Tag Archives: MPIRG

Minnesota Public Interest Research Group at 40 – Update

 

At forty, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) has encountered mood swings that range from ennui to euphoria.  Activist Monte Bute, long-time Metro State faculty member – and recipient of Metro State’s 2010 Alumnus Award – acknowledges that he, too, has gone through changes:

I was contemptuous of MPIRG when it was first created.   I was a revolutionary who denounced all reformist organization. I got a bit wiser about social change during my years as Director of Organizing for MPIRG from 1978 -82.  Students for a Democractic Society (SDS) was dead after a decade. MPIRG is alive and well after 40 years.  Who knew!

Executive Director Josh Winters, reflects on MPIRG’s maturing process, including growing pains, as a grassroots, non-partisan, nonprofit, student-directed organization.  The Minnesota PIRG, along with Oregon, was the first campus-based public interest research group in the nation.  Though the beginnings are often associated with Ralph Nader, Winters is quick to credit others, including Don Ross, who took a good idea and made it happen.  “A good idea is a good idea, but it takes people to do it,” Winters observes.  In this case the “people” were U of M students who collected over 25,000 signatures to form MPIRG on campus. The plan to fund development, including professional staff, with student activities fees seemed like a good idea at the time.

As the idea of grassroots and non-partisan involvement of students spread, activists on other  campuses collected over 50,000 signatures chapters sprang up statewide.  Marcia Avner who worked on the MPIRG staff from 1977-1983, credits local campus development to the fact that the organization “ensured that member campuses had opportunities for individuals to engage in a wide range of campaigns – from working for tax credits for investments in alternative energy (the early days of the green movement) to campaigning for passage an Equal Rights Amendment.  Students led the way on energy reforms, transformation in the utility industry which was compelled to consider conservation a core energy strategy, and recycling.”

Still, there were growing pains:  In spite of, or perhaps because of, the organization’s expanded outreach, MPIRG faced obstacles, particularly in the late 1990’s when campus conservative organizations launched protests against the use of students’ activity fees to fund a “liberal student organization” that opponents maintained “have been popping up at colleges across the country”  Pro-Family News expressed the anti-PIRG charges from like-minded campus groups:  “

There are groups promoting the homosexual agenda, groups with radical environmental concerns, groups dedicated to Marxism, groups engaged in alternative and non-traditional religious activities, and many more.  What is more disturbing than the mere existence of these groups is their ability to get funding from general student activity fees.  Liberal administrators have condoned this, just as they have condoned the establishment of radical academic courses and curricula.  With the blessing of administrators, and with the ability to dominate the student fee distribution process at many campuses, these liberal groups have gone virtually unched for years.  AT the same time, conservative groups and traditional Christian groups have often been blocked from receiving student service fee funding.”   Though the U of M did institute a refusable/refundable policy, MPIRG got the full blast of the conservatives’ concerns.  One administrator from the an MPIRG campus advised the U of M Board of Regents that “the funding scheme the University allows MPIRG to use relies heavily on student naivete” which he describes in detail.  The controversy garnered headlines and public outcry that included Governor Arne Carlson’s charge that “MPIRG clearly is a political and partisan lobby and ought not to receive favorite-funding status from the University of Minnesota.  If that is the case, then conservative activities should receive equal status.”

In 2006 Marty Andrade posted his reflections on “The Ten Great Moments in Minnesota Conservative History” on The Minnesota Republic blog..  Under the headline “Tim Pawlenty Leads Conservative Takeover of MPIRG” Andrade tells a story that mixes mandatory fees, a disputed election of MPIRG officers, and the emergence of a young politician. Andrade writes:

MPIRG, a left wing activist group, has been stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from tens of thousands of unwilling and often cash strapped students for decades now.  You see, for the longest time the U just assumed every student wanted to pay the optional MPIRG fee and thus either automatically charged you the fee (before online registration) or automatically checked a box which charged you the fee.  If you wanted to not pay the fee or get a refund you had to jump through hoops and otherwise hassle yourself.  And it was even worse before the days of online registration.  In 1983 a group of College Republicans decided to run for positions on the MPIRG board of directors.  When they were elected the decided to do away with the MPIRG fee.  A battle ensued between the local MPIRG board and the statewide board and the battle landed in court…Sadly, the court took MIRPG’s [sict] side in the case.,,,The fight against MPIRG started over twenty years ago and continues to this day, thanks to a group of College Republicans which included a student who became our current governor.

During the ongoing celebration of MPIRG’s legacy members, alumni and advocates affirm the adage “no pain, no gain”   What Winters sees is a perpetual state of change matched by an ability to cope based on experience. The MPIRG leader overflows with ideas as he looks to the future – how to harness today’s social media without losing the essential “hands on” essence of the organization.   Winters speaks enthusiastically about community/campus initiatives, e.g. the current approach to mandatory business recycling in Minneapolis.

Another priority for tomorrow’s MPIRG is research, particularly in-depth and long-term research. At present, for example, MPIRG is initiating an extensive survey of photo ID requirements on voting.  Another ongoing longitudinal study focuses on a statewide survey of sexual violence and assault on campus; the report of that study is due out next fall.

Today some 70,000 Minnesota college students are members of MPIRG; the ranks augmented by hundreds of community volunteers, including many MPIRG alumni.

MPIRG operates on nine campuses throughout the state:  Augsburg College, Carleton College, St. Catherine University, Hamline University, Macalester College, U of M-Duluth, U of M-Morris, U of M-Twin Cities, and William Mitchell College of Law.

