Q&A with Neil Seldman of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance
Neil Seldman founded the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) in 1973. The Institute works with local communities and governments to help interject sustainability, innovation and community collaboration into the implementation of local policies and laws.
We sat down with him to discuss grassroots advocacy.
How did you become convinced that grassroots advocacy was effective?
I started doing advocacy in the era of redlining in the 1970s. That’s when banks wouldn’t loan money to businesses or homeowners in ghettos. They literally drew red lines around those areas and said they would make no investment in those communities.
It took a few years, but grassroots organizing led to redlining being outlawed and the Community Reinvestment Act being passed.
Now, when banks are rated by federal agencies, they’re rated on how well they’re meeting the credit needs of the entire community, including low-income areas.
Watching that, it became very clear to me that grassroots organizing was the only way to go.
What are some of the biggest victories you’ve seen as a result of grassroots advocacy?
One of the first big victories we had at ILSR was in Philadelphia. After several years of work, we not only stopped an incinerator but got the city thinking about a recycling program.
Philly still doesn’t have a very successful program, but the experience of working in Pennsylvania brought us to the attention of many groups.
Since the 1980s we’ve worked in Los Angeles, Alachua County, Florida, and Austin. In each area we helped the citizens stop an incinerator, and those citizens became so strong that their local governments asked us to help implement recycling and economic development programs.
I’m happy to say that the cities and counties we worked with are now among the leaders in the country.
In Austin, an incinerator was actually under construction and got cancelled because of grassroots organizing. Grassroots environmental organization and civic associations complained. The city’s real estate community pointed out how much taxes were going to go up to pay for this incinerator. Two anti-incinerator advocates were elected to the city council and pushed through a vote and killed the incinerator.
After that the city started a citizen advisory committee made up of the people who lobbied against the incinerator, and implemented the first recycling and composting program.
Then the city council formed a zero waste task force. Now Austin is moving toward zero waste.
In an increasingly globally connected world, is local advocacy still effective? Or should people be concentrating their efforts at the federal level?
Until decision-making is transferred back to the local level, there’s very little hope of changing things at the federal level.
The U.S. is blessed with over 40,000 local governments – 35,000 cities and towns and about 5,000 counties. Those are the governments closest to the people. Those are the governments that citizens, through organizing, can capture in order to move forward on environmental, economic and health issues.
What do you see as the role of research in advocacy?
It’s absolutely essential to break through myths. You need technical reports that people can bring to their elected officials to help them make the proper decision.
I remember when we stated working on recycling back in the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency said, “Well, recycling is a good thing, but you can only get to 25 percent.”
Brenda Platt, ILSR’s co-director and a marvel with numbers, did her research and saw there were at least 20 cities that were already above the recycling level the government and industry said you couldn’t reach.
Brenda wrote a book called Beyond 25% Recycling. It was a manual and technical guide for how these cities got to 25 percent recycling. Then she wrote another book called Beyond 40% Recycling, then Cutting the Waste Stream in Half.
We’ve proven that there’s no limit to recycling, and that cities and counties are meeting their goals in many varied ways.
How do organizations get quality research and reports?
The key is to recruit people with quantitative skills. Americans tend to shy away from quantitative analyses because they’re harder.
But organizations need people who can handle numbers and people with a business background as well as people with a background in advocacy and the ethical and moral position.
They need people to analyze technical reports.
We at ILSR are not traditional community organizers. What we’ve done is bring financing and business skills to organizers and nonprofit advocacy organizations. We’ve shown how technical and financial research can be integrated into traditional advocacy.
That’s helped people and organizations seize control over the decision-making process in their communities. And I think that’s a pattern we’ll see more in the future.
What advice do you have for young people interested in grassroots advocacy?
I don’t think anyone can be an effective organizer without knowing the history of the movement. You have to understand the particular form of capitalism you’re up against in the United States. If you don’t know the details of how corporations got their power and citizens lost it, it’s hard to put together a meaningful strategy for changing the current system.
There are two excellent organizations in the country that train citizen activists: The Wellstone Academy and the Midwest Academy, which was formed in the image of Saul Alinsky.
In addition, these are the books and essays I find essential for anyone who is going to get involved in advocacy with large governments or large corporations:
- Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life, Percival Goodman and Paul Goodman
- Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Matter, E.F. Schumacher
- Neighborhood Power: The New Localism, David Morris
- A People’s History of The United States, Howard Zinn
- History of the Great American Fortunes, Gustavus Myers
- Oil!, Upton Sinclair
- The Social Costs of Private Enterprise, K. William Kapp
- Listen, Marxist!, Murray Bookchin
- Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, James Carroll
- The Great French Revolution, Peter Kropotkin
- What Is To Be Done?, Nikolay Chernyshevsky
- Politics and the English Language, essay by George Orwell
- Shooting an Elephant, essay by George Orwell