Monday, April 9, 2012

What is this blog about?

Montgomery bus boycott, 1955.
Strong people don't need strong leaders. (Ella Baker)

In December 1955, in Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to obey a bus driver and did not give up her seat to make room for a white passenger. The African-American woman got arrested within a few hours. This outraged the African-American community and as a response, they started a boycott of the bus company. Four days later, Parks was found guilty by the court and fined $14. The injustice gave impetus to continue with the boycott, and as a result of mobilization, several thousands African-American people decided to find another means of transport than the buses of the company.

The boycott lasted until the end of 1956 when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses unconstitutional. The civil disobedience action became known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It brought one of the first victories of the African-American Civil Rights Movement and besides Parks, gave national recognition to an African-American Baptist minister, one of the organizers of the boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Launching and maintaining the boycott needed comprehensive agitation and coordinated organizing efforts in an environment where activism was a threat to life. The activists recruited supporters from the community, and helped organize alternative means of transport. They made arrangements for carpooling, while the African-American taxi drivers offered a ride for the price of a bus ticket. Others simply walked. More and more people joined the boycott, more and more people regarded the issue as their self-interest, and risked their job or a threat to their physical integrity.

Galvanized by the success of the action, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was established in order to coordinate further non-violent civil disobedience actions to achieve racial integration. The first employee of the SCLC was Ella Baker, whose primary goal was throughout her life to strengthen chapters, or as she called 'cells' and develop new leaders at a very grassroots level.

So the success of the movement took root in the sustained, thorough and tiresome efforts of the organizers who strengthened the African-American communities and made them aware of their own power, which, through cooperation, enabled them to change the oppressive laws and power relations. The emblematic and talented figures of the movement would not have enjoyed the support of hundreds of thousands without the work of these organizers.

But the community organizers did not start from zero either, they built on the fruits of the organizing efforts of the preceding decades and centuries. Rosa Parks's courage did not come out of thin air, she was a well-trained activist. Moreover, she was not the first one who openly opposed this form of segregation. Nine months earlier for example Claudette Colvin, a 15 year-old pregnant Afro-American girl was handcuffed and arrested in the same town, Montgomery, because she refused to give up her seat.

This story taken from the history of the African-American Civil Rights Movement shows that the actors of social change are not exclusively and not primarily the talented and charismatic leaders, but the people themselves, who, in an organized and coordinated manner, are able to question existing power relations and to effectively participate in the democratic dialogue about social change. And social change will be thoroughgoing when more and more oppressed people and interest groups are empowered and enabled through an organized representative group to present their demands in a democratic manner. But what kind of power and whose strength does the American community organizing tradition speak about?

In April 2012 I participated in a community organizing training for Bulgarian, Hungarian, Romanian and Slovaks in Chicago. The trainer asked us to define on a 10-point scale to what extent we want to seek power. It quickly turned out that all of us assign very different meanings to the concept of power and that the use of the word is not at all as straightforward in the Central and Eastern European context as it is in the American terminology. Most of the participants felt uncomfortable with associating themselves with having power. Some did not want power because people having power many times abuse it. Some felt they do not have enough knowledge to possess power. Some felt they already have enough power. The American trainers were astonished to a great extent to hear people not wanting more power as for them, as organizers, power is the ability to act (Saul Alinsky), the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change (Martin Luther King, Jr.), which concedes nothing without a demand (Frederick Douglass).

This made me more aware of the fact that if we want to strengthen communities with less power in Hungary or in Central and Eastern Europe and we want to build civil society organizations with wide community support, we do not only need to increase knowledge on the tradition of community organizing but we also need to adopt the terminology to our history and culture. Because in the community organizing literature, there are several concepts, which sound strange in our language and social context. The words poweroppressionleader, empowermentagitationcell, chapter, self-interest, demand, public arena are all expressions which we need to interpret relying on the American community organizing tradition stemming from the women's rights movement, the abolition movement and the labor movement, but we also need to find the roots of organizing in our own culture and history. One of the aim of this blog is to contribute to maturing these thoughts and to inspire a professional discourse on the theory and practice of community organizing.

A further aim of this blog is to expand the organizing literature available in the region by providing insight into the theory and practice of American community organizing. There is a great absence of literature in this field in Hungarian and those which exist often refer to community organizing as a synonym or alternative of community development. There is, however, a huge gap between the two approaches. Community development relies much on the cooperation between the government or the city council, and it encourages the use of state and business funds in order to develop the community. On the other hand, the primary aim of community organizing is to build an autonomous community which gained enough power to successfully enter the public arena.

Moreover, in Hungary community development, which has 50 years of tradition, seeks its roots in the Communist-Socialist state-led adult education programs. This again sharply differentiates community development from the community organizing approach. The latter is about the questioning of existing power relations and, in case of necessity, the confrontation with power, even by non-violent civil disobedience.

It is a good time to deepen discourse on community organizing in Hungary and Central and Eastern Europe because more and more organization refer to the implementation of the method, such as The City Is For All (AVM), the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), or the Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network (HAPN). The number of people interested in the methodology are also increasing. The Civil College Foundation started a community organizing learning circle last year and just recently launched a US exchange program for Hungarian and other Central and Eastern Europeans interested in community organizing, in cooperation with the European Community Organizing Network (ECON). As a result of the Network, there have been community organizing programs running in e.g. Slovakia and Romania for a couple of years. Despite this, we cannot say that the methodology would have taken roots in this region.

Therefore, it would be now worth starting to discover the regional historic roots of organizing, involving the tradition of national and ethnic minorities and the churches, and to identify those pioneers who made sustained efforts to organize marginalized groups on democratic principles. Furthermore, there are a couple of examples from the last 20 years of civil society activities and movement traditions, which would certainly enrich the evolving discourse on organizing with valuable lessons learned.

This blog primarily seeks to address the Hungarian and Central and Eastern European audience, therefore the posts are also available in Hungarian.

Read it in Hungarian.

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