Part 1: Gearing up for Controversy
Part 2: Goal of a Community
Part 3: Clif Notes and Big Staffs
Part 4: Inside Pallotta Teamworks
Part 5: Options and Alternatives
Part 6: SF AIDS Foundation and the Rides
Part 8: 2001/2002 Update: Lawsuits, Loss and LifeCycle
Werner Erhard : and est
Part 7 - Devotion Over Dollars
Bay Area Reporter
It is called, in philanthropic terms, "adventure fundraising."
Events that raise money must be entertaining, even at the expense of losing focus on the charity. The oft-repeated AIDS rider response that is meant to excuse multiple alleged and fined financial abuses: "It was a life-changing experience."
Surprisingly this phrase, like so many others, hasn't been trademarked by Pallotta TeamWorks, the for-profit company whose expenses at AIDS Rides in the last two years have been the subject of criticism from gay publications and cancer and AIDS groups nationwide.
But what makes AIDS riders defend their event by saying that it is "beyond dollars?"
To understand the faithful devotion, it is important to learn about the source of inspiration that even AIDS Rides founder Dan Pallotta has cited in publications where he deigned to be interviewed. It is called The Hunger Project, a creation worthy of comparison. (*UPDATE: Read the 2006 response from the Hunger Project's vice-president John Coonrod, below)
Erhard's study of many disciplines became the foundation for est training, including hypnosis, self-motivation techniques, encounter therapy, the Human Potential Movement, Zen, and Scientology.
Ascending through five Scientology levels, he received over 70 hours of "auditing." Many of the concepts and terminology used in the est training come from Scientology.
Erhard later took Mind Dynamics and became an instructor. Mind Dynamics went out of business and was sued by the state of California for fraudulent claims and practicing medicine without a license.
Erhard attributed the founding of the est training to a transformational experience on a freeway in California (the Golden Gate Bridge, sources claim) where he "experienced Self as Self in a direct and unmediated way. I didn't just experience Self. I became Self."
Carol Giambalvo's The Hunger Project: Inside Out is a comprehensive critique and history of The Hunger Project and its ties to est. In comparing The Hunger Project with the AIDS Ride, similar patterns emerge.
The Hunger Project, "a nonprofit, charitable corporation whose work is to generate the will to eliminate the persistence of hunger by the end of the century," was established in 1977 and claims to educate people about the problem of hunger. It is not a relief, development, or lobbying group.
Instead, it created what Giambalvo, a former Hunger Project employee, called "a massive expression of personal commitment by individuals to eliminate hunger. A network of volunteers carries out most of the work of The Hunger Project. It has 'enrolled' over five million individuals in the 'commitment to end hunger.'"
The Hunger Project has been the target of much controversy, mostly around Erhard, est, and its later incarnation, The Forum, which offers people "an opportunity to transform their lives."
Est, as such, no longer exists. Its name was changed to Werner Erhard & Associates and its program renamed The Forum. In addition to The Forum, it offered seminar programs, special events with Werner Erhard, satellite events, and other "transformational" programs to individuals and businesses. Sold to employees and Erhard's brother, Nathan Rosenberg, the for-profit corporation was renamed Landmark Education Corporation, which pays Erhard substantial royalties from Landmark for the use of his "technology."
While The Hunger Project denies any affiliation with Werner Erhard or est, this is true only in a technical sense, according to Giambalvo. "The Hunger Project was legally incorporated as a separate charitable entity in the state of California. But the link between Werner Erhard and his organizations, both philosophically and in personnel, remains."
San Franciscan Bobby Singer disagrees. He noticed the "est-like" aspects of the Rides, and includes that as one of the main reasons for not riding again.
In the late 1980s Singer met Pallotta in a gay bar in Boston, he told the Bay Area Reporter. "He was heavily into est at the time,” Singer recalled. “I don't know if people know that about him. I think there's a lot of est and Werner Erhard in his work.
"He tried to get me to do The Forum," he said. "He talked about it all the time. It's so much a part of who he is. I just thought it was kind of silly."
Singer noted how the Forum-type philosophy permeates AIDS Ride events. "There were all these inspirational quotes at places along the Ride. It definitely has an aspect of that."
