this “us and them mentality” that said, “I made it, I lived on the edge for this period and I made it and you should also not be relying on welfare.”

So we were very lonely in saying, welfare reform is going to hurt our community.

PL: This is hard, because when you say that and if I’m a legislator I’m going to feel like, well, there’s no one mobilizing on this side, so I’m not going to take a stand of conviction that I’m going to get shelled on in the next election.

So it is easy not to be courageous. I think it is partly because an attitude of fear and intimidation breeds off itself. So the more people feel like someone might retaliate, someone might cut the funds to my agency if I speak out, the less voices there are. If I define a democracy, it’s a place where people can speak the truth without sanction. Part of what was reprehensible about the Eastern European regime was that if you spoke truths you risked being imprisoned. Intimidation is always a feature of power, and such as during the civil rights movement people were thrown off their land, sharecroppers were fired. But through all of this the people had enough cohesiveness that when an incident like that occurred it produced more outrage. The same held true for the labor movement; when they brutally attacked the strikes people became more outraged.

So one of the things that we need to be able to do is to demand of ourselves that we have the moral courage to speak out, even in difficult situations. Because then it makes it easier for other people. And if every agency is speaking out about this then they can’t go targeting that many. But it is much harder for a single agency to speak out alone. That says that for all of us who are in the human services field, and teachers, and concerned citizens in the community, we need to be able to look in the mirror and speak the truth as much as we know it. And if we say we can’t because we feel intimidated because of our job, then we should feel outraged that someone has the arrogance that puts us in this position, and say, I’m sorry, do not say what you believe, keep it to yourself. That is not a democracy, that is a dictatorship.

So we need to be able to be outraged by that kind of intimidation, and the moment somebody starts to exercise it, to mobilize as many people as possible to do that.

BD: I think I can understand from working with homeless why so many people aren’t worrying, because at the smallest level there are victories. But when you step away to the broader picture, the serious battles that have taken place, we really haven’t done much.

Poverty has increased, we have less freedom, our democracy is not as stable. We don’t have the speech rights that we once had. And greed is absolutely out of control.

PL: But there are countertrends, there is a yearning in a lot of people to turn for something that isn’t just greed. Some kind of more sane existence, that isn’t just chasing frenetically every object in the world. And there is a significant body of people trying to find that now.

I don’t think that I am naïve, but I look at these last 30 years and it is a mixed period. But it is not a period of total entrenchment. In some areas we’ve lost ground, but in some areas we’ve gained ground for human dignity. Such as the gay movement, which 30 years ago was nothing, and to be gay meant you did not just say your story. Sometimes it still carries its dangers, but you are much more likely to be able to say, “look, this is who I am.”

I think what happens is this: we take for granted the victories that we gain, and it’s easier to focus on the defeats.

I write about this woman who pioneered some of the early battered women’s groups, and wrote this book that became the Bible for domestic violence. And domestic violence still exists in this society, no question.

On the other hand, compared to 30 years ago, it was totally people on the margins raising these issues. But it was a non-issue, and the people raising it were totally on the fringes. Now it is mainstream and respected, with debates over how to curb it.

But the issue is recognized, and that is a significant victory of progress. Of rolling back that issue of domestic violence. Does that solve everything in the world? No, it doesn’t. Does it counter all of the significant forces that it was weighed against? Not necessarily.

It does give us something that we ought to celebrate, and when I say celebrate, I don’t mean the kind of celebrating that leads to complacency, but the opposite. To celebrate in the way that gives us strength to continue a very hard fight on other issues.

Some examples I talk about in Soul of a Citizen are things that we take for granted.

But in fact for a very brief historical period of time it was an amazing social transformation, and an amazing victory for human dignity.

I worked some on the nuclear power issue and basically that was stopped. There were going to be a thousand reactors in the U.S. And it was stopped, and people say it basically collapsed under its own weight, but that is nonsense. It collapsed because people held it accountable, then it stopped.

And I look at these kinds of examples, and also international ones such as the anti-apartheid movement, and all of them were difficult, some more so than others.

And to me what they should do is say we don’t know when history is going to turn on something of immense consequence.

I am reminded of Susan B. Anthony, who worked her whole life and was the hero of the women’s suffrage movement, and only a dozen years after her death did women get to vote.

It wasn’t an easy or instant struggle; it wasn’t automatic. But with enough persistence and enough people they prevailed. And you never can tell when history is going to turn. Who could have predicted in 1987 or 1988 that the Berlin Wall was going to crumble? No one can say that.

Copyright NEOCH for the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #38, October-November 1999