How "Roseanne" reruns can make progressive activists more effective

Lately I've been watching the "Roseanne" show on TV Land, and just like when it first came on in 1989, it feels like home. From the afghan on the back of the old sofa to the concerns about layoffs, the Conners remind me of the blue collar family I grew up with.

As a nonprofit professional and activist, I spend much of my time around people from higher up the class ladder. I've met great people doing all kinds of important work. Along the way, though, I've sometimes heard things about blue collar workers - often in discussions about economic justice - that sound more like pity than "solidarity."

"We need to help people or they'll end up having to do [blue collar job]."
"How can you expect those people to care about doing a good job? That looks so boring."
"Sure, that new store will bring jobs to town, but who'd want those?"

It makes me wonder what they'd say about my dad the school custodian, my brother the forklift driver or my mom the "cleaning lady."

There's a difference between advocating for better pay, benefits and working conditions and turning your nose up at how people make a living. There's also a difference between promoting education and career options and pitying those who have blue collar jobs by choice or by need.

When progressives try to build alliances with working people, especially to get a bill passed or make change at the ballot box, those attitudes get in the way. For thirty years conservatives have been capitalizing on the perception that liberals are patronizing and out of touch.

"Roseanne" embodies the things I wish more progressives understood.

  • Blue collar folks typically value hard work, family and community - and loyalty.
  • Government assistance programs are important for those who are struggling, but ultimately most people just want decent jobs.
  • One route to those jobs is through unions. Support for unions varies tremendously among blue collar workers, but too often unions get left out of progressive political discussion. (One great episode has Roseanne telling off a politician over his plan to give big anti-union companies tax breaks and leave workers with "scab wages" and higher taxes.)
  • People can enjoy jobs that don't sound very exciting or challenging. Or they may dislike the job, but still take pride in their work.
  • For most people, work is just how you pay your bills, not how you find fulfillment. 
  • Jobs that might not seem desirable to ambitious white collar professionals can be gold for blue collar workers, like working for a utility company or the government (usually stable work) or getting a union job. And the trades have provided many workers with a solid living.
  • People may want their kids to have more options than they do, but that doesn't mean they're ashamed of where they are. And some may envy what money brings those who are better off, but they don't necessarily wish they had the same lives.
  • Workers may be frustrated with their job or financial situations, but they're not helpless or in need of rescuing. They understand their situations and have plenty to say about what would make their jobs and their lives better.

Let me put it this way. If the idea or message wouldn't fly at the Conner kitchen table, then it's time to rethink it. You want Roseanne Conner with you, not against you.

Grading my event volunteer experiences. How would your nonprofit stack up?

I enjoy volunteering at events. It's a fun way to meet people and get to know an organization. And sometimes it's a free ticket to an event that is beyond my budget. My experiences have ranged from great to, well, pretty frustrating.

Environmental organization tabling at a festival
Signed up for a shift via an event-scheduling website linked to the organization's Facebook page. There was no field for giving my contact info! Two nights before the event, my mother got a message for me on her answering machine from a guy speaking so fast she couldn't understand him. I went over to hear it myself, and after listening to the message five time I was able to make out a volunteer coordinator's phone number. (This guy must have found my mom in the phone book since we have the same last name, but I'm wondering if other relatives got calls too.) Fortunately, the event was great. No followup from the organization though. Grade: C

Nonprofit tech event
Sounded like an exciting, ambitious program. Signed up via an event scheduling website after seeing an announcement on Twitter and got an auto-response thanking me and promising further information. Followed the event updates on Twitter, but I never got any information by Twitter, email or phone about where to go and when. I got a follow-up email thanking me, even though I didn't attend. Grade D-

Family literacy event
Signed up over email. Waited a long time on a dark street corner in a not-great neighborhood to be picked up by staffperson who didn't have much to say to me on the way to the venue. Got almost no info upon arrival. Watched volunteers stick with each other instead of talking to parents or kids. The children's session was chaotic. I never heard from this group later, and I never went back for subsequent events. Grade: F

Human rights organization selling fair trade goods at a festival
Signed up by responding to an announcement in an email newsletter. Quickly got a response thanking me, promising follow-up. Several days before the event I got another email with instructions, directions, a schedule with volunteers' names and numbers, background info on the petition we were asking shoppers to sign, plus contact info for the staff. Had a very good time. Four days later I got a handwritten thank you card and an email inviting me to volunteer again. I'll give this group credit by name: The InterReligious Task Force on Central America. Grade A+

As is often the case, the details matter. As an organizer, I'm more aware than ever how important the follow-up is. What works for you, and what doesn't, when you volunteer?

