Backbone Campaign strives to find greater financial health
By LESLIE BROWN
Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Editor
September 8, 2009 · Updated 11:56 AM
The Backbone Campaign, a homegrown entity with a national following and a flair for spectacle, is facing one of its most serious financial hurdles since it was founded in 2003.
The organization had to let one of its two employees go and reduce Bill Moyer, its seemingly tireless executive director, to half-time pay. The group’s stewardship council, meanwhile, met two weeks ago to try to figure out how to tap into its network of support in a way that will sustain the organization over time.
“We’re working basically on a shoestring, even more than ever,” Moyer said. “It’s a starvation diet.”
But Moyer, who co-founded the Backbone Campaign, and several of its supporters said they’re confident the organization will find its financial footing and continue to be a powerful voice for a progressive political agenda. Moyer also said he doesn’t see the organization backing down from its high-profile presence, either on the Island or the national stage.
“As a musician, I know that you’re either appearing or you’re disappearing,” Moyer said. “The Backbone Campaign has to be appearing. We need to continue to demonstrate its relevance to our community and supporters and show that we’re Vashon’s emissary to the progressive political scene.”
“What’s healthy about the Backbone is that it’s got a great crew of support, a core crew that really believes in its mission,” added Beverly Naidus, an Island artist and activist who is part of the organization’s stewardship council. “But what’s vital is for us to do more outreach in our local community, so that people we don’t think of as our normal support group feel equally committed.”
The Backbone Campaign — a grassroots effort “to embolden citizens and elected officials to stand up for progressive values,” as it states on its Web site — has become a well-known presence on Vashon.
Its Chain Gang — larger-than-life puppets depicting George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld — has made appearances at dozens of Vashon parades and gatherings and adorns T-shirts worn by countless Islanders. In recent years, the group’s artistry has expanded to touch upon other issues.
Snowflake, a polar bear, has become its icon for addressing the issue of climate change. Its newest puppet, Count Bleed-Ya-Dry, a vampire shrouded in black, represents its call for a single-payer system and its not-so-subtle statement about the state of the nation’s health care system.
The organization’s knack for the theatrical and ability to attract media attention were particularly evident in the last few months, when the issue over Glacier Northwest’s proposed mine expansion reached a climax. Last month, in a Backbone-organized demonstration near Glacier’s site on Maury, Moyer and others figured out how to position people so that they looked like a huge killer whale — replete with white patches and a dorsal fin — when seen from above.
The group also has a national presence. With funding from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, it
recently completed a 10-
state college campus tour — an attempt to train young people to become activists for social change on a range of issues, including health care, affordable housing and climate stabilization.
The organization, however, has little left after this summer, when it poured its resources into a series of camps and workshops that it expected to culminate in a direct-action campaign against Glacier this fall.
“We exhausted everything on that project,” Moyer said.
Glacier was expected to resume its construction of a controversial barge-loading pier in mid-August — an issue that has temporarily gone away after a U.S. District Court judge issued a ruling throwing out one of Glacier’s critical permits.
Moyer said he feels his group played an important role in the debate over Glacier, bringing attention not to the legal issues surrounding the corporation’s efforts to expand but to the political landscape. Its raucous call for an end to the mine and its ongoing efforts at direct action to try to block construction “allowed the lawyers to look more reasonable” and gave Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark the support he needed to stand up to Glacier, he said.
“When I first started contacting the governor’s office and the Puget Sound Partnership, Maury Island was not on their list of priorities. It hadn’t registered as being important,” Moyer said. “So by creating that visibility, we helped bring attention ... to the political importance of this crisis here and its relevance to the larger effort of saving Puget Sound.
“The reason to create a mobilization is to not actually have to use it,” he added.
With the Bush administration out of office and the mine expansion temporarily suspended, Moyer said, mobilization to advance progressive causes might become a bit trickier. But there is no shortage of important issues, he added. The country continues to be bogged down in international conflicts, and the health care debate has taken center stage.
“The faces have changed. The barometer has changed. But the status quo is firmly intact,” he said.
For its first four years, the Backbone Campaign was supported in part by what Moyer calls an “angel,” a donor who provided a significant sum each month to help the organization establish itself as a viable effort. All along, the donor had said he would eventually withdraw his support — something that happened at the beginning of this year, Moyer said.
Over the years, the organization has also garnered support from several Islanders who donate annually or provide monthly subscriptions, he and others noted. The goal now is to expand that base of support, particularly monthly subscriptions from Islanders, which could provide a new kind of financial stability to the organization.
Dan Schueler, a member of the stewardship council who attended its recent meeting, said many in the room that night expressed optimism for the Backbone Campaign’s future.
“The feeling in the meeting was fairly positive,” he said. “It’s a tough time right now for all nonprofits. But we feel pretty certain that we can help the Backbone Campaign succeed in the long run.”
Moyer agreed, adding that Vashon provides the group’s primary base of support as well as its “laboratory for innovative activism.”
“Part of my job is to demonstrate in real ways that our community is better with the Backbone Campaign than without it,” Moyer said. “I think that after the last nine months that benefit has never been more apparent.”Contact Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Editor Leslie Brown at email@example.com or 1-206-463-9195.