Categories: FeatureNews

SOUL Trainers


West Oakland gave birth to the revolutionary Black Panther Party for Self-Defense nearly 40 years ago. The Panthers are long gone, but their spirit lingers on in a falling-down neighborhood surrounding the West Oakland BART station, where the vaguely metallic and rotten reek of a yeast plant envelops a warehouse called Mandela Village, which houses what can aptly be described as a school of rebellion. Co-founded six years ago by two women barely out of their teens, the School of Unity and Liberation, or SOUL, is training a new generation of leaders — “young women of color, queer youth, and working-class youth” — to free humanity from the web of capitalism.

The woman-run school for radicals has many friends on the progressive end of the political spectrum. “I was impressed with the wholesome way they came into the neighborhood,” says Monsa Nitoto, the middle-aged chairman of the Coalition for West Oakland Revitalization, which owns Mandela Village. “Lots of young people go there. They dance. They do art. They do political things.

“I did a training with them. They took us through outreach, how to do cultural work, how to utilize our own experience, turn it into song. Fine, fine, upstanding youngsters.”

Utne Reader agrees. SOUL's “liberation educators” are featured in the cover story of the liberal magazine's October issue, “Young Visionaries Under 30 Who Are Changing Your Future.”

SOUL is not without its critics on the left, though, old-timers who are wary of those who feast from the hands they are supposed to bite.

Like the radical left itself, SOUL is a study in contradiction.

Borrowing techniques and language from the corporate business world, SOUL hires itself out as a consultant to left-leaning groups, teaching them how to incorporate as nonprofits and how to seek grants from major philanthropic foundations. In a few short years, the school's staff, and its graduates, have become a force in the arena of leftist politics in the Bay Area, leading activist groups working for welfare and immigrant rights, prison and police reform, tenant protection, affordable housing, and a cleaner environment.

But there is irony to spare in the funding sources that have made those inroads possible: A score of gold-plated, capitalist foundations regularly pump large sums of money into Mandela Village, even though SOUL promotes anti-capitalist ideas — including redistribution of the world's wealth to the poor — that, if made real, would mean the end of private property, not to mention philanthropic foundations.

Behind the irony lies the fundamental question: Is SOUL using capitalists to undermine capitalism, or are the agents of Mammon simply paying a new generation of leftists to join, rather than smash, The System?

SOUL was born in response to Proposition 209, the California ballot initiative that banned state universities (among other entities) from making race a primary consideration in regard to admissions and contracting.

“I grew up in Buffalo, New York,” Harmony Goldberg, SOUL's co-founder, recounts. “My mom was once a Catholic nun; Dad was Jewish. Mom taught at Attica after the uprising. I was radicalized by my parents' political orientation.”

Goldberg's deeply personal variety of left politics — “We were poor, there was craziness, sometimes we were on the verge of losing the house,” she says of her early days as part of Buffalo's fallen middle class — was invigorated in the Bay Area.

“I got a full scholarship to UC Berkeley in 1993. Racism was on the offensive,” she says. “When the regents started eliminating affirmative action, I felt personally responsible; here I was, a white woman on a full scholarship, while others were shut out. It felt like an historical moment; I decided to do social justice work.”

Goldberg and fellow student Rona Fernandez (who declined to be interviewed for this story) founded SOUL in 1996 to train young people of color in “get out the vote” work against Prop. 209.

“We had correct information, but it didn't matter,” Goldberg, 27, remembers. “I became revolutionized through the course of my experience of trying to change things electorally, trying to change embedded racism. I concluded that to build power we needed to liberate our own people, instead of trying to convince people in power to do it.

“We studied the Third World movements of the 1960s and 1970s, here and abroad: South Africa, Cuba, China, Chile. We studied the [revolutionary] classics, the histories. We decided to commit to an organizing method, not just direct action or ideological organizing.”

The women made SOUL a political education center, as distinct from a political party or an issue advocacy group. The school clearly has a left orientation, but the focus of that orientation is less than laserlike. In a delicate ideological balancing act, Goldberg distances herself from the traditional leftist labels of Marxist, Leninist, Maoist, and Trotskyist while acknowledging an affinity for socialism: “I am not an 'ist,' merely a revolutionary, with identity as a socialist.”

Goldberg's politics are heavily influenced by Antonio Gramsci, a pre-World War II Italian socialist who believed that intellectuals can free the working class by seizing control of civil society, which, in the modern world, is composed largely of nonprofit organizations. Goldberg also admires Rosa Luxemburg, a communist martyred by German soldiers in 1919, who was highly critical of the Russian Communist Party's “dictatorship of the party, not the workers.”

