Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Power and the organized community. The basics of community organizing

Source: John LeMasney
On March 12 we held a workshop for the Illyés Sándor Student College of the Eötvös Lóránd University Faculty of Education and Psychology (ELTE PPK). The course Activism is organized by students studying community development and pedagogy. Through asking the participants to elaborate solutions to two social issues, our aim with Bálint Vojtonovszki was to highlight the difference between activism and community organizing, and give an overview of the process and key concepts of organizing. Then we identified community organizing among the four types of community intervention: service provision, advocacy, community development and community organizing.


THE AGENDA OF THE WORKSHOP

17.00-17.10 INTRODUCTION

17.10-18.20 THE FOUR TYPES OF COMMUNITY INTERVENTION. In small groups, participants elaborated possible solutions for two social issues. Through analyzing the possible solutions, together with the participants we highlighted the differences between activism, advocacy, service provision, community development, and community organizing. What is power? How can we use our own power to the benefit of people in marginalized positions?

18.20-18.50 THE PROCESS OF COMMUNITY ORGANIZING. What do people need to become organized? Why is it good to be organized? How did Alinsky organize? What organizing techniques do you identify from the example? Alinsky critique - What is the difference between a movement and community organizing?

18.50-19.00 CLOSE

Reading:
Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker (1998): Community Organizing or Organizing Community? Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment. The feminist critique of the Alinsky model.
Gary Delgado (1998): The Last Stop Sign. Community organizing and movements. Differences, opportunities.

Read it in Hungarian.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Power and the organized community. The basics of participatory democracy.


Initiated by the Autonómia Foundation, we gave a training today with Bálint Vojtonovszki for young Roma and non-Roma who want to apply for the European Union's Youth In Action funds. Our aim was to help participants gain new skills so that they can more effectively reach out to people living in their settlement, involve them in the project preparation process and have more people take a role in the implementation of the project.

Participants increased their knowledge in:
- techniques to increase group cohesion
- community needs surveys: listening tours and one-to-ones
- organizing skills and building the organization
- a good leader and their responsibilities
- facilitation techniques, role of a moderator, how to cope with tension in group discussions, putting together the agenda
- involving new people in group work and recruit members
- power

TRAINING AGENDA

9.00-9.25: INTRODUCTION

9.25-9.35: COMMUNICATION PRINCIPLES. We lay down the principles we want to use when we communicate in the group, thus we learn a technique to moderate a group discussion.

9.35-10.10: IDEAL SETTLEMENT - STRUGGLE FOR POWER
We use the communication principles in the group work, and in an activity we create a situation when community members cannot realize their urban development ideas due to external influence.

10.10-10.25: ORGANIZED COMMUNITY I.
We collect ideas about how a community can become stronger and more effective in representing their interest towards decision-makers.

10.25-10.45: BREAK

10.45-11.15: ORGANIZED COMMUNITY II.
Techniques to involve new people. Introducing the listening tour. We collect ideas how we can identify community issues, involve new members and build the organization.

11.15-11.35: ONE-TO-ONE
Practicing one-to-ones as part of the listening tour.

11.35-12.00: FIRST GROUP MEETING I.
What is a good meeting like? What is the role of the moderator? How can participants contribute to a successful meeting? How do you facilitate a meeting?

12.00-13.00: LUNCH BREAK

13.00-14.15: FIRST GROUP MEETING II.
Preparing the meeting. Elaborating the recruitment plan and the agenda of the meeting.

14.15-14.45: POWER
What is power? Scale line.

14.45-15.00: CLOSE

Thanks to Marci Gosztonyi for brainstorming about the training concept.

Read it in Hungarian.

Our young democracy


Hungary is a young democracy. It will be a healthy and real democracy when more and more social classes and groups will be able to influence and participate in the decision-making processes. In order for this to happen, people usually excluded from decision-making should be able to formulate their demands, get to the table of the decision-makers through community power, and challenge social inequality through democratic means. With a united voice and good tactics, they can achieve real representation. How can we use community organizing to enhance real democracy in Hungary? What is power? Is community organizing only confrontation? This interview with me on a Hungarian community radio station Civil Radio tells us more about these topics.

Civil Rádió: Demokrácia MOST! 2013. január 30., Part 1 (in Hungarian)
Civil Rádió: Demokrácia MOST! 2013. január 30., Part 2 (in Hungarian)

This post is the third in a series where I collect what I like in community organizing in the U.S. "Democracy is not an end but the best means toward achieving these values [equality, justice, freedom, peace, a deep concern for the preciousness of human life, and all those rights and values propounded by Judeo-Christianity and the democratic political tradition]." (Saul Alinsky) Like: community organizing is the catalyst of democracy.

