Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The last stop sign - Some comments about the Handbook on Citizen Participation

Roma people and their allies protest against
the Hungarian far-right party, Jobbik
in October 17, 2012. Source: BT
Why is it useful to talk about community organizing in Hungary in a social moment when there is an expanding, wide-based civil cooperation emerging? Why are we talking about community organizing as a novelty when there have been many dynamic organizing projects in Budapest and in the country? What is this if not community organizing?

Community organizing should not be confused with community development, even though there are overlaps in their roots and tools.(1) Coalition building, campaign coordination or activist coordination are organizing but not community organizing, although all of these methods are applied during community organizing. How can community organizing contribute with something new?

Well-developed organizing infrastructure!

In the process of community organizing, people who don't have a say in the decision-making processes organize for social change and to rearrange unfair power inequalities by establishing non-hierarchical citizen organizations - organizations in the structural sense not necessarily in the legal sense. Based on community organizing, the roots of social and economic injustice are sought in the unequal distribution of power and resources among social groups(2), therefore community members ultimately organize for a more equal redistribution of power and resources, through influencing the decision-making processes by democratic means. The North Star of community organizing is meaningful democracy, dignity, and collaboration with allied social groups.

Because community organizing traditionally embraces social justice (understood in line with human rights principles), in many cases, citizen groups are run and if possible led by the participation of socially excluded, oppressed people, but in all cases with those, who are directly affected by the issue. (That's why we don't consider the Hungarian Guard or the Better Future Civil Guard Association or the Tea Party as doing community organizing, because although these groups use community organizing methods, they do not embrace its principles.)

Through citizen participation, the fundamental aim is that excluded social classes and vulnerable groups (discriminated based on their ethnicity, gender, religion or economic status, sexual orientation, age or disability) attain enough power through democratic tactics to have an influence on decision makers.(3) Due to unbalanced power relations, confrontational tactics gain emphasis.

As a result, the group is represented by community members to the decision-makers and to the media; not by professionals, but by people who are generally excluded from participating in our democracy. In case of citizen groups of ethnic, gender or other kinds of minorities, the group is represented not only by those members of these minorities who belong to the elite or the educated middle-class. This is possible because in the process of community organizing, there is great emphasis on popular education, or education in order to increase the citizen toolbox of marginalized groups: peer-learning about social issues and the welfare system, internal trainings on how to talk to the media, role plays on how to meet a decision-maker, to name a few.

In this process, the role of a community organizer is to get to know the members of a community (a neighborhood, a congregation, an institution, or a group of people affected by the same issue, etc.), and, mostly through listening, learn the problems of the community, and identify and support those members, the so-called community leaders who are able to consider and act along community interests and participate in or coordinate the establishment of a democratic group. All in all, the community organizer facilitates or actively shapes the forming of the group, the implementation of pressure tactics, and the process of community learning and, together with the community leaders, nurtures the democratic development of the group. It is essential for a strong organizational structure and a dynamic and democratic expansion of the group that more and more members learn how to become community leaders.

Forms of coalition in community organizing

Citizen organizations can emerge in several contexts and all require a different strategy. In neighborhood-based community organizing, the organizer identifies community leaders and issues in neighborhoods, facilitates the group forming, works on the implementation of pressure tactics and the process of community learning, and then promotes collaboration between these newly-emerged neighborhood-based groups (see the work of Virginia Organizing or examples shared here and here). The community organizer does not start building from scratch: they rely on past or present initiatives, organizations, leaders or members of organizations, or on less elaborated organizational forms, any forms which have structure in the community. Naturally, the community organizer starts organizing upon the invitation or with the consent of some members of the neighborhood, the congregation, or an institution.

In congregation-based community organizing, the community organizer organizes socially inactive congregations into living and welcoming faith communities, or facilitates cross-denominational cooperation on a specific issue. This process is usually preceded by the pastor or some congregational members realizing that they are alienated both in practice and membership from people suffering social injustice. Or they decide to become (more) active around social justice issues, perhaps in cooperation with other congregations. The community organizer here facilitates the process of the faith community making a decision and elaborating an action plan on how their congregation could become more relevant for a socially excluded group, how they could involve them in the congregation, and how they could collaborate with them, if possible, on an egalitarian basis for social change. Or how they could support efforts in collaboration with other congregations (see the Back of the Yards or DART).

