Defanging Community Organizing

Pearl River     There’s something happening to community organizing, and it’s not a good thing.  The job is being expropriated and defanged of its critical content and its bottom-up push for peoples’ power by corporate and political interests.  This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, but it’s getting out of control and subverting the very practice and philosophy of both community organizing and community organization.

I started noticing this more over the last year.  I have a Google Alert for community organizers.  I don’t look at it every day, but check it semi-regularly.  Perhaps I had overlooked it, but it was harder to ignore.  A bank in Massachusetts was headlined as hiring a community organizer to expand its reach.  A politician in the Caribbean Islands announced that she was hiring a community organizer.  A borough official in New York City sent out an announcement naming the two new community organizers in the office.  What’s up with all of this?

I looked at Glassdoor under jobs for community organizers and Google flashed over one billion hits.  Planned Parenthood was looking for one at the state level.  The Sierra Club wanted to hire one.  The Service Employees had a couple of campaigns that were seeking community organizers.  A charter school network wanted to hire a one.  Indeed.com has jobs for community organizers for public school parent organizations, student groups, environmental groups and of course housing and community development corporations.  Political campaigns want them to work the phones and the field.  On Indeed every once in a while, a real, grassroots or base-building organization wanted to hire community organizers as well.  It was easy to sort them out because they were the ones paying $13 to $18 per hour while some of the others were paying $40,000, $60,000, and in one case $90,000 per year!

I shouldn’t be surprised.  Barack Obama called himself a community organizer and for sure did give it a shot for a bit.  David Cameron, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, set up a so-called community organizing program over there to pretend to be a temporary balm to heartless, bone crushing austerity victimizing lower income and working families.  At least Cameron was honest about it.  The program was designed to go talk to some people, not many, but a few, and administer Band-Aids, not social change.

Community organizer has become a catchall for outreach workers.  Where social work schools reprogrammed community organizers towards clinical and mental health issues, corporations, politicians, and others are trying to develop people who can be the buffer between the unwashed masses in the “community,” usually a codeword for minority or ethnic “markets” or constituencies.  We’re being rebranded right and left!

Maybe it’ll be OK?  Those of us still working as community organizers to support people building power and winning social changes will be the new wolves in sheep’s clothing.  Rather than hearing a community organization is coming for them and looking for us to be in their face, maybe they will fool themselves, underestimate us, and we will have snuck up on them before they realize there are still community organizers and organizations doing the real work, not just fronting for this and that and looking to borrow a base for a bit.  We’ll be the few, the proud, and the dangerous, where profits and posturing is not our job, but change and people power is still our game.

We’ll see.

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