Is Neighborhood Activism the Answer or Part of the Problem?

New Orleans    I can vividly remember an argument I listened to from the back of the room perhaps fifteen years ago at an ACORN Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. where Robert Putnam, the Harvard sociologist and author of the often-cited book about the deterioration of community in American, Bowling Alone, was speaking. He argued his case for the  decline, but ACORN leaders from around the country adamantly disagreed with him during the Q&A.They told him about their organizations and what they had done in their neighborhoods and how ACORN’s community organizing had changed their lives and their communities. His theory was not their experience, and they let him know it! No minds were changed. Everyone was polite while holding their ground, but Professor Putnam certainly discovered he was not ensconced in the regal comfort of a Harvard seminar room that evening.

I wondered if his daughter was a fly on that wall when I read the following in an New York Times column by Michelle Goldberg,

Eighteen years ago, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published “Bowling Alone,” a seminal book about the fraying of America’s civic fabric. It’s cheering that his daughter, Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh, is now studying how these new grass-roots movements are weaving civil society back together https://democracyjournal.org/arguments/middle-america-reboots-democracy, “People have stepped in to rebuild the local infrastructure of face-to-face political life in ways that have been super striking to observe,” she said.

What can I say but “hey, ACORN told your dad just so!”

Goldberg’s argument is that people at the grassroots level, especially women have dug in to fight on a door-to-door level in their neighborhoods as part of the Trump resistance. My fingers are crossed but this is complicated. Eight state legislatures that have held their  election primaries already would be composed of a majority of women, if  all of the women won in the general election.That’s good news, too, but many of the states like Nevada, North Carolina, and South Dakota where this could happen are not calling for a wave of reform, but a deepening reaction. Arizona where 40% of the legislators are already women is a good example of the fact that moss doesn’t just grow on the backs on men when you look at their record of anti-immigrant, anti-women legislation, despite expanding Medicaid.

Another cautionary note can be found by monitoring the super-local social-media platform, Nextdoor, which is now in 180,000 US neighborhoods including more than 90% in the 25 largest cities. With coffeehouses in several changing neighborhoods, we monitor the local Nextdoor postings and the local neighborhood listservs, and to the degree, as a piece in The Atlantic recently observed, these sites “are becoming representations of the country’s actual populations,” they are very scary. A couple of African-American teens walking in these areas in hoodies triggers a clarion call to neighbors as these new neighborhood “watch” websites become almost a SWAT team alert. And, this is in the majority African-American city of New Orleans!

Yes, community organizations and their activist members and leaders are a huge part of the answer, but only if they are truly organized so that real community is actually built and worst impulses are shuffled to the side and off of the agenda. Without organization, your guess is not as good as mine, where they might head.

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Please enjoy Ida Clare’s No Time Like the Present.

Thanks to KABF.

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The Interesting Phenomena of Filtered and Shared Experience Creating Community

Parker-HK-Protest2-1200New Orleans   There are some things about the rise of smartphones and their ubiquitous cameras fueling social networking that seems distorting.  To see a crowd shot of a demonstration by workers at the Los Angeles City Council or a stem winder of a political speech at a rally and have your eyes see scores of hands held up with smartphones strikes me initially as off putting.  Somehow the passion has leaked out of the picture I’m seeing, even as the passionate are taking pictures.  Is this a real experience or a photo op?  What is the visceral imprint of life filtered through a camera?  Is something happening important to people in these moments or are these musings knocking on the door of latent fuddy-duddy rants to come?

Sure, there’s a part of it all that’s just plain moronic and dangerous.   AT&T did a study that found that not only is texting unfortunately ubiquitous while driving, but that 27% of drives between 16 and 65 admit to using Facebook behind the wheel.  14% said they use Twitter while driving too and 30% said they do this “all the time.”  10% of those surveyed said they video chat while driving, and let’s be
honest, that’s scary!  17% take selfies while driving, and let’s be honest, that’s just sad.

Either naturally or through discipline and training as an organizer, listening and looking are my learning tools, but what I find intriguing in all of this, no matter how disturbing, is the degree this urgent, almost irrational, need to share speaks to a desperate search for community.  Talking recently about “desktop museums” was interesting because of the numerous reactions to the notion.  Many commented that back wherever they once called home, there were similar websites and Facebook pages that were widely attended and “friended.”  In the rootlessness of modern life, people are obviously still digging deeply wherever for
their roots wherever they can find loose dirt, but are also seeking shared experiences that can define their community and in so doing give definition to their own lives.

Sara Dean, a former colleague at ACORN, reached out about her experience
now as an architect and designer now working on the West Coast, who was
excited about an ACORN “desktop museum.” She commented that now she works on “… digital interface, both looking at crowd-sourced structures for storytelling and empowerment.  Actually community organizing structures translate to this:  how particularly are you asking the public to engage, what their incentives are, socially or community-wise, to do so, how to make it clear they own the tool and the outcome…etc.  And really, how do the structures ACTUALLY be community-owned.  Often crowd sourcing is another method of sourcing information from a community, not giving it to the community.”

All of her points are important, but her warning is also significant, because this desperate search for community, sharing, and crowd sourcing by individuals is also being monetized and manipulated by the Facebooks, Googles, and the like, not just NSA.  As organizers how do we embrace modern tools to build real community that satisfies and competes with contemporary claims but still creates both voice and action in the public arena, raised smartphones or not?  There’s no going back at this point, but making the way forward really work is a challenge.  Somehow we still have to maintain the highest value for the actual experience,
rather than the virtual and shared facsimile.  There is still no substitute for bottoms in the chairs, feet on the street, voices raised, and bodies on the line, whether anyone took a picture of it and shared it on Facebook or not.  We can’t make change just by liking it, but our community has to be attractive, compelling, and inclusive on terms that translate as now, not as nostalgia for then.

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Freeland – We Want Your Soul (Official Video)

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