In institution-based community organizing, the process is similar again: the community organizer organizes institutions into a common platform around a specific issue, or organizes the members of the institution, or the marginalized groups linked up with the institution (see Chicago Coalition for the Homeless or the Back of the Yards).

When doing issue-based community organizing, the organizer organizes either a group of individuals who are directly affected by the same issue (housing, health care, immigration, etc.) but don't live in the same neighborhood, and they are not the members of the same institution or congregation. It can also mean organizing the collaboration of different types of groups (neighborhood-based, congregation-based, institution-based, issue-based; see examples from the Kentuckians For The Commonwealth here and here, where local people living in the vicinity of the coal mines, high school students, artists, NGOs, etc., are organized in order to have the mountain top removal banned in Appalachia; or Iowa CCI, around nurturing collaboration between farmers and immigrants).

As a result of this, community organizing can support the well-founded collaboration of a wide variety of social groups through a strong and democratic organizational structure, where the poor and oppressed groups can make their voices heard as resolutely and clearly as those civil actors who honestly represent their interests. And besides wanting to reach improvement in their neighborhood and their own life, they want to attain systemic changes, beyond development projects. Through linking the local and national level, community organizations, ideally, do not lose the connection with local issues and interests, and can keep proper balance between local, regional and national goals, while they can strategically use their power.

Some comments about the Handbook on Citizen Participation: "The Last Stop Sign"(4)

The Handbook on Citizen Participation: Community Organizing as a Tool of Enhancing Citizen Participation is one the few publications which talks about community organizing in the context of Central and Eastern Europe. Therefore, it is crucial that it summarizes and introduces some of the initiatives in this region, and through these examples, gives a short overview of the basic principles of community organizing. As a result of this, and the work of the past years, more and more countries have become familiar with the methodology of community organizing. When, however, we try to read the publication with the eyes of an activist who does not know this type of community intervention, most of the case studies would reflect that community organizers' ambitions eventually end in the beautification of a city and city development projects. Six out of the nine citizen groups (and their community organizers) addressed the decision-makers with demands such as building a bridge between two neighborhoods instead of letting the decision-maker simply destroying the old one, introducing environmentally friendly and cheap garbage collection, solving a parking space issue, cleaning an alley, building a park and a playground, preserving a pedestrian area as opposed to a planned gas station, solving garbage delivery, and renovating a sports center and a bus stop. Three groups formed other types of demands such as improving the situation of the unemployed and the workers on public assistance, eliminating homelessness through the enactment of the right to housing and through a well-developed public housing system, and buying medical equipment for a village hospital.

Naturally, in the first set of examples, "small and winnable issues" were picked because citizens were expected to learn how to put pressure on decision makers and wins would encourage more citizen participation. However, based on these examples, it may seem as if community organizing was organizing "for its own sake", as if work went without any strategy or future perspectives, simply in order to encourage citizen participation (which, supposedly, was not the intention of the authors). Although it was made explicit that there was an attempt to reach out to low-income social classes and other vulnerable groups in more or less all the case studies, it is unclear in almost all of the examples, except those of the Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network (HAPN) and The City Is For All, how community organizers, through the issues that are selected, want to contribute to systemic social change and to rearrange unfair power inequalities, which would differentiate community organizing from community development. However, enhanced citizen participation per se does not necessarily lead to the rearrangement of unfair power relations. When we, in a new region, try to elaborate and make appealing the methodology of this community intervention form, it is helpful to make the principles of this methodology and its long-term potential for social change explicit.

It is given a huge emphasis in the tradition of community organizing that a new citizen group should start out with "a small and winnable" issue, rather than something with a blurred long-term vision which may cause controversy in the emerging group (see the community organizing strategy of Alinsky). This strategy is pretty conspicuous in this publication, too, through demands around issues such as garbage collection and delivery, a parking space problem, cleaning an alley, renovating a bus stop, etc. In the tradition of community organizing, it also is stressed that these issues are identified by the community (in a democratic manner). According to the argument, the experience of winning gives impetus to the development of the organization, and wins can enhance membership growth, which is essential for a bigger campaign.

