The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner
The Peoples’ Voice Cafe in New York City
By Susan J. Erenrich and Stephen L. Suffet
Susan (Susie) J. Erenrich is a social movement history documentarian. She uses the arts for social change to tell stories about transformational leadership, resilience, and societal shifts as a result of mobilization efforts by ordinary citizens. Susie holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University and is the founder/executive director of the Cultural Center for Social Change. She has more than four decades of experience in nonprofit/arts administration, civic engagement, community service, and community organizing and has taught at universities, public schools, and community-based programs for at-risk, low-income populations. Currently a professor at American University, she is the editor of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change (a volume in ILA's BLB series). She is the producer/host of Wasn't That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation, a live community radio broadcast on WERA.FM. Listen on-demand or live every Friday from 1:00 - 2:00 PM Eastern time.
Stephen L. Suffet is a retired educator who worked thirty-eight years for the New York City public school system. He has been a member of the Peoples' Voice Cafe (PVC) Collective since 2002, and he currently serves on the organization's Board of Directors and as its Program Director. Sources for this article include documents in the Peoples' Voice Cafe files, Suffet's conversations with current and former members of the PVC Collective, and his own first-hand knowledge. In his spare time, he occasionally performs as a folksinger under the name Steve Suffet.
Welcome! This issue of the Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner spotlights the Peoples’ Voice Cafe. It is written by my longtime PVC compatriot – Steve Suffet.
For folks not familiar with the Cafe, it is an all-volunteer collective that has produced praiseworthy performances for New York City for almost 40 years. Every Saturday night from September through May, the Cafe provides a platform for the artistic expression of a wide variety of humanitarian matters and concerns.
The Cafe was originally a reaction to the changing political landscape of the 1970s. Artists involved in social change initiatives or community and movement building campaigns were experiencing an adverse reaction to their message. Many troubadours were unable to obtain paying engagements unless they changed or softened their rhetoric. Others had to find alternative ways to convey their sentiments. Topical singers-songwriters (who had been sidelined or who had been forced to find substitute employment) and performing artists from the New York City area engaged in a number of conversations and, along with Pete Seeger, decided to take a stand. Judy Gorman, a singer-songwriter who was leading the charge, held the first meeting in her Manhattan apartment. A collective was constituted, and the balladeers searched for an appropriate space. Peoples’ Voice Cafe was born.
As a member of the PVC booking committee since 2004, and a producer of many shows throughout my tenure, I am thrilled to feature this incredible guest column for readers interested in horizontally led groups and institutions.
Enjoy the article and the podcast that accompanies it!
The Peoples’ Voice Cafe in New York City
By Steve Suffet
If you ever find yourself in Midtown Manhattan on a Saturday night between mid-September and mid-May, and you are looking for performing artists who have something important to say and the voice with which to say it, then the Peoples’ Voice Cafe is the place to be — as it has been for nearly 40 years.
Just don’t let our name fool you, because if you are looking for a cafe in the usual sense of the word, you will not find one. Although coffee, tea, juice, and home baked goodies are available for purchase immediately before each show and during intermission, the Peoples’ Voice Cafe is not a small restaurant. We have no menus and no wait staff. Seating is often theater style, meaning in rows, rather than cafe style around small tables. That is because the Peoples’ Voice Cafe is a volunteer run, collectively governed, politically progressive listening room. The music or other entertainment is not in the background while people dine and drink with their friends. It is, instead, the focus of the Peoples’ Voice Cafe, the very reason for our existence.
Although the dozen or so people who first organized the Peoples’ Voice Cafe resided throughout the New York metropolitan area, they all agreed that the Cafe should be located in the borough of Manhattan, and they found space available in Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church on Sixth Avenue at Washington Place in Greenwich Village. Since we first opened our doors on November 3, 1979, the Peoples’ Voice Cafe has had to move half a dozen times, but we’ve always stayed within Manhattan. For the past ten years we have been located on the lower level of Community Church of New York, a venerable Unitarian-Universalist edifice on East 35th Street, just west of Park Avenue in Midtown. Ten years is the longest time period we have been in one place, and we hope to remain at Community Church for the foreseeable future. They have been a good landlord, and in many ways their mission is congruent with our own.
