Has the Fight Gone Out of Organizing?

After a brief, shining moment following the 2008 Republican National Convention, when it seemed community organizers would rule the country, they are now back on the defensive.

Since the Fall 2008 elections, the right wing has attacked community organizers with gusto and abandon, gradually whittling away the legitimacy of the organizers who worked so hard to elect the current administration and Congress, and even at the legitimacy of the government itself. In the wake of doctored videos amplified by the right-wing press and uncritically distributed by the corporate press, Congress even voted to take funding away from ACORN — the community organizing network whose voter registration activities and willingness to absorb politically-motivated vote-suppression prosecutions around the country made it perhaps the single most important reason many Congressional representatives are in office. ACORN ultimately succumbed to the continuing and coordinated attacks.

But it is not just the death of ACORN that we must understand. It is much bigger than that.

ACORN was the most confrontational community organizing network, and some would even say the last confrontational community organizing network. What we have witnessed, perhaps, is the end of the fight.

Some might suggest that it is a sign of the power of organizing that ACORN, because of its potency, was the one that conservatives set their sights on. But it is also a sign of vulnerability. ACORN stood virtually isolated from the national community organizing networks while the attacks grew to a crescendo, culminating in the doctored O’Keefe/Fox News videos. The utter silence from the national community organizing networks (only the National Organizers Alliance publicly closed ranks with ACORN in the early days following the video attack) showed a national community organizing scene responding from its weakness rather than its strength.

Was ACORN left to die simply because it had been embroiled in an embezzlement scandal and made the subject of questionably edited videotapes? Or was it that ACORN was too confrontational — too ready for a fight? Would it still have been brought down without political enemies? ACORN increasingly seemed to be an anachronism in a new millennial shift away from confrontational, social change-oriented community organizing to a weaker form of development-oriented organizing going under the various banners of “relational organizing,” “consensus organizing,” and “asset-based community development.” None of them put confrontation at the front of their strategy and some of them avoid conflict altogether. Their proponents argue that we live in a post-conflict world, or that the haves and have-nots really have common interests, or that collaboration really can solve problems within the existing system. Their approach focuses on small-scale community development projects rather than large-scale social change — an approach increasingly favored by funders, decision makers, and academics.

Of course, confrontation and hardball politics is not seen as distasteful across the entire political spectrum. Organized right-wing disruptions against health insurance reform drew on the famous community organizer Saul Alinsky as their inspiration, even while they castigated him as a Communist. The right-wing organizations that grew from these efforts to harass politicians across the country laid shame to most progressive community organizers in their ability to mobilize anger and passion and get it on TV. Yes, health care legislation passed, but without even the “public option,” let alone a single-payer program. And conservatives have vowed what sounds like a fight to the death to repeal even the weak bill that was won. If they do succeed in mobilizing angry right-wing voters in the fall to elect a right-wing majority back to Congress and in leveraging a favorable decision against health care from the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court, will it be because the fight has gone out of community organizing?

Answering that question requires looking back at the recent history of community organizing. Bob Fisher’s famous work Let the People Decide shows how the power and popularity of community organizing has ebbed and flowed during the modern era. His work takes us to the 1980s, as organizing was waning once again. In the intervening 20-plus years, things got very interesting. Community organizing had historically been a kind of “worst of times, best of times” practice. Organizing was at its strongest when society was hitting rock bottom (such as the Great Depression) or at the heights of prosperity (such as the 1960s to 1970s). But then came the murky 1990s and 2000s: bad, but not that bad; good, but not that good.

In this neither-nor context, where the economy was neither so bad to unite people across differences nor so good to take the risk out of social experiments, what was left was the culture war. As the working population was kept on the edge of its seat, always worried that things would get worse, right-wing politicians, media personalities, and religious demagogues captured that fear and redirected it toward the poor, the oppressed, and the progressive.

The organizing base that elected Obama is now thoroughly in the mainstream of American politics and without a method or theory to challenge the structure of power. Organizing groups around the country have either collapsed, are hovering on the edge of collapse as the funding energy is sapped from community organizing, or have compromised their missions to relief work rather than social change work. A good example of this new defenselessness is ACORN’s collapse amid the sophisticated right-wing attacks against it. By the time official investigations had vindicated ACORN and by the time other community networks began lending their support, ACORN’s coffers and ranks were in freefall. The offensive against ACORN was classic Alinsky strategy: pick the most vulnerable of the possible targets, and watch the other targets run for cover.

