Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

The Women’s Conference started today at the Long Beach Convention Center, and First Lady Maria Shriver lined up the biggest and brightest stars to help her wrap up her final year as host for this annual event for women. As much as I admire and respect Maria, both for her work with this conference and for her efforts to raise awareness for Alzheimer's and other causes, and as much as I admire many of her friends and colleagues who spoke at this conference, I can’t help but think, as I watch the news coverage of the conference, of the many, many amazing nonprofit leaders who I know here personally in Los Angeles who are doing incredible work, without endowments, fortunes, or the political, family and celebrity connections that Maria Shriver has. They are all small miracle workers, and they’re doing amazing things with meager resources, without any help from celebrities, politicians, or millionaires. It’s a tragedy that some of them have had to close their doors because foundations, corporations and individuals aren’t giving to charity now. The recession is hurting all of us, but it’s hurting the most vulnerable amongst us the most of all. The privileged in this country may sympathize, but they will never empathize. They have no idea what it’s like to live so close to the edge. While they’re waiting for their bottom lines to come back up to pre-recession levels so they can start “giving again”, people are going bankrupt, getting sick, or dying. Their bottom line is basic survival.

All Maria has to do is make a few phone calls and she can get hundreds of celebrities to show up to a charity event. And she can actually get the media to come out and cover her charity events, even small ones. No one I know has had that sort of pull with the media, celebrities, or politicians. In fact, most nonprofits can not afford to hire celebrities to endorse their causes, because stars make these appearances for a fee.

Maria Shriver, even though she and her family have done a lot for the common man, have no idea what it’s like to actually be one. She doesn’t send her kids to public schools. She has never been broke or alone. And while she has made many a phone call on behalf of the common man, she, just like the rest of the privileged class, is anything but common.

Two years ago, about a dozen of us commoners, known as the Burning Moms, crashed The Women’s Conference to protest that public education wasn’t on the agenda (but beauty tips and how to improve your love life were). We showed up in our pajamas and slippers (to show how tired us moms were from killing ourselves from fundraising for our kids' schools) with a long banner that read, “Public Education is a Women’s Issue”. The cops kicked us to the curb, literally, and made us leave the front steps of the convention center because it wasn’t a “Free Speech Zone”. We were forced down on to the street, where a local news team was parked. We thought that might be a lucky break for us, but they took no interest in our cause.

The Burning Moms started four years ago when local writer/performer/NPR personality/public school parent Sandra Tsing Loh organized a three day camp out and three hour demonstration at our state capitol in Sacramento to protest the cuts to public education. She got a bunch of us activist moms and their kids together to organize a protest rally. My job was to do arts and crafts activities with the kids, and have them design all of the signs for the demonstration. We had live music, barnyard dancing, street theatre, a kazoo band, and a few speeches. We sold home made brownies for $250 each to show that bake sale prices are going to have to go way up in order for us to cover the cuts to education.

At a private lunch with former Governor Gray Davis, Sandra and I learned that these demonstrations happen every day at the capitol, and legislators have grown immune to them. You have to be very, very creative to get noticed. So we got creative, with street theatre, music and messages from real, live kids. After the rally, we took our kids up to our legislators’ offices to lobby them. Our kids got to tell them how they felt about being short changed by the cuts to education. It was an incredible learning experience for our kids. Did anyone listen? No. Because we couldn’t get any big names to take an interest in us. And we didn’t have any money......or media attention.

So how do you solve a problem like Maria? Are money, connections, family name, Hollywood insiders, knowing powerful people, and being in the political know how the only way to get ahead in this country? Can positive, sustainable, long lasting change be made without it?

Ask a small nonprofit leader.