Saturday, October 1, 2011

A National Infrastructure Movement - proposed organizing strategy as the first, concrete step to "Rebuilding the Dream" (discussion draft)

I'm going to break with much of the "sturm and drang" convention of the blogosphere and, rather than register my "outrage" at events, suggest a way forward from some of the impasse and negativity - a proposal predicated on political organizing beyond the constraints and constricted expectations of electoral politics that are too-often reduced to the cynicism of "voting against" rather than "voting for."

I believe it is imperative for sensible people to offer some alternatives to the "grass-roots" (such as it is) far-right populism of the Tea Party movement that has managed to gridlock Beltway politics around the most retrograde notions, and for self-styled progressives,  liberals and, yes, concerned "moderates" to begin the difficult work of bringing the country together - beginning at the grass-roots community level - around  constructive agendas and the realization that there is more to civic action and engagement than electoral politics.

I find the "Rebuild the Dream" coalition, spurred by the the Center for American Progress with the leadership of Van Jones, along with an alliance of Move-On, Campaign for America's Future, Democracy for America, and various unions and issue-oriented organizations, to be the most hopeful development for grass-roots activists I've seen in recent months. In the spirit of "Rebuilding the Dream," I offer an outline of my thoughts on one way we might move forward with this coalition - ideas at least partly inspired by attending the first round of local house meetings.

The focus of this draft proposal is using the urgency of rebuilding infrastructure as the foundation for organizing, outreach and education at the local level.  These suggestions are directed toward people interested in actually organizing a social movement that can complement the 2012 electoral campaign effort and construct an agenda that isn't based solely on protest or hoping that somebody else, somewhere, "does something."

Here goes:

"Rebuilding the Dream" - A "First Step" Proposal:  The fundamental strategy is a nationwide but locally-based infrastructure inventory, organized at the grass-roots but coordinated nationally:  The project will be developed as an organizing/education tool that can be used to create a tangible, community-based infrastructure and jobs agenda.  It is - in its process as well as its goal - a concrete action-plan, directly related to local initiative, experience and needs. 

The project would be directed toward two primary goals.  The first is to support establishment of a major "National Infrastructure Bank."   This proposal has generated some bi-partisan  support in the Senate and from an alliance that includes both Dick Trumpka of the AFL-CIO and the head of the Chamber of Commerce.  It's probably as "non-partisan" a proposal as we can find in this divisive age. (See the New York Times article linked below.)  A national infrastructure investment initiative is  important on its own merits, it is a "demand-oriented" response to economic stagnation, and it has the additional virtue of not being too difficult to sell as good policy across a broad spectrum of our citizenry. 

The second and equally essential piece is to build a constituency to lobby for direct federal aid to  state and local governments that supports immediate regional infrastructure repair and retro-fitting. (The financing might take the form of some kind of Fed-backed bonds, given that the market for  U.S. Treasury instruments is still remarkably advantageous to our country as a lender, despite the bizarre tantrums, crankery and hysterics over our becoming "Greece.")

So two fundamental social and economic needs are combined in the basic proposal:  investments in large projects to modernize infrastructure,and immediate investments in maintenance and repair of basic, existing infrastructure. The Bank would support larger projects that are essential to sustaining the US economic base into the 21st Century. The injection of direct aid for repair and retro-fitting at the state and local level deals with critical, short-term needs and can give a quick boost to  employment and inject some cash into a still-staggering economy.

This proposal has the basis for a broad appeal - if only because nearly everyone can see potholes in the streets that haven't been repaired in years, as our communities struggle with a declining revenue base just to maintain the most essential services like police and fire departments.
No doubt much information already exists regarding this kind of needs assessment among local public agencies, but the initiative will expand on this knowledge base and bring discussion of vital infrastructure needs into the sphere of civic discourse and with the urgency of a national campaign directed toward concrete goals.

What the "infrastructure inventory movement" is and how it might work

Component "A" - The National Infrastructure Bank: This piece - the big piece - would be directed toward identifying and planning financing for larger "shovel ready" and medium term projects.

