PRA: "An early warning system"

PRAccess interviews incoming executive director Tarso Luís Ramos and board chair Supriya Pillai about PRA’s role in a new day.

PRAccess: Tarso, you officially joined Political Research Associates in May
2006, but you were involved with PRA before then. What initially drew you to PRA?

TLR: My family came to the U.S. fleeing Brazil’s military dictatorship when I was very young, so let’s say I was raised with a healthy concern about right-wing social and political movements. As it turned out, I came of age during this country’s dramatic drift to the Right: Reagan’s first term came during the year I began high school.

I became aware of PRA in 1991, during the first Gulf War. While editing the Portland Alliance newspaper, I learned that right-wing groups were recruiting from the anti-war movement. A colleague handed me a white paper on the topic published by an organization that turned out to be PRA. I interviewed its author, Chip Berlet, for my story. A few years later I was running a research project on anti-environmental front groups and got a call from some guy who wanted to compliment us on a report we’d done—that was Chip again.

As the anti-gay backlash heated up in the early ’90s, I got invited to a national strategy session PRA convened together with Loretta Ross and Suzanne Pharr. I think it was at this meeting that I really came to appreciate PRA’s importance as a resource for social justice organizing. Like many of my colleagues in the Northwest, working to defend
civil rights and counter the rise of the Christian Right, I came to rely on Political Research Associates as an unassailable source of information and analysis. We collaborated in various ways over the years: Jean Hardisty came out to meet with community groups in the Northwest; I contributed to a reader (Eyes Right!), edited by PRA, and so forth. When, after a time living outside the U.S., fortune brought me to Boston, PRA offered me a job as research director. Years later, I learned they weren’t confident they had the money to pay my salary!

PRAccess: And now you’ll be the executive director. The board must feel pretty confident about this choice. Supriya, what played into the decision to go with Tarso?

SP: Absolutely—total confidence. There was no question in our minds. If anything, we were really waiting on Tarso to say yes.

PRAccess: How did you approach him?

SP: I called him up and asked him! I said, “We would really love it if you would consider this. We could go through a national search, but the board recognizes that we have the right person within the organization.”

At first Tarso wasn’t sure it was the right role for him. I think he might have been influenced by the fact that it wasn’t just me, or even just the board—folks outside of our circle, folks we respect in the field, thought that this would be a perfect fit.

PRAccess: What do you think of the transition?

TLR: It comes at a good moment in PRA’s organizational life cycle. We’ve developed a multidimensional research program and a great staff. Despite the global financial crisis, the organization is stable. Katherine Ragsdale has put PRA on a sound footing and I’m very fortunate to inherit that. We all stand on the shoulders of those who did the work before us. I’m particularly lucky that those who preceded me continue to do the work and continue to be associated with PRA. Katherine has joined the advisory committee of one of our projects. PRA’s founder, Jean Hardisty, continues to work with PRA. Just last year we published two special reports by Jean on Bush administration marriage promotion policies.

SP: The entire board has recognized Katherine’s tremendous work bringing The organization to a place of growth and strength. She grew the funding base, as well as financial commitments to the organization. There was great strengthening of PRA’s infrastructure—it’s at a place structurally where it can really grow. 

PRAccess: Is there anything you’re looking forward to in particular?

TLR: I hope to expand and strengthen PRA’s research program, and to develop strategic alliances that will make PRA ever more useful to progressive organizing and advocacy on a broad range of issues. PRA was once an innovator in the use of communications technology, but we’ve not really kept pace with the enormous changes in the Web and other social media over the last few years.

PRAccess:What do you anticipate PRA’s role will be in the midst of all the political and economic change progressives are facing?

SP: There’s tremendous opportunity in light of a new Administration and beyond. There is a tidal shift that’s happening.  PRA could really strategically place itself there and enhance its movement-building work. Tarso puts it this way, too. PRA can strengthen its strategic alliances, and in doing so support and increase movement building that can blossom in this new era.

Katherine’s said this before: even though we’re in this new “sunshiney” place, we need to be aware that it’s at such times that the Right does its “best” and hardest work. It’s a crucial time for PRA as an organization to be vigilant.

TLR: PRA has learned, over its 28-year history of studying and resisting rightwing and antidemocratic movements, that when they are out of power, various sectors of the Right regroup, strategize, and experiment with how they’ll hit the ground running when opportunities present themselves. When Reagan was elected, the Heritage Foundation was ready with a policy handbook. After 9/11, the Project for a New American Century was already in place with plans for a unilateral military expression of American power throughout the world. But the Right is not monolithic. Some sectors become more aggressive, even violent, during periods when they are shut out of the policy-making arena, particularly at the federal level. During the Clinton years we saw a spike in clinic violence, and the Oklahoma City bombing.

Just as it would be disastrous for progressives to demobilize out of a sense of hope that the current administration will do the right thing in all policy areas, PRA hasn’t the luxury of sitting back and reveling in the apparent disarray of the Right. Rather, our challenge is larger and more urgent than ever. We must simultaneously support social justice groups to make the most of the historic opportunities suddenly before us, defend against the Right’s counterattacks, and serve as an early warning system for new and different right-wing strategies that may be implemented several years down the road.

PRAccess: It’s been said that, with the election of President Obama, the United States is now “post-racial.” Given your interest in “colorblind” ideology, Tarso, what do you make of this claim?

TLR: Those most eager to declare the U.S. a post-racial society generally have been consistently opposed to civil rights enforcement and racial justice initiatives of any kind. For this set, Obama’s election is a valuable propaganda opportunity to declare, yet again, “the end of racism.” There’s clearly been progress, and we should celebrate our victories. But one need only glance at the racial dimensions of unemployment, incarceration, educational attainment, health care, the immigration backlash, or the foreclosure crisis to appreciate that declaring the end of racism is an avoidance strategy that may have horrendous consequences. The Obama Administration’s resistance to characterize policy goals or his ascendency to the White House in racial justice terms makes the task of defeating colorblind racial ideology even more difficult.

PRAccess: Given Tarso’s background as a researcher, Supriya, what do you think he will bring to the role of executive director that might be unexpected?

SP: His background lends itself to strategic thinking for the organization. He is extremely thoughtful, very sharp in his political analysis, and his racial justice lens really lends itself to the direction the organization is taking. He’s a team player and works well with staff. Also, the board has been struck by his humility.

PRAccess: What can we expect from you next month?

TLR: Expect that I’ll be recruiting for a new research director at PRA! It will be hard to give up the intimate involvement I’ve had in PRA’s research projects, but I’m excited at the opportunity to bring more talent into the organization. In the months ahead, look for new PRA reports on a broad range of important issues.

– Interviewer Maria Planansky is a communications assistant for PRA



Spring/Summer 2009
Volume 8, Number 1

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