Is There a Crisis in Community Organizing Over Action and Struggle?

ACORN Organizing

2014-08-21-02-46-45-photoLondon   It’s getting so there are too many warning signs to ignore and pretend there’s not a problem with the work. Not long ago a weekend’s conversation about the transactional nature of community organizing and the startling power that donors of all stripes and sizes are able to exert over the work was deeply disturbing. I had feared this trend, but was in denial that its advance was so pervasive. Now one weed after another is popping up in the internet garden questioning and critiquing major campaigns as less organizing and more mobilization. This morning, running for an airplane, I looked at a piece by Randy Stoecker, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison I met and visited with on my last trip up there a couple of years ago and the longtime moderator of a well-known community organizing listserv until recently. He had written a piece that was a kick in the gut entitled, “Have We Forgotten How to Fight?” in Shelterforce’s “Rooflines.” No pretending, it’s out in the open now and there’s no way to cover it up any longer. Even my dog is named Lucha, Spanish for “struggle,” so those are fighting words to me. Stoecker is calling out the work as being yet another emperor wearing no clothes.

Professor Stoecker seems determine to kick sand in the face of a whole range of community organizing networks. He helpfully reminds organizers that congregation-based organizing is nothing new. He scoffs at the fetish of relationship building rather than direct organizing including popping some bubbles about the rationales of one-on-one’s. It reminded me of hearing ACORN’s head organizer in Chicago many years ago describing a meeting with someone which she had to interrupt in midstream to upbraid her guest that if he was trying to one-on-one her, he needed to keep stepping. That was a ricochet shot from Stoecker. His main thrust was that too many were mobilizing rather than organizing, running campaigns rather than building organizations, and generally running in place rather than building power.

I’ll let him state his own case:

“…maybe it’s time to re-read Alinsky. And I can hear the response already: Alinsky’s old and irrelevant to society today. But they forget that the congregation-based model has also now been around for decades, and the mobilization model has been around for as long as there have been angry people. There are timeless but apparently forgotten truths in Alinsky’s principles. First, community organizing is about community. Congregations are not communities, especially today. Neither are mobilized masses. Second, community organizing is about leveling the political playing field, and power is always zero sum. Whenever someone gets more power on the political playing field, someone else has to get less….”

I’m glad he didn’t mention ACORN or any of the ACORN successor organizations, but that may have been more about luck than skill, and too many of the old ACORN’s have rued the level of transactional work in community organizing these days as well. Nonetheless, if there is a crisis in the work, it won’t be answered by Arthur Brazier, long a devotee of community development even if it meant Walmart coming into Chicago, and it is funny to see Mike Miller as a source for the critique since he is writing about boycotts in the current issue of Social Policy, rather than slamming them, and lord knows my friend has long been a fan of faith-based work as well, though not uncritically. If there’s a crisis that is ripping the soul and fighting spirit out of mass-based community organizing then it won’t be a rereading of Alinsky that turns the tide but a gut check and some serious conversation and heart-to-hearts. If we’re off the rails, we have to get back on track regardless of the cost and without concern for the consequences.