The day I told my first public lie was the day I started questioning SFER. We had just arrived into a new community and a mother of four asked me “And what can you bring to our community?” I could hear the hope in her question and responded “I call us lobbyist for the community. We come in, listen to the needs of the people, and advocate for them on a political level”. But this wasn’t true.
My name is Anthony Caro and I am a self- proclaimed community organizer within the West Contra Costa Unified School District. My job is to get parents, students, teachers, and everyone else together to rally around bettering our community. I don’t give power, I tap into it. I was formerly an organizer for Students for Education Reform (SFER) before starting my own nonprofit called Citizens Power Network. After working for SFER for several years, I have felt the need to warn the public against corporate organizations that pose as grassroots community organizations.
Beginning as a student at UC Berkeley, I bought into the belief that I could help change the world through SFER. I started off as an average member and through hard work and participation I became the Chapter Leader at UC Berkeley and a Lead Organizer for the Bay Area. It is through this experience that I have come to learn the ineffectiveness and harm that can come from corporate organizing.
According to their mission statement, Students for Education Reform was meant to be a nonprofit corporation with the mission to “develop college students into grassroots organizers who fight for educational justice in their communities”. This meant that it would provide the training and resources to allow students to make effective changes in their communities. I thought it would be Community Organizing 101. Instead of teaching us Saul Alinsky’s ways, SFER directly involves itself in policy changes while only using student members as a means to gain metrics for funders.
Students for Education Reform is one of many corporations that claim to be a grassroots community organization. This model is an oxymoron as corporations are very top down whereas grassroots organizations are by definition bottom up. It’s similar to a rich man claiming to be a member of the working class. This is very dangerous as they can grow to be very powerful through their funders and cause harm to a community under the guise of being for the community. You see, being a corporate organization means you’re guided by metrics, funders, and staff rather than the will of the people. This is evident as many of their decisions come from a select few decision makers rather than by the guidance of community input.
SFER, along with other corporate organizations, is not compliant with the IRS in that their 501c3 “Students for Education Reform” and their 501c4 “Students for Education Reform Action Network” tend to mix up their work. For those who aren’t quite familiar, a 501c3 can educate the public on issues, while a 501c4 can directly get involved with politics and endorse candidates and policies. This is what keeps organizations from coming into schools and telling kids how they should vote. SFER Action Network is in compliance as they use their 501c4 status to endorse school board candidates for school board elections. SFER is not in compliance as they are a 501c3 and regularly endorse policies, tell the public to support some policies over others, and have even contributed to drafting policies. I know this because I’ve been a part of it all. It wasn’t until I decided to start my own nonprofit that I realized the many SFER audits waiting to happen.
SFER might argue that their interference in school district policies is part of their mission to develop college students to be grassroots organizers. This would be true if they allowed college students to be a part of the decision process on what policies to endorse. As a Lead Organizer for SFER, I was one of a handful of students that was allowed a seat at the table when it came to these meetings. Usually these meetings consisted of me, another student lead organizer, and a paid SFER staff member. We would make decisions and then the rest of our student members would be expected to carry them out. To be compliant, SFER would have to inform the public on issues and let the public decide what policies to endorse and how to draft future policies (which never happened).
A clear example of when SFER went against its grassroots promise is when we led a campaign to increase teacher retention. This campaign consisted of us student members meeting with parents, teachers, and other community leaders to better understand this issue ending with an informational panel. Following this campaign, we student members came up with four concrete initiatives on how to solve this issue based on community input. But it was too good to be true. These four initiatives were thrown out the window and replaced with SFER staffs’ own four initiatives. Students felt betrayed as all of our work was for nothing as we were ordered to push for SFER’s initiatives instead of our own. Here, corporate organizing directly overpowered community organizing.
SFER was meant to train and organize college students to be community organizers and stir change in their communities. Instead, we’ve just become pawns in their political machine. While we students are trying to lead a demonstration against cruel suspensions, SFER’s bureaucrats are ordering us to get our metrics up. While we’re trying to educate our members on current issues, the bureaucrats are marching us off to go take pictures at an already saturated protest. While we’re trying to express the hypocrisy in trying to hold our elected officials accountable when we can’t even hold our SFER officials accountable, they shame us into not working hard enough. Under the guise of being grassroots, we’re constantly being forced to follow the agenda of this corptocracy.
Putting aside these issues, let’s take a look at the actual work SFER does. SFER focuses on actions that can either be posted or shared on social media. When it comes to real grassroots organizing, the bulk of the work should be listening to the needs of the community and educating each other on problems and solutions. Instead, SFER invests its time by snapping pictures at rallies, school board meetings, demonstrations, and meetings with high profile officials #organizing #woke. When I think of grassroots organizing, I think of the planning and work behind Cesar Chavez fasting to promote non-violence, Rosa Parks refusing to give into racist policies, and Ghandi taking police brutality for his nation’s independence. SFER’s likeable and shareable actions are far from comparable to these campaigns. But it’s what funders are looking for when it comes to proof of their investments.
Following this, SFER needs to keep its metrics up. How do you measure success for a grassroots organization? Maybe by looking at voter participation, how engaged citizens are with their community, or by looking at the achievement gap before and after the organization began its work. SFER looks at none of these. Instead it gathers data based on supporters. Every time they interact with someone, they log them down as a supporter by tracking their name, phone number, email address, home address, every interaction or conversation they’ve had with SFER, and even connect their Facebook profiles. All of this is done without that person's knowledge or consent. I was disturbed and felt as though my privacy was violated when I saw that there was a picture of my fiancé and I next to a list of every conversation, lunch, car ride, and phone conversation I had with SFER. Very few of us members have access to the lead list and we haven’t used it in our organizing work which raises the question as to what SFER’s intentions are for this data.
But this is all in the name of our gracious funders. They go where the funding goes and stay away from where the funding might be at risk. But I suppose grassroots need to be watered every now and then.
This has not been a personal attack against Students for Education Reform. Rather it is a warning about any wolf that poses as a sheep. I have only addressed the issues with the SFER model which many other corporate organizations also have. If I wanted to get personal, I would bring up what policies and candidates they’ve endorsed, their funders, how often their staff goes on retreats while student members are rarely compensated, and their employee turnover rate. But that would be petty of me to get personal.
If you are left wondering what can be done to prevent such community take over, look to Saul Alinsky. Look towards models such as community members coming together under the leadership of a community organization or communities forming their own community organizations. Look to any form of community organizing that keeps the power in the people’s hands rather than a bureaucracy in another state. In other words, don’t lie to a mother of four and stay away from corporate organizing.