Like many coping with the recent death of loved ones, Singer sought a place for his grief. "My mother and my best friend died three weeks apart. It was a pretty awful time. I don't know how conscious I was of it at the time, but I needed something."
He bought a bicycle and started riding around the scenic Bay Area, which he said "helped me release some of that anger. It was kind of meditative."
He had thought about doing an AIDS Ride, "not deeply, but just because other guys I knew did it," he said. "It sounded like fun. I always felt like I wanted to contribute somehow. I thought of it as a way to memorialize these people, since I don't really practice any kind of religion. It gave me an opportunity to find a place to grieve, and people to do it with. It really helped me get in touch with those feelings and release them."
Obviously, spending an exhausting week honoring people lost to AIDS can be an emotional, cathartic experience.
But like The Hunger Project, organizers of the AIDS Ride do not admit to the ties between the group's philosophies and tactics. This leaves some former riders still questioning why and how they became so devoted, then disenchanted.
"I started to feel really sad, after having done it," said Singer. "I've gotten caught up in the political incorrectness of it all, and kind of forgotten why I did it to begin with and what an important experience it was for me."
Former employees of Pallotta's company mention having been encouraged, but not required, to take a Forum course – courses that average $450 for a preliminary workshop. Former AIDS Ride administrator John Haley mentioned that some employees took the Forum courses, while others joked about it.
Like the AIDS Rides, the majority of Hunger Project workers are volunteers. According to Giambalvo, the majority, if not all, of the personnel on staff of The Hunger Project and its hundreds of "grassroots volunteers" had taken either est or Forum programs.
An oft-repeated goal of The Hunger Project is the goal stated by est founder Erhard: 'I take responsibility for ending starvation within 20 years.'.
This statement is mirrored in the motivational speeches given at AIDS Rides, where the lofty goal of "ending AIDS within five years" has been offered as a sort of mantra for participants.
The conceptual aspect of The Hunger Project bears similarities to the AIDS Ride. Participation in The Hunger Project begins when a person signs an enrollment card, stating "The Hunger Project is mine completely. I am willing to be responsible for making the end of hunger an idea whose time has come."
Even its founder had to bluntly admit those grandiose goals were improbable. "The Hunger Project is not about solutions," Erhard said. "It's not about fixing the problem. The Hunger Project is about creating a context, creating the end of hunger as an idea. We will learn what we need to know to make an idea's time come, then we will know how to make the world work."
WCCO-TV's Garvin Snell was among the bikers at the 1996 Minnesota-Chicago AIDS Ride. His statements on his TV station's website unintentionally attest to the “idea” of symbols taking precedent over action.
"The whole point of the Ride is just to make a big statement," he said, "and it's a huge statement to make - to have 1,500 people out on their bikes. Just by being out here and doing it, we're effecting change."
Dave King, editor of Columbia Journal in New York City, whose special sports-themed issue premieres this summer, isn’t so sure. "I have a mixed relationship with that organization,” he said bluntly. “I did the first Boston-NY Ride and crewed on the second, and though it's an amazing, terrific experience both socially and athletically, I have growing concerns about the cult-like aura of Pallotta and Associates."
So, is it a good cult, or a bad cult, or not a cult at all? Thousands of people credit such groups with helping them take control of their lives. Many riders come directly from a vulnerable place of either losing a loved one or countless friends to AIDS, or even recently seroconverting themselves.
But is it a supportive environment or a staged format created to exploit the emotionally vulnerable? How many AIDS riders even know they may be trained in the Erhard school of thought? Are the AIDS Rides the first gay version of the Forum, or as one former rider called it, "est on wheels?”
Giambalvo's extensive research conclusively proves the ties between est and The Hunger Project, yet Hunger Project officials deny such associations. Pallotta's Beverly Hills-based publicist, JoAnne Forster of Bragman, Nyman & Cafarelli refused to relay or answer related queries.
To Serve Werner
Psychology Today's August 1975 issue implied est's more self-serving goals as luring such people into its ranks, citing est's end purpose as "to serve Werner and make est work," and the methods of the est training: "We're going to throw away your belief system, tear you down, and put you back together."