What Do We Mean by Volunteer Run, Collectively Governed?
From the beginning, the Peoples’ Voice Cafe has been run by volunteers. While volunteers can get reimbursed for actual expenses they have laid out of their own pockets, no one gets paid for doing the many jobs that must be done. These include, among other things, booking the talent, publicizing the shows, handling the banking and bookkeeping, negotiating with the landlord, purchasing insurance, maintaining the mailing lists and other records, taking care of and operating the sound system, preparing and selling the snacks, making the announcements, introducing the acts, and helping the artists selling their merchandise.
Taken as a group, the currently active volunteers constitute the PVC Collective. Currently, the PVC Collective meets as a whole at least once a year, and usually twice, although in the earliest days of the Peoples’ Voice Cafe it met more frequently. Operating by consensus whenever possible, the PVC Collective is and always has been the ultimate governing body of the Peoples’ Voice Cafe, but in practice its responsibility has been to set the general direction of the organization rather than supervise the specific operations. For example, the PVC Collective does not tell our volunteer programming committee which specific artist to book. It has, nevertheless, decided that the Peoples’ Voice Cafe should present more performers of color, more openly LGBTQ performers, and more performers under thirty-five years of age, so the programming committee has followed up by making a conscious effort to book such artists.
The question of, “Who, exactly, is a member of the PVC Collective?” had for many years been a difficult one to answer. Would someone, for example, become a member by volunteering only once or twice during a season? Or, would someone be a member if he or she volunteers nearly every week but chooses not to attend any meetings?
For the first thirty-five years of our existence, an inner core of exceptionally active volunteers who assumed the leadership usually answered such questions. They decided when and where to hold meetings of the PVC Collective and whom to invite. In a very real sense, they became a “Collective within the Collective” without ever calling themselves that. Over time, of course, the membership of both the inner core and the larger PVC Collective continuously changed. Existing members lost interest, became less active, moved away, developed health problems, or in some cases died. Meanwhile, new members joined. There was, however, no formal mechanism for becoming a member of either the PVC Collective or its inner core. Some might say “It just happened.”
That all changed on May 16, 2014, when, after several years of discussion within the PVC Collective, the Peoples’ Voice Cafe finally became a nonprofit corporation under the laws of New York State. Under our corporate bylaws, we have a board of directors that invites volunteers to become members of the PVC Collective. If they accept, they become members for three years, after which time their memberships expire and they have to be invited again. In turn, the members of the PVC Collective elect the PVC Board of Directors. That election takes place annually at a meeting of the PVC Collective. In this manner, we now have a clearly defined PVC Collective, as well as a leadership that is also clearly defined and that the PVC Collective has formally chosen.
We will examine the role of the PVC Board of Directors and its relationship to the PVC Collective farther down. But let us first look at several other important issues.
What About Peoples’ Voice Cafe Membership?
In addition to the PVC Collective, the Peoples’ Voice Cafe used to have actual members, meaning people who paid annual dues to join. Being a member meant that you received periodic mailings from the Peoples’ Voice Cafe, usually monthly except during the three-month summer hiatus. It also meant that you were asked to make a smaller contribution for admission than nonmembers were asked to make. For example, during our 2013-2014 season we asked members to contribute $10 for admission, while nonmembers were asked to contribute $18. We say “contribute” because we had and still have a “no one turned away for lack of money” door policy.
Being a member, however, did not confer any voting rights, and the PVC Collective continued to be a self-selecting body rather than an elected one. Since incorporation in 2014, what had been called Peoples’ Voice Cafe members are now known as Peoples’ Voice Cafe subscribers, a much more accurate term. They still receive certain benefits, but as before, they do not have voting rights.
What Is a Politically Progressive Listening Room?
