HOW ACTIVISTS MAKE $$$
The idea for this piece came about a few weeks ago when I and a couple of friends were out drinking one night. If you know me at all, you know I can find a metaphor out of anything, and this night was no different.
Anyway, we were at a bar where we seemed to be the only people who wore du-rags at home, watched re-runs of Martin, or knew all the words to “Wanna Be a Baller.” In other words, we were the only three Black folks in the spot.
I looked over in the corner and noticed the music was coming from a jukebox with the “Touchtunes” logo, so I hopped on my app and started stacking the playlist with stuff I wanted to hear. Jill Scott, Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, Prince, and Whitney Houston played for a good 30 minutes or so before one of my friends commented “Damn, they must be playing this because the three of us are in here LOL.”
”Nah man, I got the app that controls the juke box,” I told him.
We all chuckled.
Before I knew it, a few folks began lining up to the jukebox with dollars and credit cards in hand to make their selections, but unbeknownst to them, I had the app. Furthermore, I’d already frontloaded all my selections and they’d better buckle up for at least an hour or so of RnB, Hip Hop, and 90’s hits that played on my dad’s system in his 1985 Buick Riviera with rims back in the day.
At that moment, it hit me.
Those people probably heard a bunch of songs in a row that didn’t hit the spot, so they wanted to “Do something about it,” and they did what they thought was the right action to impact the change they wanted: music.
Sure, common sense would say “Go change it at the jukebox,” but that’s the answer if you only know how things work on the surface. They, in essence, were playing checkers with the music. I was playing chess.
Even more symbolic of where I’m going with this metaphor is that the other bar attendees didn’t know there was someone in there with total control via an app. I never had to get up and walk over to the jukebox. They had no idea I held the puppet strings.
Now, clearly the illustration shows what politics have come to today.
Congress can’t pass meaningful legislation on either side of the aisle, and the average American doesn’t know how things work or what they do at City Hall, their State Capitol, or school board.
Unbeknownst to them, there are puppeteers who control the flow of influence, and that’s what I want to point out in this blog entry.
The people don’t like the music, and they have no earthly idea how to really change it.
I want to point out the role lobbyists, activists, consultants, and organizers play in the grand scheme of things. I’ll talk candidly about these roles as I’ve played, or am currently playing, each of these.
If you came here to find out which Houston activists and organizations made big bucks riding with the Mayor Turner’s administration supporting proposition A and opposing B, I’ll give that to you, but first I want to put this disclaimer out there: the checks they’ve received are totally legal, and being paid to support a campaign shouldn’t be a point against someone’s integrity. It’s just important that THE PEOPLE know when someone supports something and speaks out about it for free, and when it’s compensated.
Longtime community activist Deric Muhummad got $20,000 (receipts below) to help oppose Proposition B, the ballot measure that would tie firefighter pay to that of police. I don’t think this check should make you question Deric’s integrity, but just know he’s paid to help the campaign as he speaks.
And there’s nothing wrong with cashing a check to work for a campaign. I spoke to Deric before posting this blog telling him what I’d found. He says he used the money to hire others to do work getting out the vote.
If my chosen mayoral candidate enters the race, I’ll try to get a spot on that campaign with a check, too.
Again, nothing wrong with it.
Back to Prop B.
Right now, police start off at $44,000 in Houston, while firefighters hit the training academy making a mere $28,000. Now technically, trainees aren’t in the bargaining unit—but that’s extra political jargon that would muck up the argument. He received two separate checks for $10k each. One came on September 28th, the other on October 19th.
This doesn’t diminish his reputation at all, just know when you hear him oppose Proposition B, he’s being compensated to do so.
I personally voted YES on Prop B and didn’t get a dime for it.
Other interesting findings in the campaign finance reports were the $10,000 check that went to activist and Super Neighborhood leader Tomaro Bell. I don’t know her personally, but from afar I know she’s a firecracker and is a relied-upon influencer in her community.
HBAD (Houston Black American Democrats) got a check for a smooth $10,000 as well for “consulting” to support the Rebuild Houston Proposition, Prposition A. I found that interesting. Makes you question the door hangers and printed literature from an organization opposing a proposition when you know they were paid to do so.
Charles X White’s “Charity Productions” cashed in too, with a meager $1,100 for an event expense. Mr. White’s organization hosts community events allowing a space for candidates/campaigns to get in front of folks.