These all seem logical, but it can be very misleading. Gary Delgado (American researcher, lecturer, activist, one of the founding members and organizers of ACORN) recollects a story in his article from 1998 (The Last Stop Sign), when a community organizer (organizer of the Industrial Areas Foundation established by Saul Alinsky) told him that in their organization in New Mexico, a state on the southern border of the U.S., they didn't address the immigration issue because it had never come up with the constituents. As the organizer was a white European-American man, while the constituency was Latino, Delgado is suggesting that the issue might not have been raised due to (an initial) lack of trust rooted in the differences between the origin of the organizer and the constituents, even though the issue obviously carries great relevance for the community. To what extent is the responsibility of the organizer to raise an issue,? asks Delgado, and replies with another example. The Californian authorities wanted to take away the child of a lesbian mother. The neighborhood organization embraced the issue because the director of the organization explained the significance of the case to the board. The director was a lesbian woman. So in this case the community organizer influenced the flow of events, and acted as a "bridge person" between the citizen group and the lesbian mother, or rather between the neighborhood and the LGBT issue, and helped members to understand and accept the relevance of an issue, which they may have rejected before.

Decision makers may retain their power by pitting oppressed groups against one another along ethnicity, gender, class, etc.: Roma people on welfare against low-income non-Roma, the housing poor against the homeless people, the religious against the gay, and in general, marginalized groups against the tax-paying middle-class, while, in fact, the state spends a tiny amount of their tax on welfare assistance. These controversial issues unavoidably come up during community organizing. Furthermore, because somebody is oppressed, it does not mean that they themselves do not exert oppression on someone else such as domestic violence or aggression against animals. For long-term social change, community organizers need to take up contradictory issues, and act as bridge persons and live up to the role of "Hermes, the interpreter".

Is it really an effective strategy when a new organization sticks to "small and winnable issues", fighting for a parking space or stop signs? In the last decade of community organizing, has the gap between small and winnable issues and big and significant social issues, in fact, been bridgeable? Does this really lead us to long-term social change? Delgado continues with these questions.

Right-wing grassroots efforts, which would close abortion clinics, would put gays and lesbians back into the closet, he says, have never organized for stop signs. These groups, he adds, supposedly know that "good organizing issues are deeply felt, controversial." Delgado does not want to deny traditional methods of community organizing: empowering grassroots community leaders, organizing a wide democratic base, or community learning through which marginalized people could prove that they can articulate their issues and they do not need anointed experts. He does not intend to dismiss real victories either: the improvement of public housing, school reform, tax reform. But he also says that community organizing often has "misconceived notions of "wins"" and "is almost completely separate from the parallel world of progressive activism" which, he thinks, achieved significant results (women's movement, gay and lesbian movement, immigrant movement, etc.).

The essence and merit of community organizing is the building of a community infrastructure, which can lay the foundations of a new movement, or can enhance an existing one (see the activities of National People's Action related to the Occupy Movement here or here). Naturally, the progressive activist movements, which Delgado was hailing, could not have evolved in their full potential without an existing community infrastructure, through which participants could mobilize one another. And therefore, it is essential that neighborhood groups fight for less spectacular, smaller issues, so that group identity can shape and citizen participation can become a familiar phenomenon. Accepting all this, it is important what Delgado in 1998 said that "if traditional CO [community organizing] is to become a force for change in the millennium and beyond, it must proactively address issues of race, class, gender, corporate concentration, and the complexities of a transnational economy."

Therefore, I believe, when we speak about community organizing, in particular in Central and Eastern Europe, where we now intend to elaborate the methodology of this community intervention form, it is crucial that the short-term and long-term potential of community organizing (local-regional-national collaboration, collaboration crossing ethnicity, gender, congregations, social classes, building out a community infrastructure which can contribute to an emerging movement), the principles of community organizing (organizing vulnerable groups in the name of social justice), the role of community leaders and leadership development, the significance of community learning and internal trainings, etc., are all well-explained and that case studies are presented in line with these, all done in a strategic framework.

In addition, it is also helpful to make a distinction between community organizing and community development, knowing that both community intervention methods can be effective strategy. Which one to choose depends on several factors: the composition of the community, the internal power dynamics, the relations with the decision-makers, whether or not the decision-maker is open to consider the interests of the most vulnerable groups on an issue, or if the power structure is so unbalanced that confrontation is essential, etc. Building a bridge or a road between two neighborhoods, or having a park, or a parking space, etc. can be both community development and community organizing. The action does not become community organizing simply because it enhances citizen participation (as that is the aim of community development, too) but because the bridge, the road, the park or the parking space are important for the group because, by getting these, they make a step towards the rearrangement of unjust power relations (so they are small and winnable issues, but they have a strategic meaning for the group): because the bridge or the road connects a low-income and a middle-class neighborhood, and the low-income people will have access to the middle-class neighborhood with all of its services; or because through organizing about the park or the parking space, through popular education, it becomes crystal clear for the citizen group that they did not have a park or parking space before because of the unequal distribution of resources. This revelation together with the victory will give impetus to the group and enhance the emergence of new issues and new struggles.