When we say that the Peoples’ Voice Cafe is a politically progressive listening room, we do not mean that we are affiliated with any particular political party or organization. We are not. Furthermore, our tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code prohibits us from supporting or opposing any specific candidates for public office, so we are not political in terms of electoral politics. Do not expect us to host a concert for such-and-such candidate. Even if we were allowed to do so, that is not who we are.
What we do, and have done from the beginning, is to present performing artists whose material directly relates to issues of peace, freedom, human rights, environmental protection, and social justice. Among these have been some very well-known artists, including Pete Seeger, Odetta, Si Kahn, Kim and Reggie Harris, and Holly Near. But we have also presented many lesser known, enormously talented artists, such as Jean Rohe, Lindsey Wilson, and Joshua Garcia.
Our definition of politically progressive, however, is much broader than simply relating to those particular issues. For example, we provide a venue for what we consider to be authentic voices of underrepresented cultures. This could mean presenting a Hawaiian Music and Dance Night where the performers are genuinely from traditional Hawaiian society, either by birth or by adoption. Or it could mean presenting Appalachian music performed by people who are really from Appalachia, or Ladino-Sephardic music performed by people who actually come from Ladino-Sephardic backgrounds.
In addition, politically progressive means offering a venue for union-based or community-based choruses or choirs. Over the years these have included the New York City Labor Chorus; the Solidarity Singers, a union-based chorus from New Jersey; Voices of Shalom, a vocal ensemble from the African-American Hebrew tradition; Lavender Light, a mostly African-American LGBTQ Gospel choir; the SAGE Singers, a chorus of LGBTQ seniors; and the Raging Grannies, a chorus of older women who write and sing political parodies.
For us, politically progressive also encompasses artists who “break the mold,” so to speak, by defying the usual expectations and conventions of who should be performing what. For example, the Peoples’ Voice Cafe has presented the Johnson Girls, an all-female quartet that sings sea chanteys, a genre that is overwhelming dominated by male groups. As far as we know, there have only been three all-female sea chantey groups worldwide, and the Johnson Girls are the only ones still in existence. In a similar vein, the Peoples’ Voice Cafe has presented both Hubby Jenkins and Norris Bennett, two African-American musicians who perform old-time country music, a genre that many people mistakenly believe to be exclusively white. We have also presented Pamela Jean Agaloos, a Philippine-American woman whose repertoire comprises many traditional Celtic songs, including several that she sings in Irish or Scots Gaelic.
A Question of Genre
Let me state right now that the commercial music industry would classify most of what Peoples’ Voice Cafe presents as contemporary folk music or contemporary acoustic music, whatever those labels mean. We will accept that, but with the understanding that we are not entirely a folk music venue. In any given season our program of approximately thirty to thirty-two shows might also include hip-hop, jazz, world beat music, poetry, storytelling, and dance. We have even put on theater from time to time, and in our very first season the Peoples’ Voice Cafe presented a one-act play co-written and directed by Eve Ensler. That was in 1979, seventeen years before The Vagina Monologues debuted.
Division of Labor
From the very beginning, it was apparent that some Peoples’ Voice Cafe volunteers possessed more skills, experience, and interest in certain areas than did other volunteers. For example, not everyone was equally adept at baking goodies, designing leaflets, keeping books, or operating a sound system, nor was everyone interested in becoming adept in each of those areas. This led almost immediately to a division of labor within the PVC Collective that still exists today.
A small working committee, often comprised of just one person, has generally emerged to handle each of the tasks required to keep the Peoples’ Voice Cafe going. These committees and their leaders have usually been informally chosen or self-selected, often with the PVC Collective later giving its approval. Sometimes, however, the PVC Collective takes no formal action, and the committee continues to function as long as the PVC Collective does not object. For example, the PVC Collective has not, to my knowledge, ever taken action to formally approve our volunteer bakers.
As new tasks developed, such as creating and maintaining a Peoples’ Voice Cafe presence on the Internet, volunteers have stepped forward to assume responsibility. Deciding upon overall policy, nevertheless, has always remained in the hands of the PVC Collective. That body, for example, authorized the creation of a Peoples’ Voice Cafe website, accepted a volunteer’s offer to serve as webmaster, accepted another volunteer’s offer to help optimize the website’s search engine visibility, and approved using the web-based MailChimp service for maintaining the Peoples’ Voice Cafe’s e-mail list.
