Advancing Power

Transforming the City: Community Organizing and the Challenge of Political Change, edited by Marion Orr. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2007, 264 pp. $19.95 (paperback).

Good writing on community organizing is sparse, and much of it consists of how-to manuals, personal reflections from organizers, and case studies. Marion Orr’s recent contribution applies a welcome and surprisingly useful — at least to this organizer – sociological analysis to the field and raises important strategic issues.

Transforming the City’s 10 essays address the relationships between the community, municipal government, and non-governmental elites – a concept Orr calls the “ecology of civic engagement.” Some chapters challenge us to examine what it means to build and wield power, and others argue that grass-roots organizing can or should provide the basis for a new progressive politics, but that to do so, the field must mature.

The “change or die” bell has been rung periodically over the years in relation to community organizing as a field. Veteran organizer Gary Delgado’s 1990s pieces, “Beyond the Politics of Place” and “The Last Stop Sign,” (Shelterforce Nov./Dec. 1998) come to mind. They argued that for community organizing to survive it must transcend what he viewed as parochialism and a lack of vision. And while Delgado was generally dismissive of the potential of local work, some of his critiques were accurate – for example, some local organizing is too limited in its scope and can fail to affect broader structures of power. Transforming the City demonstrates how far the field has come in the decade since Delgado offered his critique. The field is growing, not dying, and Orr’s volume raises a new set of issues for community organizing today.

The authors address three related subjects: how to strengthen democracy and civic engagement; how to restructure power and redress poverty, racism, and other forms of social exclusion; and how to build a stronger progressive movement. On the matter of civic engagement, the authors cite Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol, who argues that not only is civil society degraded, but that its development is inhibited by “memberless organizations” that have a paper membership and are staff driven. These checkbook activist groups, says Skocpol, outfits like Amnesty International or Common Cause, occupy the time and resources of those who used to engage in vibrant membership organizations that are the lifeblood of strong democracy.

Several of the authors also turn to sociologist Robert Putnam, whose “bowling alone” thesis and his subsequent 1995 book on the decline of America’s “social capital,” examined the corrosive effects of our atomized, consumerized society. With an array of statistics on dwindling participation rates in labor unions, reading clubs, ethnic societies, bowling clubs, and most forms of voluntary engagement, Putnam demonstrated how unhealthy the decades-long decline was for our society, yet he failed to provide a particularly clear roadmap to reverse the trend. Some of the contributors to Transforming the City pick up where Putnam left off, pointing to community organizing as one way to re-engage citizens.

Transforming the City pushes us to examine organizing through the prism of contemporary city and national progressive politics. Peter Burns’ essay looks at the work of three national community-organizing networks – Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), PICO National Network, and the Industrial Areas Foundations (IAF) – in mostly pre-Katrina New Orleans, a city with neither a powerful, well-financed municipal government nor a coherent ruling elite. Burns analyzes that the strategy of more aggressive organizations like ACORN is to push for accountability from a government that can’t deliver, and the strategy of more accommodationist organizations, such as the faith-based groups PICO and IAF, is to seek cooperation from a government that has become an unworthy partner. Burns labels New Orleans a “non-regime city” that was made worse by Katrina, which further degraded the capacity of the local government to serve as either a worthy target or partner. Burns doesn’t offer guidelines for how community organizations should operate in such an environment, but he does suggest that they navigate it with caution.

The writers in Transforming the City are mostly academics who demonstrate a remarkably sympathetic and nuanced understanding of community organizing. But at times they seem to lack a practical understanding of how community organizations work. For example, Burns explains that New Orleans ACORN is more militant than the local PICO and IAF chapters because ACORN has been in the city since the time when local government was powerful and therefore a target worthy of direct-action tactics. He says that the faith-based groups came later, when government was in a weakened state, and adapted their tactics accordingly. In reality, any observer of organizing networks, both in New Orleans and nationally, would know that ACORN consistently uses direct action and a more aggressive posture, and in general faith-based community organizations everywhere are less aggressive in their approach.

In Richard Woods’ chapter on state and national organizing, one of the best in the book, his evaluation of PICO’s state-level work reaches a mostly positive conclusion. But Woods falters in his argument that, when PICO expanded its network statewide in California, its local work didn’t diminish because the network continued to open new local projects. The underlying hypothesis had been that state-level expansion would inhibit, sidetrack, or otherwise drain local organizing. There is always a tension between the amount of time and effort put into neighborhood-level, municipal, state, and national work, but arguing that an organization has transcended this tension – a plausible solution when achieved through growth and enhanced capacity – because it has opened new projects is simply not on point. An increase in the number of local projects doesn’t necessarily speak to where true effort and resources are being spent.

In their discussion of how community organizations contest for power in metropolitan America, Kathleen Staudt and Clarence Stone reach sobering conclusions in their study of the faith-based community group El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (EPISO). “For those who look to community organizing as the means to bring about a forward-looking capacity to govern, the experience in El Paso is discouraging,” the authors write. This “approach provides visibility and even attracts resources. It does not, however, yield a share in a permanent capacity to govern.”

Staudt and Stone rightly point to the tension between the actual process of community-level organizing and campaign/program development versus the more externally oriented process of wielding power and governing. But they make too great a leap in judgment by extending a critique of one community organization to the field as a whole. Community organizations with sufficient vision and scale can build power in contemporary cities by combining grass-roots militancy and strategic cooperation. In fact this is one of the very challenges of contemporary organizing – how to continue to deepen and evolve our “outside game,” all the while increasing our capacity to move relationships and resources on the inside.

The most significant discussion in Transforming the City may be the careful examination of how community organizing fits into the national scene. Heidi Swarts’ chapter on ACORN’s national organizing looks at how the organization has developed two dominant approaches: local or state venue-based campaigns (such as the living-wage movement) and simultaneous local-state-national campaigns (such as national corporate campaigns). If community organizations can build the capacity to operate at the neighborhood, local, regional, state, and federal levels simultaneously, as ACORN does, we can open up a range of strategic options for the field. First, we can choose targets based on favorability, as Swarts describes. Second, we can run multi-layered campaigns, say on predatory lending or minimum wage, in multiple venues. Third, we can use different styles and methodologies. The result would be victories not only at city hall, but also at commissions, administrative bodies, corporations, courts, and quasi-governmental agencies. If our work is about building power for working families, shouldn’t we do so at all levels where power affects our communities?

All the authors of Transforming the City make the case that modern community organizing, despite points of weakness and daunting challenges, is the best hope for a revitalized democracy, deep equity, and the building of a winning progressive movement. Robert Fisher and Eric Shragge “emphasize organizing that begins at the local level and builds outward.” Peter Dreier argues that, as progressive forces get their act together and strategically build infrastructure, “community organizing has an important role to play as part of a broader progressive movement.” There is no consensus in the organizing field that we should actively situate ourselves with a national vision and orientation, but this book will help practitioners and lay readers alike think in new ways about the prospects for change in our metropolitan areas and beyond.

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