The muted response of the other community organizing networks has increased their vulnerability to attack. Even funders of community organizing like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (itself targeted by Catholic and other reactionaries because of its support of groups like the Center for Community Change — one of the few other organizations supporting ACORN) have been targeted by right-wing culture warriors.

Are We Stuck Here?

So the war against community organizing is being waged, but all around the professional community organizing world the mantra seems to be “Let’s build relationships; let’s build assets.” Can this development-oriented version of community organizing engage this war? Or is it part of the problem? There are some main assumptions underlying development-oriented organizing:

Assumption: We must emphasize relationships over action. In relational organizing, prominent in faith-based organizing networks, building relationships comes before action. The belief, based in the social capital concept that says the decline of community is the root of our problems, is that a group cannot sustain action except through strong relationships. But only those who have other forms of capital — jobs, housing, savings accounts — can sustain a focus on relationship building. This may be why faith-based organizing focuses on the working and middle classes rather than the poor: Because the poor need real capital, a long gradual process of building relationships may not serve their material interests. Furthermore, there is no evidence that relationship building outside of any goal-oriented action is better than relationship building through action.

Assumption: Cooperation is better than confrontation. People fear confrontation. I’ve seen master organizers work with people who don’t even feel safe holding a picket sign. But what development-oriented organizing lacks is a strategic analysis that starts with an understanding of power rather than working unreflectively from a fear of conflict.

In some ways, this is no different than it has ever been. Even in community organizing’s heyday, instances of street-level confrontation were much less common than the popular perception. The right wing has always tried to subvert democracy. We have always celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. in January only through the lens of non-violence, when King himself emphasized non-violent direct action. But it used to be that organizers could turn out people by the dozens, hundreds, and even thousands. Those people did know how to confront officials strategically and could sustain the confrontation.

The difference today is how much potential community organizing has that is about to be squandered. Who could have imagined a community organizer as president? And elected by and large through the efforts of community organizers?

It’s true that as ACORN dove into electoral organizing, the PICO national network dove into health care organizing. But it’s not enough. The last great victory of community organizing was the battle for the Community Reinvestment Act, which forced banks to practice less discriminatory lending to the tune of perhaps more than a trillion dollars in benefit to excluded communities, according to Greg Squires’s book, Organizing Access to Capital. That effort was led by National People’s Action, mobilizing people at the grassroots across the country. In the health care battle we mostly hear about the clergy leaders, rather than the congregation members.

We should even consider that President Obama, trained in the milder, slower form of relational organizing promoted by most of the faith-based networks, may be holding us back by searching for consensus rather than power. He has carried that consensus organizing style into the White House, preferring discussions with opposing parties rather than organizing supporters for a victory. Obama’s training has allowed the right to out-organize and out-Fox the potential for change that existed.

At its best, the health care reform legislation that squeaked through Congress was stripped of even a weak public option. Only in the final days did our community organizer president seem to realize that the relational consensus organizing approach he favored would be smothered by old-school power plays. And only when he finally turned from building consensus to building power — traversing the country and twisting arms as a partisan advocate — was hope for any health care reform kept alive.

But not all is lost. The housing bubble that put so many people behind the mortgage eight ball has also been a primary force in demobilizing them. The current populist anti-government anger could be realigned to anti-corporate anger with community organizing informed by an actual theory of the political economy. And we need to expand that theory to also inform us how to both work against the bad and for the good.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Conflicting community organizing models and our stumbling strategies of social change are the most important pieces of evidence that we no longer understand the relationship between community organizing and its societal context. One model tells us to use confrontation and conflict everywhere and always. Another tells us nowhere and never. One says to build organizations and then act. Another says act to build organizations. We have clearly lost our way, and we have lost our way because we have forsaken a theoretical perspective that can help us judge our practice.

Practice without theory is as prone to failure as theory without practice is prone to irrelevance. One of community organizing’s greatest weaknesses is its lack of attention to good theory. It is the lack of attention to theory that has led people to try to replace, rather than augment, power-based community organizing with conflict-avoidant community participation processes. It may even be that the shift to non-conflict organizing is a result of Alinsky’s own organizing model, which put populist anger before a theoretically informed strategy. Alinsky himself argued that the overall political system was effective enough for the have-nots to organize and wield power. So it is easy to see how development-oriented organizing could take a fairly small step to assuming the poor don’t even need to organize. But it is becoming increasingly clear that a more informed theory is needed.

