Is Neighborhood Activism the Answer or Part of the Problem?

ACORN Community Organizing Organizing

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, “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.


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

Thanks to KABF.