#102 Nov/Dec 1998

The Last Stop Sign

I had my first organizing experience 28 years ago working for the National Welfare Rights Organization, knocking on doors in the suffocatingly humid summer of 1970. My “turf” was a […]

I had my first organizing experience 28 years ago working for the National Welfare Rights Organization, knocking on doors in the suffocatingly humid summer of 1970. My “turf” was a small Black neighborhood in Northeast D.C. In preparation for the first organizing meeting, I “doorknocked” 61 families; 59 people came to the meeting. I thought I was an organizing god.

The truth is that the times were on our side. The Black-led civil rights movement had just won hard-fought but heady victories. The tide had turned against the Vietnam War. The government felt obligated, if often reluctant, to address the inequities of poverty and racial discrimination.

Wearing the regulation garb of a SNCC-inspired movement, dungarees and long-sleeved sky-blue workshirts, dozens of inexperienced young organizers from the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) were able to mobilize and build large organizations of welfare recipients, composed entirely of poor women. These militant organizations fought for basic resources like stoves, refrigerators, beds, and sheets – resources legally mandated, but seldom delivered without a fight. Our purpose was clear: build a multiracial movement of poor people to redesign, reset, and implement a vision for a just society.

Our politics were reflected in our slogans: ADEQUATE INCOME NOW and PEOPLE BEFORE PROPERTY, and in the way we looked and dressed. As a young black man, allies and enemies were relatively easy to spot: all black people were cool; people with Afros were especially with it; white guys with long hair got the nod over crew cuts; women with hairy legs were often critical and genuine.

Today, both politics and appearances are more difficult to decipher; there are shaved heads for every political preference – from Black athletes, to Sinead O’Connor, to Nazi skinheads. And Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives alike compete to cut welfare benefits, build bigger and better prisons, and “make sure business gets an even break.”

Why not? He who pays the piper calls the tune. Thanks to the Reagan/Bush revolution, and now that corporate contributions have bought nearly every seat in the House, Senate, and local statehouses, is it any surprise that elected officials have been merrily singing a song of social cutbacks, private deregulation, and merger with a new refrain of “privatize, privatize, privatize”?

What does all this mean for community organizing? A line from an old Bob Dylan song says, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” If community organizing is to live, it must change.

From the Small to the Significant

Even 30 years ago, the simplest way to get a stop sign on a neighborhood corner was to dig a hole, set in a wooden post, and power staple on a readily available plastic replica. For time and effort exerted, this method beats talking to 125 community residents to get a group of 50 or 60 people to go down to the city’s Office of Public Safety and demand one. The stop sign itself, however, was not the point. The point was that ordinary people were contesting for power around small “winnable” things and, if they were successful, eventually we could all vie for power around larger, more significant political issues.

Right-wing grassroots efforts – to close abortion clinics, kill affirmative action, and put gays and lesbians back into the closet – have never bothered with stop signs at all. Perhaps they know something that we forgot. Good organizing issues are deeply felt, controversial. Our problem is that the gap from the “small and winnable” to the large and significant is often unbridgeable.

As community organizers what are we really trying to do? Are we trying to change the size of the negotiating table, add a chair or two, or saw it up and see that everyone gets a fair piece? Or, are we saying, “Wait a minute, the table is in a room, the room is in a house, and the house occupies a particular space in relation to the city, country, planet, and universe?”

Heady stuff, community organizing.

CO’s Contributions

I don’t mean to suggest that traditional community organizations have not made some significant strides. Our process of finding and developing grassroots leaders is an important contrast to the notion that the only people that can solve problems are anointed experts. We have helped people understand that their opinions count, that there is power in numbers, and that, even though there may be conflict within an organization, democratic decisions are possible. We have also contested for and won power – to reverse discriminatory loan policies, force the development of low-income housing, influence school curricula, stop illegal dumping, enforce first-source hiring, and reassess corporate taxes.

We also won a hell of a lot of stop signs.

But let’s be clear: the world of traditional community organizing is almost completely separate from the parallel world of progressive activism. It was that activism which, during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, built the women’s & gay and lesbian movements, protested apartheid in South Africa and U.S. intervention in Central America, fostered an immigrant rights movement, and responded to “benign neglect” and institutional racism in communities of color by building independent racial justice organizations. If traditional CO is to become a force for change in the millennium and beyond, it must proactively address issues of race, class, gender, corporate concentration, and the complexities of a transnational economy.

We are clearly more ready to take on some of these issues than others. Some of us have traded in our distaste for corporate concentration to embrace corporate (cause related) partners. We sat out the GATT free trade fight, anti-immigrant initiatives, and English-only campaigns claiming that they weren’t the principle concerns of our members, while organizations like the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice ran cross-border tours trying to convince us that our notion of “community” may have to extend beyond national borders. As Network director Richard Moore points out, “In this global economy, there are very few issues that are purely local.”

Community Organizing and the Politics of Power

In truth, organizing people for power raises the question: Power for whom and to do what? Our confusion too often begins with questionable politics, gets reflected in poor methods and misconceived notions of “wins,” and ends by blurring our vision of power.

Let’s start with the right’s favorite wedge – race. Killing multiculturalism is the wet dream of choice for white privilege apologists. Whether the Grand Wizard of the Idaho Aryan Nation or liberal academics like Todd Gitlin and Arthur Schlesinger, these people would like us not to talk about race.

But the conversation about welfare reform, even though most recipients are white, is about race. The expression “urban core,” where most community organizations work, is a reference to race. Three-strikes is about race, and bilingual education is about race, language, and assimilation. Yet how many community organizations, even those in communities of color, have had explicit discussions about race relations and the racial impact of particular policies? Very few.

