Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Tension Behind Bay Area Reporter's Story on Grassroots Growing Pains

Today, Seth Hemmelgarn of the Bay Area Reporter (BAR) ran a story titled "Growing pains seen in grassroots work" which describes some of the tension in the marriage equality movement as the power begins to shift from the old guard leadership to the new generation of powerful grassroots leaders heading the charge for change.

Specifically, the story focuses on Robin McGehee, the head organizer for the large event "Meet in the Middle 4 Equality" or known as MITM. (Disclosure: Unite the Fight is the official blog covering the event.)

The tension described in the story rose when Robin was informed by local community member Sandy O'Neill of Visalia, CA, that Geoff Kors, President of Equality California (EQCA), had mentioned to her at the Dinah Shore fundraising event in Palm Springs that they were supporting buses to transport people to Fresno for MITM. In fact, no monetary support from EQCA for the event had been given.

"I went [to the Dinah Shore fundraiser] to tell Geoff and Kate [Kendall, Exec. Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR)] how excited I was to see MITM on their websites, especially after their absence in the valley during the No on 8 Campaign," Sandy told Unite the Fight.

She says Kate sat with her and her wife at their table talking about the movement and MITM and that then she had a chance to talk to Kors. When she brought MITM up to Kors, Sandy quoted him as saying, "Yeah, we're providing the buses for that."

Kors told Unite the Fight, "I don't recall having this conversation. There was no such commitment."

"Reason it sticks in my mind is I just read about those buses coming from other cities on the MITM website. 'How are we going to pay for that?' I thought. I assumed it would be the community paying for that," says Sandy. "When Geoff said they were providing the buses, I thought, 'Oh, that's how.'"

Sandy then emailed Robin congratulating her on the support from EQCA. This was what took Robin by surprise.

Robin told Unite the Fight that Equality California first contacted Robin last month after having been asked what they knew about MITM. Not knowing much about the event up to this point, EQCA reached out.

Says Robin, "They did contact me last month and asked how they could help. We gave them several options, one being financial support if possible. We mentioned that grassroots groups, such as Courage Campaign and White Knot, had donated money for operating costs and that if they knew someone willing to give, that would be great because most of the cost was going on my credit card."

Currently, MITM is costing $19,000 and growing.

Robin is known for direct responses and cutting to the heart of the matter. So when asked by Bay Area Reporter Seth Hemmelgarn if EQCA was financially contributing to this large scale event, Robin said no. In an attempt to explain that the financial support might still be coming, Robin explained that she was told by a local community member, Sandy, who attended the above mentioned fundraiser, that EQCA had stated they would be supporting the event with buses. But, as the lead organizer of the event, she had no details to that account.

Frustrations with EQCA and the No on 8 Campaign in the Central Valley stem from the lack of support that they felt during the campaign period. When many central valley activists contacted the campaign asking for support in the solidly red territory of the state, they barely got yard signs.

"When the No on 8 campaign took over, they moved the [EQCA] staff out of the valley," Kors said. "That was a mistake."

Robin and the valley area have been very vocal about their feeling of abandonment. "I did tell EQCA about my personal frustrations with how the valley was treated."

And that's not all she's communicated. Robin, who attended the February 26 San Francisco town hall, took the little time left at the town hall to make her position clear by reading the MITM mission statement. An excerpt:
"It would be neglectful not to mention our LGBT brothers and sisters who have not relocated to LGBT friendly places like the bay or LA areas feel like we live in a Third World gay ghetto that somewhat in an after-thought was sent limited rations of resources and supplies as the helicopter jetted back to the safe Mecca of San Francisco and we were left to fend for ourselves. Many might see this statement with the purpose to place blame or shame on any one person or organization, but as a people of faith and courage, we have to believe that all those involved in the fight to secure marriage rights for our community did what they felt was best at the time."
While reading this at the town hall, Robin says the EQCA panelists and leaders "went to the back of the room to hobnob with the local dignitaries and basically ignored me, Kip Williams [organizer of One Struggle, One Fight] and other leaders talking about next steps. When they asked emerging leaders to speak, it was disingenuous."

