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OPAL STAFF TURNOVER AND THE NONPROFIT CIRCLES OF POWER IN PORTLAND

OPAL, an environmental justice group, according to both volunteers and the new staff person, has seen some changes and turnover in staff of late. OPAL is a small nonprofit in S.E. Portland, and has been involved with a brownfields campaign, according to one source, from a beginning eight years ago. More recently, OPAL has been invovled with transit research issues in the metro area.
OPAL, Organizing People Activating Leadership, according to the new staff person, Grace, has seen the two paid old staffers leave the group. Shannon who talked with four Transit Riders Union organizers for an hour last December, has left the nonprofit agency, as has Lisa, a second staff person that was hired this year. According to Shannon, OPAL, at one point had an original paid staff person, before her tenure, but that person was allegedly separated from OPAL for embezzlement.

Upon inquiry, Rev. Joe Lyons, a co-founder of OPAL, stated that Shannon was simply mistaken about the alleged embezzlement by a previous paid staffer. Since the four TRU organizers didn't bring this topic up, Shannon had brought it up on her own, there was no reason to question Shannon's assertion.

In asking another local nonprofit, Jobs with Justice, about frequency of folks stealing sums, large or small, Ilyse, one of four JwJ staffers, stated that just because people may swipe funds or other items from nonprofits, that is no reflection, in any real way, on the nonprofit itself.

On transit issues, for example, Transit Riders Union organizers talked with the TriMet Gen. Mgr. executive assistant, Kelly Runion, regarding the Oregonian's series of stories about embezzlement by the former treasurer of ATU, Amalgamated Transit Union, of roughly $100,000, and that that former union official was currently in jail for that action. Kelly confirmed that this was the case with the former ATU treasurer, as reported in the Oregonian.

Some nonprofits, like BTA (Bicycle Transportation Alliance) seem to have high turnover rates among staff, despite being a mid-size nonprofit, with about 20 workers. In OPAL's case, with usually only one or two paid staff working at the nonprofit at a time, staff turnover may be more impactful on organizational goals and activities, per se.

OPAL recently held an event in downtown Portland, after the Sept 2010 five cents fare increase by TriMet went into effect the day before. OPAL, more recently, held a meeting at a SE Portland church. Two OPAL volunteers at the last board meeting of TriMet in downtown Portland stated that at the end that OPAL church meeting, it was felt that more people/more capacity might be needed before working on further issues.

Another attendee at the OPAL church meeting, on SE 148th and Division, noted there were about 15 people present for that meeting, with Jon, the attorney (with Rev. Joe, the other cofounder of OPAL) helping to coordinate that meeting.


THE NONPROFIT CIRCLES OF RESEARCH: DEFENDING PORTLAND POWER BROKERS OR CHALLENGING THOSE IN POWER?

Jason Barbour, a longtime transit activist with Transit Riders Union, who with other TRU organizers, has attended 30 TriMet board meetings in the past two years, noted his reservations, or concerns, about OPAL in terms being, possibly, a nonprofit or student organization (like student government at both PCC, where Jason went, and at PSU, where many current TRU organizers are located) -- a nonprofit that may be more focused on 'research' and/or 'fundraising' with less of a focus on organizing, strategy, direct action, etc.

Transit Riders Union, in picketing the Portland Business Alliance to protest PBA's pushing not just sit-lie against homeless folks, but also BPA VP Bernie Bottomly's two year push to gut Fareless Square (which was successful in Jan 2010 -- now, only trains and streetcars are free downtown), has tried to emulate, re strategy and tactics, the Bus Riders Union in L.A., along with ideas of Saul Alinsky, Dr. King, Cesar Chavez, Gandhi, etc., in terms of targeted pickets and direct action. Current TRU meetings are evaluating possible civil disobedience protests with regard to: safety issues at TriMet, fare hikes, massive service cuts, transit police (Chirs Humphreys was a transit cop involved with the killing of James Chasse, for example), and lack of democracy and transparency. On the latter point, it has always been the long-term goal of Transit Riders Union to demand that the TriMet board of directors be elected by voters, not appointed by Oregon's govenor, which is the current practice.

In talks with Robert Liberty, an elected official at Metro, in two meetings, and with Portland City Council member Amanda Fritz (also elected), both Robert and Amanda expressed support and interest in having Metro take over TriMet. Under ORS (Oregon Revised Statutes), Metro already has the legal authority to take over TriMet. A second alternative would be for organizers to initiate, circulate and put on Oregon's ballot a ballot measure requiring that the TriMet board of directors be elected by the people. TRU supports both of these tactical options.

However, both the candidates for Metro president, Tom Hughes (the conservative, pro-CRC candidate endorsed by the Oregonian and the Tribune -- [and the Tribune's president, Steve Clark, was appointed this year to the TriMet board by the governer] ... and Bob Stacey (ex director of 1000 Friends of Oregon) -- say they oppose having Metro take over TriMet. Current TriMet board president, Rick Van Beveren, says he, like Tom Hughes, opposes having the TriMet board elected. Tom Hughes's May primary victory party, according to Van Beveren (upon inquiry by TRU at a TriMet board meeting), was held at Van Beveren's Hillsboro restaurant, the Reedville Cafe.

