Who Represents a Community?

Community Organizing

July 24, 2021

            Pearl River     Who really represents a community and can legitimately speak for the interests of a community has long been a critical and contentious question in community organizing.  As organizers who seek to build mass organizations, there have been two major schools of work.  One has been to create legitimacy by assembling significantly large numbers of organizations with a base, most recently largely built on the back of religious institutions.  The other, largely modeled by ACORN, has been built through direct membership enrollment and activation of a significant level of a community.  Many others claim to represent a community based on other criteria or none at all other than the loudness of their voice or deepness of their pockets. Oh, and that doesn’t even reckon with the fact that there are actual elected representatives of political jurisdictions that include some or all of communities where these issues are critical.

These questions were at the heart of the discussions in a recent dialogue with University of Michigan Professor Jeremy Levine on Wade’s World (link to website, Med) about his book, Constructing Community:  Urban Governance, Development, and Inequality in Boston.  Levine came to these questions through a side door as he did sociological fieldwork around the approval process for the construction of a Boston train line and stations in the Fairmont Corridor running through various lower-income, diverse communities in the city.  Going to public and private meetings as a semi-participant and major fly-on-the-wall, he was able to meet and interact with government, nonprofit, foundation, and community members in the corridor and evaluate how they approached community development, their own interests, and whatever we might call the community’s interests.

Levine’s thesis that the idea and practice of community was “constructed” by these various interests and claimants, rather than existing in any concrete or inviolate sense is the heart of his conclusion.  More significantly, his case studies make it clear how philanthropists, nonprofit CDCs, and their coalitions without any clear accountability or base have usurped the traditional roles of elected leaders, governmental bodies, and, in fact, others less able to access resources in order to contest the development plans they are advocating.  Certainly, ACORN has lived this experience from the days of handpicked so-called community leaders in community action agencies and Model Cities programs to formally “recognized” community groups in Albuquerque and Kansas City, all of which have been strategies to externally implement programs “for” or “in” a community with questionable legitimacy.  Levine’s analysis of the “greenway” around the corridor which was not a greenway at all, but a cobbled-together series of projects promoted by the coalition partners in their individual program self-interests, leaves little room for doubt about how this process too often works, for better or for worse, but inarguably from the top or the middle down, rather than from the bottom up, including faux community meetings and manipulated participation.

Levine somewhat surprisingly advocates more of the same because he believes that there is no single legitimate voice for the community, but instead the notion of community should rest on the “political voice of specific people rather than vague notions of ‘community control.’”  He feels that “we should decouple participation from the idea of community control.”  At one point he almost gets lost in the weeds around the ivy tower by advocating for something called a “pairwise wiki survey” as a way to raise and measure the various residents in a community, but that’s still something that would be far down the list compared to any direct voting mechanism.

The problem in “constructing community” will always be who has the final say, regardless of all of the different voices, meaning who has the real political power, to make and implement the decision.  The path that most privileges the base should be the chosen and that should definitely be decoupled from money and embedded professional and institutional interests.