Most of the time the Peoples’ Voice Cafe has welcomed any volunteer who is ready, willing, and able to work. If particular skills are required, then a Volunteer Coordinator assesses the volunteer’s skill level and either provides or arranges for training if necessary. One exception has been for volunteers to operate the sound system. In that case a Technical Director assesses the skills and provides or arranges for any necessary training. We also now have a Program Director to coordinate the activities of the volunteers who develop program, book artists, and produce shows.
To summarize what is stated above, the PVC Collective, as a body, is responsible for setting the general direction of the Peoples’ Voice Cafe as an organization. The specific operations, however, are left to the volunteers, either acting as individuals or in committees, sometimes with the guidance of the Volunteer Coordinator or the Technical Director.
Limits of Collective Governance
Whether the members of the PVC Collective knew it or not, the Peoples’ Voice Cafe functioned for nearly thirty-five years as an unincorporated association under the laws of New York State. Without going into all the legal details, that status made it very difficult for the Peoples’ Voice Cafe to obtain tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the United States Internal Revenue Code. It was also nearly impossible for the Peoples’ Voice Cafe to receive grants or solicit large donations. Being an unincorporated association also meant that members of the PVC Collective and possibly members of the Peoples’ Voice Cafe itself could be held personally responsible for the Peoples’ Voice Cafe’s debts and liabilities. Fortunately, that never became an issue, but prior to incorporation the potential for serious consequences existed.
Being an unincorporated association proved sufficient for more than three decades. What changed, in a nutshell, were finances. From the beginning, the Peoples’ Voice Cafe shared the gate receipts with the performers who got to keep sixty percent. The remaining forty percent went to pay for ongoing expenses, such as rent, insurance, publicity, equipment, and supplies. Membership dues, food sales, the sale of donated items, and small individual contributions also helped to cover those expenses, and in time the Peoples’ Voice Cafe built up some modest cash reserves.
About five years ago that began to change as our expenses went up while our income either grew too slowly to keep pace, remained the same, or declined. It became apparent that in order for the Peoples’ Voice Cafe to survive in the long term, we would need to do more vigorous fundraising, which included applying for grants and soliciting large donations. Before that could happen, obtaining 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status was a must, and the easiest and most reliable route to do so was by first forming a nonprofit corporation. The PVC Collective agreed, and as mentioned above, the Peoples’ Voice Cafe became a nonprofit corporation on May 16, 2014. We quickly filed for tax-exempt status, which the Internal Revenue Service granted us on January 2, 2015, retroactive to our date of incorporation.
The Role of the PVC Board of Directors
Incorporation brought with it several mandates regarding governance. New York State requires nonprofits to have a Board of Directors that meets at least once a year and keeps official minutes of its meetings. We are also required to elect officers, have written bylaws, and adopt a formal conflict-of-interest policy. In addition, before we solicit donations we must register with the Charities Bureau of the Office of the New York State Attorney General. On the federal level, the IRS requires us to file a Form 990 tax return annually, even though we owe no taxes.
These mandates mean, in effect, that the Peoples’ Voice Cafe now has a dual system of governance. There is still the PVC Collective that meets in person, usually twice a year, and otherwise communicates online through a Google group. It is still the body that determines general policy. For example, at its meeting on November 28, 2017, the PVC Collective decided by consensus that the admission contribution requested from students and youth would be lowered to $12, the same as from PVC subscribers, rather than the $20 currently requested from the general public.
As mentioned earlier, the PVC Collective also elects the PVC Board of Directors once a year. Nevertheless, there are certain responsibilities that fall entirely to the PVC Board of Directors. Among these are:
- Electing officers, which currently include President, Secretary, and Treasurer.
- Inviting volunteers to become members of the PVC Collective.
- Approving the actual disbursement of funds.
- Approving the annual rental agreement with Community Church.
- Assuring compliance with federal, state, and local laws.
