Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Community organizing and the revitalization of democracy

We have witnessed a decline in civic engagement during the past few decades. Television and suburbanization have helped fragment communities and isolate people. It’s the “bowling alone” phenomena and it is a threat to democracy because merely having elections, while important, is not enough to maintain democratic culture.

Community organizing came about in the 20th Century in response to the growing power of a small number of wealthy individuals who were exercising decisions impacting upon the majority of people in the country. Community organizing energized democratic culture at the local, and occasionally the state level, and in some ways paralleled what was going on with labor as the country industrialized. Community organizing, much like organized labor, has experienced some decline in recent years.

Marshall Ganz has written an interesting article at TPM CafĂ© about community organizing in the United States – a brief history, its strengths, its rise, its decline and its potential for the future. He sees the potential as important because, as he puts it, “the promise of democratic politics is in people’s ability to enter into relationships with one another to articulate common purposes and act on them.”

First, let me share a little background on my interest on the subject of community organizing.

I came to Virginia in the mid-1970’s to work as a community organizer with the Virginia Community Development Organization or, as we referred to it, VCDO. We organized “Assemblies” in the Black community mostly in Southside Virginia and Eastern North Carolina. These were in rural areas with the exception of the city of Portsmouth.

Donald L. Anderson founded the organization in the late sixties. It was structured in layers so that members participated in a conference of 50 people that elected a representative to the countywide Assembly. Representatives of each Assembly did meet annually to discuss state or regional issues but most of the action was at the county level. The idea was, in part, to follow-up on the gains of the civil rights movement. The right to vote had been gained but there still was a need for a mechanism to register and turn out voters – particularly among the poor. (You can find an explanation of it at the E. F. Schumacher Society website.)

VCDO had its challenges – not the least of which was to move beyond initial successes -- and later changed its name to the National Community Development Organization (or NCDO). The long-range goal was to organize the entire South. Anderson died in 2004 and I am not sure what the status of the organization is. (I will share more details in the future about my experiences with the group.)

VCDO was one of many groups organizing on the neighborhood level around the country. Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation is probably the best known as well the Citizen Action network associated with the Midwest Academy and ACORN. There were and continue to be many others. Organizing philosophies and tactics varied from group to group but the common link between them all was the emphasis on interpersonal relationships and the empowerment of individuals through communal action. The outcomes of actions are almost secondary to the process of involving people. Important as outcomes are, it is the process that empowers by developing social relationships that can be used in communal actions working towards a common good..

Ganz explains how community organizing developed during the 20th Century but by the 1980’s money was overtaking participation as a measure of membership. Citizenship became a form of consumerism. Democracy was becoming a spectator sport and a not very exciting one at that.

However, he sees hope for the immediate future of American democracy that organizing can help remedy as it pertains to the electoral arena:
So what has changed that may be giving organizing a new lease on life, especially in electoral politics? I’d suggest four reasons.

First, elections have been very, very close. Even the most media oriented of political consultants recognizes that in close elections, effective grassroots mobilization can influence outcomes. And when conducted by people with ties to one another – as opposed to bussed in canvassers – it is more effective. The commitments people make to people with whom they maintain relationships are far more reliable than answers given to an anonymous caller, over the phone or in person. This is especially true of the presidential primaries in small states like New Hampshire and caucus states like Iowa.

Second, the promise of “connectedness” via the Internet is an invitation to a dance that has yet to begin. The Internet is a market place, not an organization. As such it offers motivated participants an opportunity to give money, exchange information, and market causes. Organizations, however, as Alinsky organizers know, are built of interpersonal commitments people make to each other of their time, money, and energy. With skilled leaders, organizations have the capacity to strategize, motivate, and engage in purposeful effective action – and develop more skilled leaders. But in the last election, opportunity created by the Internet was only intermittently translated into action because there were few organizers. This time, perhaps it will be different.

Third, the recommitment to organizing by the labor movement during the 1990s, especially by SEIU and its associates, afforded thousands of young people an opportunity to learn organizing skills, acquire experience, and make a real difference. This is true not only of young people recruited from colleges, but also new immigrants, one of the most energized constituencies in America and which has only begun to develop its political potential. Similarly, some campaigns offered unique training grounds for organizers, such as the New Hampshire Dean campaign, the Iowa Kerry campaign, and others.

And finally, at some level, we may finally be coming to understand what De Tocqueville saw – the promise of democratic politics is in people’s ability to enter into relationships with one another to articulate common purposes and act on them. Organizing to bring people back into politics is not a cost, but an investment in rebuilding the democratic infrastructure of our public life under assault for far too many years.
I recommend you read his entire article that can be found here.

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