Monday October 23, 2006
James Forman, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, sustained a lifelong commitment to pursuing social justice. In his later years, Forman fell ill with cancer–and decades of low-paid community organizing had left him with no savings. Of course, this renowned veteran of the civil rights movement could rely on the support of thousands of people who he had led and inspired. But while struggling with ailing health, he spread awareness throughout the world of community organizers that this problem was not his alone.
The lesson was not lost on the activists who had recently joined together in 1992 to create the National Organizers Alliance, a diverse community of community organizers and non-profit workers. “[NOA is] made up of folks who walk a really broad spectrum in all the work that they do,” says Patrick Masterson, NOA’s interim director, “but we share a common interest in sharing and advocating policies and practices that can sustain the work of those who are dedicated to social justice causes.” As the young association grew, Forman’s struggle gave form to a cause that was very much their own: the challenge of staying committed to activism without forsaking one’s future.
“NOA members saw early on that this was really a larger systemic issue,” Masterson says. After several years of meetings and dialogue, NOA’s first major project was selected: a pension plan specially designed for community organizers. This unique program took its first contribution in 1997, and Masterson reports that it is “just now hitting its stride.” By the end of this year, NOA expects the plan to have a thousand individual members, a hundred member organizations, and ten million dollars in assets.
“At the time [of NOA’s founding], I was in my late thirties and hadn’t any savings myself,” says Cathy Howell, who now directs the Leadership Development Program in the Field Mobilization Department at the AFL-CIO. “But I’d recently begun working for Grassroots Leadership, which had a 403B–the non-profit version of the 401k. It suddenly made a huge difference to me that my organization was contributing a portion of my salary and offering me the chance to do more.”
Unfortunately, such a benefit is the exception in this field of work. NOA found that three quarters of its members were without a plan, and most of those who did have one were union members.
“We knew that one of the primary advantages of union jobs were the pension plans,” says Howell, who was on NOA’s Steering Committee when the project was initiated. “So we connected with some labor attorneys who helped us think about what we wanted [the plan] to look like, and aboutthe ideological frame we wanted on it.”