Seems like Mr. White sold himself short this time around. He’s got clout. He should’ve been worth $10,000 too.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a step back and look at the difference between ACTIVISTS, ORGANIZERS, CONSULTANTS, and LOBBYISTS, what they do, and how much they’re paid. Oh, and can’t forget to lay out where the money comes from.
According to the dictionary, an activist is “a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change.” In my opinion these are pretty much people who genuinely care about an issue, campaign, etc. They are UNPAID.
For instance, all the work Houston Justice did around Grand Jury reform was unpaid. In fact, quite the opposite. From the rental fees for meetings to the printing costs for flyers and grand jury applications, all of this came out of pocket. Most people don’t know this. An activist might organize a protest or rally to bring attention to an injustice in the community, or to shine a spotlight on an upcoming agenda item at the school board. As Adbul Haleem Muhammad put it, it takes both “tree shakers” and “jelly makers.” In this illustration the activists take on the role of the rabble rouser—Malcolm X, if you will, “shake the tree to get the apples” while the policy folks actually make the apple jelly. You need both most of the time.
When you see Ashton Woods spend hours organizing a protest, making phone calls, marching, meeting, etc., for BLM Houston, he’s not making a dime from it. Same for Kandace Webber and the Beckers. Sarah and Ben don’t get paid to attend all the school board meetings.
And while Houston Justice got some cash this time around, I, nor none of the board were paid. The people we hired were paid $15-17 an hour, but we were roughing it. We’re getting a meager stipend and got reimbursed for meals associated with the work.
Now, once you start connecting your activism to tangible, concrete policy, you start getting attention from organizations and candidates that see your influence as a commodity.
Then, you have campaigns offering you $20,000 to support something.
Organizers are like activists, only they are paid, and have a deeper role in pulling things to fruition. While many activists also put on the organizer hat as well, for this illustration, I’m talking about those working for organizations like Texas Organizing Project, Workers Defense Project, or a labor union. Organizers have weekly goals like recruiting X new members for an organization or union, or getting 100 people to commit to attend the campaign planning meeting next week so that they’ll meet the attendance goal of 25. Pay is on a sliding scale. When I left the prison as a lieutenant to work at the state capitol in Austin, I saw for the first time the impact organizations like TOP and WDP have on passing/stopping laws. That’s what led me to get into the work. When I started at TOP back in 2011 I accepted a meager salary of $30,000 per year. Yes, $30,000 per year. That was a massive drop from what I made working for the prison system, and I didn’t get free housing either. Two years later, I was at $60,000 working for another organization as Texas State Director in 2013 with my first consultant gig on the side paying me an additional $3,500 per month.
Yes, I crossed that coveted 6-figure marker that year.
As an organizer, you’re not paid hourly, but instead, are a salaried worker.
You work long, hard hours.
When I worked for TOP in Dallas, I would often work 60+ hours per week. Think about it: during the day you’re meeting with members and preparing them for meetings with elected officials so they’ll be up to snuff on details. You’re also recruiting members. You might have meetings in the evening when folks are off from work. You’re sitting on couches in people’s living rooms learning about their families and the lives in general. You’re building relationships. I LOVED IT. Well, I LOVE it. I use the present tense because even though I’m not paid for my organizing today, I still do it. And while I had goals for the week, I never looked at people as numbers back then. I don’t today, either.
It is a skilled position. The longer you do it, the better off you’re supposed to get at it.
But where does the money come from?
Well, I’ll give you a short answer and example. For the most part these organizations are funded by grants from foundations and government entities.
Let’s just say I hit the powerball and became a billionaire. I’d setup “The Douglas Family Foundation” and put $100 million of it in an endowment and give grants based on the interest earned off that $100 million every year on issues important to me. If you know me, you know this foundation’s portfolio would aim to end the pipeline to prison through funding HBCU styled marching bands and music programs, increasing voter turnout from zip codes similar to the one I grew up in, and building a real re-entry program for those returning to society. I’d also have some stuff in there to support single mothers, too.
Let’s just say I was conservative with my funds and put it in a simple money market account yielding 1% per year. That would mean The Douglas Family Foundation” could grant $1million per year just off the interest.
If we split that money up into four grants, each organization might get $250,000.
The director of the foundation would be responsible for finding organizations tied to our goals, so they find an after school program already working with HISD schools on music education. If their program fits the goals of our foundation, they might get that $250,000 grant to pay staff, buy instruments, etc.
But there’s catch. The grant might have specific requirement that force them to change their program a bit in order to qualify.
That’s basically how that stuff works, and there are donors and foundations for many issues out there.
