The generation of the Sixties has grown up, and many former anti-war and civil-rights activists now find themselves pushing for change ‘from within’. In cities and towns across the country, there are now city council members, mayors, state assembly members, and directors of planning commissions, housing departments and other executive offices who ten or fifteen years ago were demonstrating out in the streets.
Five years ago, the existence of a loose network of these progressive officials together with community organisers, lobbyists, academics and labour union representatives, was recognised and formalised with a national annual conference.
The premise of the conference was that like minded activists pursuing state and local strategies for social change should get together, compare notes and provide each other with concrete and specific advice and help. That people were eager for such a conference is clear from the conference’s progress since the first meeting five years ago. Each year there has been a national conference and several regional conferences. Each year the national conference has grown in size. This year, in early August, over 1000 people gathered on the campus of Bryn Mawr College, ten miles outside Philadelphia, to discuss an ‘Agenda for the ‘80s.’ Veterans of the 1960s are now looking ahead, not simply gazing back nostalgically. The focus of this year’s conference was on building a base and turning widespread citizen dissatisfaction into a positive force for change.
For five years, conference organisers and steering committee members have been developing a critique of ‘the corporate agenda’ as the basis for their activity. Gar Alperovitz of the National Centre for Economic Alternatives explained in his address how corporate domination in food, health, housing and energy have forced the rate of inflation in these basic necessities to be more than twice the rate for non-necessities. The theme was hammered home continuously during the three days of workshops and planning sessions. Many compared the 1980s to the 1930s.
They argued that the stag-flation that keeps both inflation and unemployment at high levels is a clear indication that the economic system no longer works and that the recession that is ushering in the coming decade is a portent of hard times - and of an angry, potentially activist citizenry.
Midway through the conference, though, it became clear that some conferencegoers were dissatisfied. The general complaint was with a lack of concern for the issues that were so critical in the 1960s: social services, adequate health care, housing and income.
By the final day the discontent was clear. A caucus of feminists and welfare recipients decried the small number of presentations by women at the conference and complained that poor people’s issues were being ignored at a time when the budget-slashing backlash is wiping out many gains won ten years ago. One welfare mother suggested that the progressive officials and conference organisers should try living on a welfare budget before they go talking Washington Mayor Marion Barry, in the closing session of the conference, drove home the point. ‘I understand why a welfare mother cant get turned on by a discussion of "the corporate agenda",’ Barry said. ‘She cant understand what you’re talking about.’
In some ways the conference needed the dissent. Some of the participants sounded stale as if they had given the same talk too many times. What the bubbling-up of concern over the ‘old issues’ of the 1960s accomplished was to remind people of their goal: to alleviate poverty, to redistribute wealth and privilege, and to improve the quality of people’s lives. It brought anger and pain and urgency back into a discussion that had become too distant and academic.
The Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies is located at 1901 Q Street NW, Washington DC 20009.