Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Closing the Circle

I'd heard recently from my former boss, John Anner, that the Independent Press Association (or IPA) had imploded after several years of mishandling, lack of political vision and (what seems to me to be) corrupt and unethical decisions made by key leaders in the organization (namely the Executive Director, Richard Landry and whatever Board members were supporting him).

This came as sad news to me, and I'm sure many others. You see, I worked for John at the IPA, for a little over two years after my start-up stint at School of Unity and Liberation. Back then, in 1999, the IPA was a smallish organization with big ambitions--the main reason I joined John's fledgling staff and stayed through the dot-com boom (and subsequent bust), when I could've gotten a job, like many of my friends did, making twice as much money and working half as hard for some weird tech company. John has always been a visionary, with the fundraising, communications and marketing skills to match, and I learned much working with him and the other talented folks at IPA, like Jeremy Smith, Martha Bowen, Linda Jue and Abby Scher.

Looking back on the whole experience now, I realize that the IPA taught me some important things about organizational culture, politics, and what it takes to build a real movement in the U.S.--things that I don't think I would've learned if I'd stayed in the world of small, grassroots nonprofits; these kinds of organizations, as John Anner has put it in his inimitably opinionated way, are often 'in love with [their] own marginality'. I also learned stuff about indie publishing, but that was secondary, really. I love magazines but I don't think I ever had the same passionate commitment to the indie publishing world that John, Jeremy and others at IPA possessed.

The real lessons I learned during my tenure at IPA were much bigger, and had (I realize now) a long-lasting impact on me and my worldview. Here's a rough summary:

1. Think small, be small, win small. The counterpoint to this lesson being Think big, be big, win big.. I was having a conversation with a colleague the other day after haggling with one of our youth board members over whether she could raise $500 or $1,000 as part of her board fundraising goal (Californians for Justice has a board that's mostly made up of high school-age youth and college-age young adults). I was exasperated afterwards (of course, she opted for the lower goal, despite my positive encouragement that I thought she could raise much more--which she definitely has both the skills and the contacts to do). I chatted my colleague and said, "I don't want to help people raise $500, I want to help people raise $5 million!"

This sentiment is a direct result of my experiences at the IPA. John and the rest of the IPA crew often thought big, huge even: they bought a distribution company to help get our member publications out to a wider audiences, then brokered deals with Barnes and Noble and Borders to increase that reach (I know, the hardcore lefties are rolling their eyes, but we ain't gonna win over 'the masses' if the only place we're trying to reach them is in radical enclaves like Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley). The IPA advocated to get indie publishers to use recycled paper, started an advertising co-op to help its members generate more sustainable revenue, and launched a project to get more articles by journalists of color in the still-embarassingly-White-male-dominated left press.

My head spins now thinking of all the IPA accomplished in such a short period of time. John and co. thought big, went big, won big. It's an attitude and approach I think many leftists--especially folks working at the grassroots, like me--could do well to embrace.

2. My opinions matter, my politics are important, people will listen to me. I didn't have years and years of writing and publishing experience before I joined the IPA staff. But for some reason the good folks there still paid attention to me, still took what I said and considered it valuable enough to maybe put into practice in terms of policy or programs. It amazes me now when I reflect on that time that they took anything I said very seriously! I was young and more than a little arrogant, and wore my radical politics on my sleeve (a fashionably chic sleeve, of course), sometimes alienating the very people that I needed to work with to accomplish our big goals. This meant a great deal to me, and I don't think I even realized it until now, at 35 years old. It makes a big difference in one's self-confidence to have people you respect and admire and who are accomplishing great things in the world stop and listen to what you have to say.

And at the IPA, we listened to our members, too. The importance of this seemingly simple act cannot be underestimated. These publishers were small, grassroots media-makers--the kind that the big trade associations, distribution companies and bookstore chains didn't listen to, because they didn't have to or necessarily want to. The IPA helped change that, because we listened to our members, asked them what they needed, and took it upon ourselves to figure out ways to give it them. The last round of IPA management obviously didn't do that, as many different accounts tell. Bumping members off the email list because they were critical of organizational practices or asking board members to resign--I can't even imagine even thinking about doing those things when I was Membership Director at IPA. The members didn't 'help us' fulfill our mission, the members were our mission. Listening to them wasn't a nice thing to do to make them feel better, it was our job. It's a perspective that I've grown to take as a given in my line of work with nonprofit grassroots organizations, and sometimes I forget that most of the world doesn't operate on this assumption: that you have to listen to your constituents, the folks whom you are serving, the people who are most impacted by the problems you are trying to find solutions for.

But these lessons weren't just imparted to me--I'm sure that many members of what was once the IPA would agree: the IPA's ambitious vision--for an indie press that could sustain itself financially and reach tens if not hundreds of thousands of more people, that could help sway the hearts and minds of the 'unconverted' masses that need to be won over if we are to build a real movement for social justice in this country--this vision and the programs and infrastructure the IPA created to help realize it, taught all of us that we could dream big, that we could do more, and that we could, one day, if we struggled through our differences and kept our eyes on the prize and were willing to think outside the box, build the kind of world that we'd only dreamed of.

Of course, that vision has not been realized, not even close, but it's incredibly reassuring to know that we've stepped a little closer to it, and that we even held parts of it in our hands.

Rest in peace, IPA. And may the lessons you taught us stay with us for a long, long time.


Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Thank so much for this, Rona. It's heartfelt, positive, and inspiring.

ludovic said...

thanks for this as well...the truth needs to b said in situations like this, so future folks can make new mistakes rather than the ones we've already proven to be errors.