Read it in Hungarian.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The community organizing industry

Dislike: In the U.S., as a result of the professionalization of community organizing, a lot of operative decisions are made by the staff of the non-profit community organization. Therefore, a big part of action-related decisions are delivered in the staff meeting, and for the sake of dynamic action or because of the routine, the planning and implementation processes are not inclusive enough towards members. Together with this, it is fair enough that the community organizer does not want to become an external facilitator. But to what extent should they intervene? Can they take up tasks in organizing an action or an event? Or does the independence of the membership overwrite the potential benefit of such a contribution?

Alinsky formulated the vital core of community organizing in his sentence: "Never do for others what they can do for themselves." Instead, you should have ears and the heart to understand where the other person's self-interest lies (what is the goal that is personally important for them and which would make them take action), where this self-interest intersects with the self-interest of the others, and then you can start to agitate. A community organizer is to create a platform so that at least some community members start to develop trust towards one another, and start to believe that taking action is worth it (the community organizer arouses self-interest), and start to involve others and motivate them to make the decision-maker accountable. These initiating members may become community leaders.

The practice of professionalized community organizations seems to contradict to the Alinsky principle: the community organizer delivers a lot of tasks which the membership could deliver if there was a more inclusive strategy. In the professionalized community organizations, naturally, the primary goal is to involve more and more people affected by the issue through participating in negotiations with the decision-makers, giving media interviews, and sitting in thematic committees; and to some extent, members also have a say in the decision-making process through the listening tours and at the annual membership assemblies. However, this does not mean at all that all action-related tasks are carried out by the membership, or there were no strategic decisions made without the approval of the membership on tactics or media communication, on statements or press releases. While based on the Alinsky principle, it may seem that in the ideal world of community organizing, the community organizer is not there to take up part of the action-related tasks, or it may seem as if the community should only set such goals and actions which members can deliver without having the community organizer help them out with some of the tasks.

However, community organizations in fact work along the Alinsky principle because the "Never do what others can do for themselves" does not necessarily mean that community organizers should remain external facilitators, and let community members implement the action by themselves. But it certainly should mean that, through participation, more and more people should have an opportunity to get involved in social action. Apart from this, if the organization has a professionalized, paid staff, and its operation becomes dependent on grants, this always raises the concern that the decision-making and strategic processes become a routine and this routine becomes institutionalized due to the lack of any regular community revision of organizational structure. This is true even if the membership vested the staff with the responsibility to support chapters by taking over operative tasks, knowing that this will weaken any opportunities for direct democracy and consensus-based decision-making.

The dilemma of intervention

Aside from the advantages and disadvantages of the operation of the institutionalized civil society, compliance with the Alinsky principle raises further concerns: in a nutshell, the dilemma of intervention. When group work starts, it becomes one of the first concerns for a community organizer to decide to what extent they should contribute with their own knowledge to the group talk. Where is the border line between adding new viewpoints to the group ethos and between pushing the setting of goals which members do not have enough skills, knowledge or experience to realize, and therefore it would weaken rather than strengthen members? Where is the point at which the unbalanced power relations tilt in favor of the experienced community organizer (of possibly better social status) against committed members who may have less experience in organizing?

Let's take an example. When talking to homeless people about possible solutions for the housing crisis, some of the very first answers coming up are the utilization of vacant flats and property: barracks standing vacant since the transition of the '90s should be renovated, vacant public housing should be used, opportunities should be given for people with housing problems to refurbish the flat in exchange for housing. These answers would undoubtedly result in an immediate remedy in people's lives and for the city, but still raise a lot of concerns: turning barracks into flats would bring about segregated neighborhoods, and would contribute to the expulsion of the poor from the inner city, the majority of the vacant buildings are in bad shape, and people moving into these neighborhoods could in the long run (without other supplementary measures) contribute to the exclusion of the poor. In addition to this, these solutions would not necessarily serve a systemic change even if they could become good pilot projects. Systemic changes are the extended and integrated public housing system, the housing benefit increase. And as temporary solutions, the housing poor and the homeless need more shelters for victims of domestic violence and more temporary family shelters to give the family a chance to stay together, well-operating social services and well-functioning debt management at a district level. Bread and work. And of course, it is also true that by renovating vacant flats, the decision-makers may easily pretend that they took care for the housing of the people.

