Organizing

The articles in this issue show by example and opinion a range of work collectively known as organizing. While we by no means discuss the complete organizing universe, we explore many different types of organizing – from confrontational to consensus and from issue-based to identity-based. Each of these articles sheds light, we hope, on the how of organizing – its accomplishments, pitfalls, and potentials. Perhaps less obviously, most of the articles also grapple with the questions “why do we do it?” and “how can we do it better?”

Why We Do It

What unites progressive organizers is their commitment to building a better society based on the ideals of love, equality, compassion, and justice. Organizers are also united in their strong belief in democracy, human rights, and a government that promotes these values. Organizers demand that government play its important role in reducing poverty and fairly distributing income and wealth through tax and spending policies; providing uniform social benefits such as health care and pensions; strengthening unions; and promoting participation, self-government, and community. These strong ideals not only motivate organizers, but provide a profound basis for unity.

Yet people of good will, even organizers of good will, cannot escape the historical circumstances that confront us. Issues such as class, race, and gender often divide the very people who must be organized to build a better society. These divisive issues create obstacles within our own organizations, seriously hampering the goal of creating a just society. People concerned about racism or sexism or homophobia will demand that these concerns be addressed, no matter who leads the organization – whether he or she is of European, African, Asian, Hispanic, or Arabic descent. Fortunately, as authors Dave Beckwith, Kim Fellner, and Thomas Lenz point out, organizing groups are addressing these issues.

A more insidious public philosophy that is undermining the forms of community and civic life that organizers are trying to build is that which emphasizes greed, materialism, and individualism. It is driven by a belief, which is too seldom questioned, that the “market forces” of the global economy are to be embraced as life-affirming values. Driving these values are the huge transnational corporations.

Doing It Better

Who is building the organizations capable of countering these behemoths by mobilizing the power of citizens committed to the common good? Thomas Lenz, Louise Simmons, and Zach Polett detail important local and state coalitions trying to reverse the decades-long trend of multinational corporations imposing the values of capitalism on us so that we can successfully begin to impose the values of a just society on capitalism.

But more and better organizing costs money. Where will the funds come from to hire organizers? In no other western democracy do churches and foundations play as crucial a role in funding organizing. Kim Bobo points to the growing alliance between faith organizations and labor, and we are all familiar with one key supporter of organizing, the Catholic Church through its Campaign for Human Development. And yet, as Kim Fellner questions, can a truly progressive organization take money from an institution that demands fidelity to beliefs that run counter to progressive ideals? And can foundations truly support organizing that challenges the very system that creates the wealth of foundations? In a remarkably honest interview, Pablo Eisenberg, the recently retired director of the Center for Community Change, challenges foundations to fund organizing on the part of the poor. He calls on foundations to go beyond their pool of corporate elites who presently inhabit their boardrooms and recruit leaders from churches, communities, and unions.

Ultimately, the road to success will be built when organizers and their organizations create a common public philosophy, a united civic vision and strategy, and larger coalitions that can truly counter economic power.

Both Fellner and Ernesto Cortés, Jr., go to the core of that philosophy and vision. As Cortés warns: “The seductive lure of ‘opinion makers’ in the form of television, media, and the internet, provide us with the illusion of being connected while in reality we drift further and further apart.” While all the articles in this issue touch on the role of civil institutions, Cortés most pointedly describes their central place in a just society. He cites the breakdown of the family and divisions between our inner cities and suburbs. We need to stop the bleeding of our “intermediary institutions” or what others call social capital or the civil society, he warns. These are fancy words for our key community institutions – unions, families, political parties, and especially the churches and schools – that have historically connected us and helped make government and corporate entities accountable to ordinary people.

By using what Cortés calls the culture of conversation, the IAF builds organizations that protect people from both government and the market to preserve space in which families, voluntary associations, and other intermediary institutions of civil society can thrive. Thomas Lenz dramatically describes how IAF and others do this.

These community institutions empower the powerless, connect us, and teach us how to be the kind of citizen in a democracy who can counter corporate power. Rebuilding these institutions – without the baggage described earlier – is in a very real way part of every article in this issue – from Lee Winkelman’s examples of the complex and contradictory paths that unite organizing with development to Michael Eichler’s alternate strategy for community revitalization.

The upshot is that we, along with Dave Beckwith, find reasons to cheer – we are truly on the road to rebuilding a world based on our shared ideals of love, equality, compassion, and justice.

 

John Atlas
John Atlas is president of the National Housing Institute.
Randy Stoecker
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.
Harold Simon
Harold Simon is executive director of the National Housing Institute and publisher of Shelterforce.

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