Robert A. Fulkerson, Director, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada - Reno, Nevada
Nevada may be the seventh largest state in square miles, but it is one of the most sparsely populated. It is a land of mountains and grasslands, and the driest state in the United States. About three-quarters of the population live in Las Vegas and Reno. Both are cities where resorts and gambling fuel the economy. Outside these cities are miles of trackless desert, Indian reservations, big-acreage ranches and a tradition of independence. Nevada faces some tough challenges that include demands to use its empty miles as sites for nuclear waste disposal and a lack of water that leads to ongoing tension between urban and rural areas competing for this resource.
Seeds of commitment
A fifth-generation Nevadan, Fulkerson was in college in Washington, D.C. in the late 1970s when his mother wrote him about her difficulty getting funding to start the first domestic violence shelter in Reno. She also worried about the federal government’s plan to destroy parts of Fulkerson’s beloved Nevada desert to house MX missiles. These concerns triggered a major change in Fulkerson’s life. He decided to move back to Nevada, where he began volunteering for the Reno Sparks Indian Colony and helping his mother in her work. “Since then, I have been motivated by the belief that I can make a difference in creating a concrete vision of social justice,” he says. “Seeing how people become inspired when they engage in grassroots activism for the first time or win a hard-fought victory is the most rewarding part of my work.”
Fulkerson’s work is particularly impressive because Nevada’s small population, large spaces, and independence would seem to make it an unlikely place for social activism. He founded the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), a consortium of Nevada organizations, in 1994. Particularly noteworthy is PLAN’s ability to involve unlikely allies — conservative business groups and political leaders, for example — in its campaigns. PLAN includes groups from around the state that work on issues ranging from the rights of prisoners to the fair use of Nevada’s scarce water. It creates committees to direct the varied work of its members. PLAN’s Racial Justice Committee, for example, works to address racism in Nevada and within PLAN’s membership. The Economic Justice Committee within PLAN organizes around proposed policy changes, including those keyed to the minimum wage, the role of immigrant labor, and the impact of federal budget decisions on Nevada. Another PLAN group focuses on environmental issues and includes the Nevada Water Network, which guards against attempts by urban centers in Nevada to export precious water from rural Nevada.
These disparate groups score impressive victories. For example, PLAN organized the state’s first tax-analysis and education project, which explained who paid for and who benefited from services in the state. The campaign led to a 2003 law that resulted in $500 million annually in increased taxes from businesses that previously had not paid an equitable tax. Other legislative successes include a law that made Nevada the first western state to protect gays, lesbians, and bisexual workers from job discrimination, and one that requires comprehensive campaign finance disclosure. Other initiatives led to the registration of 12,000 new voters and a restoration of voting privileges to 40,000 former inmates.
When an industrial explosion in 1998 killed a worker from Mexico and injured 12 others, PLAN worked with legislators to pass a law that requires training in hazardous industries is conducted in the native language of the worker. The members of the Reno Sparks Indian Colony credit PLAN and Fulkerson with helping them find support among city and state officials to stop plans for a destructive strip mine adjacent to their land. Fulkerson also suggested tribal members buy company stock and show up at the annual meeting to explain the potential harm to the tribe. The tribe won, and today uses its newfound skills to organize around other issues.
Fulkerson encourages connections between groups and communities that might think they have nothing in common — an African-American member of the state employees’ union and a white, working-class, nonunion casino worker, for example. “I see leadership as centered on trust, which takes time to build through personal relationships,” Fulkerson says. “One-on-one meetings can be tedious, but they are essential. I view trust between the leader and led as ideally based on truth and love, because despite conflicts among strong egos and contrary goals, trust among friends and colleagues can be astonishingly effective in moving groups toward consensus and accomplishment.” Fulkerson sees the mentoring of leaders as a critical part of his work. “If I’m not consciously developing new leaders as an integral part of my daily work, I should be held accountable,” he says.
Fulkerson plans to focus on helping the communities he works with elect their leaders to public office in Nevada. “I’ve seen the difference just a couple of people from grassroots organizations who have been elected to office can make on the inside,” he says. “I’ve learned that we will not attain progressive, systemic changes in public policy-making until we change the policymakers.”
More about Bob Fulkerson and PLAN
“One of Bob’s most impressive methods of engaging community members has been the seeding and supporting of organizations representing constituencies without a voice in public policy.”
- Timothy Hay, Attorney for the City of Reno
"Bob is the best. Everyone in the state respects him, even his opponents.”
- Glenn Miller, Professor and Director, Graduate School of Environmental Science and Health, University of Nevada
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