#110 Mar/Apr 2000

Twenty-Five Years of Building Power and Capacity

The first issue of Shelterforce was published during an era of reaction and retrenchment after a period of profound social movement among poor people. The civil rights movement in the […]

The first issue of Shelterforce was published during an era of reaction and retrenchment after a period of profound social movement among poor people. The civil rights movement in the South and then the northern cities, the mobilization of Mexican-Americans throughout the Southwest, the militancy among Native Americans, and the Poor People’s March on Washington – in wave after wave, poor people and their allies had challenged social conditions in the United States and pressed for change.

At first, American society and the federal government responded positively. Public opinion polls showed massive support for new measures to create greater equality and opportunity. Lyndon Johnson’s administration responded with a “war on poverty” and a host of social programs. The federal government stood behind “maximum feasible participation of the poor,” voter registration and empowerment, and such militant efforts as VISTA Minority Mobilization in south Texas, hundreds of reform-minded Appalachian Volunteers, and a Legal Services program that supported social justice class action suits.

But by 1975 the movements had run their course. Assassinations, riots, and war had led to Nixon’s election. He ushered in new policies of federal cuts, controls on controversial government programs, and the first round of devolution and block grants to state and local governments.

Since then, the nation has shifted back and forth from eras of conservative government to periods of moderate reform. At no time during that 25 years, however, has there been another wave of strong, activist federal support for poor people, minorities, or the organizations representing them. The prevailing policy direction has been conservative, with continuing devolution and cuts in federal programs for the poor.

Considering this backdrop, it is remarkable that these 25 years have also witnessed a burgeoning number of low- and moderate-income community groups throughout the country. Twenty-five years ago “community organizing” was relatively new. Today there are a dozen networks of organizing groups and many independent organizations that organize poor people to build power and press institutions to meet their needs. Twenty-five years ago the term “community development corporation” (CDC) was just beginning to be used. Today there are thousands of CDCs and an elaborate support infrastructure for them. Local and state coalitions, technical assistance and training organizations, organizing networks, and intermediaries have grown up to support grassroots efforts.

Recently, perhaps in frustration at the intractability of so many social problems, many foundations have initiated their own anti-poverty and community improvement programs – including “comprehensive community initiatives.”

These neighborhood organizations, community organizing groups, CDCs, grassroots coalitions, and others have accomplished an enormous amount. They have developed creative and responsive programs, built housing, created jobs, delivered services, turned neighborhoods around, influenced the policies of banks and government agencies, and transformed the lives of their leaders and many people they serve. They have much to be proud of.

Bigger Change Needed

But despite these heroic efforts and remarkable achievements, poor people are being left further and further behind and their communities are too often continuing to decline. The gains low-income people make in their neighborhoods are severely limited without massive investment from government and the private sector. For example, grassroots groups can make little progress in helping severely disadvantaged people get good jobs unless there are fundamental reforms in hiring practices, schools, job training systems, transportation corridors, and supportive services. The vast majority of low-income people will never get the daycare, healthcare, and other vital services they need without a great infusion of new money, which will not happen without major policy change. The various types of community organizations face, and are trying to tackle, differing obstacles to pressing more assertively for policy changes.

All-Consuming Development

CDCs, for example, have played a valuable role in developing and rehabilitating housing in hundreds of neighborhoods. Many have gone beyond housing and created neighborhood facilities, provided training and services, and worked on economic development projects. But few have had any impact on policy. Why not?

Development is a tough job, requiring serious focus on complex projects, which makes it difficult to concentrate on continually organizing the neighborhood, developing additional leaders, and taking on other community issues. Furthermore, with the need for private and public investment in community development projects, CDCs often become wary of challenging any public or private groups with which it wants to partner.

In recent years, some CDCs have shown renewed interest in organizing and policy work. An increasing number of CDC coalitions are offering community organizing training to their members, and CDC associations in Chicago, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio and several other places have taken on – and won – major policy battles on jobs, housing and reinvestment.

Slow Process of Empowerment

The impact of community organizing groups on policy has also been disappointing until recently despite the potential influence of their mobilized constituencies. The National Peoples’ Action’s success in 1972 in pressing for enactment of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, and its leadership in the subsequent passage of the Community Reinvestment Act, still stand as perhaps the two most impressive grassroots victories of the last 30 years. Nevertheless, most community organizing groups have been slow to tackle major policy issues.

Organizers stress the systematic building of a broad constituency and the necessity of developing grassroots leaders’ skills and confidence by starting with relatively small, winnable issues. They therefore avoid taking on bigger issues until their base and leadership are strong enough to assure victory. The organizing and leadership development process is neither easy nor fast, and many organizations stall in their development and need to return to basic organizing and base-building again and again.

Fortunately, many organizing groups and several organizing networks are now sufficiently mature to take on bigger issues. The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) played a major role in raising the minimum wage in California a decade ago, and Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) chapters and IAF affiliates are taking the lead in local and state campaigns for a “living wage” today. Member groups in other organizing networks are making policy gains on such issues as school reform, school-to-work, workfare and welfare reform, and community service employment.

Another encouraging sign is that several are beginning to mount campaigns at the regional, state, and even national levels. Affiliates of the Gamaliel Foundation are especially committed to working on regional issues that bring together residents of the inner city and the aging inner ring suburbs on such common issues as transportation to jobs and reinvestment. Pacific Institute for Community Organizations (PICO) and Direct Action and Research Training (DART) affiliates are working on statewide education issues.

Several organizing networks are collaborating with independent grassroots groups and others through the new Organizing Committee for the National Campaign on Jobs and Income, which is designed to reinforce local and state campaigns on central economic issues and then to move these issues to the national level. The Campaign brings together groups that often are rivals and that have never collaborated before.

Top-Down Initiatives

In recent years, several foundations have mounted their own initiatives at the neighborhood or city-wide level. Most of these initiatives stress the formation of new collaboratives, bringing low-income community people together with service providers and “movers and shakers” to work together in changing a neighborhood or tackling an issue such as children’s services, healthcare, or jobs. There are now countless numbers of these initiatives, some of which talk about policy change.

However, there are regrettably few examples of policy gains from these foundation initiatives so far. This may in part be because most are relatively young, but there are also deeper difficulties. Collaborative by design, dominated by foundations, and often bringing “movers and shakers” into decision-making from the beginning, most foundation initiatives are loathe to challenge the policies and practices of major public and private institutions.

Furthermore, such initiatives have a difficult time attracting large numbers of community people into leadership positions or creating a sense of ownership among neighborhood residents, as most of the initiatives do not emanate from self-organizing or the community’s own initiative. These factors limit their potential for promoting policy change. This could change if funders fundamentally changed their approach – shifting the balance of power and initiative to community residents who are highly motivated to press for policy changes.

Role of Support Organizations

Beyond foundation initiatives, funders and others must give community groups – CDCs and organizing groups – the encouragement, funding, and assistance they need to continue their positive trends and build the power and capacity to win victories on increasingly significant policy issues. A support infrastructure is needed to sustain substantial social change. This will require providing the flexible core support groups need to set their own agendas and organize around them; additional support for the organizational development assistance groups need to take on major new challenges; greater comfort with supporting adversarial action on fundamental issues of poverty, power-sharing, and justice; and support for the coalitions and networks that will be essential if people are to come together with sufficient collective power to bring about real change.

To generate the constituency, power and movement to bring about large-scale gains in life prospects for poor people, community groups must dramatically increase their ability to influence major public and private institutions’ policies. This will require either the rekindling of a mass movement or a series of changes in the priorities and behavior of all the actors in the field of community change.


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