The Midwest Academy Is Still Training the Organizers Who Make Another World Possible

The Midwest Academy Is Still Training the Organizers Who Make Another World Possible

The Midwest Academy Is Still Training the Organizers Who Make Another World Possible

Fifty years after its founding, the organization keeps, in the words of Bernie Sanders, doing “exactly what needs to be done in the country.”


In 1973, at one of the most turbulent moments in American history, veterans of the civil rights and anti-war movements were facing the reality that changing the status quo would not come as easily as they had hoped. Luckily, some of them had a great idea for how to keep fighting, and to start winning. They started the Midwest Academy.

The vision for the academy was the same then as it is now: Grassroots struggle that empowers working-class people can and will shape a new America. At the heart of the academy’s vision has always been an understanding that activists need training and encouragement and, perhaps above all, connections with one another, in order to realize the promise of founding director Heather Booth: “If we organize, we can change the world.”

Committed to empowering women and people of color, and aligned with progressives in labor and environmental and political movements, the Midwest Academy became a training ground for generations of activists, a base from which dynamic new organizations began to be formed, and a source of the strategic glue that held unlikely coalitions together through the years when Cold War politics still drove wedges between liberals and progressives. Far ahead of the times when it was launched in the era of Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and the backlash politics of the early 1970s, the academy remains a vital source of ideas and energy in the era of Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and the white nationalist resurgence of the 2020s.

“The Midwest Academy does exactly what needs to be done in the country,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders told The Nation this week. “It organizes people at the grassroots level. It educates working-class Americans. It raises consciousness.”

On Wednesday evening in Washington, Sanders keynoted a rollicking 50th-anniversary celebration. The event gathered alumni from Midwest Academy training programs—including US Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.)—and their allies to recognize the accomplishments of a project that has always occupied a space on the front lines. The anniversary provided an opportunity to reflect on the rich history of training that the academy has provided for organizers with unions, environmental groups, consumer groups, and dynamic statewide activist organizations ranging from Illinois Citizen Action to Massachusetts Fair Share to Oregon Fair Share to Indiana Citizen Action and Ohio Fair Share. At the same time, it turned attention to the essential role that the academy has played in helping to organize historic political and policy initiatives across five decades.

In 1976, when momentum for the Equal Rights Amendment was being undermined by Phyllis Schlafly’s right-wing propaganda campaign, the academy helped in 1976 to organize a historic rally at the statehouse in Springfield, Ill.—a state that had failed to act on the amendment—drawing thousands of feminists from at least 30 states to renew the drive for ratification. Two years later, the academy supported the creation of the Citizen Labor Energy Coalition, a pioneering project to unite labor and consumer and community activist groups that had often been at odds with one another into alignments that have successfully advanced progressive agendas in states across the country.

It was the Midwest Academy that played a critical part in efforts during the 1980s to counter the rise of the so-called “new right” with supported progressive populist organizing that reached out to neglected working-class communities. In the 1990s, the academy helped counter corporate power by providing training and support for innovative initiatives such as the SmokeLess States project, which won smoking bans in states across the country.

The history is long and rich. But the great strength of the Midwest Academy has always been its focus on the future. That focus was on full display Wednesday evening, as dynamic young activists such as Sunrise Movement cofounder and executive director Varshini Prakash shared the spotlight with veteran organizers for a celebration that saw the academy honor groups on the cutting edge of contemporary organizing. Reflecting the broad reach of the academy’s work, the honorees included environmental groups such as the Sunrise Movement and the Climate Justice Alliance, as well as economic justice organizers with the Starbucks Workers United and the group 9to5, which itself is celebrating 50 years of advocacy on behalf of working women. Recognition also went to young reproductive rights activists from the Amplify Georgia Collaborative, which has pulled together reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations into a coalition that fights to expand abortion access in the South, as well as stalwarts from the JANE Collective, a group that operated an underground abortion service in Chicago at a time in the late 1960s and early ’70s when abortion was a felony in Illinois and most other states.

Booth, then a young activist fresh from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, was a founder of the JANE Collective and worked with it before she helped to organize the Midwest Academy. Now, with the 2022 US Supreme Court decision overturning its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and upending reproductive rights protections, her age-old argument that “in the face of an unjust law, you need to take action to challenge it” rings truer than ever. And Booth, who currently serves as chair of the Midwest Academy’s board, is ready to work with the academy’s diverse leadership team to train the next generation of activists.

That’s good news. US Senator Elizabeth Warren says, “When I asked how to get organized, I was told two words: Heather Booth.” But, of course, Booth will tell you that the two words are: Midwest Academy.

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