Category Archives: Organizing

Productive Incoherence and Thinking Differently about Change

Pearl River     A book entitled, The Sex Obsession:  Perversity and Possibility in American Politics, arrives in the mail with the word SEX in capital red letters along with obsession slightly smaller, and I didn’t know whether to take the cover off or cry uncle, having been lured by the word, “politics,” into reading the book and interviewing the author, Janet Jakobsen, on Wade’s World.  Was this really a book about American politics coming out on the eve of the election?  Was this really a book written by a professor at Barnard and an expert in sex, gender, and other studies?  Here’s the quick answer.  Once you crack the cover and start reading, or listen to the interview, you know that this is no play around, breeze of a volume, but a weighty theoretical – and practical – book.  It’s a shame that it will find its place on the bookstore shelves for feminist and gender studies, where it certainly belongs, but not prominently on the shelf where it is an even better fit on politics and current events.

I’m not saying it’s an easy read.  I’m saying it’s a valuable read with huge rewards.  Jakobsen is in love with words and catching the reader, if napping, by repurposing them in unexpected ways to make her points set deeper.  She likes putting them together in unusual partnerships, that with a little work on the part of the reader, end up exciting, because they evolve into something close to making perfect sense.

Take “productive incoherence,” a phrase I came to love and told Professor Jakobsen that I was determined to steal, because even outside of the context of the book, it almost seems a perfect description of so much of our current times, especially during the pandemic.  What the phrase describes in Jakobsen’s telling is the way politicians and many others create binary, either-or, choices and positions on issues that seem to be commonsense and therefore coherent, but in reality, are much more complex and shifting.  She uses the metaphor of a kaleidoscope in describing this phenomenon.  We may be pushed into trying to see things as just one way, but actually the interplay of other issues like class, sex, race, religion, and so forth intersect with the issue so that it shifts in the same way that a kaleidoscope offers different perspectives as it revolves.  There are more discoveries awaiting the reader as she explains “perverse multitudes,” “differential consciousness,” “complex universals,” and “promiscuous practice,” among other concepts marshalled to reveal the scaffolding of contemporary politics.

Practically, what resonated most strongly to me as an organizer, was her arguments about the ways that this incoherence was separating alliances that should be natural, like those between caregivers and clients, domestic workers and immigrant rights groups, and, from my experience, many others.  The ability to unit home day care workers with parents needing day care was critical in our organizing these workers into unions in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois.  One of the most effective tactics in organizing private sector home care workers in Illinois was the realization that workers had the power to take their clients to other companies.  The union’s ability to understand the fact that the key relationship was between the care worker, the client-consumer, and the client’s family and not the employer, unleased a power the union could use against company recalcitrance.  This is one of the reasons in our union’s nursing homes and community care homes that employers are so intent on preventing communications between workers and the client families, because they understand its power.

Jakobsen understands this situation in the same way that organizers on the ground have come to recognize experientially, and she provides some explanations and theoretical legitimacy that makes Sex Obsession the kind of work that is a gift that keeps giving and rewards in proportion to the work invested in the reading.

Macnamara teaching students how to research homeowners

Memories and Milestones

Pearl River     Tenants all over the world are facing a huge crisis as the dual scourges of the pandemic and economic depression confront them daily.  In some industrialized countries, eviction moratoria have staved off some of the pending crisis, but millions still face the problem and more millions are on the move as they run from informal evictions and pending rent payments, they are unable to make.  In recent days, I was in Atlanta working with organizers and activists to begin the work of launching the ACORN Tenants Union in the United States following our experience doing so in Canada, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, and France.

The work is made of such milestones noted in passing in the hurly-burly of life and work.  Milestones are couple with memories.  I took a call while driving from Atlanta back towards home along the interstate from a former staff attorney for ACORN.  He continues to be an advocate for important causes, but he called to share the fact that he was in the process of writing a memoir on the milestones and memories of his life.  He asked me if I felt that the work that we did had changed the world?  My standard response is that I do the work every day, and I let the work speak for itself.  I have certainly learned in organizing for more than fifty years both in the United States and around the globe that the world is a big place; the fight is as important as the accomplishments; and, victory is possible, but certainly not inevitable.

In recent weeks, this has come to mind for several reasons.

Jack Macnamara passed away in the Chicago at 83 years old.  Jack as a young, Jesuit seminarian had helped found the seminal Contract Buyers’ League in 1968 that fought against the predatory practices of lease-to-purchase.  He had been a mentor and inspiration to some of my boon comrades like Mike Gallagher and Mark Splain, who have been part of my life’s work, so I had heard of Jack and CBL for decades.  Several years ago, I joined Mike and Mark for a meeting with Jack one wintry December weekend in a half-abandoned rectory in Chicago to strategize on the reemergence of different forms of rent-to-buy exploitation.  Out of the conversations and Jack’s encouragement came ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign in a half-dozen cities against Vision Property Management and other companies.  It was an honor to get to meet Jack after all of those years and finally have our paths cross.  He may not have been a priest long, but he was a freedom fighter all of life.

Joe Fagan passed away around the same time at 80, and was another ex-priest who found a future in community organizing as a primary sparkplug behind the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI), long a fixture of the organizing community in that state from 1975 to 2010.  I never worked closely with Joe, but talked to him several times over the years.  The organization was a bulwark of National Peoples’ Action and always feisty in a fight.  We always took Joe and Iowa CCI seriously, even when we were sharing the same cities and turf.

I missed the Zoom celebration for Lew Finfer, commemorating fifty years as a community organizer and a constant fixture and measuring stick for any progress in the Boston area over the last number of decades with various organizations, so had to send best wishes via email.  Lew and I have crossed paths more often over the years, both at home and abroad, and he’s written for Social Policy several times.  The celebration was not a retirement party.  Another milestone.

Our work always stands on the shoulders of others and, thankfully, many put their shoulder to the wheel in communities like Boston, Chicago, and Des Moines to advance it forward.  Day after day, years after year. Emmylou Harris has a great song called “Red Dirt Girl.”  She sings about her friend’s passing, “ But there won’t be a mention in the news of the world about the life and the death of a red dirt girl.” Memories and milestones, quietly accumulated behind the scenes in the vineyards of our work, earn and deserve respect, even if “there won’t be a mention in the news of the world….”