Marble Falls Full disclosure isn’t necessary probably, but I’m a sucker for any book and author that takes organizing seriously, especially community or labor organizing. Working behind the scenes in a small, but committed and hearty subculture, the rewards are incalculable, so the lack of attention to the practice and profession is not a complaint, but something more of a constantly nagging question mark. What makes our work so critical, yet so invisible?
This is not the problem that David Forrest, now a professor of political science at Oberlin College in Ohio, set out to understand of course. His mission was different, as he embarked on his dissertation project at the University of Minnesota. He wanted to understand how various groups organizing for social justice in Minneapolis approached their work and handled what he called the “tensions” in our discussion of his work on Wade’s World between their demands and the need to win for their constituencies. That’s interesting to me, but I also want to applaud the journey, whatever the conclusions he might find on the way. Having people deeply study the work of social change is a gift to practitioners in clarifying our own work and its results through different perspectives that we don’t often get to enjoy at ground level, whether we agree or disagree. My prayer is that we need much, much more of the kind of work that Forrest put in while wrestling with his questions.
Forrest was sometimes both a participant and observer in the three efforts he studied closely, one of which was a welfare rights group and the others were sort of campaign-coalitions dealing on one hand with a threatened school closing and on the other with the foreclosure crisis. These were unstaffed, grassroots efforts of a sort, small and fledgling, but seriously engaged in demands and struggle, not unlike thousands and thousands of such efforts around the country that spring up to deal with community crises, but also are constructed to deal with systemic issues like welfare and housing. Forrest’s work has now been summarized in his book, A Voice but No Power: Organizing for Social Justice in Minneapolis, which was also excerpted in a recent issue of the journal, Social Policy.
Discussing the “tensions” with me, Forrest was clarifying about the distinctions he draws between “abolitionist” and reformist tendencies within these small groups. He underlined that he’s not “finger-wagging”, but trying to understand the different paths that these groups take and are in some cases forced to take. The use of the term “abolitionist” he acknowledges is tricky, because its common and historic use speaks to deep and pervasive movements and conjures up a sense of absolutes, as in close all prisons or end slavery, while he tries to jigger the term into a statement of demands and objectives at the edge of a progressive vision of social change that can still win reforms, while also establishing the goalposts. The real-world tension for these groups becomes when and how to settle for what can be won today, versus what they may have sought to win in the future. Something like saving a school from closing may involve some decisions for the affected community and its immediate crisis that are less immediate for other coalition partners, while welfare recipients are always in a struggle for what we called “adequate income” when I was an organizer for the National Welfare Rights Organization before founding ACORN, even as they celebrate any advance they can win on meager entitlements.
Forrest doesn’t try to answer all of these questions, and makes the point that his research and work is ongoing, but he does understand that there are paths that are clear. It’s hard to legitimize a struggle without effective mobilization and public support. It’s also impossible to win power to implement social change on an ongoing basis without real organization and not merely advocacy.
Voice is not the same as power. There can’t be any disagreement there. Finding voice is just the beginning of the struggle in organizing for social justice. The hard work begins there, but never ends.