poloticsEntrepreneurial Activism

During my second day on the job with Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities (BLSP), I started asking questions about the carnival games. Ben Cohen, Board Chairman, and Duane Peterson, Executive Director, listened patiently to my questions. I asked about crowd control, doing two games at once, set up needs, and maintenance needs. Most of my questions got a single answer: “We don’t know. You’re the first person to take the games out there, so you’ll tell us.”

After test performances that first week in Burlington, Duane and Ben kept telling me to act bigger, make more noise and be louder. While not working the games, I told their administrative assistant, Vicky, that I felt like I had six learning curves going on at once. I was overwhelmed at first, because I was the new guy with new games going to the newest campaign site in New Hampshire to work with the other newest employees of BLSP. Needless to say, my stay in New Hampshire with Priorities New Hampshire (PNH) ended up being one of patience, frustration, flexibility, and constant adaptation. I loved every minute, but also felt helpless at times due to not knowing how to adapt, or not doing it quick enough.

Part of the job description that I read before applying for this job stated that I needed to be “able to operate independently on the road, and [be] flexible to deal with the lunacy of campaigning.” I’ve handled that particular bullet point pretty well, but am still learning new parts of it each week. Small things like: Where the hell do I buy sand bag weights? I’ve spent 2 hours working on the lights of the high striker and they still only work when they want to. Where do I go next, where do I sleep and who do I contact?

Iowans for Sensible Priorities (ISP) has been around longer than PNH, but the stress of the start-up mentality can still permeate through the office. Dealing with the politics of RAGBRAI, and the stress of having to adapt on-the-road, showed me early what this office’s take on the campaign felt like. Everything worked out in the end, but getting there was wrought with frustration and last-minute changes. I took the role of trying to chill out the vibe (I am from San Francisco after all), and reminding them that we’re making this up as we go along. We’re becoming a good team, but the stress still happens.

I began to wonder why there isn’t a reality show based upon the start-up nonprofit that has a national campaign that is so new in style that it’s making history as the story progresses. For many activists out there, the thrills and chills of an on-the-road campaign that takes place in two states and entails crazy marketing tools that have dozens of logistics, goals to reach, and momentum to make isn’t anything new. I’ve experienced DIY-style, no-budget campaigns that have ups and downs: maybe a flat tire happens, maybe you hear a story of a bus burning up, maybe you have small maintenance issues that I’ve experienced with the carnival games.

For most of the citizens of the US, what we’re doing out here is hard to conceive. “What exactly do you do?” I get asked all the time. “Can you bring us some literature to read so we know what you’re working on?”

Then I start thinking of all those other groups that are out there doing inconceivable activism with almost no money and resources. Not to overkill the MBA terminology, but we are the true entrepreneurs in the US. I can’t help reframing the subject that capitalists love so much: the start-up. We’re out there, using our guts, hearts, and minds for a cause, riding the cracks in the system, and trying to preach outside the choir.

As the dot com boom raped and pillaged San Francisco’s fragile ecosystem in the 1990s, many arts and activist groups hung on to ride the wave of the popped bubble. Now, as the wars continue elsewhere, and the shopping goes on here, I’ve discovered many projects that fit the corporate definition of entrepreneurship: A person who organizes, operates, and assumes the risk for a business venture. Just take the phrase “business venture” and replace it with “activist campaign” and you’ll find the following examples:

Miss Rockaway
Somewhere on the Mississippi River, a group of DIY artists and activists who “want to be a living, kicking model of an entirely different world – one that in this case happens to float,” are hoping to create change “hands-on” and by living by example. Their blog tells of the mishaps they’ve had on the road and on the river, but they’ve gotten the OK by the US Coast Guard and are floating the true American dream.

XL Terrestrials: The Transmigration of Cinema
My good bud Pod currently roams the foreign lands of Eastern Europe showing an “‘xtra-theatrical’ presentation of film clips from a wide swathe of consumer films to serious resistance media to the new digital drive-by infotainment in order to pose the question: What exactly will it take to drop a Spectacle-buster in the age of the digicam herds, my-(panoptic-rectal-exam)space, vloggers, netflix, data-miners, disinfo consolidated, embedded journalism, the military entertainment complex.” His Plog blog gives tidbits of their craziness in the frontiers of entrepreneurial activism.

This past Thanksgiving, I ate vegan stuffing made from dumpster-dived food. Whenever I see Food Not Bombs serving up/giving away food, I always have some if I need it. Recently, freeganism has gotten mainstream press attention. Most activists know that this has been going on for a while now, but eating free seems inconceivable for most US citizens.

The SVO (Straight Vegetable Oil) Fuels Movement
I spent some time with Big Tadoo Puppet Crew in 2006, taking their carny, puppet circus on the road. We met up with the likes of Hot Buttered Rum, Aphrodesia, and others who used cutting-edge thinking to close the fuel cycle in inventive ways. These guys constantly confront major issues in their start-up visioning: break downs, fuel system problems, etc. But they keep sucking used oil out of the backs of restaurants, and inspiring many folks along the way (I know this because I constantly meet folks who are inspired by the term “free fuel”).

I’m sure, if you think about it a bit, that you have a few examples of your own local, entrepreneurial activism. Traveling the country, I keep meeting folks who have started a collective arts center, the SVO coop, the nonprofit bike messenger organization, etc. If anything, politically-charged people constantly think up new ways to work the system. For the three or four examples we each think up, there could be dozens more in our areas that are doing their own cutting-edge activism. Add up those dozens, look at the rest of the world, add up those hundreds, and you’ll see that we’re an invisible force of change based upon the values of organizing and operating a risky business.

epilogue: Check out this link for mainstream entrepreneurial resources. Again, co-opting a term, which this site defines as people who are “productive and motivated”, and making it our own creates easy tools to end their madness.