Giambalvo summarizes the magazine's findings: "It described the methods as designed alternately to confuse and enlighten subjects, to develop the authority of the trainer and build his suggestive power. The training contained common-sense psychology from which anyone could profit; simultaneously it was a masterful amalgam of consciousness-altering techniques that powerfully affect the innocent subject. The author's description of several stages in the training demonstrated the step-by-step confusion and helplessness experienced by subjects until they crack under the pressure and, in the helplessness of the moment (called ‘snapping’), embrace the system."
Comparing the earlier est controversies, Giambalvo cites legal actions charging emotional damages experienced by subjects, including one death during est training. Other suits include nonpayment of a $15 million loan and nonpayment of IRS taxes and penalties.
In December 1978, Mother Jones magazine published an exposé on The Hunger Project, its connection with Werner Erhard, and its possible use as a recruitment arm for his est training. Author Suzanne Gordon pointed to The Hunger Project as the first attempt by one of the "self"-oriented movements to address social or political issues. She raised such issues as: who gets the money?; are people participating in The Hunger Project pressured to take the est training?; why, if The Hunger Project claims no connection to est, is there an est seminar called "The Hunger Project Series?”; why are Hunger Project telephones often in est centers around the country?
New Internationalist, a world development publication, also questioned where all the intense activity of The Hunger Project was leading and whether it was capitalizing on people's concern about world poverty or, as Giambalvo puts it, "to insinuate the ideas of a mind-manipulating cult."
And like Pallotta, whose Beverly Hills home was purchased shortly after the second AIDS Ride, Erhard was involved in questionable financial activities as well. "He's applied a corporate model to AIDS fundraising, but he's making all this money and it's supported by volunteers," said former rider Singer of Pallotta.
Forbes magazine began an investigation of The Hunger Project and Werner Erhard in 1985, specifically about a lawsuit concerning a $15 million unpaid low-interest loan from Wolfgang Somary of Zurich to Erhard.
The Byzantine details involve international money transfers in the millions, and alleged false grants to the puppet organization Fundacion Soberana Orden de San Juan de Jerusalem that served as intermediary for the loan at a 2 percent interest rate. This Costa Rican group had been set up by an Erhard friend just several days before the transfer and stood to benefit by receiving a major portion of the interest payments.
Because of this and other controversies, the Peace Corps and other hunger organizations have dissociated themselves from The Hunger Project. The national board of directors of Oxfam, Canada passed a resolution that they would not endorse any activities sponsored by The Hunger Project nor will they accept any funds from the project. The Hunger Project's "Ending Hunger Briefing" program was barred from Toronto schools and from Ottawa and Carleton schools.
Giambalvo states, "The hidden agenda of The Hunger Project is to transform the world according to the 'principles and abstractions' of Werner Erhard. Hunger is just the vehicle. It could be any issue: peace, disarmament, prejudice, you name it."
Giambalvo's critique can easily be compared. "Hunger is an issue that most people would agree needs our attention. After all, who wouldn't want hunger to end? How can you fault an organization with such a noble purpose?"
The association between AIDS and hunger becomes clear; criticism of the Ride is seen as criticism of any AIDS fundraising efforts.
"The Hunger Project uses its purpose to deflect criticism and to shame anyone who might criticize a 'noble' organization which has such a noble purpose," Giambalvo said. "This implies that a noble purpose protects an organization from deceptive behaviors and hidden agendas on the part of its volunteers, staff and the organization's founders."
With obscure "principles and abstractions" based on Erhard's "Source Document," The Hunger Project nevertheless maintains it has no philosophy. Likewise, Erhard says that the est training and The Forum have no philosophy. According to Erhard, it is nothing to be believed, since "the truth believed is a lie."
The interaction between people is what she called a highlight. "No community should think another community is going to come and rescue them. We're all people."
In 1995 Asya raised just under $10,000 while working for a company that did matching fundraising, a method she cites as very effective. She had not cycled extensively, but "living in the Bay Area, and before that in Manhattan, I have a constant awareness of AIDS. There's always a feeling that you ought to be doing something."
She started riding occasionally, then went to a meetings on how to raise funds. The meetings and training rides also conditioned participants how to do the Ride, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally prepare them for facing and conquering failure.
For the first leg of the Ride, she then lived in Santa Cruz, and relaxed at home and in a hot tub. "I really like biking and camping, just not at the same time."
