That classic quote from Howard Zinn came to mind this morning as I was thinking about the recent news about Change.org. It's a line Zinn started using in the 1960s to challenge his students to get involved in the civil rights movement.
History, he said, is like a moving train. You can't ride the train and then say you have no idea how you arrived at your destination. You're either on board or not -- you can't be neutral.
Yesterday, The Huffington Post's Ryan Grim reported that Change.org would begin selling advertising space to any customer, including promoting right-wing petitions paid for by corporate clients. From now on, they say, they'll be neutral.
This has led to a lot of soul-searching in the movement -- and a lot of questions about SignOn.org, the online petition site that I help run and that was created by MoveOn.org. So I wanted to take this chance not to criticize others, but to explain our choices, our vision.
First, like Change.org, we at SignOn.org see the enormous, game-changing potential of giving regular folks the tools they need to run their own online campaigns.
Over the years, MoveOn has listened to our members and run incredible campaigns giving our members smart, timely ways to get involved.
But there were so many fights MoveOn couldn't take on. Just in my own community in Maine we have a growing homeless population, schools that need money, sewage runoff polluting the beaches, and so much more.
And after the 2010 election, the rise of the tea party, and Citizens United, we realized that what we were doing wasn't enough. So we set out to re-invent people-powered politics by tapping into the passion and leadership of our seven million members to run hundreds more campaigns than we could ever take on before.
MoveOn launched SignOn.org about 18 months ago, and already tens of thousands of people have started petitions and many of them have scored amazing victories.
Robert Applebaum, an attorney in New York, started a SignOn.org petition calling for student loan forgiveness and it spread quickly, gathering more than a million signatures. Then, something amazing happened. President Obama responded -- not with a form letter, but with an actual change in policy that will lower student loan payments for more than 1.6 million people.
When religious conservatives in Utah tried to pass a bill banning sex education in public schools, over 40,000 Utahns signed a petition urging the governor to veto the bill -- and he did. The petition was started by Paul Krueger, a school bus driver and retired firefighter, who was quoted in the news coverage as saying, "I've never done anything like this, and it's kind of amazing how fast this took off."
And when Delaware Governor Jack Markell was considering supporting weak rules for fracking in the region, John Kowalko started a petition on SignOn.org urging the governor to vote no. After more than 1,000 signatures and a wave of media coverage, Gov. Markell came out against the rules, protecting drinking water for more than 15 million people.
That's just the tip of the iceberg, and the movement is growing every day.
So how is this different from Change.org? First, SignOn.org is non-profit and proudly progressive. Our goal is to make America live up to our best progressive ideals as a nation. We don't answer to shareholders; we answer to our members -- seven million Americans who share a commitment to making our country better through collective action. We will never, ever, ever give right-wing front groups a channel for co-opting our members' organizing.
Second, we never, ever let anyone pay us to promote their campaign. If MoveOn asks you to sign a petition, you don't have to wonder if it's because someone paid us to. We trust our members to decide which campaigns to promote, and their judgment has been impeccable.
Third, we built SignOn.org to empower long-term organizing. Petitions are great, but most of the time it takes an ongoing campaign to win real change. So we want SignOn.org petition creators to send regular email updates to the MoveOn members who sign their petitions, and our toolset provides unlimited, free access to do so.
In short, we take sides, and we're proud of it. We're for economic justice, equality for women and LGBT individuals, ending poverty, racial justice, quality education for all, a clean environment, and peace. Because like Howard Zinn said, you can't be neutral on a moving train.
Follow Steven Biel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sbiel2