The individual campus-based websites and the media reflect diverse campus initiatives, e.g.: MPIRG students at U of M-Morris were key players in the campus-wide green movement while at the TC’s campus some MPIRG students are dimming lights and duking it out in competitive recycling efforts while others have fought sweat-shop apparel at campus bookstores.  Other campuses are grappling with statewide issues of green transportation, health care for all, and affordable higher education.

As always, MPIRG takes a lead in voter-related issues including voter ID, voter registration, early primaries and students’ concerns that politicians curb youth issues in their efforts to garner votes from the growing population of elderly constituents who will are conditioned to show up on election day.

Looking ahead as MPIRG turns 40 Winters poses a compelling question:  Just how did a small cadre of students, volunteers and others create a statewide – actually national – network in a pre-social media environment?   The answer, he affirms, must be based on a deep commitment to grassroots organizing coupled with a shared vision to give voice to everyone.  The challenge, he concludes, is to harness today’s social media without losing the essential ‘hands on’ essence of the organization.

For her part, Avner, who is widely recognized as a vocal, informed and respected voice for social justice, emphasizes the influence of role models and mentors – including heroes such as Paul Wellstone– in her tribute to  the leadership development opportunities that MPIRG provides staff and students.  Avner attests to the fact that she herself “would not have enjoyed a career of policy advocacy if MPIRG had not set me on the path.”

As Monte Bute would put it, “Who knew!”

 

 

 

 

MPIRG at 40

MPIRG – Minnesota Public Interest Research Group MPIRG Board Chair Kathy Dekrey testifies against lifting the nuclear power moratorium in the house environment committee.

www.youtube.com

When Kathy Dekray, current Board Chair of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG), and a senior at Augsburg College recently testified before the Legislature she argued against the removal of the nuclear moratorium in Minnesota.   She was the most recent in an endless list of MPIRG representatives who have expressed the position of MPIRG student members on scores of issues facing the state.

More than 150 members, former members and supporters of MPIRG gathered on Friday, January 21, to celebrate four decades of advocacy and involvement through this “grassroots, non-artisan, nonprofit, student-directed organization”.  The occasion gives Executive Director Josh Winters pause to reflect on the origins and future of MPIRG.

What Winters sees is change.  The Minnesota public interest research group, along with Oregon, were the first two campus-based public interest research groups.  Though the beginnings are often associated with Ralph Nader, Winters is quick to credit others, including Don Ross, who took a good idea and made it happen.  “A good idea is a good idea, but it takes people to do it,” Winters observes.

An intriguing question Winters raises is just how did a small cadre of students, volunteers and others create a statewide – actually national – network in a pre-social media environment.  The answer, he affirms, must be based in a deep commitment to grassroots organizing coupled with a shared vision to give voice to everyone.  That commitment is expressed in the mission of MPIRG to “empower and train students and engage the community to take collective action in the public interest throughout the state of Minnesota.”

Today some 70,000 Minnesota college students are members of MPIRG;  the ranks are augmented by hundreds of community volunteers, including many MPIRG alumni.

MPIRG operates on nine campuses throughout the state:  Augsburg College, Carleton College, St. Catherine University, Hamline University, Macalester College, U of M-Duluth, U of M-Morris, U of M-Twin Cities, and William Mitchell College of Law. The individual campus-based websites reflect a wide range of individual campus activities.

Campuses offer a mix of membership options, most in the refusable/refundable range, thus avoiding past conflict re. mandatory membership that at times have pitted campus conservative groups against MPIRG which they perceived as too far left of center – or organization that reject mandatory memberships out of hand.

The current statewide identified issues on which MPIRG members and volunteers are working include green transportation, health care for all, and affordable higher education. The roster of scores of issues tackled over the years range from solar tax credit to car lemon laws to a 2006 production of “The Vagina Monologues.”

An ongoing priority for MPIRG members is voter registration and involvement.  Clearly, students are focused on, but not limited to, youth engagement in the political process.

In Fall 2010 MPIRG was one of several organizations involved with what Star Tribune journalist Eric Roper referred to as “a minor battle of generations” brewing in Minnesota politics.  College students gathered at the State Capitol to express their concerns. Speaking as an MPIRG representative Carleton College student Ben Hellerstein raised the question “With only half as many people turning out to the polls, is everyone’s voice really being heard?”

Roper reflects on a number of factors students perceive to leave college students left out of the political arena.  The moved-up primary, for example, meant students were at work or out of the country.  Another issue cited by students is the fact that candidates’ tendency to court over-60 voters may ignore attention to students.

Winters overflows with ideas as he looks to the future – how to harness today’s social media without losing the essential “hands on” essence of the organization.   He speaks enthusiastically about community/campus based initiatives, e.g.  a research-based approach to mandatory business recycling in Minneapolis.

Another priority for tomorrow’s MPIRG is research, particularly in-depth and long-term research. At present, for example, MPIRG is initiating an extensive survey of photo ID on voting.  Another ongoing longitudinal survey focuses on a statewide survey of sexual violence and assault on campus; the report of that study is due out next fall

The recent 40th anniversary recognition offered an opportunity for today’s students and advocates to reflect on the legacy of MPIRG.  Students could learn about the roots of the organization, its accomplishments, changes and intent.  For alumni the event was an occasion to see how their legacy is being carried forward by ambitious and committed students equipped with new tools and putting them to the task of sharing a the vision of “common sense good policies.”