“We grew up in a time of left retreat,” Goldberg says. “The fall of the U.S.S.R. was a blow to the older generation of leftists. Socialism was dead, capitalism the only road.

“That [event] did not determine the commitment of our people: oppressed people, working-class people, people of color.”

Goldberg and Fernandez started SOUL because, Goldberg says, “There was no viable organization for us to plug into; many were older, whiter, less on the ground. None spoke to our intent and ideas. We wanted to keep women of color at the center of our work, liberate all people, put all movements together and be stronger.” [page]

As SOUL grew, Goldberg became a fund-raiser extraordinaire. She quickly linked up with a national network of nonprofits that pursue environmental and political reforms far to the left of, say, the Democratic Party platform. America's newest generation of social radicals is supported by private foundations — the Vanguard Public Foundation, Resist Inc., the Tides Foundation, and the Active Element Foundation — that are, in turn, funded by donations from wealthy families and individuals. SOUL also takes money from the Zellerbach Foundation, capitalized originally by profits made in the paper and pulp industry, and from the Levi Strauss Foundation, operated by Levi Strauss & Co., a multinational garment-manufacturing firm. SOUL's board of directors draws the line at applying for government grants.

Goldberg acknowledges the ironies of her role as a fiscally sophisticated white woman who leads an organization dedicated to the independence of people of color. “It is contradictory on the surface,” she says. “I do fund-raising. My method is to make space for others to take leadership. I do not direct programs. All of the programs I started are now run by women of color.”

“White people often have more resources, and that's how SOUL was founded, and we are conscious of it,” says Genevieve Gonzáles, who recently took over as SOUL's Bay Area director, freeing Goldberg to expand the organization at the national level.

“I grew up in Chula Vista, two miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Vigilante, murderous white people were shooting at families crossing the border. My parents told me we have a responsibility to take care of our community; so I registered voters and campaigned against anti-immigrant ballot initiatives.”

After enrolling at UC Berkeley in 1996, Gonzáles met Goldberg and Fernandez, was (in her terminology) radicalized, and decided that fundamentally changing the system required her to do more than vote. “We are a school to build a movement — like the Highlander Center in Tennessee,” says Gonzáles. (Highlander, a nominee for the 1982 Nobel Peace Prize, is famous for training Rosa Parks, the professional NAACP organizer whose refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., 47 years ago sparked the civil rights movement.)

In addition to teaching the history of The Movement (a term many involved with SOUL use to describe the past 50 years of anti-war and pro-civil rights campaigns), SOUL's curriculum includes classes in organizing techniques, ranging from the nitty-gritty of electoral campaign tactics to the details of staging acts of civil disobedience. “Our phones are always ringing,” says Gonzáles. “We do not use the word 'consultant,' but if an organization is like a ball on a table — a ball that could move in many directions — we are like wedges keeping the ball stable, moving forward.

“It sounds simplistic, but everyone deserves to have what they need — we are talking about creating a society where no one goes hungry.”

SOUL's plan for creating a new, noncapitalist society began with creating paychecks for SOUL's staff and students. According to public records, SOUL's fiscal sponsor, the Youth Empowerment Center Inc., a kind of nonprofit holding company headed by Goldberg, raised a total of $1.4 million in 2000 and 2001 from private foundations. Goldberg agrees that there is a contradiction between SOUL's anti-capitalist thrust and its fund-raising strategy, that this is a matter of “tension” within the organization, and that she is afraid of possible funding repercussions due to “increased repression and censorship of civil liberties” in the post-9/11 world. She says, though, that taking money from capitalists is simply a stage in SOUL's development.

The school's share of the Youth Empowerment Center's take last year was about a quarter-million dollars. SOUL's six staff members receive salaries of $27,000, health insurance, and paid sick days and annual vacation time. The balance of the center's money went to funding four artistic and community organizing groups that share SOUL's political goals and office space, and into a hefty savings account.

This summer, SOUL paid each student $2,000 to take leadership classes at the school while interning with a nonprofit such as the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, a “living wage” advocacy group, or Filipinos for Affirmative Action, which is trying to save the jobs of noncitizen security screeners at Bay Area airports.

Year-round, SOUL goes on the road to high schools, colleges, and community organizations with a series of educational programs that deconstruct the world system of capitalism in accord with a Political Education Workshop Manual that lays out detailed lesson plans on topics ranging from racism to homophobia to “why the rich get richer.” The loose-leaf, bound manual comes complete with icebreakers to use at the beginning of class, fact sheets quantifying levels of poverty and social inequity under capitalism, and Socratic questions intended to guide the school's young students toward a SOUL worldview.

