Everyone knows the real story of Las Vegas – enormous power concentrated in the hands of casinos, unchecked by government and oblivious to community responsibility. Las Vegas is also a city of staggering growth and a severe shortage of affordable housing. Despite many households having two full-time working parents in the gaming industry, their only housing options are grossly overcrowded and overpriced motel-like apartments. What should be at best temporary housing becomes permanent housing for the full-time steadily employed. Yet in this one-industry town with power and profit concentrated in the hands of so few at the expense of the rest of the community, consensus organizing recently helped bridge the divide between casino owners and the city’s low-wage workers and create greater housing opportunities for those workers.
A consensus organizing approach seeks opportunities to share power for the mutual benefit of previously disparate parties. Consensus organizing requires that all the parties involved in creating or suffering from a problem draw similar conclusions. Often, people in different walks of life seem to have irreconcilable perspectives on what causes problems, but our organization, the Consensus Organizing Institute (COI), finds that skilled consensus organizers can minimize the differences in perspectives. This is the building block that can lead to collective action and power sharing.
In Las Vegas, casino owners initially appeared not to see that they had any responsibility in solving the housing problem. After all, they were providing jobs, what better community benefit could they provide? Local government had very limited dollars, while the gaming industry appeared to have almost unlimited funds. Residents, isolated and understandably distrustful and in desperate need of housing, blamed everyone for not caring.
In consensus organizing, it is necessary to look for overlapping concern rather than points of division. In the case of Las Vegas, overlap in the needs of local residents and casinos was obvious. The gaming industry in Las Vegas suffers from inordinately high employee turnover. This turnover greatly inflates training costs. Residents complained about the added pressures of cramped living quarters in very high crime neighborhoods lacking a sense of protection, social networks and “community.” What no one seemed to realize is that it was possible to put a variety of potential partners together where they could be most effective and begin to solve the problems they faced.
Taking Initial Steps
COI assembled and trained a skilled staff to work with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation’s (LISC) new Las Vegas program. Nevada Legal Services agreed to house the effort and administer the program. COI recruited the four-member staff (one coordinator and three organizers). The staff would work with the gaming industry, local government, financial institutions, utilities, and the residents. Needing to meet with the casino owners, the staff strategized that the banks where the gaming industry borrowed money might be the best sort of matchmaker to give a positive introduction. It was important that casino owners not perceive these organizers as advocates only for needs of residents. In order for organizers to gain entry and a non-defensive listening ear from casino owners, it was crucial for them to show that residents were taking initial specific steps to demonstrate their commitment, concern, and responsibility. This had to be done independently of what later help might come from outside the low-income community. So, from the introductory meeting with the casino owners, organizers established a dialogue highlighting all the positive efforts underway in the neighborhoods. This dual consensus organizing in both the power structure and the neighborhoods keeps everyone in their most effective roles. The residents’ first step confirms their strengths of self help and genuine determination. With the help of a consensus organizer, they began to form nonprofit neighborhood based community organizations. Over an eight-month period, four distinct neighborhood organizations formed. The residents volunteered, signed on co-incorporators, applied for nonprofit tax status, and planned initial community development projects. Simultaneously, the casino owners assumed a role of investor and lender by fusing their interests with other partners.
A key tenet of consensus organizing is that one entity never causes an entire problem and one entity never poses the entire solution. In this case, organizers appealed to the interests of banks to meet CRA agreements, utilities to gain new customers, private philanthropy to provide housing for the working class, and local government to leverage limited dollars, and then melded these interests to the casino owners’ interests in the high cost of staff turnover.
Through this method, consensus organizers shuttled positive information about progress and commitment back and forth to all parties, building their confidence in each other. In Las Vegas, not only had there been little activity between residents and the casinos, but two dissimilar parties rarely collaborated on any project. The process slowly began to build relationships and gradually concern, trust, and genuineness surfaced. Community residents’ skepticism began to fade as the partners (casino owners, banks, lenders, etc.) raised $1 million and matched it with the commitment of the New York-based LISC. This pool of funds was made available to brand new resident organizations, even though they lacked previous housing development experience. The pool is designed for most of the funds to be recycled for a variety of projects proposed by neighborhood organizations.
As always, building trust is a slow, continuous process. In the first two years of this process, we are seeing the beginning of a greater sense of community. Corporate leaders and major employers have now developed personal relationships with the consensus organizers and grassroots neighborhood leaders. Negative stereotypes have started to fade. This all had to begin before housing activity could surface. In consensus organizing, these relationships, built on mutual self interest, are the foundation for all true lasting community improvement.
Some of the early lessons from Las Vegas are:
- 1. Never assume that unless conflict tactics are used lack of interest is irreversible. If the situation in Las Vegas had been organized around blaming the gaming industry, public opinion might have been squarely behind the employers and not the residents, minority residents in particular. Those in political power would have further isolated low-income minority communities. While it is much too early to compare the results of a consensus approach, some real common ground and respect has begun to grow among the partners.
- 2. Try to appeal to human emotions other than anger. Anger can certainly motivate people, but for how long? In this case, the residents attributes of self help and genuine determination were highlighted. Las Vegas corporate leaders were very impressed and pleasantly surprised to find such commitment in parts of the city where they thought all hope was gone. Disparate people of unequal power can find common ground when skilled consensus organizers find shared values.
3. People can help most when they are in appropriate roles – when residents design and implement projects, when lenders lend, and when philanthropy makes grants, more results are achieved. In Las Vegas, there was lack of neighborhood improvement and control. If organizers had concentrated on appealing to the paternalism of the gaming industry, casino owners might have controlled the development in low-income neighborhoods, rather than become partners with the residents’ plan. The situation presented a real opportunity for the residents to gain power. The banks needed to become the enlightened lender. The government needed to be the enlightened public servant. Consensus organizing brought all the partners to the table. The very first proposed projects have now garnered both public and private financing.
The scale of these first projects is a tiny drop in the bucket of the vast need that exists. It will take another couple of years to track results and analyze the organizing approach, but surely it is worth the analysis.