America loves underdogs. Just look at the headlines Tim Tebow is garnering these days and it’s easy to see why. The Denver Broncos quarterback represents the very ethos this country was founded upon: with enough hard work, even the little guy can achieve very big things.
It’s this idea that inspired the Pepsi Refresh Project, an initiative developed by PepsiCo to award over $20 million in grant money to grassroots organizations through an online voting competition. And though the challenge was designed for nonpartisan groups, it has been infiltrated by a professional and well-funded political Goliath that has cast a shadow over the fairness and spirit of the contest.
The group is called the Progressive Slate, a coalition of nonprofits that was formed with the sole purpose of winning Pepsi funds. So far this year, the Slate has racked up more than $2 million in Pepsi grants to advance their liberal agenda. And for an organization that claims to not engage in political advocacy, they are bedfellows with many left-leaning activists and groups. In fact, over a half-dozen Slate-sponsored nonprofits that have won Pepsi grant money have also received funding from none other than George Soros.
So how is it that groups receiving checks from the man who broke the Bank of England have been able to cash in on Pepsi’s charity despite rules against political advocacy?
That is the very question being asked by Gail Pubols and Crys Worley, two contestants who are finalists in the December round of the Pepsi Refresh Project.
Both women have joined forces as two grassroots underdogs that are connected though a common bond: they are both mothers to autistic children.
Over the summer, PJTV spent a day with Gail and her family in their Henderson, Nevada home to see how they are using innovative technology to help their son communicate. Inspired by her son’s improvement, Gail and her husband started the Gage Rufus Foundation with the mission of getting iPads into every autistic classroom in their community. For Pubols, the Pepsi Refresh Project would be a way to fulfill her dream of giving voice to those who need it most.
“We are so excited to be a part of this grant contest and so thrilled that we are in the top 20 with so many worthy groups competing,” stated Pubols. “We are just one mom and one dad, but we believe in what we are doing because we have seen our own child speak and he improves and inspires us every day.”
Worley, who is mom to 8-year old Sasha, started A.Skate, a nonprofit foundation that teaches children with autism to socialize through skateboarding activities. She runs clinics throughout the country for autistic kids and funds many of the activities out of pocket. She is hoping funds from Pepsi will help open the nation’s first disability friendly skate park in her community of Birmingham, Alabama.
“The Pepsi Refresh Everything contest was designed to help hard working individuals and organizations promoting on a grassroots level to bring their communities together in supporting an idea that will better the lives of people in their community,” said Worley.
“When I was notified that our idea was up against a coalition as strong as the Progressive Slate, I was lost for words.”
The Slate draws on its community organizing experience and expertise to dominate Pepsi’s online voting process. Daily email blasts go out to thousands of Slate backers and affiliated groups that direct supporters to vote for projects that advance the progressive cause.
“We have been waiting three years to have this opportunity to kick off the construction of a special needs skate park…only to find out that a sweatshop of voters are possibly at a computer all day plugging in votes over and over to win half a million dollars,” said Worley. “My heart is broken because it could take another three years to kick off our project if this funding isn’t won.”
And while the Slate acknowledges on their website that they help coordinate voting for participating groups, they deny that any of their activity involves political advocacy.
But a look at recent IRS reports paints a different picture, which we’ll explore right after the page break.
At least seven of Progressive Slate groups that received Pepsi Refresh grants are also benefactors of George Soros’ Open Society Institute. These groups include:
- The Advancement Project, a self-described “action tank” that is dedicated to building a national movement for social justice, has received nearly $3 million from Soros since 2003. The group has also engaged in lobbying activities and lists the very “nonpartisan” Harry Belafonte as a member of their board.
- The American Constitution Society has received over $2 million in grant money since 2008. The group was founded in response to an “activist conservative movement” that, in its view, is “eroding” the enduring values of the Constitution.
- The League of Young Voters Education Fund has received $600,000 since 2008. Their mission is to train young civic leaders and to mobilize voters from core constituencies in low-income areas.
- The Midwest Academy, which also does training for activists to promote social change, received $39,000 in 2009.
- The Rockwood Leadership Institute received $109,000 in 2008. Located in Berkeley, California, the group also engages in grassroots and leadership training.
- State Voices received $100,000 in 2008. The group is dedicated to helping grassroots organizations win “civic engagement victories for change.”
- The Wellstone Action Fund, which provides training and development for those in the progressive movement, received $100,000 in 2008.
- The Center for Progressive Leadership, the organization that manages the Progressive Slate, has also benefited from Soros’ generosity. The nonprofit got $300,000 in funds from the Open Society Institute in 2008.
And the political connections don’t end there.
This month, the Slate is putting forth two of their own employees, Beth Meyer and Maricela Donahue, as contenders for Pepsi grants (though they don’t disclose the relationship in their email appeals). According to her online bio, Meyer is a long-time pro-choice advocate, serving as the vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona and as a board member of the Arizona Advocacy Foundation NARAL-Pro Choice. She has also served on the board of the Arizona chapter of the ACLU.
Donahue has a background as an immigration rights activist who helped organize national protests during her tenure at Center for Community Change which — surprise — is another Soros backed group.
Both have submitted grant proposals for programs to train civic youth leaders. While they do not elaborate on which groups will receive the training, a look at their estimated budgets reveals a large portion of their expenses go back toward salary costs. Grassroots indeed.
This isn’t the first time the Progressive Slate has received scrutiny for violating the rules of the Pepsi Refresh Project because of their political affiliations. Last year, the New York Times questioned the organization’s partisan connections after the Arms Wide Open Childhood Cancer Foundation complained that the group was tied to the Democratic Party.
For their part, Pepsi maintains its commitment to ensuring the integrity of the Pepsi Refresh Project. In an official statement, the company stated, “We take any allegations of fraudulent voting very seriously. … Pepsi diligently monitors Refresh Project voting and uses the latest technology and security measures to ensure the process is fair and transparent for all participants.”
It is unconfirmed whether or not Pepsi will continue the Refresh Project in 2012.
And while the Left once again shows their adeptness for political organization, Gail Pubols and Crys Worley continue to fight the good fight.
“We have been working on this day and night and have spent all of our Christmas money on this, but to know that we could help a parent hear their child speak for the first time is worth more to us than any Christmas present ever could be, and we hope that the value of giving to others is one we can instill in our children by living it every day,” said Pubols.
And while they may not be NFL quarterbacks, one thing Pubols and Worley do have is a devoted Army of Davids. If you would like to help the true grassroots, visit Gage Rufus Foundation or A.Skate for details on how to vote.