Community Organizing, Cooptation, and Conflict

Ideas and Issues International Organizer Training

Manila        I had two fascinating meetings in Manila before leaving to meet with various community organizations from Eastern Asia who were assembling in Tagaytay City, more than an hour away.  

    The first was with Mary Racelis, who continues as a research scientist at Ateneo de Manila University, where she is a retired Professor of Sociology and Anthropology.  Mary is one of the legendary early community organizers in the Philippines who can date her time along with Denis Murphy and darned few others to Saul Alinsky and his visit here more than 35 years ago.  When Mary was in exile, like so many others, she worked for UNICEF for awhile and was the Philippines’ country officer for the Ford Foundation for 5 years But despite all of the titles, when talking to her you know you are still handling a live wire with sparks flying.  Despite sharing stories across the decades, what Mary seemed to have on her mind perhaps more than anything else was the increasing cooptation of community organizing and the progressive forces in the Philippines, but the same could be said about dozens of other countries.

    In the Philippines the framework for such rationalized cooptation when organizers left the movement and went into the various post-Marcos governments was “critical collaboration.”  I love that phrase because of its very contradiction and heavily freighted political meaning.  Mary seemed to keep coming back to the central problem of the paradox:  where is the line drawn between the critical and collaborative, and, equally important, in my view — who gets to drawn the line?  Without there being accountability on that line to communities and their organizations, is not all such collaboration invariably lost in self-serving justifications?  My old friend, and the former organizer and civil servant, Tom Glynn, used to be clear that the advantage of organizers going into government bureaucracies is that they would understand, contrary to the rest of the civilians, that you had to have a real and active base outside of the halls of government in order for you to make change and survive the changes you were making.  Without it you couldn’t really get anything done, he would argue, because you needed the push and pull of the base to justify real action inside the halls of government, and without government’s real fear of the base, you couldn’t survive the infighting as a bureaucrat.  Mary’s point seemed to be that, in the Philippines, the organizers that had gone inside the government had lost touch with the base, and in fact when they were unable to get things done, wanted to pretend it was because the base did not understand or was out of touch with the times, rather than realizing they had stretched to the limits of their self-interest and way past their own effectiveness.

    Equally interesting to me was talking to two community organizers with lots of experience in Mindanao, an area in the southern part of the islands that has been involved in armed conflict for more than a generation.  I asked them what role community organizations were able to play in conflict resolution.  At first they both laughed saying that there were probably more than 100 NGO’s in Mindanao who were claiming to deal with conflict resolution in order to be funded if for nothing else.  Then one of the organizers said that the difference for community organizations like ACORN and their own was that we were able to work “underground.”  I repeated, “underground?” curious about how that might work, and it turned out that I had misheard, and that she had said that as community organizations we were effective, because we were “on the ground!”  Indeed.  

    She then described their system which any organizer would recognize of house visits, one-to-one discussions, and community meetings that allowed people to really participate and really talk about the conflicts between various groups (Muslims, Christians, and indigenous peoples).  Hard to substitute what is natural and organic about people confronting the facts that they are neighbors and talking about how to resolve their issues “on the ground” rather than in classrooms.

    As we talked I was reminded of one moment when Fides, the LOCOA coordinator, Mary and I were talking earlier when we were discussing the fear that organizers expressed in dealing with governments in Africa.  Mary looked at me and I at her, and she said, “I thought we trained organizers to deal with repressive governments and peoples’ fear to act.”  And, I had replied with Fides shaking her head in agreement, that that was exactly and precisely the point of our work!

    We may not think about bullets flying as they do in Mindanao but many of these questions and problems are universal to organizers and all of our work.

Mary Racelis