Issue #101, September/October 1998
A Career of Social Commitment
Interview by Harold Simon
|In 1960-1963, a young United States Information Agency (USIA) officer, Pablo Eisenberg, went to a Russian variety troupe performing in Senegal. While the quality of the performance was mediocre compared to American entertainment, the Russians "sang songs in the native language, did all the things that were popular with kids and Senegalese, had an announcer who spoke French." So impressed was Eisenberg by both the effectiveness of the Russians and the ineptitude and arrogance of America's efforts to capture the hearts and minds of Africa, that he wrote a scathing dispatch The Russians are Winning the Cool War to his superior and many others up and across the command chain.
"I learned that if you want to be outspoken and minimize damage, you distributed the dispatches or reports that you wrote widely," recalls Eisenberg. Thanks to the intercession of his ambassador, who had clearer insight than his supervisors in Washington, DC, Eisenberg narrowly missed being dismissed on that occasion. But his urge to rattle cages with the truth, his ability to bite the hand that feeds him in the service of justice, and his respect for intelligence and collegiality remains strong after 40 years.
Pablo Eisenberg was educated at Princeton (B.A.) and Oxford (B.Litt.) and was once known as a professional tennis player. These experiences of privilege occurred against a backdrop of early awareness of injustice and led to a lifelong commitment to social change.
After serving in the U.S. Army, Eisenberg worked for the USIA (1960-63) in Africa. From 1963-65, he served as the program director of Operation Crossroads, which provided a model for the new Peace Corps. Next (1965-68), as deputy director for Research and Development at the Office of Economic Opportunity, he worked as part of the "War on Poverty." He then served as director for the Office of Liaisons/National Issues at the National Urban Coalition (1968-1973).
Following a short stint as a private consultant, Eisenberg became the third director of the Center for Community change in 1975. Over the years, he has also worked as a consultant for a variety of community organizing groups, has served on the boards of numerous national and international organizations, and has published widely. A man of tremendous intellectual energy, Eisenberg is best known in the nonprofit world for his persistence, his willingness to challenge established perceptions, and his dedication to social justice. On June 30, 1998, Eisenberg retired from CCC leadership after 23 years.
This interview took place on April 1, 1998.
How did you find yourself at the Center for Community Change?
When I came here, it was almost against my better judgment. After I left the Urban Coalition, I vowed I would never work for another nonprofit. The only reason I took the job was that I had come to have, after two years of consulting, such a deep respect and affection for the staff.Core Values of CCC
What are the core values of the center?
There are lots of strategies to try to eliminate poverty service, organizing, jobs, income. Our belief is that poor folks have to be given the resources, or the bootstraps, to be able to mobilize their own capacity and power to make a difference through influence, through programs, whatever their priorities say they ought to do. Strengthening the capacity and power of low-income people and their grassroots organizations to make a change, both in their lives and in the public institutions that shape their environment, is at the heart of our mission.How have things changed since you arrived?
As urban areas or some of the really tough depressed rural areas have become more difficult places in which to live, the job that poor people have to do in order to maintain their influence, get better jobs, stabilize their neighborhoods, has become tougher and tougher.
Is there a conflict with providing assistance to grassroots organizations so that they can set the agenda while developing a policy agenda?
Historically we have always had a public policy dimension, and almost all of the issues have come out of the needs expressed by the local groups we work with. There could be a tension. I think we have got to work with good groups, in local communities, particularly in minority communities, on their priorities. They know best what they need.
I guess there's always a little tension between leading and following.
That's part of the inherent tension in any organization that provides technical assistance and also has a point of view. We try in our field TA not to inject the point of view and certainly not to go against the priorities of the organization. What we said, where we have for example, exercised, I think, some influence is by saying: "Hey, in this new age of devolution, when you can't depend on the federal government anymore, when state and local governments are increasingly important and not as sensitive as the feds used to be to your needs, if you're going to survive and deliver goodies for your constituents, you're going to have to fight. And this means that you're going to have to have a public policy capacity for intervention and advocacy."Foundations and Nonprofits
Let's talk about organizing. Foundations often support organizing around a specific issue, but seem loath to support organizing for power.
That's absolutely true. Foundations have not changed during the last decades. They are still frightened to death to encourage organizing for public policy advocacy on the part of low-income and other disadvantaged constituencies.Are you implying that there's classism and racism here?