Echoing the PowerPoint aesthetics of corporate presentations, every section of the file-tabbed manual defines the number of minutes to be spent on each task and catalogs workshop supplies, down to the number of individual sticky notes to be used per class. Wielding versions of this manual, SOUL's three dozen full- and part-time teachers have reached more than 3,000 people in 150 workshops.

The teachers tend to be sincere, impassioned, sure of themselves.

“Young people who experience oppression are told that politics and economics just happen to you — we say you can change that stuff,” a Latina teacher says.

“We focus on history and facts. People in the United States have no concept of history; they do not know why the U.S. is in the Middle East,” the lone male on the teaching staff explains.

“We bring people through stages of learning, from anger to understanding,” an Asian woman declares.

On a broiling summer day, a dozen teenagers filter into a classroom in Mandela Village. Today's lecture is a short history of the world by Goldberg, who is clearly a talented teacher. Using a map and visual aids representing slave ships, diamond mines, money, factories, and bomb bursts — “These are not broccoli,” Goldberg says, laughing — she runs down the situation: About 500 years ago, pirates employed by European merchants began raiding the world for gold, cotton, grain, and slaves. After accumulating enormous wealth and overthrowing the reigning feudal kings and queens, the militant merchants, now known as multinational corporations, set up a system of global capitalism that relies upon male supremacy, white supremacy, and heterosexism to maintain control of their markets. Meanwhile, billions of poor people live badly on a dollar or two a day while, according to Forbes magazine, the 200 richest people receive nearly half of the world's total income. [page]

Says the class cutup in a roomful of rebels, “Off with their heads.”

The students write on sticky notes, detailing important moments in the history of their families — emigration from Africa on a slave ship, for instance — and tack the memorializations to a time line of capitalist history drawn on butcher paper. They talk about their own experiences with unemployment and police brutality, and how they are oppressed by the same system that allows millions of Third Word children to die each year from starvation and preventable diseases. Everyone seems to be having a good time, despite the bruising heat. The students sing a song with a rousing chorus: “Went down to the rich man's house/ Took back what he took from me.” Popsicles appear — the sudden silence is broken only by the sound of licking.

After a break, a box full of cardboard sunglasses is passed around. Wearing these “revolutionary” glasses (“to see the world as it really is”), the students improvise often-hilarious skits about protest organizing. But a word of caution is in order. “We are not in a revolutionary period,” says one of the teaching team. “Public opinion is very far right. For us, pushing for demands that are liberal and progressive is huge.”

Students are taught how to spin, or frame, the essence of a political demand by boiling it down into ordinary words. Avoid jargon, they are told. Do not say, for example, “prison-industrial complex,” when “jail” will do. A student remarks, to general laughter, “Do not say, 'Seize the means of production,' when 'We must all come together' will do.”

As provocative as the lessons are, an underlying and less extreme message slowly emerges: Learn to maximize radical gains by working within The System to oppose The System.

People trained by SOUL are seeded throughout the nonprofit world of social work in San Francisco and Oakland.

Maria Poblet is employed as an organizer for St. Peter's Housing Committee, an agency that counsels immigrant tenants in San Francisco's Mission District. She is also a poet whose writings on poverty and revolution have been published by Doubleday and the University of California Press.

In many ways, Poblet typifies SOUL's ideal of a leader for the 21st century: young, female, intellectual, immigrant, idealist … and salaried.

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Poblet, now 23, immigrated to east Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. “I thought the U.S. would be like a TV show; people would be thin, wealthy, white,” she says. “But, instead, I saw poverty where I thought it did not exist, and people of color that I did not know lived here.”

As a student at UC Berkeley, Poblet jumped into the campus fight to preserve affirmative action. She made many new friends, including Goldberg, who, at the time, was running SOUL out of her apartment. In 1998, Poblet signed up for SOUL's first summer school session, interning at the Oakland hotel workers' union local. “When we learned about civil disobedience, I thought we should take over the hotel manager's office. But that was not the proper strategy. It was humbling,” Poblet says. “I learned that I could not create The Movement by myself.”

Poblet envisions a world where freedom and democracy are available to all, and her definition of freedom is expansive. “Freedom is people having enough to eat, a place to live, dignified, meaningful work. When I was at the union, I saw people like my parents organizing other people like my parents. I thought, 'Wow, this could be big — democracy could really work; every person in society could have input.'”