UPDATE: Three years later, I am still involved with IRTF because they have such a well-run operation. I've recently increased my involvement from occasional tabling to working with the board and staff on boosting their fundraising efforts. 

"My neighbors are Muslim. Please don't hurt them."

That's the slogan from a button I wore after the 9/11 attack. I thought of it recently when I saw a "take back America"-type group on Facebook. The discussion on the Islamic community center for Lower Manhattan was loaded with insults and threats of violence against Muslims.

The opposition to the community center keeps making one thing clear to me: that most Americans don't know a thing about Islam. Most Americans have learned about Islamic extremists (though there's plenty of misinformation too), but few know much about Islam or everyday Muslims. Fear and ignorance have people conflating violent extremists with a fifth of the world's population.

I keep hearing about how terrible anything related to Islam is. That makes me think of dozens of Muslim friends and colleagues from the United States, Tunisia, Lebanon, Malaysia, Spain, Mauritania, Senegal, Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria, France, Indonesia, South Africa, Somalia, Kosovo, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Ghana, Afghanistan, Mali, Egypt, Iraq, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Palestine, Azerbaijan and Mauritania.

Many of these people are peace, human rights and women's rights advocates I've met in non-governmental organizations and at United Nations conferences. Others? An attorney. An electrician. Students. A fellow childcare volunteer at a homeless shelter. An engineer. Musicians. A waiter. Shopkeepers. Parents. Babies, kids and teens.

Most were born into Islam, though a few converted. Some are quite observant, some less so. One man is married to a Jewish woman, another to a Catholic. Most of the women don't wear a hijab (head scarf), though some do. I've only met one woman, an African-American, who wears the full head-to-toe black covering with a niqaab (face veil). Most are well-educated, and nearly all are bilingual, with quite a few speaking three or four languages. All work with and befriend people of many different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Lots of these folks have invited me over for meals. One friend included me in his breaking-fast gathering during Ramadan. And the North Africans make a great dry-spice rub for lamb on the grill for July 4th picnics.

The Kosovars and Somalis were refugees in Switzerland. One Somali, then only 19, once went three weeks without food to make sure his younger brother and sisters could eat. His dream was to go to the US to get his degree in an English speaking university, putting a terrible time in his life behind him.

The Americans were African-Americans or the children of immigrants. All had a deep faith in the promise of American ideals. And the biggest concern of the little kids I met? Getting cookies.

Talk against Muslims makes me think of Faiza, a businesswoman and mother from Baghdad who joined the Friends Committee on National Legislation on Capitol Hill to advocate for an end to the war. I think of the Egyptian woman who was the only stranger to reach out to me in Washington, DC in the week of 9/11, seeing how upset I looked while sitting in a cafe. I am not sure if she was Muslim, but she worried what a violent US response to 9/11 might trigger among Muslim extremists. I still remember the gratitude in her eyes when I said I worried about a backlash against Muslims in the US. I also think of the shopkeeper on my street who was glad to see the "my neighbors are Muslim" button.

I certainly realize that these people do not represent all Muslims around the world. They'd be the first ones to agree. But neither do violent extremists represent all Muslims. Until our country better understands the difference between a religion and how it is twisted and misused, we'll continue to have t-shirts like the wry one a Tunisian friend in Washington, DC has:

"My name can trigger a national security alert. What can yours do?"

Below are people and organizations that show a side of Muslim life that too few Americans see. Please add more to the comments section.

Support for the community center
Cordoba Initiative also on Twitter @Park51 and Facebook.
Religious Freedom USA
New York Neighbors for American Values
Back the Park51 Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan Video of Rabbi Lerner of Tikkun magazine supporting the center.
A statement from the Friends Committee on National Legislation presenting a Quaker perspective and a report from a conference call on the community center with Daisy Khan Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, including a link to audio from the call

Interfaith organizations
Muslim Peace Fellowship "Whatever act of violence has just taken place, we deplore it." Part of Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace organization working internationally and in the US since 1914. Supporters have included Albert Einstein and Coretta Scott King.
Religions for Peace is the largest international coalition of representatives from the world’s great religions dedicated to promoting peace.
The Interfaith Encounter Association
United Muslims of America Interfaith Alliance
Salam Institute for Peace and Justice

On campus
Muslim Students Association Nearly 150 chapters on colleges across the US, including on a number of Protestant and Catholic university campuses including Georgetown University, a Catholic institution which has the first American university full-time Muslim chaplain.

A few other organizations worth checking out
My Faith - My Voice. Terrific public service ad
The Islamic Society of North America
Muslims for Progressive Values
KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights
Congressional Muslim Staff Association Check out the useful resources section

And on my to-read list
What's Right with Islam Is What's Right with America: A New Vision for Muslims and the West by Feisal Abdul Rauf