When Obama was working at the neighborhood level
New Orleans According to a fascinating article by Damien Cave in the New York Times the families that have hunkered down and stayed in the Ciudad Juarez warzone in Mexico directly across the Rio from El Paso in Texas are frequently headed by generations of women and their children, welded to jobs and livelihood, they are now called familia anclada – a family anchored to the city. Despite losing more than 200,000 people or 20% of its population to a Katrina- like tsunami of crime, such families have seemingly stabilized Juarez at over 800,000 as part of the linked metropolitan complex we so often ignore with El Paso which has a population of around 650,000, the 21st largest city in the United States. This is all fairly amazing in many ways and speaks of the tremendous resilience of families in the face of adversity often ignored.
In the celebration of the “power of weak links” which undergirds the fascination and impact of social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter to link people who kinda, sorta, maybe know or want to know each other and create somewhat of a personal “affinity” group, something like the familia anclada should once again remind us of the stronger values found in the power of strong links and deep engagements between people. Maria del Socorro Velaquez Vargas, a sociologist quoted in the same article speaks plainly saying, “People don’t have faith in government. They have faith in their neighbors.” In some ways that’s a pretty fair definition for the root strength of community organizing methodology and practice over the last 50 odd years.
In the celebration of the new and the justifiable excitement over the prospects of new tools found in technology, communication, and activism, something like the daily swelling numbers in Tahrir Square in Cairo should be a stark reminder of the power of people, the force of action on the street, the passion that defines youth, and the anger that triggers liberation. The combustion of these elements is not some electric flash from a computer screen or a beep from a mobile phone but the connections made in the streets of Egypt, in the neighborhoods in Juarez, and in communities big and small where organizing is going on every day around the world.
It is probably important to remember that this has always been so. I might even argue that this very strength of community engagement is perhaps what has been the most radical and unique of all American political contributions. We certainly did not invent representative government or democracy, but we did seem to have modeled how to build the power at the grassroots level, whether we are talking about the Populists or the Tea Party people. Community organizers were somewhere between smart, shrewd, or dumb lucky enough to understand that the community and constituency level is where change has to be constructed in order to win and be sustainable.
Using house meetings, organizing committees, and the constant connections of the community all came to mind thinking about the most exciting part of T. H. Breen’s writing on the role of “committees” in building deep engagement of the base in his recent book, American Insurgents, American Patriots. He painstakingly details the way “faith in neighbors” replaced “faith in government” in 1774 and 1775 even before the outbreak of full on armed struggle against the British. The organization of hundreds, if not thousands, of locally based committees of safety and whatever operating in plain sight to force the most direct accountability at the community level welding ties between “Americans” more deeply and isolating sympathizers with the Crown essentially outside of the community norms, uprooted the British at ground level rendering their attempt to govern a dead letter even before troops were massing across the land. These very local committees dealing with local people and local issues were the practicing crucible of real government based on the Articles of Correspondence way before there was a Declaration of Independence or thoughts of a Constitution. Those flowery documents were constructed on what was built by arguably the most successful community organizing we have ever seen in this country.
Hannah Arendt, the conservative political philosopher, argued that the single most important contribution of the American Revolution was found in the decades following independence in the construction of the “ward” as the basic unit of government. For modern Americans the notion of the ward and ward government as revolutionary must seem like heresy and certainly there could be some conservative headaches trying to assemble rationalizations here, but Arendt’s point that constructing government on the most basic building block that allows maximum participation by people in the most connected and engaged community at the most local level possible through wards is in fact very radical, and therefore, American in the truest sense.
Community organizations operating at the very level of participation and engagement that governments have mostly abandoned have created the bonds of steel that allow families to (for example) rebuild after Katrina or remain anchored in Juarez or fuel change all over the world, which proves daily that the excitement over weak links should never let us forget the power of deep engagement and strong ties in creating both change and the possibility of full democratic participation by all people.