Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Potential in the limits of neighborhood organizations

In the 2012:2 issue of Parola, Ágnes Velenczei gave an account of her community development projects in a Hungarian housing estate. In the last six years, these programs provided a variety of recreational opportunities for local families with kids. As a result, community life strengthened, and this helped active members to identify issues which are important to the majority of the neighborhood. The establishment of an organization was in the pipeline and the residents were delivering concrete results at a neighborhood level (for example, the city council installed a ramp for parents with baby buggies, and moved abandoned wooden equipment from a nearby woods to a popular playground). In the last couple of years, however, the Iris Family Circle faced an issue which stretches beyond the boundaries of the neighborhood: there is not enough space in local child care centers. The program, called "Créche Revolution," addresses a national, systemic issue.

Building linkages between the local and the larger systemic aspects of an issue is the key to community organizing. On the one hand, a measure of success for an organization is whether it manages to mobilize enough members and win issues which are important to the neighborhood. On the other hand, the organization should also be able to achieve real social change, address a systemic issue, keep up the momentum of the members and build alliances with other groups. To make this happen, it is essential that community members identify the connection between the local and the systemic aspects of the issue, e.g., by means of political education and self-learning groups. The anger (challenge, opportunity to grow, love) which stems from this process and feeds longer campaigns which go beyond the boundaries of a neighborhood can radicalize the group if proper support is given by the organization. For example, it can prepare the members to undertake conflict and make them understand that such actions are not at all harmful to society.

Based on the movement building experiences of the 1960s, community organizers in the U.S. reinterpreted the Alinsky tradition and, consequently, the role of the neighborhood in the fight for social change. Community organizers came to the recognition that without strong local organizations, broad, overarching campaigns and movement efforts can lose impetus. Also, without targets which go beyond the limits of a locality, community organizations can get stuck and become unable to grow. By the 1970s, it became a well-established concept that organizers should develop mass political organizations rooted in strong neighborhood groups, which can deliver concrete results at a local level while they articulate these demands at a national level in a synchronized manner (and can channel local community organizations into a national campaign). One of the first and most successful pioneers of this neo-Alinskyist organizing model was the very influential Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

In terms of the Iris Family Circle's "Créche Revolution," there seems to be an emerging need to formulate systemic demands. This can enrich the community development organization with new tools. Stoecker argues that community development is rooted in a functionalist model of society while community organizing is rooted in a conflict model (DeFilippis-Fisher-Shragge 2010:137). In the former (community development), interactions between members of the society tend toward equilibrium and seek cooperation. In contrast, in the latter (community organizing), societies are defined by power differentials - social, economic and political inequalities - which produce conflict rather than equilibrium. This means that community development is differentiated from community organizing in a way that the developers' primary aim is to render services through the inclusion of the community to improve its quality of life, whereas the organizer's first and foremost aim is generating power for community members in the public arena and they primarily use community resources to put pressure on the decision-makers.

These two seemingly contradictory approaches can supplement each other very well in a movement, but it can also intermingle within one organization. It can easily happen that a community development group is forced to take a more confrontive approach in case the legislators are not cooperative to its initiatives or the interests of the members dictate so. The more progressive settlement houses, for example, the Hull House in the Near West Side neighborhood in Chicago, mobilized residents to improve the working conditions of immigrant workers even though its main purpose was to render social, cultural and art programs to low-income communities. For a community organizing group, it can also render services. The housing group called Fifth Avenue Committee in New York, for example, mixes community development and community organizing components in a way that it rents (and manages) housing units to low-income people and organizes tenants against evictions. There are organizations in which the community development service component fully replaced the community organizing profile, such as the Arab American organization in Detroit, ACCESS or the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) in Chicago.

We started to link the local and national aspects in The City Is For All with the Vacant Housing campaign. We protested against the eviction of one of our members who lived in a storage unit with her child, and we are working with her to arrange her housing. At the same time, through her example and through actions which raised awareness about the district's vacant housing situation, we drew attention to the insufficient housing management of the city council, the lack of a national housing policy and the lack of enough public housing. Ultimately, the group (provided it is consistent) works at both levels to increase public housing.

(Sources: Robert Fisher: Let The People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America, Twayne Publishers, 1984; James DeFilippis, Robert Fisher and Eric Shragge: Contesting Community. The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing, Rutgers University Press, 2010)

Read it in Hungarian.

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