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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Building a coalition

    Building a coalition

    About 45 people are gathering around Ron Austin to get their lunch. Some look rough, with scars or growths on their faces. Some just looked tired. Some are women and children. But all of them are hungry.

    One can see why members of the Center for Creative Chaos refer to Austin as the face of the organization. He’s tall and slender with a dramatic bald head, a huge smile and a lot of energy. He answers questions, peppering his speech with the phrase, “”You know what I’m sayin’?”” while sweating over a hot grill.

    Austin, 67, is co-founder of the CCC, and a recovering crack addict from Buffalo, N.Y., who has been homeless himself. Sober for many years now, Austin is currently dedicating his energy to helping the homeless through his day job at the Primavera Foundation and his “”side job”” at the CCC.

    “”We firmly believe that the mainstream media downplays the conditions of homelessness and only shows the negative images, you know, homeless people panhandling and hurting each other and all disheveled and such,”” Austin said. “”You never see the pictures of the homeless that are clean, articulate, that are trying to get work, trying to get back in the mainstream. I guess occasionally you do see it, when it’s profitable for them to show it, but they don’t show it that often.

    “”Basically, that’s what we’re about: informing the public of the conditions of homelessness and poverty in expectation that once the masses know what’s going on they will make a change,”” he continued.

    Austin hopes the CCC is starting something that will catch on.

    “”We need to start here in Tucson and work out. We need to get some activities going that work, create a template of success and eventually work throughout the United States,”” he said.

    “”The difference is between the haves and the have-nots. All these people that you see out here are homeless or underemployed … but mainstream people have a home to go to, they have a refrigerator to get the food out of, they have a place to shower, they have a job to go to, they got a regular paycheck coming in so they can function and have a reasonable lifestyle. The homeless have to dig all the time for everything they want. They’re always looking for bus passes, a ride, food, socks, toothpaste, basic essentials that all of us in the mainstream take for granted,”” Austin said.

    “”But yet, these people gotta hustle for it and they gotta dig for it and they spend an exorbitant amount of time doing that. People see them on the streets and say, ‘Get a goddamn job. You’re useless,’ or something like that. But these people are out there hunting for basic stuff that those people have no concept of what it’s like not to have,”” Austin added.

    The CCC currently organizes three major projects. The Tucson Feed the Homeless Project involves organizing a feeding every two weeks. There is also The Center for Creative Chaos Art Gallery on 739 N. Fourth Ave., which gives homeless artists the opportunity to show and sell their art. But the CCC really began with an ongoing program called Homeless Documentary, in which members shoot videos of the realities of homelessness and poverty. Its YouTube channel is called Homeless Champion. It also has a MySpace page called Homeless Advocate, where Austin comments on the YouTube videos.

    Even though the group currently has only six members, it’s a diverse group of individuals who have at least one thing in common: a passion for helping the homeless. They’ve taken advantage of the technology available to them, including social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. But the group has realized it needs more than good will and free technology to exist as an organization.

    “”Money is the biggest obstacle. Because of that factor we cannot focus on our mission. We gotta pay for the gallery, the telephone, the utilities, the licenses and the fees, buying the food, and it comes down to money again,”” Austin said.

    “”We spend an exorbitant amount of time trying to figure out how to get more money, because most of us are getting really tapped out now,”” he continued. “”Most everything comes out of pocket until we come in contact with someone who is willing to write grants for us.””

    The CCC is not quite a nonprofit yet. Rather, it’s something like a nonprofit embryo incubated under the umbrella of Pan Left Productions and the donations of CCC members. The question remains: Does Tucson provide a fertile ground for groups like the CCC to go from a group of well-intentioned citizens to a full-fledged nonprofit organization?

    Funding

    The one-and-a-half-year-old Center is facing some growing pains. It is interested in getting funding through grants, but not everyone in the Tucson nonprofit scene recommends grants as the way to secure funding.

    Mary Charlotte Thurtle, 47, executive director of Pan Left Productions, said that 15-year-old Pan Left’s operating budget relies on more than grants.

    “”Grants are really drying up. They’re super competitive. … Arizona Commission on the Arts is one of our resources and we have yet to hear what we’ll receive from them, but their budget was cut by 43 percent by the state. So that’s going to affect not only us, but arts organizations all over the state,”” Thurtle said.