At Portland State, ASPSU (student government), historically, despite having $400,000 per year in student fees, tends to focus on 'research' and 'paper shuffling' rather than activism and organizing, per se. Many student body presidential candidates at PSU usually, year after year, talk about student government being a 'research and catylist resource' for other student groups who wish to be more activist, involved in protests (against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example), etc.

Some local organizers (Jim, a volunteer for the Stacey campaign; Dave, with Tenant Rights Project; as well as Jason, with Transit Riders Union; and Joe, in critiquing Jobs With Justice) have derided and criticized nonprofits that, in Jim's words, 'do fundraising and research instead of doing organizing.' Jim, in particular, thought CLF (Coalition for a Livable Future) and BTA (Bicycle Transportation Alliance) typify this nonprofit tendency to either do research exclusively, or if working on tangible campaigns, to eschew broad-based social justice coalitions and focus on single-issue, or more narrow, organizational goals.

One current Transit Riders Union brochure, for example, uses Frederick Douglass's old quote, "Power concedes nothing without a demand." In terms of Jobs with Justice in Portland, as a nonprofit, JWJ is absolutely great at union solidarity, pickets, the unemployed vigil at city hall, etc. Yet, at least one recent organizer at a meeting at PSU, Joe, critiqued JwJ in terms of JwJ's ties to the Democractic Party, specifically Earl Blumenauer, whom Joe had ran against as a protest candidate in one recent election.

Andrea Townsend, a former JWJ staffer and former editor (very briefly, earlier in 2010) of the Portland Alliance (now on hiatus, apparently), has had experience with trying to make 501(c)(3) groups 'more radical.' Andrea talked for an hour with some organizers recently after a contentious Portland Alliance meeting -- like KBOO Radio, another longtime Portland nonprofit institution, the Portland Alliance has had factionalism, fundraising and other woes for almost a year, including being evicted from their office (of 30 years standing) by Dan Handleman, the de facto landlord (with three nonprofits, Flying Focus Video, Peace and Justice Works, and Portland Copwatch).

Transit Riders Union organizers also note the tendency, or potential, for co-optation of nonprofits by larger institutions: When TRU asked WPC (Willamette Pedestrian Coalition) to endorse (a) having the TriMet board elected, (b) opposing the Sept 2010 fare hike, and (c) opposing the Sept 2010 cutbacks to 60 bus routes -- WPC declined to do so. The board president of WPC did note that he, himself, had worked for TriMet for 25 years, but no mention was made of what Oregonian columnist Anna Griffin reported shortly thereafter, that WPC was in part "funded by TriMet."


GOING FORWARD

While the newest, 4th staffer in less than a year at OPAL, Grace, did present, with Rev. Joe, a statement which she read to the TriMet board at the last board meeting (Rev. Joe read his statement as well), time will tell if OPAL becomes a broad-based social justice group. At the recent church forum in SE Portland, one newcomer asked if OPAL supported having the TriMet board elected by voters, rather than being appointed by the governor. OPAL reps said that was something OPAL has no position on.

Jason Barbour, longtime transit activist and a protest candidate in the May 2010 primary election against Portland City Council member Nick Fish -- also raised ideas regarding the 'model' of BRU, Bus Riders Union in L.A., vis-a-vis the need FOR activist, targeted pickets, boycotts and more militant transit protest methods -- including working on broader, social justice and safety net coalition issues. These broader issues can include tenant rights and housing, jobs (some OPAL volunteers did go to a JWJ jobs vigil), and, local issues, as well.

For example, in LA, BRU this summer picketed the mansion of LA mayor Antonio Villagorosa, who sits on the MTA board of directors, to protest fare hikes and service cuts. Moreover, at the MTA board meeting, BRU members have gotten arrested in doing civil disobedience against that transit system's 'transit shock doctrine' against communities of color, the working poor, seniors, disabled, et al. As the IWW slogan puts it, 'direct action gets the goods.'

Transit Riders Union decided, for example, in the general election cycle, to work for VOE, or Voter Owned Elections, which has been our local version of campaign finance reform for five years. When Transit Riders Union presented 1,400 signatures to the TriMet board against fare hikes and service cuts, the unelected TriMet board voted 6-1 to go ahead with the hikes and cuts. That's 1,400 reasons to keep VOE in Portland, and even try to extend it to Metro races, as well as to potential races for the TriMet board, if and when activists are able to force the TriMet board to be an elected body. Currerntly, VOE applies only to Portland city council races, and is opposed by both the Tribune (vehemently) and by the Oregonian's Dave Lister, a former unsuccessful city council candidate himself.

Even the East Mult. Co. Soil & Water Conservation Board is an elected body. Since transit affects air pollution, global warming, transit equity for transit-dependent riders, development and housing, as well as fossil fuel dependence and wars for foreign oil resources and profits -- the TriMet board should absolutley be elected.


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homepage: homepage: http://www.trimetriders.org
phone: phone: 503-222-2974
address: address: PO Box 40011, Portland, Oregon 97240