National Work Among Community Organizing Groups Is Growing

Editor’s Note: This is in response to Randy Stoecker’s earlier post on community organizing on the national level.

ACORN, PICO, and US Action are among the community organizing groups mobilizing people around health care reform. They are part of a broad coalition, spearheaded by the labor movement, to push Congress to adopt a progressive universal health insurance plan that includes a “public option.” This led Randy Stoecker, who coordinates the Comm-Org Web site, to ask whether a growing number of community organizing groups are now working on national issues.

One way to think about Randy’s question is to re-read Karen Paget’s 1990 essay in American Prospect, Citizen Organizing: Many Movements, No

Paget argued at the time that despite the increasing number of citizen organizing groups around the country, the overall impact was relatively marginal — the whole didn’t add up to the sum of its parts. This is because the community organizing world was too fragmented and localized.

If we were writing that essay today, what parts would be the same? What parts would be different?

There has long been “national” work among community organizing groups, but it is growing. Part of the response to Randy’s question will depend on what we consider to be “community organizing.”

The national boycotts of grapes and lettuce in the 60s and 70s sponsored by the United Farm Workers were part of a labor struggle but utilized local community, student, and religious groups to mount a national campaign, and used many of the strategies and tactics we associate with community organizing.

Books by Jacques Levy, Marshall Ganz and Randy Shaw describe the boycott, which was orchestrated from the UFW headquarters in California but also had a life of its own.

The civil rights movement of the 60s was, similarly, a national movement even though there was no single umbrella group coordinating it — SNCC, NAACP, SCLC, and other groups were independent of each other but worked together on some local campaigns. There was some tension between these and other civil rights groups — in terms of fund-raising, leadership, strategy, media coverage, etc – but together the participants in all of them thought of themselves as part of a national “movement.”

Many (perhaps most) of the community organizing groups that have emerged in the past four decades eventually fell apart or remained small and marginal, unable to sustain themselves financially, economically, and politically. A few grew and gained in strength, in part by becoming part of broader networks at the city, regional, or national levels. Most local community groups are not linked to any regional or national organizing or training networks. Local groups that are tied to such networks have been helped to improve their capacity to develop leaders, mobilize campaigns, and win local victories as well as participate in city, state, and national campaigns beyond their local bases.

Traditionally, community organizing groups have been rooted in local neighborhoods, often drawing on religious congregations and block clubs. But changes in the nation’s economic, social and political landscape make neighborhood-based organizing less effective than was the case in the 1940s, when Saul Alinsky first formulated his ideas about community organizing, or even in the 1970s, when corporate consolidation accelerated. Moreover, local governments have less money and influence today than in the past, making it more difficult for city politicians to respond to community demands.

Community organizers now understand that urban problems —poverty, unemployment, homelessness, violent crime, racial segregation, high infant mortality rates — have their roots in large-scale economic forces and federal government policy outside the boundaries of local neighborhoods or even cities. What influence, then, can neighborhood organizing groups be expected to have on policies made in city halls, state capitals, Washington, and corporate board rooms?

Some community organizing groups have responded to these trends. There are now several national organizing networks with local affiliates, enabling groups to address problems at the local, state, and national levels, sometimes even simultaneously. These groups include ACORN, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), People in Communities Organized (PICO), the Center for Community Change, National People’s Action, Direct Action Research and Training (DART), the Partnership for Working Families, and the Gamaliel Foundation (the network affiliated with the Developing Communities Project that hired Obama in Chicago in 1983).

Rarely, however, do these organizations and networks work together. Some cities have affiliates or chapters of two or three of these groups, but, with a few exceptions, they don’t join forces on issue campaigns. (One exception is Los Angeles, where ACORN, LA Voice (an affiliate of PICO), and POWER (an affiliate of NPA) are working together on a campaign to get the City to adopt a mixed-income (inclusionary zoning) law.

In the past decade, community organizing groups have participated in various national campaigns that were very different in character. These included campaigns around living wages, immigrant rights, and community reinvestment. The living wage issue has mostly been at the local level, but ACORN and some labor unions have mounted state campaigns to raise the minimum wage which helped build a base for a successful national campaign (in 2006) to raise the federal minimum wage.

