Created in 1979 by a group of young donors who had come of age with the activism of the 1960s and '70s and had "means beyond their immediate needs," the North Star Fund is a public foundation that works to support grassroots movements for equality, economic justice, environmental sustainability, and peace. Earlier this month, PND spoke with Hugh Hogan, who in May celebrated his ninth anniversary as executive director of the fund, about the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Philanthropy News Digest: What's driving Occupy Wall Street? And are you surprised it's been able to achieve as much traction as it has in a relatively short period of time?
Hugh Hogan: I'm not surprised. Nor am I surprised that people are waking up to the fact that the political-economic system in this country seems to be prioritizing the needs of the top one percent of income earners. We see it at North Star, which for three decades has supported grassroots leaders and organizers who are working to address the underlying factors that have left so many people in this country stuck in poverty. For example, we funded Domestic Workers United for eight years as it worked to get a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights through a very dysfunctional state legislature here in New York State. We've also supported a variety of community-based organizations that are helping workers in the informal sector to recapture wages stolen by unscrupulous employers. And we've helped groups that are working to re-focus our criminal justice system on rehabilitation instead of criminalization. Thanks in part to those efforts, I can say with confidence that even before the emergence of Occupy Wall Street there was a broad-based understanding in New York City — and the country as a whole — that the system was failing too many people on the one hand while excessively rewarding people who put personal gain ahead of everything else on the other.
PND: What, if anything, does the OWS movement have in common with the Tea Party and the Arab Spring uprisings?
HH: What all these movements have in common is a recognition that the current global system does not work for the vast majority of people. The difference with the work that we, as a public foundation, have supported for thirty-plus years is that our grantees are on the ground with the people facing disenfranchisement and injustice. They are working every day to help those people advocate for laws and policies in both the public and private spheres that prioritize the needs of people, communities, and the environment over the rights of a small percentage of people who seem to care mostly about profit and speculation.
PND: How do you respond to critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement who say it's too ad hoc and unfocused?
HH: My feeling as a funder of grassroots organizations and activists is that all strategies are good when it comes to social change. Look, in order to retain their vitality and legitimacy, democracies need to get resources to people who are willing to stand up to the status quo and make their voices heard. In that sense, Occupy Wall Street is a kind of pressure valve, a way for people with legitimate grievances to make their voices heard and to advocate for a society that is more just, equitable, and fair.
PND: Does the movement have legs? Will we be talking about Occupy Wall Street after the weather turns cold?
HH: Absolutely it has legs, and it has legs because it's a movement in the best tradition of progressive reform. That's something we really need right now, because more and more people are suffering, more and more middle class and working people are feeling the squeeze and facing the prospect of slipping into poverty. It's also a call to action to people within philanthropy and folks who have resources beyond their means to find and invest in new leadership committed to building an authentic grassroots democracy. And it's a call to the average person out there to open his or her heart, to give his or her time and dollars to help sustain and spread this movement, because it's a responsible movement.
PND: Would you like to see more foundations and more philanthropists align themselves with the OSW cause?
HH: I would like to see more philanthropists and foundations align themselves with the people who are hurting the most, and that's poor people, who are very often people of color, and, increasingly, immigrants and their kids. I mean, it's no secret how one goes about supporting this kind of work philanthropically. If we are going to have a robust democracy that responds to the hopes and desires of all people, not just elites, and if we're ever going to successfully address the profound and deep inequities that exist in our society, we have to equip people with the resources they need to organize and get their voices heard in the public square. You know, the name of our foundation comes from the abolitionist newspaper that Frederick Douglass founded in Rochester in the 1840s, and what Douglass said at that time is as true today as it has ever been: "Power concedes nothing without a demand," and "there is no progress without struggle." I think more funders have to get on the leading edge and begin to experience how the constructive use of organizing and advocacy really makes the system better for everyone, not just the privileged few.
— Mitch Nauffts