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 (below), Ernesto Cortés, Jr., and Michael Eichler 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.
Forge relationships, develop leaders, build power by tackling “immediate, specific and winnable” issues – these are the tools of our trade. But most of us fell in love with organizing out of a passion for justice. Three decades after the ’60s stole my heart, I still believe that without a progressive vision – to redistribute power and wealth and create social justice and racial equality – our craft is a vessel without a polar star.
Saul Alinsky, the curmudgeonly father of modern community organizing, instructed organizers to bring sharp ears and probing questions – start with people where they are and help them build power and structure around issues that unite them.
And at its best, it sings. My old friend Madeleine once organized the employees of a nursing home. The owner also ran a house for slightly retarded women. “One of the young women who lived there worked in the nursing home, and we all worried that if she got involved in the organizing and was fired, she could be kicked out of her residence as well,” Madeleine related. “But she came to the meeting and told us, ‘If Mrs. Albert fires me, she fires me. But it can’t be as bad as the way that woman treats me; I’m not her slave.'”
“Those women organized, and this particular woman did get fired, and everyone panicked, including me. But she told us, ‘Don’t worry. If I had to do it again, I would, and she won’t kick me out because I won’t let her.’ That’s what it was all about. The union was her ticket to dignity, a hook to what was in her already. I couldn’t believe I had this gift, to be able to work with people and show them the tools they already have. They became proud members of the community.”
For more than 50 years, that essence of democratic organizing has been adapted, and stretched, into many shapes through which poor and disenfranchised communities have secured living wage ordinances, forged farm worker movements, built low-income housing units, and so much more.
But we still confront the insatiable, often successful forces of unfettered capital – plus a straight, white, Christian, male cultural despotism that just won’t quit.
Sometimes it’s almost funny. Let’s say a progressive publication solicits views on organizing – from Ernie Cortés, Mike Eichler, and Gary Delgado. Eventually, Mr. Delgado asks the obvious: “Where’s the girl??!??”
At least it’s obvious to women who hear this tale; they shout out the punch line before I’m halfway there. The editors belatedly identify a female and tell her to churn out in weeks what the guys had several months to produce. As my friend Jean says, “How like life itself,” which is why we still have a ways to go.
But mostly there is greater import, and impact. As the right wing has mounted an all- encompassing political, economic, and cultural assault, many of us feel an urgency for significant victories in the larger political arena, and it’s led to triage on the cultural identity front. After all, if you want to quickly unite the greatest number of constituents, forget race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation!
Take for instance the revised funding guidelines from the Campaign for Human Development, the institutional funder of organizing in poor communities. Formerly, recipient organizations had to vouch that CHD monies would not fund activities violating Catholic church teachings (on abortion or gay rights, for example). Now, “CHD will not consider projects or organizations which promote or support abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, or any other affront to human life or dignity” – as defined by Catholic church doctrine.
How many will refuse big money for housing development and welfare organizing to support a besieged abortion clinic or gay rights legislation? Who will take the money, planning to ignore the prohibition? Who will grab an excuse to avoid these controversial issues entirely?
It’s a near-perfect predicament of our organizing moment. It pits class urgencies against identity rights, our own immediate organizational agendas and finances against the vision of a broad-based progressive movement.
It also forces us to reexamine how we choose our battles and define our victories:
- A major Latino organization refuses to support rights for undocumented immigrants, for fear of jeopardizing their legislative agenda on legal immigrants.
- A new organization asserts that undue concentration on racial diversity saps energy from the real battle against corporate and political foes.
Which part of a progressive world-view, or whom among our colleagues, are we are willing to sell out for a short-term win?
Several years ago, a colleague derided “an approach that insists that before white ethnics can be organized they must have a ‘progressive’ view of race and any other litmus test issues. Should the test include gay marriages? Or pro-abortion?… You’d better think about all the Latino and Black Baptists, Pentecostals, and Catholics who agree with Catholic ethnics on some of these issues.”
This terrain requires new ways to navigate both power and relationship. If some organizations tangled in the grassroots aren’t able to lead with immigration or abortion, we might test new collaborations, where some of us concentrate on shorter-term gains, while others prepare for longer-term progressive growth. This goes beyond letterhead coalitions to acknowledge that we’re in the same larger ideological family. If the collective “we” doesn’t take on the riskier issues, the only interpretation our constituents hear on gays may come from Trent Lott. As my colleague Sonia Pe – a says, “Sure, you start with people where they are, but it doesn’t mean you leave them there.”