These are essentially administrative responsibilities rather than matters of policy-making. To carry them out, the PVC Board of Directors usually meets in person two to three times a year, but otherwise remains in close contact by e-mail, telephone, and occasional informal meetings before or after shows. By assuming these important administrative responsibilities, the PVC Board of Directors has allowed the PVC Collective to focus more of its attention on the overall direction of the Peoples’ Voice Cafe. As a result, meetings of the PVC Collective have become shorter, more productive, and less contentious.
Regardless of this dual system of governance, the actual running of the Peoples’ Voice Cafe remains unchanged. It is left to the volunteers, either acting as individuals or in small working committees, the same as it was when we presented our very first show in 1979. To say that we are volunteer run and collectively governed is still accurate, even if we have to add an asterisk to account for the Board of Directors and other mandates of incorporation.
New Challenges Facing the Peoples’ Voice Cafe
Organizations evolve over time, and the Peoples’ Voice Cafe is no exception. The social, political, cultural, and economic environment has changed since 1979, and unless the Peoples’ Voice Cafe can adapt to those changes, we will go the way of the woolly mammoth and the saber-tooth tiger.
Yet learning how to adapt brings with it new challenges. Here are two in particular that the Peoples’ Voice Cafe currently faces.
The first challenge is attracting and holding an audience. Filling seats in New York City on a Saturday night has never been easy. In addition to competing with other live music venues, the Peoples’ Voice Cafe is up against Broadway and off-Broadway theater, comedy clubs, movies, and almost every other kind of entertainment you can imagine. In the past few years, however, the situation has grown even more daunting. For reasons that are murky, the average size of our weekly audience has been declining, and even many of our long-time subscribers are no longer attending as frequently as they once did.
If we could present a so-called “big name artist” such as Holly Near every week we would have no problem, but that is an impossible task. Anyway, that is not what the Peoples’ Voice Cafe is all about. We need to find room in our program for performers like Dilson Hernandez, Lizzie Hershon, Lois Morton, and Dian Killian. “Who are they?” you might ask. Our response would be: “They are artists who have something important to say and the voice with which to say it.
Even though you might never have heard of them, and even though you might be unfamiliar with their genre, please come anyway and bring your friends. You will not be disappointed. The Peoples’ Voice Cafe does not book schlock.”
Sometimes this approach works, but sometimes it fails. The sad fact is, we have occasionally presented some truly wonderful shows to paying audiences of fewer than twenty people. Fortunately, only a few nights are like that every season, but they are occurring more frequently than they once had. Sometimes we can blame the weather, but a little rain or an inch of snow does not cause the New York theaters and movie houses to shut down. Regardless of the weather and regardless of what else is going on in town on a given Saturday night, we need to figure out how to bring in new audiences while holding onto our old ones, and that is perhaps the biggest challenge the Peoples’ Voice Cafe now faces.
Our second challenge is keeping ourselves financially solvent. This is closely related to the issue of attracting and building an audience. If we could find a way to increase our paying audience by an average of just fifteen people per show, our shortfall would disappear. Without that increase, we have to find ways to bridge the budgetary gap.
For the coming 2018-2019 season we have found ourselves three grants and several Donors. There are also several artists who will return some or all of their share of the gate receipts to the Peoples’ Voice Cafe. We are not in any immediate danger. Beyond May 2019, though, our future is uncertain. Two of the three grants cannot be renewed and relying on large donations from a handful of people is always risky. Furthermore, while amateurs and semi-pros might be able to give up some of their earnings, full-time working musicians cannot. We are instead trying to find enough people who will each make a small monthly sustaining contribution through PayPal or a credit card, but so far, we have had only limited success.
Will the Peoples’ Voice Cafe be able to meet these dual challenges and survive as a volunteer run, collectively governed (with an asterisk), politically progressive listening room? Or, for that matter, even survive at all? There is no way to predict with any certainty what will happen. Nevertheless, the model has worked well enough for the Peoples’ Voice Cafe to get through thirty-nine seasons. I remain cautiously optimistic about its future.