Yet we cannot organize a multiracial movement without an explicit racial politic.

Does CO Duck Wedge Issues?

Three years ago an IAF organizer from New Mexico told me that the organization was not involved in immigration issues because, during his one-on-one interviews with constituents, the issue hadn’t come up. I don’t doubt his word, but I do question his reasoning. Here we have a white male interviewing a Latino population. Are there issues that Latino people discuss with each other that somehow do not find their way into a discussion with an Anglo organizer? Even if immigration didn’t come up, given the salience of the issue and the tense political climate, what is the responsibility of the organizer to raise the issue?
Here are two examples from the frontlines of wedge politics:

  • A campaign by a coalition of community organizations for a multicultural curriculum as part of a school reform effort in Brooklyn is opposed by the local chapter of a national organizing network apparently because the curriculum’s positive portrayal of gay/lesbian lifestyle might sidetrack the organization’s school reform efforts.
  • A local Pacific Institute for Community Organizations (PICO)-sponsored organization went head-to-head with PUEBLO, one of the Center For Third World Organizing’s (CTWO) local groups, on the issue of a curfew for young people. The PICO group endorsed it while the CTWO group, through its youth component, opposed it.

A slightly different lesson comes out of my own experience at CTWO. Anxious to secure a win out of a fairly complex set of proposals for police reform, a number of our organizational affiliates went after a “community share” of the asset forfeiture monies secured in busts by local police despite the fact that we knew that many of the busts violated the civil rights of those arrested. Our need for an organizational win offset our principle of civil justice. The tail wagged the dog and politics with a small “p” prevailed.

As these situations illustrate, organizing people for power begs the question: power for whom and to do what? How is it that some community organizations support more police and greater penalties while others support increased prevention programs and alternatives to incarceration? Where do community organizers and community organizations stand on the issues that “wedge” our people apart – abortion, gay rights, affirmative action, crime, the death penalty, vouchers? How do the religious-based organizations come down on school vouchers? School prayer? Can we really afford the claim that if it doesn’t come up in the one-on-ones, informational doorknocks, or issue development sessions, it’s not an issue that our group should work on? I don’t think so.

These portentous political questions are reflected in the internal workings of our organizations. For instance, what does it say about community organizations when many gay and lesbian people feel that they have to stay in the closet because the organization is not “queer positive”? Again, power for whom and to do what? I don’t have any sure-fire answers for the challenges that CO currently faces, but I do have some ideas.

Promoting Bridge Leadership

When I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I read an article in a local newspaper about a community organization that was fighting for the right of a lesbian mother to keep her kid. Wondering how the issue had come up, I made an appointment to talk with the director of the organization. The director, an “out” lesbian, laughed as she explained, “The woman lives in our neighborhood and I explained to the board how, given my own experiences, this issue was really important.”

I’ve never forgotten the conversation, and over the years I’ve become clearer about the importance of having “bridge people” in leadership positions. By bridge people I mean people of color, people with disabilities, some gay and lesbian people, and first-generation immigrants – those who, because they don’t exactly “fit” in this society, have been forced to carve out their own identities and their own unique perch from which they view the world. The ability of these people to see across and through similarity and difference – to see sideways – and to integrate the knowledge of many cultures can be a valuable asset to developing new multidimensional organizations.

Reassessing Our Relationship to Funder-Driven Partnerships

In addition to reconsidering the kind of leadership we promote and develop, we need to reevaluate our participation in funder-driven partnerships. With few exceptions, most funders know very little about organizing – and what they do know they don’t like. They are, in general, adverse to conflict. We, on the other hand, deal in conflict, often with the very government and financial institutions that funders insist be “at the table” as stakeholders. I’m not suggesting that we can’t reach an accommodation with groups that have interests different from ours. I’d just prefer to have the fight before the reconciliation.

I’d also nix involvement with the insipid “I’m O.K., you’re O.K., why-can’t we-just-get-along, consensus-building,” sell-outs, and the increasingly ineffective smart-white-boy-led, speak truth (as they know it) to power, unconnected-to-a-base “issue/policy coalitions.” And, when we reflect on how easy it’s been for some of us to collaborate with funders, we might want to ask ourselves why we find it so difficult to work with one another.

Developing A Political Vision

In order to really address the changing political environment, even the more authentic community organizations will have to change. We must not be afraid to use analytical and ideological tools to develop political vision. By political vision, I mean a vision that takes us past the strategies of a campaign, a power analysis of key players, or the tactics of a good accountability session. In order to be a critical element in future change efforts, we must work with our constituents to develop our vision of a future society. In a global society, our vision cannot simply be a warmed-over “lowest-common-denominator” notion of Jeffersonian Democracy coupled with an appetite for power, without defining power for what and for whom.

How do we arrive at a vision that takes into account and combines our own political beliefs, values, aspirations and experiences with those of our constituents? Very slowly. But we will only arrive if we allocate the resources, create the organizational space, and make a commitment to read, study, and discuss wedge issues and political vision as part of the culture of our organizations. In finding ways to build our vision, we don’t have to agree on everything. However, if we have any hope of affecting larger societal issues and continuing to be relevant to our own constituents, we have to create space for discussing and developing a collective vision. Remember, the grassroots movement of the right does not begin, or end, with stop signs.

When many of us began organizing, we believed that the organizations we built would form the base for a movement. Somewhere along the line, many of us got stuck in our own brand of organizing. Instead of believing that all of our organizations might have a shot at building a movement, we began to believe that our network was the movement and that everybody else should join, die, or get out of the way.

Given our current political situation, we may just want to rethink that position.



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