The Midwest Academy (MA) was founded in 1973 by Heather Booth and Steve Max. Describing itself as “one of the nation’s oldest and best known schools for community organizations, citizen organizations and individuals committed to progressive social change,” this leftist training institute seeks to bring about “economic, racial, environmental and social justice” by teaching activists how to “alter the relations of power in our society where too much power is concentrated in the hands of too few.” As of January 2011, MA had trained more than 30,000 activists.
From MA’s earliest days, its training programs consisted of role-playing exercises coupled with readings, lectures, discussions, and first-hand observation sessions at actual demonstrations. Strongly emphasizing “class consciousness” and “movement history,” the organization exposed students to the efforts and achievements of veteran activists from earlier decades. MA’s recurring “socialism sessions,” taught by Heather Booth, focused on everything from Marx, Engels, and Lenin, through Michael Harrington’s democratic socialism and the factional struggles of the Students for a Democratic Society.
Knowing that many Americans would not be receptive to straightforward, hard-left advocacy, MA in its formative years was careful not to mention its socialist ideals explicitly in its organizing and training activities. The group’s inner circle was committed to building a socialist mass movement, but stealthily rather than overtly. As Steve Max and the prominent MA-friendly socialist Harry Boyte agreed in a correspondence during that era, “every social proposal that we make must be couched in terms of how it will strengthen capitalism.” Because MA has long sought to keep its socialist agendas hidden below the proverbial radar, Stanley Kurtz, author of Radical-in-Chief, calls it a “crypto-socialist organization.”
By the late 1970s, MA emphasized grassroots organizing as a means of infiltrating, participating in, and influencing the political establishment in the mode of Saul Alinsky. Most community groups of the era resisted this approach, fearing that such assimilation might dilute their members’ revolutionary zeal for wholesale societal transformation. But when the conservative Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. President in 1980, these organizations began to adopt MA’s approach as seemingly the most pragmatic means of changing American political values, albeit incrementally.
In the 1980s, MA was indirectly responsible for funding Barack Obama’s early organizing work, which began in June of 1985 in Chicago. At the time, Obama received key support from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) and the Woods Fund of Chicago. In both cases, Ken Rolling — who was a high official with the Midwest Academy, a Woods Fund board member, and a longtime member of CCHD’s national committee — likely played a major role in dispensing this money.
To this day, MA continues to indoctrinate its students in “us-versus-them” ideology, thereby producing an ever-growing cadre of radicalized activists. One prominent MA graduate is Service Employees International Union (SEIU) president Andrew Stern.
MA’s training sessions — titled “Organizing for Social Change” — are typically five days long. They teach techniques of “direct-action organizing,” whereby people are made “aware of their own power” to “take collective action on their own behalf” and address such societal issues as “rising inequalty in income and wealth.” MA’s openly confrontational modus operandi is reflected in a quote, attributed to Frederick Douglass, which appeared on the Academy website’s homepage as of January 2011: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.” The chief objectives of MA’s tactics are interrelated: “electing our people to office” and “changing laws and regulations.”
MA training sessions cover such topics as “choosing problems and issues” on which to focus, “understanding preconditions for social change movements,” and obtaining “good media coverage.” Role-play techniques are used in order to help students determine what tactics work best in various situations: e.g., “stand or sit, shout or remain calm, make threats or try to reach consensus.”
An inviolable core principle undergirding all of MA’s tactics is that in every case, activists must “target” a “decision maker”; i.e., a “person or persons” who can be “forced” to “give you what you want.” Observing a central tenet of Saul Alinsky’s community-organizing doctrines, MA emphasizes: “The decision maker is always a person, never as institution.” (Alinsky taught that the people’s discontent must be directed, without exception, at an identifiable face — “a personification, not something general and abstract like a corporation or City Hall.”)
Toward this end, MA activists commonly employ a technique known as the “accountability session,” whereby they target a specific person — e.g., a government official or corporate CEO who possesses the authority necessary to make a decision vis a vis a matter of concern to MA. The activists arrange to meet with this person, telling him or her that they merely wish to have a certain existing policy or plan explained to them. At the meeting, however, the official is confronted by a large number of angry protesters; their activities are directed by an experienced organizer who has analyzed the official’s personal and family life, political connections, and career to find vulnerabilities where pressure can be applied.
To provide an overall structure for its training programs, MA has produced a 425-page manual titled Organizing for Social Change, co-authored by former MA trainer Kim Bobo, MA co-founder Steve Max, and current MA executive director Jackie Kendall. This publication is widely used by radicals and community organizations around the world as a textbook on how to conduct direct-action organizing. Such groups as the Children’s Defense Fund, NARAL, the Sierra Club, and the United States Student Organization have used the manual for training purposes. The AFL-CIO has incorporated the manual’s teachings into its “Union Summer” training camp for labor organizers. Former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have highly encouraged their supporters to read it.
In December 2005, MA announced its establishment of an annual “Heather Award,” in honor of Heather Booth’s decades of work as an activist leader.
To view a list of this award’s past recipients, click here.
In 2008, MA executive director Jackie Kendall served on the team that developed the first volunteer-training program for “Camp Obama,” a two-to-four day intensive course — run in conjunction with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign — designed to cultivate political activists who could help the Illinois senator win the White House.
MA endorsed the October 2, 2010 “March on Washington” organized by One Nation Working Together, an event whose purpose was to inspire “an intensive voter-mobilization program for Election Day 2010.”
For a list of other notable endorsers, click here.
The Midwest Academy has received funding from numerous foundations, including, among others, the Arca Foundation, the Capital Group Companies Charitable Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, the DeHaan Family Foundation, the Elias Foundation, the Energy Foundation, the Foundation for Deep Ecology, the H. W. Buckner Charitable Residuary Trust, the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Lilly and Company Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the New York Community Trust, the New York Foundation, the Nicholas H. Noyes, Jr. Memorial Foundation, George Soros‘s Open Society Institute, the Retirement Research Foundation, the Wieboldt Foundation, the Woods Charitable Trust, and the Woods Fund of Chicago.
As of 2008, the Midwest Academy’s net assets totaled $654,041.