My guest today is Robert Meeropol, Executive Director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children. Welcome to OpEdNews, Robert. What is the Rosenberg Fund and what does it do?
We have four guiding principles: 1) All people have equal worth; 2) people are more important than profits; 3) society must function within ecologically sustainable limits; 4) and world peace is a necessity.
If activists are targeted in the process of promoting one or more of these principles, their children are eligible for our support. Targeting could include being arrested, imprisoned, physically attacked, fired, blacklisted or harassed.
It seems like the need for such an organization has never been greater. The Occupy movement has generated a lot of police action and arrests. What's your take on this large-scale protest? We haven't seen the likes of this in decades.
I'm very impressed with the brilliant simplicity of the occupiers' principal slogan: "We are the 99%." That all-inclusive phrase rang true to tens of millions. This, coupled with their primary tactic of non-violently occupying public space to carry on a 24/7 conversation about how to fix our broken system, enticed others to join them. They did not start with an answer or a program, but rather proposed that we discuss the problems brought about by the increasing concentration of wealth and power in our nation. Moreover, the tactic of indefinitely occupying public space demonstrated both the occupiers' commitment and their rejection of the authority of those in power. Finally, by refusing to articulate a set of legislative demands and embarking upon a standard political campaign to achieve them, they served notice that this movement would be unlike any we'd seen before.
It is not surprising that OWS became intolerable to the authorities the movement refused to recognize. Such public naming of capitalism as Public Enemy Number One could not be countenanced. Beatings, tear-gassing, property destruction and thousands of arrests were inevitable, despite the protesters' heroic non-violence. If the movement persists and grows, as I hope it will, the attacks upon it are sure to intensify.
And the recent attacks demonstrate another fact that we should not overlook. OWS is being attacked because of its success! Our nation is, for the first time in my lifetime, collectively engaged in a national dialogue about growing financial, social and political inequality. It is engaged in a discussion of the major progressive questions of our time, and it is addressing the very same four principles I mentioned earlier, on which I founded the RFC.
The recognition that our nation had elevated profit over people is what set OWS in motion. Those occupying Zuccotti Park seem to agree that all people regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or documentation status, should enjoy the same rights. They recognize that we must stop the wars before we can solve our problems at home, and they have a growing understanding that any civilization that benefits any one species, even if it is our own, at the expense of all others, is not sustainable.
I do admit to one concern, however. While I'm elated that so many people have taken to the streets, its potential impact on the RFC is more than a little daunting. We've learned in our 20-plus years of granting that there is often a six month or even one year lag between when people are targeted and when they apply for us to support their children. The fact that we received a record number of new requests in 2011, and that all of them were generated by events that took place before the Occupy Wall Street movement, means that 2012 may become positively manic at the RFC office.
Of course, not everyone who commits civil disobedience, spends the night in jail, and is under 25 years old or has children younger than that age, meets our criteria of a targeted activist and is eligible for RFC support. However, anyone who suffers serious harm during these demonstrations or is singled out by repressive forces for harsher treatment and falls within the age categories described in the previous sentence, might qualify.
Our fall granting cycle closed in October. We made our final set of awards on November 9th ($370,000 total in 2011). Hopefully, our year-end fundraising will produce enough so that next spring we won't have to turn down requests for help from people who fall within our guidelines. We'll do our best to be prepared for whatever happens.
Your website states that you have 10,000 donors. That's a stupendous number. But I can see how it might not be enough for the current escalated situation. How did you build up such a large base of supporters?
You're right that our base of support needs to be larger to keep up with growing demand. I'm pleased we have 10,000 supporters (of course that is an approximate number), but I wish we had more. Our annual granting had grown to $400,000 by 2008, but we had to reduce that figure to $350,000 after the financial crash as the never-ending recession-depression took hold. We've increased the annual total $10,000 each year since, but we can't expect people of average means to increase their annual support during hard times. Instead the best way to increase our grant total as demand grows is to increase our base of support.
We've gathered 10,000 supporters by a variety of means. For instance starting in the fall of 2009, we began what we planned to be 20 events in 20 cities over a 20 month period to mark our 20th anniversary. We ended up holding 26 event over 21 months in 16 states ending in June of 2011. We personally thanked over 1,000 supporters at these events and introduced the RFC to hundred of new friends.
We employ everything from the old-style direct mail method of outreach, to using emails "chaperoned" by other progressive groups, to having a presence on Facebook , Twitter and YouTube . We follow a rigorous and consistent regime of efforts to maintain our base of support. This process is both exacting and relentless. We never treat it as a distraction from our main goal of helping the children of targeted activists, but view it instead as a central component of our work.
Tell us specifically what kinds of things this money goes to, Robert. How have you decided over the years what will be most helpful and effective?
I'll start by answering the second question because that provides the basis for the answer to the first.
The work of the RFC flows out of my own experience. When I was three years old, my birth parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were arrested and charged with stealing the secret of the Atomic Bomb and giving it to the Soviet Union. When I was six, they were executed. This was the height of the McCarthy period - so my brother Michael (four years older than me) and I were treated like pariahs. Relatives were scared to take us in. Ultimately, a support committee was organized to try to save my parents' lives and a few of those people tried to help me and my brother as well. Through them and my parents' attorney, we were ultimately adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol after my parents were killed.