President Obama’s election has changed the political landscape and put issues like foreclosures, health care, labor law reform, climate change, and immigrant rights back on the national agenda. This has provided openings for community organizing groups with opportunities to work on national campaigns that have local targets — especially members of Congress who are wavering on supporting a public option.

Among groups that do what most people think of as “community organizing,” most of the national work has been done by relatively loose networks, not strong national organizations. This was the case with NTIC/NPA’s anti-redlining work in the 70s, which helped get Congress to
pass the CRA. NTIC was always more of a network than a national organization with chapters. IAF has a national office it has always been a rather loose network of regional IAF groups that mostly join forces around training, but not around national campaigns. PICO is a hybrid that is evolving from a loose network to a national organization, but it still has the culture of a network whose local affiliates have no real mechanism for top-down/bottom-up decision making. PICO’s participation in the current immigrant rights campaign is a test of its capacity to work on a national level as part of a national coalition. Gamaliel is somewhat similar to PICO in this regard, except that it doesn’t have enough affiliates around the country to be a truly “national” organization or to mount “national” campaigns.

The Center for Community Change has been a force for bringing together local community groups around some national campaigns, but these are issue-specific campaigns, not part of an ongoing national organization that strategizes how to build the national organization from one campaign to the next. US Action is more centralized than these other
groups and has affiiated state chapters that can mount national lobbying campaigns, as they are doing around health care now.The Partnership for Working Families (PWF) is a national organization whose affiliates are 17 local or regional community-labor coalitions like LAANE in Los Angeles, CPI in San Diego, and others. It is relatively new and has yet
to mount a national effort, although it has produced policy materials on federal issues.

There are also loose networks of community organizing groups around environmental justice and other issues. In addition, the Sierra Club has started to develop into more of a grassroots orgnaization with both a strong national office and local chapters whose members meet and help mount local campaigns and also work on national campaigns, mostly around environmental legislation. This transformation is still in its early stages.

Within the community organizing world, ACORN is the most like a national organization with local and state chapters, and whose local and state chapters work on local and national campaigns simultaneously. National Housing Institute President John Atlas and I have written about ACORN as a “federated” organization, based on some of Theda Skocpol’s writings about the importance of having national organizations with local chapters.

ACORN is closest in structure to labor unions. Labor unions are obviously a good example of national organizations that have local chapters (called “locals”) and state chapters, and have the capacity to mobilize campaigns on the same issue around the country and to strategize about how to target its national resources (staff, money, members, etc.) to be most effective — for example, by working on
election campaigns in key “swing” states and Congressional districts.

ACORN, too, has the capacity to do this on issue campaigns ( predatory lending, living wages, affordable housing) and election campaigns: this is what makes it so effective. Even though the strength of its local chapters is uneven, it can sometimes compensate for that unevenness by allocating national staff or shifting staff from one city to the other
in the midst of a national campaign. Only a truly national organization can do this.

In terms of thinking about national organizations and networks, some of the key indicators to look at are the following:

  1. 1. Do members pay dues? if so, how are the dues allocated in terms of going to the local, state and natiional office?
  1. 2. Does the national office do fundraising that helps support both the national organizaiton and state/local chapters/affiliates?
  1. 3. Does the national office do research that helps support both national campaigns and campaigns at the state/local levels?
  1. 4. Does the national office train its staff and leaders of national and state/local chapters,with the same training methods?
  1. 5. Are local/state chapters working on the same campaigns simultaneously?
  1. 6. Does the national office have the capacity and authority to shift resources (staff, money, etc) to different states and cities as part of a national organizing campaign?
  1. 7. Are leaders of local/state chapters/affiliates part of an elected national governing body that helps decide on issues, campaigns, hiring, and allocation of resources?
  1. 8. Do members of the local community groups (or chapters/affiliates)

consider themselves members of a national organization as well?

  1. 9. Does the organization have national leaders who speak for the national organization and are recognized as such by local affiliates and members?

Over the past few years, I’ve posted early drafts of two papers on the Comm-Org Web site that address some of these issues. Click here.

My chapter, “Organizing for What?” in Marion Orr’s edited book, Transforming the City: Community Organizing and the Challenge of Political Change, also deals with some of these issues. Click here for the pdf.

My chapter, “Protest, Progress, and the Politics of Reinvestment,” in Greg Squires’ edited book, Organizing Access to Capital, looks at the community reinvestment movement in terms of the factors that helped bring local organizations into national campaigns.


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