    Raices Taller 222 Art Gallery & Workshop is a Latino-based nonprofit cooperative, art gallery and workshop. It sponsors activities that promote art appreciation, especially among minorities who otherwise might not have access to the arts. Founding member John Salgado, 60, suggests taking care of operating costs through other means besides grants.

    “”Fundraisers will help you bridge the gap between grants. It’s real scary when you rely on grants because when they fall through, then you don’t have anything,”” he said.

    If grants are not the main source of funds, then how do these types of organizations get funded?

    Pan Left’s budget is large enough to pay for its operating costs and the executive director’s salary. About 11-12 percent of the budget comes in the form of support from county, city and state arts organizations. Last year, 20-25 percent of the budget was individual donations.

    In the case of a new grassroots organization like the CCC, fundraising events have provided more exposure than cash, but it’s a start that’s not lost on Austin, who has recently become a member of Pan Left to learn from its fundraising successes.

    The Center is currently under the umbrella of Pan Left’s fiscal sponsorship, a short-term option for fledgling nonprofits still trying to figure out their 501(c)(3) paperwork. 501(c)(3) status is the IRS’s designation for official nonprofits, which allows them to be exempt from certain federal income taxes.

    Paperwork

    The Center for Creative Chaos is not fond of money issues, but if there’s anything it despises more, it’s paperwork.

    “”No one wants to do the goddamn paperwork, but it’s a necessary evil. You have to have certain kinds of paperwork to even apply for the 501(c)(3),”” said Tiffany Goforth, a member of the CCC.

    Ceci Garcia, 58, a founding member of Raíces Culturales Latinoamericanas, says groups have to be patient.

    “”It usually takes a little more than a year. There’s a whole guideline you can get. You can go to the IRS, they will help you,”” Garcia said.

    “”They’re very helpful,”” Salgado agreed.

    Salgado also made a case for nonprofits determining a written mission statement early on.

    “”The mission statement helps you stay on track, because what happens is your membership will change over the years and so when your membership changes, you’re going to have people coming in that have totally different ideas,”” he said. “”In our case, there were people coming in who were not part of the Latino community or the Native American community … and after a while they would want to take it in a whole different direction. So we said, ‘Let’s read the mission statement again.'””

    Salgado also said that having a clear and visible mission statement can help nonprofits when it comes to involving the community.

    “”People need to know who you are, and before they can know who you are, you need to know who you are,”” he said. “”You have to have a Web site that explains who you are, facilitates online donations and explains why people should donate.””

    For organizations wary of limiting their freedom with a written mission statement, Thurtle stressed the plasticity of such a document.

    “”Our mission was always putting the tools of production into the hands of those not represented in the mainstream media,”” she said. “”But since then, our mission has expanded and it is currently expanding … with fiscal sponsorships, educational classes and workshops and that sort of thing; operations that weren’t originally foreseen by the founders.””

    Community Involvement and Collaboration

    Both Garcia and Salgado say that Tucson is a generous community when it comes to supporting nonprofit organizations.

    “”Once they know what you need, people are so giving,”” Garcia said.

    “”Now we get calls from people who want to help,”” Salgado said.

    Garcia stressed the importance of creating a system for donation recognition. “”We didn’t do that soon enough when we first started,”” he said.

    Garcia said a number of Raices founding artists were UA grads who tapped into resources at their alma mater.

    “”We had a lot of professors give us advice and they didn’t ask for anything,”” she said.

    Garcia and Salgado also recommended using the press for exposure, making contacts with politicians and offering students a way to build their resume through volunteer opportunities. So far, the CCC has used the press to promote fundraisers, but perhaps with more political contacts they could take the city of Tucson to task on policies that are not homeless-friendly. For example, the city requires a $12 fee and a $50 Pima County Health Permit from anyone who organizes an event to feed the homeless in Santa Rita Park. It limits these events to once a month, though the organization is eager to do them several times a month.

    Garcia talked about learning from what Tucson’s nonprofits have already done.

    “”We patterned Raices after Ariztlan and Dinnerware (when it was an artists’ co-op). … We didn’t just pick, it kind of flowed together because of the personalities of the group. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,”” she said.

    “”This is a great cultural capital of Arizona. Take advantage of it,”” Garcia said.

    Her point is not lost on the CCC. It has collaborated with local artists, musicians, foundations and social organizations such as Open End, Tucson for Community Change and the Primavera Foundation.

