Organizing has long played an important role as a catalyst in bringing together disenfranchised communities. The following is one of three essays representing different approaches to organizing and serving as a dialogue about both organizing approach and philosophy for long-term change. Using personal examples drawn from their own organizing experiences, Kim Fellner, Ernesto Cortés, Jr., and Michael Eichler (below) elaborate on successes and setbacks they’ve experienced over the past 30 years, the successes and tensions common to organizing today, and where organizing might lead us in the future.
Organizing is a proud profession, brimming with hard-working individuals who dedicate their lives to honorable causes. This devotion and dedication tends to focus on consistency, doggedness, and principles. Much of the professional thinking and leadership today is a product of the ’60s, an era of polarization and divisiveness that allowed little room for moderation, compromise, and inclusion. Many professional organizers who gained experience during this era tend to see the world in absolute terms: The military-industrial complex was an unholy alliance crushing the poor and any articulate leader showing concern for minorities was assassinated. Blue-collar whites were reactionaries voting for George Wallace. Suburbanites absolved themselves of all responsibility for creating an equal and just society. Organizers pointed out these truths and demanded a change in the power imbalance. Then a series of complex factors turned America toward conservatism, leaving activists with an ever-shrinking number of “us” and an ever-increasing number of “them.”
Principles of justice, fairness, and opportunity are alive and well in organizing today, but we live in a world of increasing complexity – defying not only generalization but also definition. Imagine the changes from the ’60s, when minority meant only black, labor unions focused entirely on domestic issues, and there was no prospect of charter schools, managed health care, and social marketing. As organizers attempt to analyze these changes, some tend to dig in their heels. In the 1980s, when massive permanent cutbacks occurred in the steel industry, some organizers felt that pressure must be exerted on steel companies to force factories to remain open. Others insisted that worker-owned companies were the answer. Fifteen years later, many still believe the sole reason that the jobs were lost was because there was not enough pressure put on companies. These clinging-to-the-past analyses and tactics, in the face of changing circumstances, occurs throughout organizing: Would not a more effective strategy have been to focus steel companies and unions on their responsibility to help prepare workers for new jobs, rather than making a demand to save their old ones?
Often, organizers feel uncomfortable changing premises, feeling that they are compromising and watering down demands to help the disenfranchised – as if there is honor in going down with the ship. Take the issue of welfare reform: Many organizers are frozen in time, rehashing the unfairness of legislation, while each precious day passes with former recipients unprepared for the harsh realities they face. Instead, shouldn’t we be harnessing our skills to form partnerships with employers, trainers, housing authorities, and day care providers? We should embrace change and not automatically assume that if we did not demand it, shape it, and control it that it must be bad. Relationships, political supporters, friends in high places, past detractors, previous roadblocks, should all be seen as pieces on a chessboard, ever interchangeable, with new games constantly in progress. Simultaneously, the organizer must remain grounded in the bedrock values of fairness, justice, and equality.
The organizer who sees the world in terms of absolutes is doomed. Most people, regardless of income, realize how complicated the world has become. Just ask any parent. We can no longer afford to oversimplify. Instead, we have to admit how complicated and contradictory the world has become. We live in a global economy; in our lifetime, most cities will not have majority racial or ethnic groups; and almost everyone will change jobs, and even careers, every few years. The analytical skills of the organizer will be more critical than ever.
We need to teach people how to analyze the self-interest of potential partners and have the ideological flexibility to mix and match partners. This flexibility may seem reckless – even dangerous – to organizers of the ’60s, some of whom are more comfortable with old scenarios of bad landlords, mayors, and corporate leaders. But today’s landlord may be on the board of the community development corporation. Today’s mayor may be a major advocate in improving the public schools; and today’s corporate leader may be hiring and training welfare recipients while damaging the environment and paying solicited kickbacks to the mayor.
Can the organizing profession play chess on this chessboard? There is great skill required in organizing, but there must also be well-defined intent. Intent must center on the development of others, never drawing attention, recognition, or focus on the organizer or the organization that employs or trains him/her, as is often the case. This focus detracts from the development of people in the neighborhood and the resources of the larger community.
Today’s organizer must be seen as a skilled practitioner, a potential asset to everyone in the community wishing to be involved in civic action. Our lines of communication need to be open, and our desire to listen to everyone must be evidenced. This openness will allow us to sort through all the possibilities of partnerships and help create opportunities for future collaboration. In addition, the organizer must build cohesion and trust among all constituents. And, when allegiances are impossible, we should depersonalize our differences, so we can maximize chances for future alliances.
Some of Consensus Organizing Institute’s most thought-provoking work has been with high-schoolers. We find young people highly sensitive to being used for political or ideological reasons. They are interested in and even fascinated by organizing, but they want to pick their issues and organize themselves. They are intensely interested in learning about how government, the corporate world, and educational systems function. They want to understand how to negotiate and strategize within the system, as opposed to being marginalized as vocal critics from the outside. They want the system to take them seriously.
In our work with El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, New York, students formed their own organization, Youth Organizers! (YO!) and researched and chose their own issues. By canvassing the community, they determined that there were many people interested in becoming street vendors. They brought together vendors from the neighborhood and learned how to organize inside and outside the community simultaneously. Inside the neighborhood, they met with existing vendors and established trust. Outside the neighborhood, they researched technical assistance providers and chose Cornell University’s extension service, because the recommended facilitator was an immigrant, mirroring many of the vendors. The students helped her rewrite her training materials in Spanish. They negotiated with the City of New York to secure a park for the vendors to jointly sell their goods. They built ownership and leadership among the vendors so the project will continue after they graduate.
Equally important are all the things the students did not do. They did not build the effort around ideological conclusions made before the project began. They did not assume the city had to be forced to cooperate, or that the universities did not care about the neighborhood, or that the vendors were too independent to work together. Rather, the project evolved around what the student organizers discovered through their analysis in this particular set of circumstances. They learned never to generalize, but rather to start each effort with freshness, candor, and honesty.
The YO! project demonstrated the essential attribute of consensus organizing: instead of taking power from those who have it, consensus organizers build relationships in which power is shared for mutual benefit. Instead of taking a traditional confrontational approach – for example, fighting the local bank for not investing in the neighborhood – YO! participants looked for ways to involve people in an activity that could benefit everyone who participated: vendors, residents, organizations, and consumers. Cooperation, rather than confrontation, became the modus operandi for solving a neighborhood problem.
We have found that the introduction to organizing attracts a broad cross-section of young people, not just a narrow political slice. They see value for the vendors, prospective vendors, the city, the university, neighborhood residents, and themselves. They have been extremely articulate about how organizing has taught them to think, analyze, and follow through, aware that these skills will assist them as they pursue a variety of careers.
Another important outcome is that the high school students have been exposed to people of various ethnicities, incomes, and educational backgrounds. They have struggled with the complexities of diversity and gained skills and experience, which has both energized and humbled them. It has almost become cliché to stress diversity when talking about organizing. All statistics show rapid increases in the number and variety of ethnic and racial groups in the United States. Therefore, we must encourage and develop organizers who can find the commonalities among seemingly divergent people. Since diversity is everywhere, communication must be everywhere as well.
We see tremendous growth for the community organizing field, including recognition by government, philanthropy, nonprofit, and for-profit corporations. The central question is: Will we take advantage of opportunities to expand the profession we are so proud to be part of – and open our minds to all of the potential helping parties that need to be organized? If we look at organizing as a big tent rather than a secret club, we can remove it from the clandestine, private back room and out into the greater community, under the energy of sunshine and light.