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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

A bruised MPIRG reboots with hope

<oster for the first annual meeting of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) Carleton branch was recently defaced . “WE VOTED NO,” the graffiti shouted. “MPIRG Sucks.”

Most Carleton students vividly remember the heated student editorials written last spring, both for and against the Carleton branch of MPIRG, a state-wide grassroots nonprofit organization founded in 1971 for students who work on statewide public issues.

Last May’s referendum ultimately led to a decisive vote from the Carleton student body, 847 to 321, against maintaining the optional/refundable fee of $7.50 per student, included as a “check off” in each student’s tuition statement. MPIRG supporters asserted that this minimal fee was needed to pay for necessary operation costs on important student-led initiatives, and to pay for the services of well-qualified non-student campus organizers.

Opponents argued that MPIRG had not sufficiently benefited the Carleton community to justify the check-off fee.

After the results of the referendum were released, Lindsey Shaughnessy, articulated the anti-MPIRG view.

“MPIRG’s goals are certainly laudable,” she said, “but we felt that the organization was not using Carleton students’ money effectively or transparently, and that our campus goals very much diverged from those of the statewide organization and its paid organizers.”

Other students took issue with the administrative tactics of MPIRG.

Becky Canary-King ’09, organizing chair of Carleton MPIRG, provided an insider’s view in another Carletonian editorial. She said that a statewide MPIRG organizer came to campus and would “not listen to our ideas, and kept forcing strategies from the state onto our campus. They wanted to keep us in the group, but only if we would do things their way. Otherwise, they would just find other leaders.”

In a discussion with current MPIRG campus co-chair, Ben Hellerstein, he said he was initially hesitant to become the co-chair of Carleton’s MPIRG, but that with the encouragement of his current MPIRG co-chair Christa Owens ’12, he realized “what a cool organization it is,” and that he was drawn by the chance to “be part of a broad and lasting element of change across Minnesota.”

Last year’s student-led campaign against the Carleton MPIRG branch was “pretty disappointing for all of us,” Hellerstein said. He called the defeat of the check off fee “bizarre” and “kind of a fluke.”

“MPIRG’s been at Carleton for 38 years. Why was this time different?”

He says that many Carleton MPIRG supporters, and he himself, still don’t understand why the campaign against MPIRG at Carleton was so caustic.

He attributes some of the success of the anti-MPIRG campaign to the opposition’s more concise message.

“It’s easier to just say ‘MPIRG sucks’ than to take the time to say, well, actually, here’s why it works.” Hellerstein pointed out that most of the students leading the charge against MPIRG last spring were juniors and seniors who “had an extensive network and held positions of respect and authority, like in the CSA Senate.”

Most of the pro-MPIRG faction, by contrast, underclassmen. Because of this, “We expect that the majority of ‘no’ votes came from upperclassmen,” Hellerstein said

The result of the negative vote was that the Carleton branch lost its major funding source and is no longer recognized by statewide MPIRG as an official chapter.

According to an e-mail from Hellerstein’s co-chair Christa Owens, “a chapter must have at minimum a refusable/refundable fee. Without a fee, Carleton cannot have a campus organizer or voting power on the student board of directors. However, the board voted unanimously to grant Carleton’s state board representative, Michelle Hesterberg, ex-officio (non-voting) status.”

Furthermore, unlike funded chapters, which continue to contribute financially to MPIRG, the Carleton branch can no longer submit its ballot votes at MPIRG’s Issues and Actions Conference, held annually in April, at which, co-chair Owens wrote, “students elect which issues to work on.”

Owens said in the email that “the loss of funding from Carleton prevents MPIRG from dedicating a full-time organizer to work with Carleton students.” Despite these significant setbacks, Hellerstein and Owens said that Carleton MPIRG continues to receive some support from statewide MPIRG staff who offer guidance and support via telephone and email.

Two staffers are employed and paid by state MPIRG, while a third, the Chair of the Student Board of Organizers, is an unpaid graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Owens reported that the latter will “try to come down to Northfield from Minneapolis once a month,” and that, these state MPIRG staff have been “very responsive to our needs. MPIRG is not abandoning the Carleton students who are working tirelessly to get an official chapter back on campus.”

Hellerstein acknowledged that the current position of the Carleton MPIRG branch is “not ideal,” and notes that in continuing to receive guidance for new projects and ideas from MPIRG’s statewide staff despite being unfunded, Carleton’s MPIRG is “basically getting something for nothing.” This set-up is working now but is not “sustainable in the long run.”

Given this, Hellerstein said that reviving steady and reliable funding for the Carleton MPIRG branch is critical to the chapter’s long-term success.

The unfunded Carleton branch is continuing to work on issues they had discussed before the May 2009 vote, and Hellerstein asserts that “supporting state-wide campaigns will continue to be very important to us.”

However, Hellerstein’s personal hopes are to see a “renewed emphasis on local campaigns” in Northfield, Rice County, and on the Carleton campus.

Other goals for the 2009-10 year include a focus on local foods and sustainable agriculture initiatives for Rice County and Northfield, as well as a continued campaign against Bisephenol A (BPA), a chemical found in many portable water bottles which has been demonstrated in a number of studies to have harmful effects on human health and development.

Owens also described an upcoming series of workshops focused on social change, held at Carleton twice each term, which will feature speeches and “relevant skills training” by prominent leaders and elected officials.

Hellerstein is enthusiastic about an upcoming meeting with the Northfield Grassroots Transit Initiative, a citizen-led group which is working towards improving “sustainability and accessibility” in and around Northfield.

MPIRG sets itself apart from other Carleton student groups of similar focus, Hellerstein says, because it is one of the few organizations that works on broader change across Minnesota, rather than just in the Carleton community. Carleton MPIRG’s core group of about six students is “really excited for this year,” he said. “It’ll be a good year.”

Copyright @ 2009 Pressville

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