Fighting the good fight

By STEVEN STYCOS  |  April 1, 2009

This year, as DARE pushes for better prisons, schools, and housing, it will have some new leaders. Mersha, who has served as executive director since 2001, resigned and will leave in May. Born in Ethiopia, Mersha attended public schools in Lynn, Massachusetts. She joined DARE as an organizer after graduating from Brown in 1997.

Staff and board members credit Mersha, who earns about $37,000 a year, with making connections between DARE's campaigns and struggles for justice around the world. She is also lauded for helping the organization focus its work by leading a year-long process to write the Principles of Unity. "Seeing the connections between all our struggles is the most meaningful to me," Mersha says. Harris also lauds Mersha's management style. "Sara believes in distributing power equally and encouraging people to grow," she says.

With endowments shrinking due to the stock market decline, DARE's new leadership may face financial problems. The bulk of its $300,000 budget comes from grants from foundations, including the Rhode Island Foundation, the Ms. Foundation, and the Haymarket People's Fund. "So far we've been relatively lucky," says Mersha. Only the New York-based Funding Exchange has said it will not accept new grant applications. Nevertheless, she adds, "It really underscores how important it is to raise more money from our roots, our community."

Mersha hopes to return to graduate school in environmental studies to make the connections between climate change and social justice organizing. Mimi Budnick, who has headed DARE's prison reform efforts, also plans to leave this spring to work in adult education.

New director Ordonez is a graduate of Attleboro High School who has worked for the Coalition for Consumer Justice, Clean Water Action and, most recently, Progreso Latino. He likes DARE's organizing style, where the members make the key campaign decisions, and its connections with national and international issues. "It's where my heart is at," he says.

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