    “”Our community does actually have a lot of resources and a lot of people who are working to build and sustain community here,”” Thurtle said. “”I think the diversity of Tucson is one of its assets. We have some infrastructure in institutions that have been here for quite a long time, so there’s a history of working together here. And then there’s a huge need in Tucson as well.””

    Thurtle also described a steady level of fiscal community support for Pan Left, despite the current economic crisis.

    “”Donations have really remained consistent. We feel really fortunate … to have dedicated people who give every year. Even if it’s just $20 a year … they consistently do it every year. … So far, I’ve been really amazed by the amount people still continue to give,”” she said.

    Membership

    Goforth said the CCC is hoping to tap into the community resources by expanding the membership, but membership is an issue in and of itself.

    “”I tried to recruit some volunteers — members I have on Craigslist, but everyone just flakes on you, doesn’t really know why they want to come. I don’t think they want to make that kind of investment; they just want to volunteer somewhere,”” Goforth said.

    “”There’s only six of us. We need stuff done. We need someone who has grant experience, fundraising experience,”” she continued. “”Or we’ll have a meeting where four new people came and it was just being hit by four new people’s ideas about what you’re doing. It was a long process. Maybe more isn’t better right now. Our level of organization needs a lot of work.””

    After 12 years of experience, Salgado understands how frustrating it can be when new members don’t act as you might like them to.

    “”There’s going to be things that some do better than others and that’s OK. You have to be accepting,”” he said. “”We used to get angry because we had so many members, but we’d call a work party and five people would show up. We’d get so angry, but it was just we didn’t realize that there are some things that people do better than other people. … It’s just finding a role for everybody.””

    Organization

    Thurtle attributed a great deal of Pan Left’s success to its non-hierarchical organization. Pan Left is divided into a collective and an executive board. The board plays more of an advisory role and helps run the business end. The collective makes decisions independently of the board.

    “”We’re a collective, so we have a different structure than a lot of organizations do. What that means is that people who are members and who come to meetings are the decision-making body,”” Thurtle said. “”The collective itself — the entire body — makes decisions by consensus decision making. We don’t vote. We wanted the organization’s structure to reflect the change that we want to be in the world. … We’re all equal.””

    Consensus sounds impossible, but given Pan Left’s 15-year history, it seems to work.

    “”Consensus is … striving for a collaboration and finding the best solution to things that come up. We listen to each other’s concerns about it and maybe come up with a compromise that was better than one way or the other,”” Thurtle said. 

    Another issue Pan Left has sorted out through its organizational structure is the problem of working on creative projects while dealing with business needs. Board meetings, collective meetings and production meetings are held separately.

    “”We wanted to free up the artistic from the business and not try to do both at once,”” Thurtle said. “”We have community members and collective members on our board. That way collective members take their turn running the business, too.””

    When asked what she would recommend in terms of ingredients for success for a nonprofit organization, Thurtle said that people who are invested should have a voice.

    “”I would definitely recommend a participatory structure where members can come and feel invested in the work that’s going on … because it’s only the people that are going to actually do the work that should really decide what direction the organization is going to go in,”” she said.

    Motivation

    Another ingredient in the three organizations profiled seems to be strong personal investment in the issues on the part of the members — fueled, at times, by the desire to give what they themselves lacked in the past.

    In the case of the CCC, Austin had been homeless and wanted to extend a hand to those who find themselves homeless now. In the case of Raices, Garcia and Salgado said that as young artists, they had had no opportunities to show their work.

    “”We felt not only Latinos, but Native American, Afro-American, Jewish American, younger, older … what we all experienced was that in Tucson we were not able to show our work at mainstream galleries at the time. We were going to have to show our work to the public ourselves. … The rest is pretty much history,”” Garcia said.

    “”Because some of those opportunities were denied to us, we wanted to give those to other people,”” Salgado explained.

    Pan Left’s Thurtle also described member passion and commitment as crucial elements to keep a nonprofit going.

    “”It is the dedication of our members that really gets us through everything. These are people who are doing it just for the love of storytelling, for documenting news events that wouldn’t get covered otherwise, and for being part of an organization that’s structured the way that we are,”” Thurtle said.

    But it was Garcia who brought up perhaps the most important advice of all:

    “”Remember, it has to be fun!””

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