The "big" infrastructure investment inventory would include:
- Basic Transportation - roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, rails and mass transit.
- "21st Century" Communications & power grids
- Green energy Projects
- Water systems
- Waste disposal

Component "B" - An even more urgent proposal would provide for aid directly to state and local government targeted to immediate infrastructure repairs and retro-fits.  This investment would quickly spur new hiring and contracts for smaller-scale repair projects.

The proposal would include additional money to be allocated for "Conservation Corps" jobs for youth in the 18-24 year old age range, to assist in local repairs, serve apprenticeships and develop job skills.  As Leo Girard, the President of the United Steelworkers has noted, unemployment in this age group is at least 16%. It is imperative that these unemployed youth begin being placed in jobs, rather than languish in a still stagnant economy as part of a "lost generation."

The Organizing Initiative - "Rebuild the Dream"
:  Local grassroots committees could begin the work of research and strategic outreach in their communities around the issue of repairs and improvement of basic infrastructure. (This conversation could also include the issue of local budget crises and cuts that are causing a decline in general services and quality of life.)   Start with simple and obvious issues like potholes & needed repairs to local schools;  follow with assessments of roads & bridges;  the state of public buildings and parks;  and include ideas for basic retro-fitting throughout the community for energy conservation. Then move to some assessment of larger projects that aren't "shovel ready" but are needed over the mid-to-long term in order to keep the region economically sustainable.  Link the direct benefits of these repairs and projects to the estimated impact on jobs, economic growth and future revenues from a revived economic base.

The Research and Organizing Strategy:  Each local initiative, beginning with a rough assessment of areas to research,  would  involve local government & transportation agency officials; include academics, engineers & contractors with appropriate expertise; visit local schools or meet with education  officials to assess existing repair and retro-fit needs in the school district; and - if enough organizers could be recruited - canvas neighborhoods to gather information/ideas and to build a base for positive "public opinion."

Organizing grass-roots outreach at the block-by-block "friends and neighbors" level would be ideal as a strategy to build credibility and "critical mass."  One goal would be to create a local "infrastructure council" bringing together leaders from key sectors of the community, along with volunteer consultants who have expertise.  Involve - in  organization and in broad community outreach - local faith communities, unions, business associations including the local Chamber of Commerce, students as well as relevant departments & educators in local colleges and universities;  city officials and department heads;  issue-oriented or political action groups that are open to this discussion. Documentation could include any existing available agency reports, along with first-hand observations and expert testimony - as well as graphic and photographic evidence to support the  proposals.

Coordinate a Media Outreach and Communications Strategy:
Begin media relations and the task of educating journalists early on. Invite journalists to cover initial planning meetings as well as stages of the process, up to and including the national campaign. Provide the media with good information on the project's rationale and goals from the start. Hold some well-publicized, broadly representative public forums on the outlines of the issue as part of the initiative.  Certainly a "kick-off" forum would be useful - along with a forum farther along in the process that can focus on some tangible results.

Building on the Inventory Results:  Establish some priorities within the collected data, but don't arbitrarily exclude anyone's reasonable concerns. Build layers of data locally, and coordinate regionally and at the state level.  Compile the information gathered locally to create a "big picture" policy document (including a credible extrapolation of the "median" or "average" data to the areas that didn't directly participate.) This becomes the basis for a concrete agenda at the national campaign level

Next, use this collective policy agenda for further organizing, engaging people in "town halls" pressuring congressional representatives, Senators and federal officials.  Use every avenue to publicize the campaign -  from  flyers, petitions,  localized websites, blogs, and national campaign resources of Move-On, labor unions,  Campaign for America's Future, Rebuild the Dream Coalition, etc. If the Chamber of Commerce can be on board in some fashion, fine.  Keep the Infrastructure coalition and the resultant political pressure as broadly based as possible.

This is just the sketch of an idea for rooting a national campaign that can actually engage hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens in a conversation about the must urgent of our economic issues.  The virtue of this proposal - in my view - is that it has multiple components of practical proposals that draw on the experience of a broad citizenry, it develops an agenda that can bridge the concerns of politicians and activists at the local, state and national levels, it is action-oriented and provides a foundation for a broadly AND boldly conceived organizing strategy that goes beyond pre-fabbed rhetoric or political laundry lists.