Well, it may be. And it may not even be conscious. There still is, with memories of the rhetorical efforts of the sixties and seventies, a concept among many folks in the foundation world that these wild and crazy low-income folks are running around screaming. I think that a lot of them have never met with or seen what community-based organizations do and who the leaders are.
We used to criticize foundation boards for not having women and people of color on them. In the last fifteen years there has been enormous progress in getting more diverse boards. And yet they are still the same goddamn boards. Why haven't they changed? Two reasons: one is class. They brought on the women and people of color who are the same as the former elite pool of white male corporate types. You know, the professionals and the wealthy, so there's no difference in attitude. But where are the ministers and the community leaders and the machinists and the teachers and the folks who are working or middle-class? And they have not put on people of the type of temperament that enables people to challenge, to think, to question, to have new ideas.Are you talking about foundation boards or program officers?
Foundation boards. Well... it's also reflected in program officers, many of whom don't have real life experience and have come to enjoy their privileged lifestyle. There is a culture in these foundations that makes it difficult for even the most sensitive and well-intentioned person who comes in to do a decent job.
You've said that nonprofits also suffer from a lack of accountability and vision.
I don't want to spend all my time picking on foundations, although I do think they deserve the most criticism. I think increasingly the nonprofit sector is in trouble because of its lack of accountability. I suspect that maybe a majority of nonprofit organizations never issue any public reports, even fiscal statements. You have cases of CDCs that have never had an audit.
And you feel that there are no coalitions because of a lack of vision, leadership, and accountability as well as a lack of support by funders for that kind of building and advocacy organizing?
The only way you're going to do that is through general support grants.Which are few and far between?
Absolutely. Decreasing. That is the single crux issue that is driving most of nonprofits. A lack of general support. And therefore a dependence on special projects, one-issue type things, and begging from foundations. It's disgusting.Organizing vs. Development
How do you define grassroots community organizing?
Speaking for myself, and I think for most of my colleagues, we think there are lots of different ways of organizing, and that there's no one foolproof model. The IAF folks do it extraordinarily well, and they have their set piece, and it's faith-based organizing. ACORN has individual membership organizing, and probably of all the networks, they get down to the poorest of the poor these days. And you have variants from Gamaliel, PICO, DART you name them. They are trying to build power and influence on the part of low-income and working-class citizens to change institutions, and I think that's organizing.Is there a conflict between organizing and developing?
Unfortunately, the big intermediaries have thrown their total lot into CDCs as housing producers rather than housing facilitators. I would argue that instead of trying to build up the capacity among CDCs for production, they ought to be more interested in how much CDCs catalyze new or renovated housing, regardless of whether CDCs are the producers. [See Shelterforce #87].
You're saying they can do both.
Sure, you can do both. But you have to have a leadership that understands that and is smart in how to do that.Someone who's not afraid to bite the hand that feeds him?
That's exactly right. And to fight for what he thinks is right. And there's no doubt that someone who has got a CDC that can mobilize 2,000 people is going to be looked on with some feeling of fear by a bank. Because that bank knows that those 2,000 can pull out their deposits, that they can yell and scream and create a storm, like the Downtown Welfare Rights group did with 2,000 pickets around the Mobil corporation in New York City.
Are organizing groups also not jumping into this collaboration because they, well, organize?
Yeah, they're suspicious. And some of these organizers are as arrogant as anyone else. They've got big turf problems my style is not your style and they don't share. One of the interesting things we've tried to do is to find a way to get the organizing groups and all the networks to start working together. Clearly, one has to do that around a non-turf issue.
And the funders?
You can't say you have a serious priority on poor people unless you are willing to fund them for organizing policy and advocacy. Because doing a traditional job, whether it's service delivering or economic development, is no longer good enough. They have to fight for their constituents at the local and state level.Where is community organizing going?
I'm hopeful that community organizing and other grassroots groups are beginning to band together around some important issues. There's a lot more organizing going around jobs, welfare reform, transportation, than there ever was. And that's a healthy sign. There are some signs that various groups are willing to collaborate with one another.
What's in the future for CCC?
I would hope that it maintains its vision and commitment to low-income grassroots. That it will continue to work on the ground with organizations in public policy.
One more look into the future: what's in store for you?
I would like to be involved in the nonprofit sector. I may do some consulting. Maybe some foolish university or college might be interested in me part-time. I want to write more. I don't know where I could get subsidized for writing. There are no non-genius grants out there.
On that note, thank you, Pablo.