Community organizing has gotten a bad rap because of the recent ACORN scandals. There are those community organizing groups that try to garner support to further their interests, rather than that which is in the best interest of the community.
Building Powerful Community Organizations by Michael Jacoby Brown provides a healthy introduction to community organizing. Here are some quotations that reveal the basic premise of the book, which walks the reader through the steps of developing a community organization.
The voices of those who are the real experts, those closest to and most affected by various social problems, are rarely heard-because no organization represents them.
Those closest to any change must be involved in the change in order for the change to be effective.
Organizing: Getting something done that you can’t do by yourself by working together with others
Organizer: Builds community with a purpose. An organizer provides a means by which people can solve their own problems.
The last quotation is a real zinger! Yet, I know that it generally rings true because I have been the insider who shuts people out and I have been the outsider who has been shut out.
Repressive social structures are maintained in part because authorities masquerade as benevolent, define inequalities as too complex for resolution, and hide real conflicts of interest in a fairy tale of paternal benevolence. An organizer, therefore, seeks out confrontations and conflict; for the organizer understands that only in conflict situations do issues become clear, with real interests no longer camouflaged; only in conflict situations does the rhetoric of the powerful lie exposed and the mobilization of the movement become possible. Yet the organizer is also aware that all conflict is potentially premature; that in the polarization that ensues, some members and potential members will be frightened, choosing the side of authority against their true interests. And in the need for instant decisions in crisis, participation in decision making is narrowed. Yet, here new leadership is also tested. – Richard Rothstein, “What Is an Organizer?”
Power is addictive. Being needed or the go-to-person is addictive. Being popular and well-connected is addictive. Knowledge is power and keeping it to ourselves increases our vocational/political capital and that is addictive. Hanging on to your job and paycheck is addictive, and pretty much necessary. There is vested interest in maintaining the status quo and that is addictive. Being “The Great White Hope” is hugely addictive (and dangerous).
Occasionally, there is vested interest in promoting change, if the change agent is doing it for his personal gain. That is rarely the case and usually the change agent is a thorn in the side of the existing system with little to gain.
It is a hard thing to be concerned about the welfare of individuals and the community in ways that don’t inappropriately feed our ego and shut others out, but it can be done. That is what true community organizing is all about.
This post was originally published March 9,2010.