How I Learned That Green Corps/PIRG Is Not a Progressive Organization

By Daniel Gross

Dan Compton didn’t have to wait along to see the true face of Green Corps. Like many of us that would follow, Mr. Compton learned about Green Corps the hard way. While there were some eerie things about the application process, what happened to Mr. Compton alerted me conclusively that there was something fundamentally wrong with this program. Still, even in my wildest imagination I couldn’t begin to speculate as to what was to come.

At the time, Dan was a committed and compassionate activist fresh out of Northwestern University. We hit it off right away, linked by a shared interest in radical political action. In addition to being a serious advocate for social justice and the environment, the kind of campaigner you love to have on your team, Dan was a genuinely likable person.

Like most of us, Dan accepted his employment with Green Corps and then waited several months for the program to begin in August of 2002. During this interim period Dan could have certainly found meaningful employment. Instead Dan’s Green Corps career began and ended in less than a week.

Just five days into the program Dan Compton was arbitrarily fired. His crime: an independent spirit, an interest in transformative political solutions, and the blue dye in his hair. Disgusted with the treatment he had received, and frankly despondent at the whole situation, Dan gracefully declined my offer to support him in trying to get his job back or imposing a penalty on Green Corps for their transgression. He returned home to Chicago and I haven’t seen him since.

And this was just the beginning.

Green Corps bills itself as a field school for environmental organizing with the mission of training the next generation of environmental and social change leaders in a year long paid program. In reality it is a front group for the PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups), an amorphous conglomeration of anti-democratic “environmental” and “consumer” organizations run by a shadowy character named Doug Phelps. Its goal is to indoctrinate promising organizers that otherwise may be turned off by the PIRGS into the PIRG dogma.

Green Corps’ strategy, a cookie-cutter copy of the PIRG approach, is to remove young people from everything they’re familiar with and reconstruct their entire political, social, psychological, and romantic identity with Green Corps as the foundation. During the initial training period all of your time is spent with the organization, you learn and work together, but you also live together, read the same assigned literature in your off time, you socialize solely with each other, etc. In discussion sessions, you are praised if you see an issue Green Corps’ way and alienated if you don’t.

Strangely, all of management had precisely the same views on every single issue imaginable and articulated these views in the exact same language. You name it, the 2000 election, the environmental justice movement, the role of people of color in the environmental movement, racism, strategy, ad infinitum, these people all said the same thing and induced employees to toe the same line. Here’s a quick play-by-play of their positions on these issues respectively: Nader spoiled the 2000 election and to wit talked about “silly” issues like prison reform; EJ is classic NIMBYism; people of color are not ready for the movement because they’re too interested in making money; racism might be solved in a couple hundred years but it’s counterproductive to deal with now; and the environmental movement’s strategy should be to organize the white middle and upper-middle class where the power is.

Green Corps saves some of its most potent venom for groups oriented towards direct action. In their view, direct action and even the most symbolic civil disobedience is in every circumstance counterproductive and just down right stupid. Green Corps doesn’t even allow its employees to engage in civil disobedience on their own time on independent campaigns. Perhaps more surprisingly, Green Corps bosses disparage their own campaign clients. The group I was working with, Greenpeace, was endlessly derided for taking a “public education” approach instead of the “advocacy organizing” model favored by Green Corps. The only environmental organization that was never once in any way criticized was obviously PIRG.

Incidentally, you might be wondering about how in the world Green Corps alters their employees’ romantic life. Leslie Sameulrich, the Executive Director of Green Corps at the time, boasted to some employees on one occasion with a smirk on her face that relationships don’t survive the Green Corps year. In fact, all the supervisors from time to time would smugly asked workers how relationships outside the program were holding up. And Samuelrich was right; the boot camp-like Green Corps experience tore loved ones and friends apart. People inside the organization often become virtually unrecognizable personality-wise to those with whom they were formerly close. A staggering fact about Green Corps and PIRG is the enormous amount of intra-organizational sexual activity many of which occurs between supervisors and subordinates. Some people even end up marrying within the organization; Mrs. Samuelrich is an example. If you’re thinking this stuff sounds cult-like, you’re right, it is.

Our status as at-will employees and Mr. Compton’s arbitrary termination exposed Green Corps’ anti-worker bias. What happened next proved they also created a hostile work environment for certain women.

