Friday, November 23, 2012

The myth of small and winnable issues

Is this really the appropriate small and winnable social issue?
Dislike: Some American community organizers promote as a one-size-fits-all recipe that organizers should start organizing apathetic and marginalized groups first around "immediate and winnable" issues.

This organizing tactic, which builds on the Alinsky tradition, but is often presented in a distilled manner, holds out the promise that a quick victory on a small issue (a parking space, a stop sign, garbage delivery or bus service change) can give impetus for the organization and the members to grow, which is essential for a bigger campaign. Without dismissing the merits of this tactic, however, community organizers often forget to consider its pitfalls, which may arise in particular because they set the standards too low by choosing a "small" issue at the very start. To what extent is gradualness the best way to make people believe that they can demand systemic change?

In August, I participated in a one-week training of the Midwest Academy in Chicago. This is one of the most acknowledged training programs in the U.S., where many community organizations enroll their organizers. This definitely became one of the two greatest training experiences of my life: I often felt I was watching an interactive play or I was one of the actors because the way the trainers shared knowledge was so dynamic and entertaining. The training was very comprehensive and very strategic. In connection to the "immediate and winnable" issues, however, we were asked to do an exercise to rebuild a fictional, once well-operating neighborhood organization. Our task was to decide which issues we should pick in the very beginning in order to organize the residents for social action. The target group was middle-class. Residents of this fictional neighborhood showed dissatisfaction around the following issues: 1. a child was hit by a car in the neighborhood, 2. items in a shop were priced lower than what their real price was, therefore inattentive customers might have paid more that they thought they did, 3. there were leaves in sewers, which may cause flooding in basements, 4. a sales tax increase. While I was contemplating choosing between the issues of misled customers and the sales tax increase, to my greatest astonishment, the leaves in the sewer got the most outstanding number of votes. The trainer did not question the arguments in favor of this issue (namely, that it is a small and winnable issue, therefore it can bring quick success to the community and members can gain experience in advocating for their community on easy grounds).

I did not fully understand that if the sales tax increase or the lower priced items were highlighted by the imaginative community, why would it seem a good idea to start from zero? On top of this, why should we take it as readily understood that we can connect the leaves in the sewer to a sales tax increase within foreseeable time (not many years later) so that we can finally talk about tax justice which may lead to systemic change. I see a lot of pitfalls in this: is it certain that it pays to pick an apparently easily winnable issue with such automatism? Can community members lose impetus because we did not try to speak about essentially important issues? Can it happen that we underestimated the community? Is it certain that we found the good leaders that we are not brave enough to shoot for bigger targets? Do we really see the bigger picture? Do we adjust our activities at all to the actual "temperature" of the society or are we captured by some theoretical-methodological institutional frame?

The protest of The Woodlawn Organization in Chicago.
The organizer was Saul Alinsky. Source: newswise
But what does Saul Alinsky precisely say about the "immediate and winnable" issue? Alinsky writes in the Rules for Radicals, "The organizer knows, for example, that his biggest job is to give the people the feeling that they can do something, that while they may accept the idea that organization means power, they have to experience this idea in action." (1989:113) The job of the organizer, Alinsky continues, is to build the confidence of the group so that the group believes that when they managed to win with a limited number of people, they can dream bigger. (1989:114) "You have to very carefully and selectively pick his opponents, knowing full well that certain defeats would be demoralizing and end his career," Alinsky compares the process to the contest of a prize-fighter. (1989:114) He goes on, saying, "Therefore, if your function is to attack apathy and get people to participate it is necessary to attack the prevailing patterns of organized living in the community.. [...] The disruption of the present organization is the first step toward community organization.  [...] An organizer must stir up dissatisfaction and discontent; provide a channel into which the people can angrily pour their frustrations." (1989:116-117.)

As a result of this, an issue becomes an "appropriate" issue for a new community organization not only because it is easily winnable but because it gives an opportunity for people to articulate their anger. "There can be no such thing as a “non-controversial” issue," Alinsky continues. (1989:117.) (Controversial in the sense that it creates conflict and controversy between decision-makers and citizens by making a step towards the rearrangement of unfair power relations.) According to Alinsky, people take action because they realize that the source of their situation and frustration does not lie in themselves (or not eminently in themselves), but more likely in the accumulated impact of the unjust functioning of the institutions and the bad political decisions. Therefore, the leaves in the sewer can be an appropriate "immediate and winnable" issue when it can stir up and channel such anger and when it becomes an instrument for the community to believe that it is possible and reasonable to fight in cooperation against seemingly unmovable bastions. According to Alinsky, new community organizations grow in this process. (1989:117.)

Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, however, question whether building an organization is the best way to enforce systemic change. (1977, in particular, The Welfare Rights Movement - Mobilizing Versus Organizing section) On the one hand, they think that community members can lose their impetus if they focus on building the organization, the process which community organizers hail: it can be contra productive in particular in those moments when people have already broken out of their apathy as a result of current social events. On the other hand, Piven and Cloward think that disruptive tactics also much better serve social change and the rearrangement of power relations: as a result, they urge to mobilize people for confrontational actions (understood within the democratic framework) or for civil disobedience instead of building organizations which entails unavoidable limitations. In their view, a national network of cadres connected to several loosely coordinated groups contribute to the aim of social change better than a national cooperation of community organizations. They thought that the period of the welfare crisis in the second half of the 1960s in the U.S. favored this tactic. (Piven and Cloward finally realized a combination of the two tactics in cooperation with community organizers - with the National Welfare Rights Organization - in the Welfare Rights Movement.) Without listing the pitfalls of this theory at this moment, the Piven-Cloward idea has something to say to the myth of the "immediate and winnable" issues: it balances this tactic by implying that a community organizer first and foremost needs to measure the "temperature" of the society so that it can the most extensively build upon the current social events.

Garbage piles in Naples during the garbage crisis (2011).
Source: time
Is it really an effective strategy when a new organization sticks to "small and winnable issues", fighting for a parking space, stop signs or garbage delivery? 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,? asks Gary Delgado (American researcher, lecturer, activist, one of the founding members and organizers of ACORN) in his article from 1998 The Last Stop Sign.

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 and perhaps Piven and Cloward were 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."

In the U.S., where community organizing is embedded into a strong movement tradition and is closely connected to organizing for putting pressure on the legislature (by promoting bills and using the voting power in the power spectrum of politics), it should of course be self-evident for many that small issues are only a tool for organizing for long-term goals and to build the community infrastructure. Therefore, it is important that when we talk about the Alinsky-tradition in a new context, e.g., in Europe, (so outside its progressive historic context, in an unavoidably distilled manner,) it is important that these tactics gain ground in a way that they have resonance to the current progressive social events of the actual country and to avoid that it is simply interpreted as a methodology, deprived of its original context and set of values.

Read it in Hungarian.

Literature: Saul D. Alinsky: Rules for Radicals. A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals, Vintage Books, New York, 1989. Frances Fox Piven és Richard A. Cloward: Poor People's Movements. Why They Succeed, How They Fail, Pantheon Books, New York, 1977. Gary Delgado (1998): The Last Stop Sign, available online:

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