Tag Archives: community organizers

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Organizers Grow Up to be Developers

Cowboy BuilderWaveland    The activist and academically oriented quarterly journal, Social Policy, trades out subscriptions with a publication called Shelterforce, which, as the name indicates, specializes in housing related issues. A random email called “rooflines” that I get from time to time featured their best articles of the year.   Scrolling through, one piece caught my eye because the title was “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Organizers Grow Up to be Developers,” a play on the great Willie Nelson song cautioning mothers to not let their children grow up to be cowboys.  To have a housing development publication running an article cautioning community organizers to not become developers was bound to be something special, and the fact that it was written by John Emmeus Davis, a career developer and housing policy expert based in Vermont with a long history of projects and teaching behind him was intriguing as well.  What’s up with all of this?

Luckily for me Davis gets to the heart of his argument right from the get-go:

When a community-based developer of affordable housing incorporates community organizing into its programmatic repertoire, there is almost always added value—for the persons housed, for residents of the area served, for the organization itself.

The reverse is less often true.

Community organizers rarely become better at cultivating collective power and agitating for social change when they leave the streets, exchanging ball caps for hard hats. Not only do they stop doing what they do best; they start doing something that takes everyone a terribly long time to do well.

Wow!  Talk about hitting the nail on the head.  Davis is clear throughout the piece that in his field of housing development, the addition of experienced and skilled community organizers is a huge benefit, but he
is equally clear that community organizing rarely gets much of anything in return and in fact is more likely the loser in the tradeoff.  His argument reminds me of the answers we often used to give when outsiders
would ask us if we ever hired ACORN leaders to be ACORN organizers.  We would answer factually that, “yes, we did,” but we would be equally frank that it was easier for us to hire and develop a good organizer
than to find and develop a great leader, so in some cases we resisted the transition unless the leader or member insisted.

Davis understands he’s arguing the righteous truth but is doing so against the grain, but charges forward in the midst of the contradiction.

I can’t help feeling a sense of loss. It leaves a hole in the political landscape every time another group of hard-riding cowboys (or kick-ass cowgirls) settles down after years of punching out politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, and speculators without having to worry about permits, grants, credits, loans, or donations being withheld from projects they are planning to build. With a whisper of apology to Willie Nelson, a silly ditty plays silently in my head:

Mamas don’t let your cowboys grow up to be builders
Don’t let em pluck spreadsheets and beg for old bucks
Make em play guitars, stage protests, and such

Okay, my feelings are definitely confused. If nonprofit developers become more accountable to the people and places they serve when they begin acting more like organizers—listening, engaging, recruiting,
educating, advocating—perhaps community organizers become more strategic and effective when they begin casting their campaigns and framing their demands with an eye toward supporting development they
plan to do.

What he leaves unspoken is the question of resources and the role it plays in driving these cowboys off the right ranch.  Community organizations and their organizing staffs desperate for resources frequently decide to till another field hoping to grow money trees there when support for community organizing is so fallow.In a conversation in France not along ago about a different topic, I answered that the book that really needed to be written was the history of community organizing told through the lens of how it had been driven and adapted to resource problems and opportunities.

Regardless, today, we’ll just thank Davis for singing our song.

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Training Government Community Organizers in England

1957794_727106530675687_235673834_oLondon  For a fascinating 8 hours 35 community organizers working throughout England in various communities in London, Newcastle, Bristol, Leeds, and elsewhere along with a sprinkling of organizing and trade union activists and organizers put their shoulders to the wheel in a meeting room of the London University Union to learn about the ACORN organizing methodology in an amazing exercise of “organizing as a second language.”

            Ok, what in the world am I talking about now?

            Several years ago the Conservative government was responsible for one of those “what the heck” moments when in the midst of almost draconian austerity proposals in their own version on “compassionate conservatism” they announced their commitment to create a government funded community organizing program which would train and deploy 500 so-called community organizers over a 4-year period throughout the country.  Hard core readers may recall that we discussed the program extensively in a series of blogs at the time, largely because of the role of London Citizens, loosely affiliated with the IAF, and its national offshoots which had widely been expected to train and supervise the organizers.  In a surprise the training and supervision contract had gone to others and is now held by two UK nonprofits called ReGenerate and Locality.

            Somewhat reminiscent of the old US-based VISTA program, largely young people were recruited for a two-year program.  The first year places the person as an “organizer trainee” and then through several certifications, you are deemed a trained organizer.  In preparation for my workshop, I read the training materials given to the organizers.  Listening is presented as a fundamental tool for the organizers, which is inarguably essential.  The model is not a model, but more a process of sorts where by listening to people in the community the organizer will hear interests and issues and will be able to assist in their realization or implementation in some way, shape, or form, though it was never crystal clear in my reading that anything approaching an organization was meant to evolve, though, when all was said and done, there might be some small community teams that would be the legacy of the program.  Organizers are assigned to local sponsors, who are in the main, nonprofits and social services agencies, but the lines of supervision are somewhat muddled it seems between Locality, the national overseer, and the local sponsor of sorts.  Meanwhile the expectations are modest and involve each organizer visiting through doorknocking or whatever with 500 families in the course of the year. 

            The reason I have to describe some of my dialogue with this great group of hopeful community organizers as “organizing as a second language” is that so many of the terms, doorknocking, house meetings, listening, models, and even the bandying about of Saul Alinky’s name were similar, though in almost all cases we were having to redefine each other’s understanding of what we really meant and intended by these phrases and concepts.  Organizing is about communicating though and the spirits were willing so by the end of the day, we had all made great progress.  They ended up with a nodding acquaintance with the ACORN Model and a sense of how community organizers work around the world, and I had a crash course in their local issues, campaigns, and almost palpable frustration at wanting to organize to make change or at least a difference and feeling frustrated, not that they were being instructed by the government to not be successful, but were not being given the skills or direction in order to succeed.

            It turns out to almost be impossible to connect the dots for an organizer, when there is really no expectation that their work will in fact produce an organization as a vehicle for peoples’ action and potential victories.  After a long day though all of us hoped we might have actually given this great team enough skills to give people in the community the real help that they might want and need to build organization and even power, leaving the intentions of the government and its contractors a mystery for some other time and place and of no real interest.

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