In the early 1980s, famine loomed in Eritrea and Ethiopia, but no one was talking about it. Nor was anyone outside a small circle of activists talking sense about the Middle East. And if they tried, they were hammered.
Enter Grassroots International.
Faced with the isolation and factionalism within much of the solidarity community and the facile “neutrality” of most aid agencies who engaged in these and other conflict areas, while they infantilized the victims to raise funds and insisted that they were the only ones to save them, a small group of activists deeply concerned at both the impacts these and other crises were having on people and dismayed that more attention was not paid to real, sustainable solutions, decided to try something altogether new.
We set out to blend solidarity, education and advocacy, and material support into a different kind of non-profit agency—Grassroots International. An agency that would takes politics as its starting point, but do so in a non-rhetorical, non-sectarian way, based on hard evidence on the ground that the partners we identified were committed to deep-going social change, had the capacity and the vision to build popular support toward that end, and were actively engaged in implementing their commitments and their vision on the ground in clearly observable ways. In the 1980s, this was largely embodied in liberation movements and the social movements they linked up with. Our task was not to do anything on the ground ourselves, but to analyze the conditions people faced, to assess the organized options to deal with them and to support their efforts, while we publicized them and their work to a wider audience.
The core staff—me and Chris Cartter—were primarily information providers. I had worked for years as a freelance journalist in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East before taking a one-year stint at Oxfam America to set up and publicize a Lebanon Emergency Program after Israel invaded that country in 1982. Chris was a savvy media advocate at Oxfam, already then tuning into the potential of the internet and a solidarity activist outside the workplace. When Oxfam came under pressure from its supporters over the Mideast work and began to wind down the program, we resolved to create an alternative.
We were joined in this hare-brained undertaking by Oxfam program advisor Assaf Kfoury, a long-time activist with strong ties to movements in Lebanon and Palestine who had guided me through much of my work at Oxfam; Nubar Hovsepian, a long-time activist on Palestine who had helped organize my first trip to Lebanon in 1979 when I visited the camps there and met key political actors; the late Dennis Brutus, a so-called colored South African activist and remarkable poet who had led the movement to get South Africa banned from the Olympics and with whom I’d collaborated in the U.S. on solidarity actions; Bereket Habte Selassie, an international lawyer who was long active in global Eritrea solidarity work (and headed Eritrea’s Constitution Commission in the 1990s, after independence); and Gail Pressberg, a long-time activist on Middle East issues, then with AFSC (later with Peace Now).
We opened our one-room office in Central Square, Cambridge, on August 1, 1983, Jim Yamin, a labor organizer at a downtown hospital joined us that fall as the third staff member after coming in to volunteer on Lebanon, where he soon went to take care of his late father’s affairs and meet our partners there. Our first initiative was a famine warning in 1983 based on the twin scourges of drought and war, fully a year before it hit the BBC and NBC. The second was the launching of a Peace in Lebanon campaign, aiming at halting U.S. military intervention and supporting a non-sectarian approach to aid. At the root of both crises were politics. There was no honest way to avoid that, though many tried. And from there, the rest is history.
I am beyond proud of what others who followed have done to build this organization, to keep it focused on building social and political movements with a continuing vision of transformative, empowering solutions and not just charity. I stand with you today as you celebrate, wishing I could be with you, but preparing to board a flight to Ethiopia to continue the pursuit of peace with justice and true liberation there, as throughout a grim world in which every candle burning in the night is a beacon. And Grassroots is a bright one.