The proposal combines an immediate and a mid-range agenda.  It's easy to understand and doesn't have any "ideological" bias, beyond what could fairly be termed  "keeping our communities from falling into further disrepair and - in many cases - desperation." It is "growth-oriented" in that it is a strategy for ensuring a more productive foundation for the US in the global economy. It's predicated on the necessary partnership of the public and private sectors for our economic vitality.  

The process also opens up avenues for dialogue on the real nature of the economic crisis, shifting the focus to essential government investment rather than phony deficit hysterics.  The underlying agenda is reasonable, "reality-based" and responsible, but - in the current badly-skewed political climate - also rather dramatically "radical" in the best sense of getting to the root of real problems. It offers common solutions that appeal to "common sense."

In terms of ambitions and scale, eight or a dozen local activists could have a significant impact as part of a national movement using this strategy in their community.  But it has the potential of involving hundreds, even thousands, of people in any locality in conversations, petition-signing, letter-writing, phone calls,  town halls, etc.

There is real potential for creating a ripple effect, as the circle of conversation on local infrastructure needs widens, that doesn't often present itself in the current environment.  This is an issue that can cross a lot of the divides we often face in political organizing - the appeal and perceived need addressed is widespread.

Unlike the unhinged antics of the "Tea Party", this isn't a protest movement, so much as a vision to move forward in the spirit of unity and basic progress as a nation.  It bridges the urgency of a national agenda focused on jobs - and on the fiscal crises of many state and local governments - with our longer-term economic future. It offers  a platform that can bring local officials into a dialogue that starts with local needs - rather than just waiting for Washington to come up with an "answer." 

Also, the infrastructure proposals connect the abstract notion of "government spending" with tangible benefits, while opening the door for wider conversations (such as the relationship of tax cuts to the deficits and the failure of "austerity agendas" where they've actually been enacted.)  Politically, the approach offers an opportunity to put the question of responsive and responsible congressional representation on the table in districts that have elected  "do nothing" Republicans. But, fundamentally, this is a non-partisan project - although admittedly within the constraints of rationality and faith in our country's future, which unfortunately excludes a broad swath of the GOP's base.

Please respond with any suggestions, further ideas, criticisms and commentary.

Related Links:

National Infrastructure "Report Card" on the sorry state of America's infrastructure, 
"Report Card" breakdown on States and Localities.
The Infrastructure Bank - New York Times.
President Obama's Infrastructure Agenda. 
President Obama on The American Jobs Act 
American Jobs Act Fact Sheet
"How the President's Infrastructure Bank Would Work"
Steelworker's President Leo Girard on Infrastructure and Jobs.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on Infrastructure.
US Chamber of Commerce on Infrastructure Investment.
Philadelphia's Green Insfrastructure Initiative.
Brookings Institute Panel on Infrastructure (w PDF transcript.)


  1. This is definitely something I can get behind.

    Unfortunately, I've gone to the Rebuild The Dream site (encouraged by your mention of having attended a meeting of some kind) and there's currently no page about getting involved - just an email signup.

    Let's get it rolling, I think you've got a decent starting framework laid out here.

  2. Cliff - thanks for your encouragement. The "Rebuild" site is underwhelming. I live in Oakland and we're having a follow-up meeting on Wednesday (along with a public demo against cuts in services in the afternoon.) One thing I'm going to suggest is that they have a "local events" page that allows folks to easily connect with others and hook up with any efforts that are building in their area. I think this thing is in an early stage of "disorganiztion" but I'd at least sign up for their email and if they have it together at all, you'll be able to get in touch with other folks nearby.

  3. I'm not as knowledgeable as I would like to be, but your general idea that doing something is preferable to just protesting is clearly the better idea. The specific plan sounds good. I would get involved with this. There is another, separate, item that I would like to see MoveOn focus on - legislation that forces the disclosure of who is really paying for political ads right on the ads. In California, it's AB1148. We can't get far if we allow lying on political ads. This issue has bi-partisal public support in polls. The question is, will legislators ever cross their supporters and institute or pass such laws. After that, Clean Money, voluntary public campaign financing. We can't get far if its legal to buy elections. I would second a "local events" page to allow us to hook up with others.
    Jean Rains, Oakland, California