On the Ethics of Selling Slingshots

June 22, 2012

I was very happy when I learned of Change.org’s decision to end their relationships with two astroturf organizations operating against the common good in education. It’s always heartening to see how people faced with tough decisions can listen to (often heated) input and weigh sometimes competing  concerns. Having spoken to some of their staff, I know they take our concerns very seriously, and I applaud them for having the courage to publicly take this important first step towards ensuring that their business commitments fully align with their stated values.

For those unfamiliar with why this became such a contentious issue, let’s return to the David and Goliath metaphor some of Change.org’s staff and many commentators use to describe the site’s impact.

How would you feel about King Saul if, just after sending a slingshot-armed David into battle, he turned and sold upgraded slingshots to Goliath and the rest of the Philistine army? That’s how many public education advocates had begun to feel about Change.org.

For well over a year now, many had grown increasingly outraged after watching Change.org sell premium petition and list-building services to astroturf organizations, information that’s often harvested directly from our hard work organizing to combat problems fueled by these very groups. For example, I and other volunteer organizers spent hundreds of unpaid hours on blog posts, web development, digital outreach and more to get people to sign petitions in the run-up to last summer’s Save Our Schools marches and related actions. ‘Angry’ hardly begins to describe my tired, frustrated self when I found out that StudentsFirst– whose corporate lobbyists work against pretty much everything we marched for– was allowed to buy the names and contact information of our supporters who clicked too quickly after signing ours, and then claim them as their own ‘members’ (without their informed consent).

There were also painfully ironic moments, where petition signers were tricked into taking a second action whose intent directly contradicted the action they actually set out to take. For instance, people who petitioned to reinstate a charter school teacher who was fired for helping her students plan a Trayvon Martin fundraiser were often immediately asked to click-to-sign (or “join”) StudentsFirst, which lobbies to eliminate the due process rights that could have preventedher unjust firing in the first place.

That’s why so many people signed and spread Chicago teacher Jennifer Johnson’s SignOn.org petition to Change.org last Friday. She wrote the petition out of frustration, after discovering that the Illinois office of Stand for Children had started running a paid follow-up petition on the site as part of a larger media campaign intended to disparage the Chicago Teachers Union during their intense negotiations with Chicago Public Schools.

Had they taken the time to listen to both sides of the bargaining table, Stand might have discovered that among the key issues the union is fighting for are more libraries, arts programs, in-school services and smaller classes, all of which directly benefit Chicago’s (often needy) kids.

Unfortunately, Stand has demonstrated no interest in the teachers’ side of the story. Worthwhile public services like public school libraries and arts education aren’t biggies on the ALEC agenda. Union-busting, on the other hand, is.

And let’s be clear: when you look behind their extensive (and quite expert) use of coded language, you will find that just like StudentsFirst, most of the policy proposals Stand For Children supports are lifted right out of the ALEC playbook. (Yes, that ALEC, the same corporate-funded lobbying group that gave America the deceptively named “Stand Your Ground” laws that let Trayvon Martin’s killer walk scot-free for months. You can click the links above and compare their agendas to ALEC’s archives for yourself right now. For the sake of time and space, I’ll share a side-by-side comparison in another post soon.)

In each state they infiltrate, both StudentsFirst and Stand For Children have consistently dedicated the lion’s share of their attention and vast resources to advertising, lobbying and electing public officials who will enact a very specific set of education policies, which can all be found right here among the ALEC archives. Virtually none of these policies are backed by credible research or past experience, and they are vigorously opposed by many public school stakeholders. On the flip side, virtually all of them directly enrich private corporate benefit at public expense, in particular by expanding demand for corporate products and services– particularly those related to high-stakes testing and school management companies.

In light of these facts, it’s clear that, all rhetoric aside, these two groups clearly don’t meet the criteria of Change.org’s client policy. Their policy expressly says it will not “accept sponsored campaigns from organizations that…seek private corporate benefit that undermines the common good.” Slowly, but hopefully surely, the progressive community is learning that Goliath is no less of a Goliath when he shows up to battle wearing a t-shirt that says “I heart kids,” and for the Goliaths influencing ed policy battles around the country right now, StudentsFirst and Stand For Children are that t-shirt.

So again, I applaud Change.org for looking beyond these groups’ rhetoric and examining whether the two clients really fit with their policy. As a former teacher and present education and labor advocate, I look forward to seeing how we can all work together to ensure that powerful platforms like these can become fully supportive of interrelated issues like educational justice and the rights of working people.

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Sabrina Joy Stevens

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

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Sabrina Joy Stevens

Sabrina Joy Stevens is a teacher, writer, and activist who has worked with students in struggling communities in Philadelphia and Denver. She recently helped to organize the Save Our Schools March & National Call to Action, and she also launched the Failing Schools Project, which aims to...