Thursday, September 04, 2008

Community Organizing: Not a tea party

I live in Chicago.

My adopted city is one with a vibrant history of immigration, ethnic pride, migration, work, violence, poverty, ambition, and working class values (with a little head breakin' and racial segregation thrown in for good measure.)

It's also a city that has always taken part in community organizing, that thing the GOP sneers at. A better word for it would be grassroots community organizing.

The thing about grassroots organizing is that it happens outside of power. It goes directly to the folks being impacted by bad policies, by inequity, by disenfranchisement and it helps them fight against all that and work in their own best interest.

It's hard work helping people fight in their own best interest, especially when those in power say that the interests of the rich ARE the interests of everyone else. It's hard to mobilize folks to go up against big institutions and work for reform and actually win, especially when those institutions pretty much depend on the bafflement of the communities they exploit or neglect.

Community organizing does what government can't or won't.
Without community organizing, where would we be?

The organization I work for was founded in the 19th century by 13 women meeting in someone's home. They saw women migrating to the city from Illinois farms with no way to navigate this new environment and so they vowed to do something about it. These women helped with housing and employment; they helped these women build community with one another and, later, they integrated their clubs long before most other women's clubs were comfortable with the idea. They went on to agitate for women's sufferage and then helped organize Wednesdays in Mississippi, during the Civil Rights movement. In the 70s, these women helped mobilize the working women of Chicago to fight for sexual harrassment and gender discrimination laws that literally transformed the way thousands of working women were treated in this city.

These were ordinary women, hidden women. Wives, daughters, secretaries and students - going up against political disenfranchisement, racism, and sexual discrimination - meeting in lunch rooms, living rooms, libraries, churches, and community centers, sharing their stories, identifying deep systemic problems and dedicating themselves to solving them. These were women writing letters, crashing city council meetings, rallying in plazas, and riding buses to help other women fight police violence and racial conflict.

Who benefits from community organizing?

Mostly poor people, working people, elderly people, children, people of color, people who don't usually have access to power and influence.

Who doesn't the GOP care about, if they're so ready to be contemptuous of community organizing?

Poor people, working people, elderly people, children, people of color, people who don't usually have access to power and influence.

Ideally, grassroots community organizing allows for the flattening of power. Maybe, just maybe, this is a clue into why the GOP hates it so much. For some reason, the GOP just doesn't like the idea of ordinary people taking up the mantle of changing their circumstances - or the idea of anyone helping them do so. Though they say they're the party of 'personal responsibility,' when a community decides to take responsibility for itself and mobilizes to fight for its own interests, they characterize the effort as lazy or irresponsible and feckless.

It's funny. They say a lot about Christian values. They spend a lot of time holding hands (or kissing ass) with the Christian Right. But they don't have a firm grasp of the Golden Rule or the Beatitudes. To me, a woman who grew up in Sunday School and still remembers her lessons about the sermon on the mount, religious minded folks who express contempt for the poor and disenfranchised screams hypocrisy.

If you work as an organizer share your story here: what you do, who you fight for and what you're up against.
Tell the GOP exactly , and other folks who hate the idea of fairness, what community organizing is about.


Songbird said...

This is a great post, ding. I hope you won't mind that I've linked to it from my blog.

Diane said...

songbird sent me over. I was trained in organizing by the group (from Chicago)Gamaliel, and work in a first-ring suburb. Gamaliel is trying so hard to organize not just in inner cities, but in suburbs, but it's challenging. Organizing at its best is progressive, but challenges both conservative and liberal orthodoxies. It's not liberal "saviors" coming in, but empowering the people to rise up. And it's not "raising yourself up by your own bootstraps," because organizers know that power lies in banding together for a common cause. That's one of the reasons there has been so much indoctrination about Individualism.

Well, now I have my own post, almost. Thanks for this! I think I'll link to it on my blog, too, if you don't mind.

mompriest said...

Good post. Although I moved in March I lived for 35 years in Chicago. I hear you on this, having done, while there, some neighborhood grassroots organizing myself....and also getting an MSW from Loyola which actually teaches a course on social and community organizing...(

ding said...

Songbird, not at all.

Community organizing does challenge orthodoxies. It's funny to see what happens when the idea you have runs into the reality of the population you're organizing.

I was reading a focus group transcript about what a particular community would think about a racial justice component being added to our services and the response was sort of unexpected and gave us serious pause. It forced us to really think differently about what we were doing, how we were doing it and why we were doing it.

That kind of 'bottom-up' response is always scary (in a good way) and enlivening. Thanks for sharing!