The Meeropols had very little money, but my parents' attorney raised income for a trust fund to provide for special schools, camps, art classes and therapy for us. Difficult as my childhood was, having a community of support rally to my aid and out of that being able to attend progressive schools and progressive camps where my parents' values were appreciated, as well as get therapy, had a powerfully positive influence on me. This, plus the parenting of Abel and Anne Meeropol and the fact that our names were changed and we dropped from public sight, enabled me to have a much happier childhood after I was six years old.
The RFC looks to similar situations today - that is, circumstances in which children are placed at risk because their parents have been targeted by government or corporate repression or right wing attacks, and seeks to aid the children by connecting them to a community of support and progressive providers. In other words, we look for the kind of thing that happened to me and we intervene in a way that replicates the benefit I received as a child.
Repression seeks to isolate and disempower people. Our applicants decide the programs they want their kids to benefit from. We want to re-empower them as much as possible. Also, while we want them to know that there is community of support behind them, we also protect their privacy.
This is the perspective I had when I founded the RFC in 1990 and our Board of Directors, which awards all grants, maintains a similar philosophy to this day.
We provide for the beneficiaries' "educational and emotional needs". We provide for school tuition, therapy and a range of cultural classes. These include things like music, dance and drama lessons. We've also enabled beneficiaries to participate in sports and travel programs. Over the years, we've also provided a fair number of our teenage beneficiaries with computers.
It is obvious that a young child who is traumatized by SWAT teams ransacking her parents' apartment, even her room, and who is seriously disturbed as a result, can benefit enormously from therapy, but the situations don't have to be so dramatic for our help to make a big difference. A child whose parent is fired for participating in a demonstration and can't find another job may have to stop taking piano lessons because the family can't afford them any longer. The RFC paying for these lessons can provide a safe haven, something good that comes out of an otherwise very difficult situation. We don't have the power to prevent the targeting, but we can ease the burden it causes.
Another program we've developed is our Attica Prison Visit Fund . We pay for travel for children whose activist parents or grandparents are incarcerated. This also grows out of my experience. Visiting my parents in prison was very important for me. Those occasions provided me with just about the only memories I have of them. While we don't normally publish the names of those involved, in some circumstances they are already public. That's the case with Leonard Peltier. We're particularly proud to have recently funded a trip for Leonard's grandchildren and great grandchildren to gather with him, some of them for the first time.
That explains a lot, Robert. Thank you. Can you talk a bit about the Celebrate the Children of Resistance events?
I should have mentioned Celebrate, as we call it, when I discussed how we've gathered our community of support. Every few years (1990, 1993, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007 and we've begun planning for 2013) the RFC stages a major production. Sometimes these events have marked major milestones. For instance, the 40th and 50th anniversaries of my parents' execution (1993 and 2003 respectively), and we plan to mark the 60th next year.
Celebrate the Children of Resistance is a scripted, dramatic program that is interspersed with music and poetry. In the past, it has usually started with a 15-20 minutes of well-known performers reading my parents' prison correspondence. Over the years, readers have included Susan Sarandon, Mandy Patinkin, Tovah Feldshuh, Danny Glover, Eve Ensler and David Strathairn. Other performers have included Pete Seeger, Ani DiFranco, Ed Asner, Holly Near, Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte, Ronnie Gilbert, Peter Yarrow, Bill T. Jones and MartÃn Espada. We've also included major activist figures such as Howard Zinn and Angela Davis. These programs have usually concluded with the stories of current RFC beneficiaries.
My wife, Ellen, who has played a key role in the RFC project from its inception, compiled the script for the program. She wrote the following about Celebrate in 2009: "We wanted to honor Ethel and Julius' legacy from the past, to celebrate the courage of families who continue to resist today, and to express our hopes for the future."
We've succeeded in drawing large crowds to these events, filling halls that ranged in size from 1100 in Boston to over 3500 in Berkeley. We've just begun planning for a 60th anniversary event to be held in New York City's Town Hall in June 2013.
What a stellar group! What haven't we talked about yet, Robert?
There are a number of ways people who are interested in learning more about or supporting our work can get involved. Of course, people can donate money, which is the most obvious means of assistance, but not the only important one. Introducing us to new networks of progressive people, especially younger ones, is essential, and a great way to do that is to host a house party or arrange sponsorship to bring me to give a presentation or lecture to a community group, congregation, or school.
You can join our email list and/or our surface mailing list ; we try to be very sensitive about not barraging our supporters with a glut of snail mail or email. You can purchase a copy of my memoir, An Execution in the Family, sales of which benefit the RFC. You can interact with us and other members of the RFC community, and spread word about our work, on Facebook , Twitter or YouTube . You also can read and even subscribe to my blog, Out on a Limb Together , where I discuss both matters specific to the RFC, and also, my personal opinions about a broader range of political topics.
Our semi-annual newsletter is called Carry it Forward and Pass it On . That idea - of individuals, families, and communities nurturing progressive values and sharing them within their current networks and especially to following generations - is at the heart of our organization. We're always seeking to enlist more helpers in that effort.
Thank you so much for talking with me, Robert. It's been a pleasure. Good luck with Rosenberg Fund for Children!
I didn't realize until after our interview that Robert has written a number of articles for OpEdNews. Here is the link to his author's page at OpEdNews.
All photos are courtesy of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.