Post Classifieds

Inside the ConnPIRG hierarchy

UConnPIRG’s parent groups criticized by employees for strict fundraising, volunteer quotas

By Annie Pancak and Julia Werth
On January 21, 2014

 Many students take advantage of the opportunities provided by UConnPIRG to play a role in community activism, but high expectations set by ConnPIRG can be discouraging to some.

Last spring semester, UConnPIRG asked students to sign a petition so the group would keep its university funding. Hundreds of students signed and UConnPIRG succeeded in reinstating this five dollar student fee.

PIRG is a national activism group. ConnPIRG is the Connecticut chapter. UConnPIRG is a ConnPIRG branch at the university.

While many students find participating in UConnPIRG a fun and rewarding experience, some students say ConnPIRG is a difficult organization to participate in, due to their high expectations.

"The way ConnPIRG is, is number centered, so if you don't meet your numbers, then you haven't succeeded, even if you put in so much work," said UConnPIRG member and leader for the Hunger and Homelessness Campaign Josephine Ankrah, 4th-semester human development and family studies major.

Though Ankrah works for UConnPIRG, any project that the UConn branch undertakes falls under certain criteria set by ConnPIRG - such as numbers of volunteer sign ups - in order to be deemed a successful project. Ankrah said those baselines can seem overbearing.

Students typically join activist groups as summer jobs. They are paid to be 'canvassers' who drive to different towns in the state each day with their coworkers and walk along streets, knocking on people's doors to raise awareness about an issue and ask for a monetary donation. Different groups have different quotas that a canvasser is expected to bring in.

For example, Connecticut Citizens Action Group, another activist group in Connecticut that employs students - but without as much presence at UConn - has a quota of $80 a day, said a CCAG field manager Katie Feer, 6th-semester classics and ancient Mediterranean studies major. Not making quota can lead to a canvasser losing their job.

ConnPIRG's number standards and quotas make "the organization difficult to please," said Ankrah.

A 4th-semester psychology major at Central Connecticut State University, Hillary Desideraggio, left PIRG for CCAG after a week and a half because of the high quota pressure and overall intensity the group had, she said.

Desideraggio said she requested one Monday holiday off in May because of a family barbeque, and PIRG, upset she was taking a day off, said she had to work on a Saturday.

PIRG asks canvassers to work four days a week. Desideraggio said they would not negotiate when she asked to work less than four days a week so she could take a summer class. "It was frustrating because the flier didn't say you had to work full time, and I was locked in once I had the job," said Desideraggio.

In regards to working at CCAG, Desideraggio said she loves it. CCAG asks canvassers to work two days a week, said senior field manager for CCAG Danielle Donnelly, 8th-semester English and political science double major.

"The campaigns are not a money making machine," said Donnelly, "we want people behind us more than anything, so when advocates go to the state capital they can say there are this many members."

CCAG has recently worked for labor rights, including performing at fast food strikes and extending insurance to uninsured children in Connecticut. PIRG and CCAG are often aligned together on issues, said CCAG canvass director Sam Chaney.
UConnPIRG offers an outlet for several students to put their dreams of change into action. Current chapter President of UConnPIRG Sam Hollister said that "the UConnPIRG internship program is the best way for students to get involved" and truly become an active member of the group.

ConnPIRG interns take on key leadership roles in one or more of ConnPIRG's campaigns such as the Bigger Better Bottle Bill or Hunger and Homelessness. During their internship, which can be used toward course credit in almost all departments across campus, students sharpen their communication, campaign and leadership skills.

Hollister said that, "the internship was a great experience" and he "would recommend it to anyone interested in helping to change our campus, state, or country."

For example, students involved at various Colleges and Universities across Connecticut in recent years have helped thousands of students register to vote as well as "worked to pass a bill to stop student loan interest rates from doubling," said Hollister.

Other students, like Ankrah, do not get involved through an internship. Instead, they find in UConnPIRG a place where they can volunteer and help others so easily.

Ankrah got involved her first semester with UConnPIRG, although not through the traditional way. During the recruitment period she filled out an interest card, but when UConnPIRG called her to work on the voter registration campaign she "wasn't interested in it and didn't join." However, a few weeks into the semester she said she "found out about the hunger and homelessness campaign and was interested."

She began going to My Sister's Place, a homeless shelter in Hartford, every Wednesday, and to the soup kitchen every Saturday. Ankrah says, "helping out was so much fun every time." This was the type of activism Ankrah wanted to be a part of.

Other students do not get involved with ConnPIRG at school, but become a cavasser during their summer breaks. Abe Scarr, the current Director of ConnPIRG, started out this way 11 years ago. Scarr says that canvassing is a great way to start your career in activism because it "gives you basic skills that you need to be a professional advocacy worker."

Scarr insists that canvassing for ConnPIRG is "Not just about money - they want to educate, get student signatures, and new members." He says that, "getting people involved longer term is our pride and goal."

Going door to door and asking for money while pushing a particular social or political view is not for everyone. "Going out and talking to strangers about political issues and asking for money can be uncomfortable," said Scarr.

However, those who work for multiple summers and often, like Scarr, find themselves as a full-time, professional activist "do it because they enjoy it."

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