Unable to ride in successive years, now that "it's harder to get time off from work," the software company engineer focuses now on in-kind services, mentioning a contractor who works for an AIDS agency and donates his skills as a better way for people to contribute. "Maybe its a fallacy to say, 'It's AIDS, it's a sacred cow. If Dan Pallotta's so good, then maybe he should charge out the wazoo.'"
While Kamsky did not quit doing the Rides for any reason other than inconvenience, others’ departures have arisen directly from the very nature of the events’ constructed passion. It is an atmosphere that is typical at Hunger Project events as well.
Former rider and Pallotta employee John Haley mentioned one example of the similarity: instances when recruiters forced themselves to cry in front of potential riders at orientation sessions. That compares with Giambalvo’s claim that Hunger Project's Executive Director Joan Holmes "spoke in tears, with her voice cracking. Emotional manipulation got volunteers re-inspired and re-dedicated."
Similar environments of tearful confessions, followed by cheering and adulatory speeches, comprise elements of Tent City presentations. Riders are in a controlled environment, exhausted, and may be questioning their efforts or losing spirit. Paid Pallotta staffers and volunteers reinforce the activities and pressure them to continue, some even beyond their capability. That corresponds with Giambalvo’s description of “the emotionalism used at conferences … influencing the volunteers to recommit themselves to more and more work."
The AIDS Rides also have the added inducement of physical stress: numerous personal websites created by riders speak of enduring painful knee injuries, while others describe persistent carpal tunnel syndrome induced by days of cycling. The exhaustion/relief pattern is similar to that of any recipe for creating devoted converts – take volunteers to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion in a controlled environment, then saturate them with inspirational rhetoric. "We were certainly exhausted every day," said former rider Singer.
Having completed this arduous journey, riders then feel empowered. So too with the Hunger Project. Giambalvo states, "When a person completes a program in Werner Erhard's Network, they are led to believe that he or she creates his/her reality and ‘can have it all.’ To keep that magical thinking, one has to disconnect with the people in their life that don't think that way."
Similarly, AIDS riders are encouraged to avoid debates over the financial problems of the Ride, and focus on the goal of completing the Ride, getting more sponsors and more money. They are repeatedly told their experience is transformational, and that their lives will never be the same.
This passage in Erhard's biography furthers that sentiment. "A transformed individual demands transformed relationships because only in such a context can he or she naturally express a transformed individuality."
Erhard says, “An effective siege on Mind cannot be directed only to the individual, as in the training, but must be directed to relationships and to the social environment, too. Thus, the larger est program has a revolutionary goal: to create the conditions – the space, the context – in the larger community to foster transformation at each level."
Or the manufacturing of "a life-changing event."
Some Karmic Thing
"Raise the bar. You didn't think you could go over it how high you raised it last time? You went over it. You're a champion. Raise it. Up the ante. Press yourself into more brilliance. You've just begun. We've just begun. We've got a long way to go. You're beautifully trained. You've put yourself together well. Deliver on the promise. Raise the ante. And go for it. You need to raise the targets. You need to increase the gradient. You're on a very high gradient. Don't get off. It would be very dangerous to you. Things will get very messed up for you if you do that."
At the same time as speeches are made about riders "risking their lives" on dangerous highways, supportive rhetoric is also ingrained to prevent rider dropout, a common problem that Haley concedes he was trained to gloss over. Potential rider pledges are often used as the totals announced, not the actual dollars ever collected.
Singer questions the use of the enormous funds donated. "Supposedly the year that I did it, they raised $9.5 million. I was trying to find answers about the money, it was very frustrating not being able to get the information." The information that did get out – from the Philadelphia lawsuit and failed rides – was either ignored or discounted by Pallotta staff.
Even a spokesman for sponsor Clif Bar, Dean Mayer, accused several gay newspapers’ reports of problematic Rides as being "completely untrue" before this reporter mentioned which newspapers had critiqued the rides.
"The individual has already been convinced that the group has the only answers and the outside world has lost its credibility," Giambalvo writes of The Hunger Project. "After all, the world does not really want to be transformed. In est and Forum seminars, we continually heard: If you don't share your transformation, (enrolling others) you will lose it. You need to be in a transformed environment, you need to be supported in doing 'the work.' You will lose your transformation if you leave."