Natalie Brumblay is a strong confident woman, and like Dan Compton, dedicated to creating a more just world. Having excelled at Amherst, she was excited to begin her career.

Ms. Brumblay soon began receiving uncomfortable attention regarding her performance from management. This seemed odd considering a training program is ostensibly supposed to be about training. It quickly became clear that their concern actually had nothing to do with her performance. In a stunning instance of gender discrimination Assistant Organizing Directory Naomi Roth, told Ms. Brumblay that she had gotten everything in life because of her looks. Understandably hurt, Natalie trudged on determined not to be victimized by this organization. But the pressure increased and she was put on a probationary status that denied her a first campaign placement. Ms. Brumblay began to break down, crying herself to sleep almost every night.

During this introductory training period Natalie had been communicating the events as they transpired to her mother. Interestingly, her mother, a tremendous woman in her own right, did some research which matched the objective criteria characteristic of cults to Green Corps practices. Under great duress and with the support of her mother, Natalie Brumblay quit the organization at the end of the introductory training session and is currently advancing the cause of social justice as a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Harvard.

These cult characteristics readily identified by Natalie’s mother, which are highly salient in Green Corps only if you know what you’re looking for, include amongst others: “sharing” exercises to expose weaknesses in the recruit and create a personal narrative with Green Corps at its pinnacle; construction of a closed non-falsifiable belief and intellectual system; establishment of the organization as superior in part by viciously denigrating competitors; suppression of critical faculties through intense fatigue; total control of all the recruit’s time; past graduates attesting to heroic heights attained thereby justifying the all-consuming nature of the organization in order to “save the world”; alienation from pre-cult self and family; and shunning or other psychological punishment against rebellious spirits. The result is an individual almost completely dependent on the organization for guidance and direction.

Ms. Brumblay and Mr. Compton’s experiences serve well to illustrate the nature of the organization and set the stage for my own personal battle with Green Corps undertaken in concert with another Green Corps employee Nathaniel Miller with the unwavering support of our union the Industrial Workers of the World. So then, I won’t touch on the other horror stories that took place early on in the program but believe me they were many.

By the end of the introductory training session I knew that Green Corps represented an affront to the dignity of labor that I hold so dear. My activist education consisted of learning to speak truth to power and I did just that at the organizational discussion meeting at the end of the training session. Mr. Miller got the ball rolling submitting that we required and deserved written contracts. Green Corps responded with the textbook union-busting answer proclaiming indignantly that contracts weren’t necessary at Green Corps and that we needed to trust the organization. I weighed into the discussion first in defense of my friend D.G. who left the program in what can only be described as a state of post-traumatic stress after being badgered by Green Corps relentlessly about her ‘skills’ even though she had made it through two intensive interview sessions and had been an accomplished organizer in college. Subsequently, I strongly criticized the supervisors for firing Dan Compton because of his political beliefs as a moral abomination. It appears that by taking a principled stand for universally accepted progressive values, Nathaniel Miller and I had initiated the chain of events that would end in our simultaneous firing from Green Corps.

After the introductory training session, Green Corps employees were placed as organizers with various organizations. But while working with the campaign partners was powerful and rewarding, Green Corps maintained an iron grip on our campaigns. Worse than that, it became evident that Green Corps was attempting to mold our personalities to fit their tactical, strategic, and philosophical approach to organizing. On one phone call my supervisor, a stereotypical victim of the PIRG/Green Corps cult named Heather Smith, attempted in vain to dissuade me from my position that in non-profit corporations as in for profit corporations power is concentrated tyrannically at the top and there is little if any responsiveness to the folks at the bottom. But there’s no reasoning with these people; they’re too far gone by the time they become supervisors. I couldn’t even make Ms. Smith understand that it was a desecration of Cesar Chavez’s memory and an insult to Dolores Huerta’s good name to falsely claim, as Green Corps frequently did, that they had any substantive role in creating Green Corps, an organization that so demeans the principles these two great heroes from my home state of California stand for.

