Organizing Today: Ten Reasons to Cheer!

1. There’s lots of it going on

In a recent survey, Heather West of Grassroots Leadership of Lorain, OH, found 120 groups directly or somewhat involved in community organizing in Ohio. Elsewhere, organizations and networks like Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART), Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), and Gamaliel are adding affiliates at an unprecedented rate.

2. There’s lots of different kinds going on

The Ohio survey also found that in addition to organizing networks – Gamaliel, DART, National People’s Action (NPA) – there was significant diversity in types of organizing. Across the country, we see an explosion of identity-based organizing, combined faith-based and institution-based groups, development organizations reaching into organizing, and “official” tenant boards in public and subsidized housing, breaking the chains of dependence.

3. Increase in ownership and leadership from young people

We’re seeing a new generation of VISTAs, former Habitat for Humanity volunteers, college eco-protest leaders, and others looking for work that can lead to real change. At national meetings I see some lead organizers and directors with piercings, tattoos, mountain bikes, and hairdos that are not exactly me and make me think “old guy” thoughts (“I’m old enough to be his father! She’s only seven years older than my daughter! I gotta get more rest at these conferences!”) The Jewish Fund for Justice recently reported both a dramatic increase in proposals from youth organizing groups and from networked groups looking to integrate youth in their organizing work.

4. Innovation

IAF in Arizona has begun to build block clubs where the reach of the churches and other institutions is not deep enough. The Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) started an initiative on racism and schools, responding to new challenges and new communities. BUILD in Baltimore is getting workers and welfare recipients together in the Solidarity Sponsoring Committee to get jobs and justice for low-wage workers. The Neighborhood Funders’ Group  is convening the world of philanthropy and organizing this fall to focus on new approaches to organizing.

5. Collaboration

The Southern Empowerment Project recently gathered dozens of “stakeholders” to develop a strategic vision for organizing in the South that cuts across organizational lines. The Center for Community Change works with a jobs-oriented Transportation Equity Network that has involved 50 groups from 30 states and culminated in a public meeting in Chicago that brought 800 people together with the Secretary of Transportation. While the Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations – a Chicagoland Gamaliel affiliate – produced the bulk of the local troops, groups from ACORN, IAF, DART, NPA, CTWO, the Intervalley Organizing Project, and lots of “independents” worked together to win power over billions of dollars in the re-authorization of Department of Transportation funding.

6. Focus on poor people

Welfare “reform” has pushed millions of families over the brink of poverty and hopelessness, but everywhere, it seems, neighborhood groups, faith-based community organizations, networks, and funders are seeing the need as an opportunity. The Center for Community Change convened 15 organizers in 1997 – and 50 in 1998 – to talk about their work on welfare and jobs issues. Many organizing funders, including Campaign for Human Development, The Needmor Fund, and the Soros Foundation, started special sub-funds to support organizing on these issues.

7. Hard issues

Values, racism, sexism, homophobia – these were not prominent in the lexicon of training when this dinosaur first roamed the streets as a new organizer. The National Organizer’s Alliance model “The Sacred Cows of Organizing” explicitly examines these tough, usually divisive questions and structures the discussion. CTWO has taught many of us how to grab onto some of these tough issues. Dismantling Racism workshops are an integral part of the work in lots of places. The debate over how to get explicit about values and vision continues. The one on whether we should “allow” them to be part of the work is rarely heard.

8. More infrastructure

The Ohio survey asked whether folks wanted to get together. Eighty percent said yes, and they formed Organize! Ohio [See profile], with initial support from the Campaign for Human Development and the Mott Foundation, to advance organizing and to support those doing the work. Networks are increasingly adding content to their support on how to organize: the Gamaliel Network formed the Alliance for Metropolitan Equity Networks – AMEN, of course – to advance work on regional equity. CTWO and the Applied Research Center have grabbed onto community/police issues and built a multi-local effort that seeks to break out of the cop-led enforcement mold and shift to accountability. Organizers have a web site (http://comm-org.utoledo.edu//) that links 450 people internationally and is spurring more writing about organizing than we’ve ever seen. The National Organizers’ Alliance is five years old, has a pension plan and thousands of members, and brings an eclectic crowd together nationally in The Gathering to look back to struggles of the past, look around at what folks are doing, look inward to what the values and practices are and should be, and look forward to more power and more organizing everywhere.

9. More singing

There have sometimes been angry protest songs in the commercial world – but today it’s not Bob Dylan, it’s Rage Against the Machine and Sister Souljah and the Lillith Fair singers. There are also Troubadours of Trouble, from Professor Louie to Charlie King to Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Dr. Bernice Reagon is with the Smithsonian! If you haven’t heard the Whiteville Apparel Choir from the North Carolina needle workers’ union, you should – rocking gospel union stuff, now available from the AFL-CIO!

10. More fun

We haven’t lost the powerful tradition of protest – NPA still rents yellow busses to terrorize Washington bureaucrats every spring, ACORN still kicks butt, labor is striking for the lowest-paid workers as well as for the auto workers and airplane pilots. We have added flavors, looked around and found ourselves with allies in labor, in the funding world, and in Congress. And we’re winning as well as fighting.

 

 

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