Among the often-repeated statements of AIDS riders: "You don't understand it unless you do the Ride," echoing the exclusionary viewpoint of participants.
"The Pallotta Rides market to that experience. I hope it's some sort of karma thing. For people who have felt powerless, it is something they can do," said Suzie Becker, creator of the Massachusetts-based Ride FAR.
Kamsky, however, discounts the est-like aspects of the AIDS rides, and was by no means "converted." Her experience was more of boredom from the staged pageant-like events.
"They had hours of speeches," she said. "Presumably they were saying, 'Look what these people did!' But we were in a staging area a mile away."
She found inspiration from individual participants. "Passing by a rider, they have a picture of someone on their handle bars. You know these people are dead. That's what kept me going, real people who faced this."
Yet, she discounts the "vision" that riding will end AIDS. "Nothing really changed because I rode my bike. Some percentage of the money went to people who really needed it."
Still, she remembers the glory of participating. "Watching it on Good Morning America, I saw myself for a millisecond. If that's what'll get more media attention, more power to them."
For the disenchanted, it's more about Pallotta than AIDS. "I see more Dan Pallotta's influence as some kind of guru," said Singer. "The people working on it have a sort of adoration. I thought that was stupid."
This is a pattern that pervades est-derived groups and its similar "religion," the Church of Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard. Members of both groups are known for their devotion of founders, litigious and personal attacks on critics and ex-members, infiltration in highly placed industry positions, and denial in admitting ties to such groups.
Singer also saw in the AIDS Rides what Giambalvo notes as a common pattern of such groups, a highly hierarchical structure. "Not so much people doing the ride, but the ones running it, just that whole organizations stuff, that the people at the top are unapproachable," he said. "I thought it was ridiculous." To Singer, the people at the top were somehow imbued with "the guru mentality."
Despite these misgivings, Singer raised $5,000, but "another reason I haven't done the Ride again is that I don't think that money did anything. It was hard to ask people for it, but at the time, people didn't ask a lot of questions, they weren't really curious about where the money was going. A lot of people that sponsored me were from out of state. They just trusted me, and that's what I felt weird about."
Giambalvo alleges that the information given in a Hunger Project briefing was "displayed in a way that allows the Mind to be by-passed because your Mind is fed by information. The Briefing delivers it [transformation] camouflaged in a legitimate package called education or information."
Similarly, the AIDS Ride is repeatedly credited as "raising awareness for AIDS," when in actuality, public information about the AIDS Ride includes neither safe sex information, information about HIV treatments, nor AIDS statistics or information about AIDS groups, other than the recipients of the Ride. Condoms are certainly not doled out to grandmothers and children on roadsides.
It should also be noted that the other recipient in the California AIDS Ride is the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Center, whose primary purpose is not as an AIDS service agency.
"That's how the est thing comes in," Singer said. "They make it out to be something that it's not."
Giambalvo quotes a speech by The Hunger Project's Joan Holmes on how to convert eager teens to their cause: "Brief young people in a way so that the commitment to end hunger is located in them. And you know how irritating they can be. So, if they want something, they're going to get it, aren't they? I mean, they're ruthless people, and I consider it the kind of secret weapon of The Hunger Project to unleash them on the world."
Youth as well are riding in the California AIDS Ride. One such 16-year-old, heterosexual but clutching a Tinky Winky doll to show his support of gays, as well as an AIDS Ride pledge sheet, recently approached a San Francisco-based former AIDS Ride administrator. Although the former worker is disgruntled by the financial aspects of the Rides – "Just give your money directly to the AIDS group,” he usually urges, “the goal of making 75 cents on the dollar has rarely been made" – he was touched, and signed on as a sponsor.
"He believes in what he's doing."
UPDATE JULY 2006:
The Hunger Project would like to correct inaccurate and misleading statements published in Jim Provenzano’s June 7, 1999 Bay Area Reporter article based on a 1987 essay by Carol Giambalvo about her 1978-1982 volunteerism. Ms. Giambalvo has subsequently withdrawn her article from circulation, stating that it would be unfair to use old information to criticize an organization doing good in the world today.