The final straw as far as Mr. Miller and I were concerned took place at the second training session. Green Corps conducted a training on recruiting next year’s “class” without even once mentioning diversity. The both of us had a history of solidarity with activists of color and possessed an uncompromising opposition to institutional racism so we weren’t about to keep our mouths shut. Multi-national corporations have a more enlightened world-view on hiring practices for heaven’s sake! A co-worker’s remarks at the event are instructive, “the best activists at my school were persons of color and they’re not on my [recruitment] list…yes this is systemic racism.” Miller and I demanded that Green Corps needed to open the door to underrepresented groups in the environmental movement in order to satisfy equity considerations and strengthen the organization. We offered concrete feasible proposals to increase the diversity of the organization through the recruitment and hiring process. Many of our co-workers agreed.

Even by Green Corps standards the unified front put on by management was staggering. They acted offended that such a proposal would be made even though there was no disputing the fact that there was only one minority worker in the 2003 “class”. Their comments were at best dismissive and at worst highly bigoted. Management claimed that to attract persons of color they’d have to increase salaries and hire fewer organizers thereby weakening the organization. They proclaimed with an appalling certitude that minority graduates from college were only interested in making money implying that the moral drive common in young activists was somehow lacking among Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and other oppressed groups. In one of the most overtly offensive things I’ve heard in my life, Naomi Roth claimed that racism might be settled in a couple hundred years but had no place in our work, that rather we should focus on organizing the white middle class. Nathaniel and I were accused of derailing Green Corps and straying away from its mission.

Not long afterwards, my immediate supervisor Heather Smith made what was supposed to be a routine site visit to Miami where I was working with Greenpeace (which was highly satisfied with my performance incidentally). She first met with the two Green Corps organizers also working on the campaign in Miami. The three of us had done remarkable work together with Greenpeace and spent a great deal of time with each other; we were a real team. When they came out of their meetings and looked towards me they acted as if they’d seen a ghost. It was obvious they were truly hurt. One of them would later leave the program in disgust. The ax was going to come down on me; there was no doubt about it.

Ms. Smith was visibly shaken as she began speaking to me. As much as her personality was wholly identified with the PIRG/Green Corps cult, somewhere deep down it was clear she knew she was doing something terribly wrong. She fired me; my income and health care were gone just like that. She proceeded to list the phony reasons Green Corps concocted to get rid of me. I was derailing Green Corps’ mission, acting against the best interests of Green Corps, and unable to get along with (read: pay obeisance to) my supervisors. I asked her for concrete examples and she could give me none. These reasons were clearly a fabrication. For one, my campaign had generated significant victories. And perhaps most tellingly, Mr. Miller was fired at exactly, yes the very same exact moment, many miles away in Wisconsin. The real reason for our termination of course was that Nathaniel Miller and I stood up against arbitrary terminations and racism while we were engaged in legally protected concerted activity. By the end of the Green Corps year, the majority of employees had been fired, blatantly forced out of the program, or quit.

Seeing Ms. Smith in such a pathetic state doing the bidding of her masters inspired a spark of compassion within me. I explained to her that membership in this organization didn’t absolve her from the requirements of human decency. Sooner or later, I continued, she would be struck with an undeniable sense of guilt for her betrayals. I like to think that through all the brainwashing maybe these words sank in just a little bit.

Green Corps was my trap door into the PIRG cult. However, there are numerous other tentacles to be wary of. Another entity within PIRG is the Fund for Public Interest Research. They run these seemingly ubiquitous canvasses where young people stand on the street or knock on doors for money. Supposedly the people who donate money become members, but they have absolutely no say in the activities of the organization. The canvasses, which all Green Corps employees work at during the summer, are often run using the name of otherwise honorable groups like Greenpeace. I have spoken to dozens of people that have worked in these canvasses that had experiences very similar to my own. Besides the cultishness, racism, union busting (the Fund once shut down an entire office to avoid the union) and sexual harassment, these folks also had to deal with late payment of wages, unsafe working conditions, and minors being provided alcohol by management. One former worker at the Fund told me she was offered a management position but quit instead because she was unwilling, “to drink the Kool-Aid,” a reference to the Jonestown Massacre. Also, keep an eye out for the PIRG Campus Organizer and Fellowship programs that more or less mirror Green Corps but under the official PIRG banner.

Through its various arms PIRG has done considerable harm to countless individuals around the country who had the misfortune to get lured into their web. This must stop. It’s time for progressives to get the truth out about this organization.