From Inside Out
Nor do we necessarily want to leave our own organizations where we find them. If part of our challenge is to suggest an alternative to a society where amassing wealth defines individual worth, we need to model a respectful, just, and joyful community in which many diverse people can flourish. Too often, we come up short.
At a recent coalition meeting, participants lined up according to how much power they thought they had in the group. “Organization directors, all but one white, were at one end, and the least powerful were all people of color,” reports one African-American organizer. “Then we discovered women averaged $5,000 less than the men, and the attitude was, ‘that’s interesting – let’s move on.'”
Or consider the Latina organizer who related, “There wasn’t any discussion about my responsibilities after I had a baby. I guess they think it’s my problem. I can’t always be there at 6 a.m. to distribute leaflets, and I can’t always work weekends. I look at the child’s father climbing up the organizational ladder – it seems unfair.”
These, too, are defining questions of relationship and power. To really walk the walk, we must create a culture that eschews the macho maniac dangling a cigarette and a broken marriage as the only organizer prototype. It must be possible for women and men who value health and family – and who may not have trust funds or traditional support systems – to endure, and rise.
As Sophia Bracy Harris of the Federation of Childcare Centers of Alabama told me, “We must go toward the product and keep accountability for the work. But we also believe that to achieve our mission and objectives, we need a place to confront our own internalized barriers, and move to a place of well-being-ness.
“Men come out of a different way of being, focusing more on the technical, the theme rather than the feeling. And there are women who’ve learned that male process so well they have trouble, too. But if we’re not willing to relearn things that have been dysfunctional to us, how can we ask mothers and child care providers to struggle with the issues that block their empowerment?”
Inner Space, Open Space
Nothing changes unless something changes – and we have ample evidence that our success is limited when we dichotomize between issues that are “immediate, specific and winnable” and the big picture transformations.
In moving beyond Alinsky’s lessons, we can draw from the movements of our time. The civil rights movement taught us that race is inextricably tied to power – and the struggle is internal as well as external. SNCC and the Vietnam anti-war movement proved that you can give birth to a host of progressive endeavors – and leaders – even if no lasting institution bears your name. We have learned that where Native Americans organize, Mother Earth is present. And where women have a real voice, domestic violence and child care are real issues.
Likewise, while some feminist organizers used classic power organizing to tackle issues that were generally dismissed by male-dominated organizations, winning reproductive rights and workplace equity – others formed consciousness-raising groups, challenged hierarchical models, and created art brigades. Together, they gradually amassed the self-worth and entitlement that have transformed our society – and we carry them all with us to the next level of struggle.
Perhaps it’s time to go for the both/and rather than the either/or – to wage fights against the immediate outrages of workfare, redlining, and use of toxic chemicals, and also battle racism and capitalism; to try organizing that starts with the compelling idea of intertwined personal and community well-being, as well as with the burning issue of the moment.
A primary goal of the National Organizers Alliance (NOA), whose membership is wildly diverse, half female, spanning race, generation, region and organizing practice, is to forge deep relationships, trust, and connective tissue between the members and, by extension, their organizing work. We’re now thinking that to bridge identity divisions we need to build a shared, inclusive culture and community, almost as a prerequisite to forming working collaborations, rather than the other way around.
The Next Wave
One of the greatest challenges in this process is to forge a generational bridge. Almost half the NOA Steering Committee is under 30; yet the divide between older and younger, experienced and novice, is stubborn. Perspectives my generational peers take for granted do not signify for my younger colleagues – unless we take time to impart our experience and absorb new lessons and culture in exchange – and hand over some ownership as well. After all, whether we talk about schools or prisons, welfare or corporate marketing strategies, young people are most directly in the line of fire. And we, writing these pieces, are only a prologue to their advances.
Going for the Movement
“So,” a skeptical funder asked, “do you really think there’s a movement?”
Yes, I told her. The movement is the current connecting me to compañeros and compañeras – past, present, and future – who aspire to redistribute wealth and power in an environmentally sound world, where all individuals and identities can shine.
Yes, I told her. The movement is lava rumbling under the earth, always there. But sometimes it breaks through, and then anything can happen, and the surface is forever changed.