She does not, however, see American-style democracy as a force for freedom in the world; rather, she views it as a cause of pain. “Bush seems to love war,” she says, smiling sadly. “He sees a military solution to every problem, but in my work with St. Peter's I see people who have survived U.S. intervention in Central America, people whose family members were dismembered or killed by U.S. weapons and training.”

She offers up a poetic alternative to Bush's militarist plan for Iraq:

haiku for iraq

bloated stomachs growl

i hear them i listen lord

may i become bread

Meanwhile, she hopes to organize Latino immigrants to be part of The Movement, which she defines, today, as fighting against San Francisco Supervisor Gavin Newsom's ballot proposition “Care Not Cash,” which would limit distribution of General Assistance money to the homeless. At the same time, she is worried that her St. Peter's clients might find out that she makes $25,000 a year, when many of them support entire families on half as much. “People have organized themselves for years without being paid. On their lunch break, after work,” she says. “I feel lucky.”

Nicole Lee, 26, is a fourth-generation Chinese-American who also became politicized while working on the anti-Prop. 209 campaign. After SOUL training a few years ago, she became the salaried director of Let's Get Free, a nonprofit that works to reform the juvenile justice system in Oakland. “SOUL taught me practical skills, like public speaking,” she says, “and the history of The Movement.” [page]

Lee is career-oriented. She wants to “carry on the anti-war, black power, civil rights movement that started before we were born,” and she says that her group's dependence on foundations is a real problem, suggesting as an alternative emulating the “self-reliant” Black Panther Party. “After 9/11, organizing is even more difficult, and with the recession, people are dealing with survival,” she says. “Our mistake would be to believe that thousands of people will turn out — we need to pace ourselves.”

A few years ago, Adam Gold received technical assistance from SOUL when he founded a white youth group to combat racism in Contra Costa County. Later, he went to work as a fund-raiser for the Youth Empowerment Center and was elected treasurer of its board of directors.

“We are not naive in believing that foundations will support us for a long time,” says Gold, who recently broke the hoary age barrier of 30. “Trends in the funding world change; you are either in or out. If we lose the foundations, we will rely on individuals. We can work in coffee shops.

“Nobody takes the money for granted.”

Goldberg and her SOUL-mates insist that although there is a potential conflict between the group's major-foundation funding sources and its multipronged efforts to undermine The System, they never alter their programs to suit contributors. And, they say, their reliance on major-foundation support is a temporary financial strategy.

SOUL's anti-capitalist slant — clearly laid out in its annual reports and advertising brochures — does not bother Robert F. Sherman, director of the Effective Citizenship program for the Surdna Foundation in New York City, which is directed by the fourth-generation heirs to a mining, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and real estate fortune.

“We support the efforts of young people engaged in direct action and educational reform,” says Sherman, who sends money to a half-dozen organizations in the Bay Area. Last year, he awarded SOUL/Youth Empowerment Center $75,000; this year he sent $110,000.

But some on the radical left are not so sanguine about SOUL's course.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, 64, is an internationally respected historian, a human rights observer for the United Nations, and a professor of ethnic and women's studies at California State University, Hayward. Her new book, Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-70, details her role as a pioneer of the radical feminist movement in America.

“I talk to the young people at SOUL all the time,” she says over lunch on Potrero Hill. “I keep bringing up the problem. The reliance on nonprofit funding is frightening to me because of what I've seen in the past. It's hard not to become dependent, to be undermined by the foundations. It's like an invasion of the body snatchers.

“People make rationalizations, but they can't have it both ways.

“In the '60s, we intimidated liberal funders into giving us blood money, so we wouldn't come and kill them,” she says, laughing. (It really is a joke.) “Abby Rockefeller used to write checks without asking what it was for — sometimes it was for weapons.

“Then the liberals organized themselves into these foundations. They are scared of Bush, but these groups do not want to talk about the problem of class rule, just issues of race and poverty.”

James Tracey, a paid organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, frames the issue a different way. “I do not criticize people for taking money from the Bank of America to lessen human suffering,” he says. “But The Movement is coming up to hitting the limits. Old money can sometimes be clueless, but eventually, they figure out that you are using their money to challenge the basis of exploitation, and they get pissed and cut you off.”

Or, perhaps, they don't.

If those who staff a “revolutionary” nonprofit organization wind up supporting their lifestyle, long term, by massaging The System's major charitable institutions for money and recognition — who, exactly, is using whom?

“In my day, poverty programs sucked off the good leadership in the black community,” said Michael Napp, a 55-year-old peace activist, at a recent anti-war demonstration in Dolores Park. “They got a vested interest in The System and moved to the suburbs. We called them poverty pimps.”

SF Weekly Staff

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