Robin repeated the adjective "disingenuous" to EQCA themselves after they called her frustrated over the Bay Area Reporter article. She heard from their communication director and the director of their public education arm.

Robin quoted them as saying, "We never promised anything." But Robin didn't back down and countered, "I know that you haven't promised anything, but you are stating, publicly, a different message."

Finally, Kors called. "I never said anything about buses [at the Dinah Shore event]," Robin says Kors told her. "Maybe Kate [Kendall of NCLR] did at an NCLR event."

He asked her why she told Seth he shouldn't be running our next campaign and Robin stated, "You're a good fundraiser and have made fantastic legislative connections, but not a campaigner. You're not in touch with the community." She even went on to say, "You're disingenuous. You're treating me like I'm naive."

About an hour after calling Robin, Kors emailed her asking her for the MITM budget and which grassroots groups had donated and how much. Robin gave the budget but refused to say who had given what. "It should not matter who gave what - either you believe in and support the event or you don't - this is not a competition," she told Unite the Fight.

Robin claims that EQCA has stated that they may be able to give $1000, but because MITM is not a non-profit organization or a 501(C)3 and the donation would not be tax deductible, they are still deciding what they are going to do. They offered to receive donations through their "Let California Ring" website, but Robin declined, honestly stating, "If they were answering my questions about the dishonesty that has plagued this entire conversation, we as a community, may be willing to let them serve as our fiscal agent. But right now - we'll have to operate without their donation and fundraise forever to pay off the debt. For grassroots organizers, it should not be this hard."

Robin also heard from Kate Kendall of NCLR who clarified that she had mentioned at the Dinah Shore event that there were in fact buses available for people to use but that she would never raise money claiming it was for one purpose and then using it for another.

"I never said that's what they were doing," Robin told Unite the Fight was her response. "But someone claimed they were supporting us with buses. Someone is lying."

"Look, I don't care what happens for me after MITM. I was a nobody before this and can return to being a nobody afterward," said Robin. "If I have to take forever to pay off my credit card for this, I will. But I just think it's time for them to be honest."

Many feel change is coming. Molly McKay of Marriage Equality USA, who was an outspoken critic recently said, "Overall, I'm feeling very encouraged" by the efforts of EQCA and other groups.

"We feel like there has been a willingness ... to think outside the box and do things in a new way, and I think that we are on the right track," said McKay.

Marc Solomon, who helped MassEquality in Massachusetts win marriage equality there, joined EQCA April 1 as its marriage director. The BAR quoted him at the recent San Francisco town hall, "Our plans for the Central Valley will be led and guided by the people doing the work in the Central Valley ... We realize we need to do a lot better there."

Kors told Unite the Fight they were hiring staff today "to do regional work. They will be [in the Central Valley] for the long term."

Kors said he found the BAR article, "surprising and confusing," having spoken to people mentioned in the article for some time and offering support, without hearing of any problems. "I hope we all can focus on unifying the community to fight against an emboldened enemy."

Robin does regret she let the BAR "bait her" with Seth's questions and does in fact have a desire to have good working relationship with the EQCA and NCLR. "Different stories are floating around out there. I didn't make this happen, though. I try to make every decision I make come from honesty and the heart. All in all, I have to answer to me, my family, my community."

As many leaders and grassroots organizers have told this blog, it's time we move on and work together, heading in one direction. Growing pains will exist. Miscommunications will abound. Feelings will be hurt. But we all have to keep our eye on our shared ultimate goal - FULL EQUALITY FOR ALL.


  1. EQCA is shit, pure and simple. I can't wait to see who they "hire" to run the show in the Valley.

  2. They (EQCA) talk about how they reach out to the leaders in the central valley. Not in the least, we are their pawns to keep them from looking bad. They know none of the people in the CV. Please send your money and support to local grass roots groups, NOT EQCA!