Has the Fight Gone Out of Organizing?
Answering that question requires looking back at the recent history of community organizing. Bob Fisher’s famous work Let the People Decide shows how the power and popularity of community organizing has ebbed and flowed during the modern era. His work takes us to the 1980s, as organizing was waning once again. In the intervening 20-plus years, things got very interesting. Community organizing had historically been a kind of “worst of times, best of times” practice. Organizing was at its strongest when society was hitting rock bottom (such as the Great Depression) or at the heights of prosperity (such as the 1960s to 1970s). But then came the murky 1990s and 2000s: bad, but not that bad; good, but not that good.
In this neither-nor context, where the economy was neither so bad to unite people across differences nor so good to take the risk out of social experiments, what was left was the culture war. As the working population was kept on the edge of its seat, always worried that things would get worse, right-wing politicians, media personalities, and religious demagogues captured that fear and redirected it toward the poor, the oppressed, and the progressive.
The organizing base that elected Obama is now thoroughly in the mainstream of American politics and without a method or theory to challenge the structure of power. Organizing groups around the country have either collapsed, are hovering on the edge of collapse as the funding energy is sapped from community organizing, or have compromised their missions to relief work rather than social change work. A good example of this new defenselessness is ACORN’s collapse amid the sophisticated right-wing attacks against it. By the time official investigations had vindicated ACORN and by the time other community networks began lending their support, ACORN’s coffers and ranks were in freefall. The offensive against ACORN was classic Alinsky strategy: pick the most vulnerable of the possible targets, and watch the other targets run for cover.
The muted response of the other community organizing networks has increased their vulnerability to attack. Even funders of community organizing like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (itself targeted by Catholic and other reactionaries because of its support of groups like the Center for Community Change—one of the few other organizations supporting ACORN) have been targeted by right-wing culture warriors.
Randy Stoecker is a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Extension. He has worked with and written extensively about community organizing and development groups since the mid-1980s. He moderates COMM-ORG: the Online Conference on Community Organizing and Development at http://comm-org.wisc.edu.
- The Last Line of Defense, by Randy Stoecker. Shelterforce #143, September/October 2005.
- Building Communities From the Inside Out: Asset-Based Community Development, by John P. Kretzmann. Shelterforce #83, September/October 1995.