This situation raises several questions for the community organizer. Let's stick to the group talk example above: to what extent can the community organizer shape the strategic direction set by the group or to what extent can they direct the way of thinking of members towards something totally new? Second of all, to what extent should the organizer take part in the implementation of the action-related tasks for the sake of the victory and group cohesion in case the group does not possess all the knowledge needed for the realization of the action? And, most of all, how can the community organizer balance out power inequalities between them and the group without taking over too much of the leading role and dismantling the status of the community leader, but still finding a way to be able to share their ideas with the group?

Let's start with the first dilemma. During community organizing those people who don't have a say in the decision-making process organize for a more equal redistribution of power and resources by democratic means. The ultimate aim is the long-term and systemic change, whereas the tactic to involve people is to build on the issues they determine for themselves, which can first be smaller, local goals. Community organizing is therefore a joint learning process. The responsibility of the outsider community organizer is to enrich the perspective of the community with new aspects, while he or she expands his or her own perspective through understanding how members of the community define their problems and what they think is possible to shape their own future. Joint learning can help weighing the pros and cons: inviting people affected by the issue (experts by experience) or "anointed" experts, elaborating questions together before the talk, discussing presentations or films in the issue, organizing internal trainings to activate the experience and knowledge of community members. In order to achieve long-term social change and a more equal redistribution of resources and the building of bridges between social classes, it should not be the aim of the community organizer to deactivate his or her own knowledge, and to deprive the community of his or her own ideas and viewpoints instead of enriching group strategy (provided he or she has ideas addressing systemic change on the issue), but he or she must integrate any smaller goals into the strategy which are set by the people affected even if they address particular issues.

The second, very frequent dilemma for a community organizer is to what extent he or she should participate in the operative tasks, in the implementation of the action: what he or she should take over (or whether he or she should take over anything at all) so that the action and the message become stronger (as a result of his or her experience and skills acquired during years of organizing demonstrations and dealing with the media). In the case of his or her active involvement, it is unavoidable that there will be people in the group who cannot properly follow what is going on and the group will not necessarily be able to reproduce the event on their own. The community organizer, however, is in charge of maintaining the energy level of the group: for this, he or she needs to provide an effective and dynamic framework for the group action and for the sake of victory, she needs to contribute to achieve the goals, and to bring tons of inspiration and perspective to the group.

The goal naturally would be that the community organization becomes self-sufficient. Therefore, we need to shape those processes which make it possible that every member can take part with some smaller or bigger tasks in group activities and to make leadership development an organic part of group life (internal training, tasks for new members, etc.). However, the principle that we should never do what others can do for themselves is not equal to facilitating from the background. Due to the myriad of tasks, the challenges of organizing actions, and the disappointment in politics, it would be difficult to maintain the energy level of the group, to strengthen its integrity, to achieve its first victories and a growing membership if the community organizer sticks to the role of an external facilitator and does not take part in the delivery of action-related tasks.

This of course raises important power dilemmas which leads us to our third question: how to deal with power inequalities. The community organizer is usually an outsider, not the member of the community (the group of people affected by the issue), he or she knows and understands the theory and practice of community organizing, and, in case he or she managed to gain the trust of the community, this outsider position can help him or her identify those members who enjoys the trust of the community and are democratic and inclusive. They are potential community leaders who can bring people together, help the community formulate the most immediate issues and mobilize for the sake of social change - with the help of the community organizer. The community organizer enters the life of the community, strengthens group cohesion, helps build the democratic decision-making processes and a democratic communication culture, helps the group find new solutions and brings in new viewpoints. And, because the community organizer is an outsider, he or she is a messenger to the other world, from which members of the community can draw on for new knowledge and values.

After trust has been built between the organizer and the community, however, it can happen that the organizer has a bigger say or represents a greater authority when making decisions than the members or community leaders (e.g., in case of vacant buildings, when saying that the vacant building issue should not explicitly be included in the policy recommendations because it can be misleading and contra-productive in the long run). It would be naive to think that inherent inequalities in the cooperation of an organizer and a community can be solved only by consensus-based decision-making and democratic communication mechanisms. We have to be conscious of these power inequalities originated in our social status, gender, ethnicity, and we have to find out newer and newer mechanisms in order to even these out as much as possible, and transform into something nourishing instead of something oppressive. The task of the community organizer is therefore to activate the knowledge of the community about their society: to formulate questions which bring forward new viewpoints based on the experience of the members and which, therefore, the community organizer does not have access to (e.g., in case of vacant buildings: why is this topic so self-evident when talking about housing problems with people affected by the issue? why don't people come up with the idea of subsidized housing instead? how can this issue inspire people with housing problems to get involved? what policy recommendations can be made? is the renovation of a dilapidated flat with the participation of skilled or unskilled realistic? what help would the new resident need to be able to finance their new housing? etc.)