With the past of monarchies and dictatorships citizen participation, collaboration, and the practice of opening up to one another are undoubtedly crucial in the life of the new Central and Eastern European democracies. However, in the shadow of excluding nationalism, or decision-makers neglecting the interests of vulnerable groups, or economic exploitation or the growing far-right, we can be brave and impatient enough to identify bigger goals for long-term social change, without losing sight of the conscious organization development strategy of community organizing, for example, to stop the exploitation of poor workers through the mobilization of workers on public assistance, or the development of the public housing system through the mobilization of homeless people (the goals of HAPN and The City Is For All mentioned in the handbook).

And an American example - for the fans of organization theory...

Organizing communities on a local and national level is not easy. The model of the organization I spent my last year with is very instructive in this aspect. The neighborhood-based and institution-based community organizing models are applied hand-in-hand in several organizations, but in Virginia Organizing (VO), it is even more emphatic. VO has 12 chapters, in 12 different locations in the state of Virginia, which were selected mostly because they are regarded as strategic centers in the region or because there is a high proportion of low-income neighborhoods. Community organizers are based in these areas and they may be local or may have moved to the there upon the call of VO. There is usually one chapter in each location and members may be community leaders in their neighborhoods, may be members or leaders of other organizations, or they may simply come on behalf of their family.

In statewide campaigns (around issues such as health care, immigration, anti-discrimination, budget and tax reform, civic participation, ex-felons' right to vote, economic justice, etc.), the staff of Virginia Organizing builds the coalition with other NGOs. Campaigns at a local, city-level are, for example, job creation through state-funded weatherization programs, or the increased participation of people of color in City Council management positions.


(1) Community development and community organizing may differ mostly in the sense that, while community development holds that social inequalities are fundamentally rooted in the lack of problem solving skills at a community level and lack of self-help mechanisms due to alienation, community organizing thinks that the root of injustice is the unequal distribution of power and resources. In community development, therefore, the emphasis is on strengthening relationship between the members of the community, utilizing community competences and common problem solving skills, while members try to get the support of the decision-maker and strive for consensus. On the other hand, community organizing holds that the solution is in the more just redistribution of power and resources, so community members collaborate in order to this through influencing the decision-making processes. Due to unbalanced power relations, confrontational tactics gain emphasis. (Jack Rothman (1995): A közösségi intervenció megközelítései)
(2) Community organizing is finding its roots, among others, in the women's movement, the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, the settlement movement, and in the organizing tradition of Saul Alinsky, the African-American Civil Rights Movement, and the Mexican-American Farmworkers' Movement. The methodology of community organizing was elaborated by Alinsky, which has been enriched by almost a century of experience.
(3) Naturally, organizing the middle class can be a strategic goal. Before his death, in 1972, Alinsky saw the potential in organizing the middle class. He thought in a consumer society that the middle class is miserably misled and is oppressed, and because of being a wide social stratum, it can be a good ally for a systemic social change (Playboy Interview, 1972). The ultimate goal, however, is the empowering of marginalized groups. When Alinsky in 1959 organized the Provisional Organization for Southwest Community in the Southwest Side of Chicago with a mainly white American constituency, his ultimate aim was to decrease racist tension in the neighborhood, to bridge the communication gap between the African-American and the white communities and bring about the process of African-Americans peacefully moving in the neighborhood. He, however, finally questioned this strategy. In addition, Iowa CCI organizes white farmers against factory farms on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Latino immigrant workers abused by their employers. The strategy of the organization is that, through common organizational membership, the gap between the two groups will narrow. When Rural Organizing Project talks about welcoming communities, organizing middle class neighborhoods becomes a goal in order to reach immigration justice.
(4) The title "The Last Stop Sign" is adopted from the article of Gary Delgado, quoted in the post. (Gary Delgado (1998): The Last Stop Sign, accessible online at: http://www.nhi.org/online/issues/102/stopsign.html)

Read it in Hungarian.

Next Monday: Who gains admission and who counts white? - Undocumented immigrants organize now and then.

No comments:

Post a Comment