Sorry friends, it’s time for yet another story…
I know you’re probably reading this like “Won’t he just get through it already.”
But, I find it easiest to illustrate things with stories, metaphor, symbolism, etc.
Back in 2012 when I was working for TOP, I’d had a flat just as I was pulling into the parking garage at my apartment building. This was one of those situations where you could get mad at the flat, but then be thankful because it happened in the best place possible.
Anyway, I pulled into my spot, pulled out the spare tire and jack, and got to work changing the tire.
I’d never done this before, and I didn’t do it that day either.
After a few attempts trying to get the lug nut off, I was having no luck. I hopped on my phone and looked up mobile mechanics in my zip code on Craigslist. I called around explaining what I needed and eventually found someone who would come and change the tire for me.
Before he arrived, one of my friends showed up and saw me still attempting to take the first lug nut off my car to no avail.
As the mobile mechanic showed up with one of those drill thingies in hand, he asked “Durrel, you called a mechanic to change your tire,” as if it was a big deal.
“It’s not that hard, you could’ve done it yourself,” he said.
As I paid the mobile mechanic that $60 fee, my friend shook his head. In his head, this was a waste of money, but in my head I’d prefer to pay someone $60 to do something in 5 minutes instead of saving $60 and taking an hour of my time.
Sure, if I were stranded somewhere without cell phone coverage, I could figure it out if I had to, but that wasn’t the case.
And that’s the BEST way I can describe what Consultants and Lobbyists do.
Let’s go back to my first illustration where my friends and I were at the bar and the other folks got wind of the direction the music was going for the night and tried to “change” the situation.
In their heads, the answer was to go up to the jukebox and pay to change the songs.
A consultant specializing in bar music would know that the Touchtunes app exists and have a relationship with the bar manager who could override the selections I made by unplugging and replugging the jukebox.
That’s why consultants get the big bucks.
I’ve worked to pass legislation and/or influenced meaningful issue-based program in 27 of the 50 states. I know grass tops and elected officials/staffers in many of these, but I don’t accept every offer that comes my way.
Sure, an organization could piss away hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence a legislative committee on public education to get their bill passed, but who knows if it would work, or how long it might take.
A lobbyist might know the chair of that committee personally, or perhaps know the chair’s chief of staff to get that meeting setup.
A consultant might know the details of each of the committee members’ districts, and that there’s a tire plant in the Vice Chair’s district that donates a lot to his campaign and provides thousands of jobs to his constituents.
That consultant might reach out to the owner of said tire plant for a meeting explaining over drinks what the bill is about, and get him to influence the elected official.
See where I’m going with this?
It’s chess, not checkers.
And THAT is why consultants can command big bucks.
But how do they find consultants/lobbyists?
Lobbyists are registered with the entity they’re lobbying, so there’s a registry. For instance, those lobbying at the State Capitol are in a searchable database.
Consultants are found via word of mouth for the most part. The circles these folks run in are very small, and reputation goes a long way.
How do big companies and organizations choose attorneys? Yeah, like that.
For what it’s worth, I’ve NEVER worked on an issue I didn’t agree with, or for a campaign I didn’t genuinely care for.
For instance, in 2012 when Carol Alvarado was running against Sylvia Garcia for the State Senate, I PERSONALLY supported Alvarado, but my organization had endorsed Garcia.
Initially, I was on board because I was paid to do so. But as time went on, I couldn’t do it.
My heart wouldn’t let me.
While I would eventually come around to admire Garcia today, at the time I was so upset about how the plays had been made that my conscious wouldn’t let me speak genuinely about Garcia. I would literally get sick to my stomach using the talking points our organization had created.
I went to our Executive Director at the time and explained my issue, and I was allowed to help with other campaigns we’d endorsed.
However, in 2016 even though I supported Bernie Sanders in the primary, my union’s international had endorsed Hilary Clinton. Even though she wasn’t my pick, It wasn’t hard doing my job that time. After the primary, it was even easier.
Dang, I didn’t expect to write so much, and don’t feel like going back through to edit what I wrote so I’m throwing it up As-Is. This low-key has me wanting to start another book project while my current one “5 Years in Prison” ain’t finished yet. I’d point out how race plays a role behind the scenes at many nonprofits who work primarily in Black/Brown communities, and include my recommendations/observations as one of the few young black men working in this space.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments, or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll go back and include answers to interesting questions to this post in the future if any come in.
Now off to find a glass of something brown in a glass, with ice.