The Edifice Complex and the Tension between Intake and Outreach

ACORN ACORN International Community Organizing Labor Organizing Organizing
most of the CKO organizing team

Banska Stiavnica   The small city of Banska Stiavnica was a rich, mining city in its heyday.  The symbol of the city is two lizards, and the legend has it that a shepherd in the mountains saw them run under a rock.  Turning over the rock, he saw one was covered in silver dust and the other in gold dust, and so the city was born.  Now, Banska Stiavnica is a UNESCO world heritage site built on mountain goat hills complete with historic churches and monuments and new and old castles stationed on high ground as part of the fortress defenses against the Turks and the Ottoman Empire.

The tensions we tried to unravel in an extensive visit with the CKO organizing staff, working mostly in smaller villages around the central region of Slovakia in a project funded by the Open Society Foundation, were historic dichotomies in community organizing discussions, even if not dating back hundreds of years, especially in the European context.  In Europe a common confusion exists between community development and community organization with both terms often used simultaneously.  The development side speaks eloquently of “building community” while the organization side speaks of “communities building power.”  Good manners and aversion to conflict often conflate the two poles on this spectrum, both of which have value, but neither should ever be confused with the other.  ACORN of course through our housing corporation, service centers, radio stations, and other projects practiced community development, but always in service of organizing to build power.  As we listened to the reports and discussions of the organizing team CKO had assembled over the last six months, it became increasingly clear that this was still a confounding problem for the organizing program that was impossible for us to avoid.

The slightly different twist in central Slovakia was a seeming obsession or distraction of purpose and goals involving “community centers,” which helped me also understand better the donor-driven community center in the Roma area we had visited in Sofia, Bulgaria as well.  In listening to the organizers and visiting their projects over several days, the focus seemed more and more to organizing programs and participation in local community centers, rather than building effective community organizations.  In one case we listened to a proposal by an organizer standing in the midst of scores of desperately urgent issues arguing that the 20 or 30 families really needed to establish a community center as a priority.  I was reminded of the famous American labor critique written by Jonathan Tasini decades ago questioning their “edifice complex” in a tongue-in-cheek appropriation of the classic Freudian speculation on the Oedipus complex.  Where union leaders were uncertain how to build membership or deliver to their members, they constructed elaborate headquarters and halls, just as untold thousands of politicians have tried to affix their names to “brick-and-mortar” projects to cement their legacies rather than delivering benefits and progress to their constituents.  These neophyte organizers were uncertain of their work in their communities, so were grabbing at the community centers to define their purpose, it seemed to me.

At the same time as they related their goals, few if any focused on campaigns, membership growth, or other features common to organizing plans.  It became clear they were grasping for an “intake” model for their work, rather than the “outreach” model that defines much of community organizing, especially a door knocking intensive program, like ACORN’s.  If they could find their “members” in the catchment area created by community centers drawing people to them, how much easier would their work be than spending four hours per day on the doors and another hour on the phones talking to people in the architecture of something like an ACORN organizer’s daily work?

You can change the names of the cities, towns, and even the country, but the organizing problems presented in our two days were classic, and common to all organizing debates, and discipline, especially when it comes to constructing a real organizing program that puts power in the hands of the people, rather than the roof of a building over their heads to muffle peoples’ screams of protest over their real issues.