Community Control Without Tears

Organizing for Community Controlled Development: Renewing Civil Society, by Patricia Watkins Murphy and James V. Cunningham. Sage Publications. 2003. 360 pp. $42.95 (paperback).


Reading Organizing for Community Controlled Development is like going to a carnival. It has its own coherence, especially from a distance. Once you go through the front gates, however, you realize the whole is made up of so many games, food, drink, shows, rides, sights, sounds and smells all packed so tightly together that it is easy to be overwhelmed. The book is packed with perspectives, examples and possibilities that any community at any stage of development can draw from.

Of course, the challenge is choosing. Thankfully, the authors have not presented a mish-mash. The first six chapters develop their model of organizing for community-controlled development, or OCCD. What follows are how-to chapters on organizational strategic planning, community planning, fundraising, housing development, business development and workforce development. And you get the full definition of OCCD after only six pages, making it easy to tell where the authors are coming from. Organizing is about people “mobilizing and constructively deploying their human power” to “control the future of their small community.” Community, contrary to recent attempts to expand the definition, is about a “shared place” composed of people with “shared interests.” Controlled refers to the “right” of those people to “decide the future of their place.” Development is about “making things better in a visible and purposeful way.”

Each piece of this model gets its own chapter among the first six. It can be a bit disconcerting to read each of these chapters as the authors review the myriad disputes on such issues as the effectiveness of community development corporations. But even as the authors present this midway of booths, each hawking their own perspective, they continually emphasize their own course. Whether it is discussing CDCs, community organizing, community participation mechanisms or the community itself, the authors stress the importance of comprehensiveness, built on the three-legged stool of the social, political and economic.

They understand the social well, elaborating the importance of shared values, shared history, strong community institutions, strong communication networks and solid social ties built through kinship, friendship and neighboring. But they present the political, especially in Chapter 4, as almost an obvious given, with little time devoted to thinking about politics as a source of strategy. Their economic discussion makes me the most uncomfortable. Yes, they highlight the importance of the local economy, but the entire model remains within the assumptions of capitalism except for one page of Chapter 12 where the authors briefly discuss local money systems. They consequently promote such models as comprehensive community initiatives – relatively conflict-free attempts at cross-class coalition building. In fact, in a book that begins with the word “organizing,” it intrigues me how little discussion there is of conflict.

The authors’ presentation of the Battle for Seattle, for instance, is a supersanitized portrayal of the corporate police state tactics used there. According to the authors, “Some among the largely peaceful street multitudes resisted police commands or vandalized property, resulting in 600 arrests by week’s end.” The reality was that protestors suffered beatings and chemical attacks even when they were not resisting and were locked on buses without food, water or toilets for hours on end. Police moved far outside of the perimeter set up around the WTO meetings to attack Seattle neighborhoods they had long seen as housing undesirable residents. Law-abiding law enforcement officers did not calmly arrest people.

I think I understand what the authors are trying to do. They want to speak in a calm, reasoned voice to those in power about supporting processes that might otherwise seem threatening. Indeed, the authors’ emphasis on real community control over redevelopment, rather than the typical token participation, is a radical notion in itself. So they need a reasoned tone that won’t make the city planners, council members, corporate managers and philanthropists go running for the hills when someone says “organizing” and “community control” in the same sentence.

The challenge the authors face is understandable. I can’t tell you the number of city, corporate and philanthropy officials, from cities as diverse as Toledo, Nashville, Portland, Minneapolis and Kansas City, who say, “We don’t need confrontation to get things done here.” In each of those cities, I’ve talked to people historically excluded from participation, who are convinced that “the only way they will ever listen to us is if we make a fuss.” Those of us writing about community organizing and development may be contributing to their exclusion when we neglect the centrality of conflict to the process of community development. What about the communities we are writing about and on whose behalf we are trying to work? Where is the hard-hitting analysis of capitalist profit extraction and impoverishment of communities? Where is the critique of corporate colonization of cities that reduces the political process to intercity competition for getting taxpayers to provide the biggest subsidy for inflated job estimates and short-term leases? It is only in the last five pages of the book that the authors broach these questions.

Yes, we absolutely must begin with small communities to start the change toward a community-based society, and that requires books like Organizing for Community Controlled Development. It is a worthy book, with probably the best collection of resources anywhere for those trying to combine organizing and development.

But once, when I was a teenager, I helped the carnival set up when they came to town. I spent the day with a gang of beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, tough-looking guys wielding heavy hand tools and sometimes looking like they were going to wield them on us when we screwed up. I can’t help but see this book as the front-stage of the carnival – the happy music, bright lights and laughter of the carnival in action – and not the risky, backbreaking, conflict-ridden backstage work required to make it happen to begin with.

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