In order to develop a more theoretically informed community practice, there first needs to be a theory of society itself. Is it really the case that the interests of the richest, most powerful capitalists are in sync with the poorest, most excluded people? It is unimaginable that even the most committed conflict-avoider would agree with such a position. But if the interests of groups are in conflict, then we need something more than kind consideration to overcome those conflicts. None of the groups that currently hold excess power will give it up willingly. No landlord would allow renters to collectively control their housing. No business owner would let workers collectively determine company policy. No banker would let mortgagees set bank profit levels. Such changes, akin to the establishment of the Community Reinvestment Act, require hard-core confrontational community organizing — but not the same confrontation with every target, or at every stage of the campaign.

So once groups choose an issue, they need to do a power analysis. Power analysis has been a rather loose practice in most community organizing, when it occurs at all. And it is the looseness of the analysis that allows for the conflict-avoidant organizers and confrontational organizers to remain polarized. Efforts by sociologists and political scientists to develop a theory of the political opportunity structure can help here. Such a theory describes four characteristics of the political context and can allow for a group to determine the needed level of confrontation, as well as focus that confrontation:

  1. The first characteristic is the degree of access a group has to a chosen political target. Will the CEO come out to meet you at a moment’s notice, or cool you out with a series of canceled meetings?
  2. The second characteristic is the “implementation power” of the target. If the director of parks and recreation makes an agreement to put in a playground, does that official have the power to make it happen or do others control the necessary funds and permissions?
  3. The third characteristic is the structure of alliances. What powerful players are lined up against you, and for you?
  4. The fourth characteristic is structural stability. Will the conditions of access, implementation power, and alliances stay stable for the foreseeable future, or are they in flux due to an impending election, corporate buyout, or other condition?

If those four elements are not in a group’s favor, then a group may need to start by engaging in confrontation to destabilize the system, level the playing field, and reduce the power imbalance in the conflict. Consensus organizing and asset-based community development, then, are rarely a useful starting point for a community trying to build power. But once a group has a powerful — not a token — seat at the table, confrontational strategy risks backfiring. Over time, the political opportunity structure can change rather dramatically, so a group that confronts in order to get a seat at the table may need enough flexibility to cooperate when it is sitting at the table. Here is where development-oriented organizing comes in. For consensus organizing and asset-based community development, as much as they are used as substitutes for community organizing, really are not community organizing models at all, but community development models. They are designed to accomplish development goals. But their accomplishments will be very limited until confrontational power-based organizing can change the rules to allow for greater accomplishments.

There is, to a certain extent, a good cop–bad cop relationship between community organizing and community development. Community organizing fights to change power relationships while community development focuses on operationalizing the benefits that come from changed power relationships. Community organizing fights the rules that direct resources away from poor communities. Community development puts to work the new resources that community organizing wins.

There is no more brilliant example of this reality than what occurred in Minneapolis’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which literally fought off the complete destruction of the community and then was able to create hundreds of units of community-controlled affordable housing. Described in my book, Defending Community, this neighborhood created a custom-designed multi-organizational structure that ran the gamut from highly confrontational community organizing groups to highly collaborative community development groups. A free clinic for people and their companion animals built and sustained the community’s health assets. A vegetarian café built its food assets and its radical culture. A highly structured community organizing group promoted the neighborhood’s definition of development for the neighborhood. Protests, blockades, occupations, and even a riot organized through one cadre of organizations were coupled with carefully rendered architect drawings and detailed financial plans through the neighborhood community development corporation. Confrontational strategies were complemented by development strategies. This community understood that neither simple militancy nor simple moderation would win the day. Instead, they understood where to confront and where to cooperate and the relationship between the two.

Sadly, the Cedar-Riverside example is from a generation past. Such a success has not been repeated, even in this neighborhood, and is not likely to be until we remind ourselves again of the fundamental reasons for confrontational community organizing and the ways to do it. None of this is new, but in this time when the fight seems to have gone out of organizing, it bears repeating.


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