The "checks and balances" are significant in community organizing, too. A community organizer needs to fulfill a lot of roles in a group which has just been established (he or she needs to take care of group dynamics and communication, creating the group ethos (system of principles and attitudes)), where roles have not yet been solidified, where principles are still not compact, or there may be oppression among members, where the internal communication culture has not yet been established. For me, therefore, it seems more effective and fruitful when two or three community organizers work in one group, supporting and controlling one another, making it more fluid to bring in new energy and new viewpoints, and making the above mentioned power dilemmas more controllable.

The "Never do what others can do for themselves" principle therefore does not necessarily mean that community organizers should facilitate from the background, but it wants to say that everybody should take up tasks and roles according to their skills, including the community organizer after considering the above mentioned dilemmas, so that everybody becomes responsible for victories or failures.

The way how professionalized non-profit community organizations operate justifies this task-sharing direction. In their case, however, it is a disadvantage that the efficiency of how these tasks are shared between chapters and the staff (namely, which set of tasks and responsibilities are delegated to the staff and decided at a staff meeting) is usually not questioned and revised on a regular basis by the community and there is no regular confirmation of the organizational structure by a community decision.

Read it in Hungarian.
An extended version of the article was published in a Hungarian community development periodical, Parola (2012/4).

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The best way to learn is while doing something - American pragmatism in practice


Source: equark.sk
Like: The American pragmatist, fundamentally optimistic and supportive attitude. Usually, Americans go beyond the critical assessment of ideas and instead, they urge you to realize your conceptions. In order for this, they focus on why an idea can work when they talk to you. This post may seem to be an intercultural detour but these thoughts still organically belong to community organizing: our ability to achieve social change is determined by the atmosphere of the society where we are active.

I would, of course, carefully make generalizations about the American culture. Although my experiences are based on a relatively broad range of impressions (I visited many states, spent almost a year in the U.S., met a lot of people of different social statuses), I essentially lived in a bubble: I have mostly met socially conscious, progressive-minded people and in fact, I got to know the world of the democratic middle class. And of course, I was a stranger, and people in the U.S. usually like to be nice and understanding towards strangers, and to show their better side. And a stranger also tends to make generalizations based on particular things. And of course, I can't often decide to what extent my cultural impressions reveal more about myself than the American culture, and to what extent these notions are distorted by my personality.

Comments like this, therefore, are necessarily subjective, but together with this, they carry valuable interpretations about how pragmatism and entrepreneurial spirit, both are so much of a characteristic of the American attitude, take shape in practice in the U.S.

During most of my time, I had the impression that Americans are so supportive to new ideas: when  they share a plan with one another, let it be immature or thoroughly thought through, they mostly give supportive feedback to one another: this is great! go ahead! Apart from what they really think about the feasibility of the conception (whether the other possesses the skills, the network, the comrades, the financial background to be able to realize their goals), at this point these are not subject to assessment. What is appreciated is that you decided that you WANT TO DO something. And this determination is always welcome, the enthusiasm should not be smothered. Any social action can become important, because you never know what others may draw inspiration from. Therefore, in their feedback, they concentrate on the positive side: why something can work out well, not only why not.

This does not end up in empty, superficial optimism: it only means that critical remarks come a little bit later. It is in particular true when you do not know each other well: in this case they don't feel that they would be entitled to do anything else but conveying positive energies. They don't show dissatisfaction, instead, they are happy that there is a new person who wants to do something. They will not disappoint you even if what you have done is not super-perfect because it can develop on the way. Critical feedback comes when there is something more concrete to be analyzed. Or after they get to know you better.

On top of this enthusiastic and positive attitude, so much of a characteristic of the Americans, they are so expert in energizing. In demonstrations, trainings, community events, they usually manage to create such a good and energizing atmosphere: I often had the impression that there is a public agreement that they gather together to create an explosion of cheerfulness. They give themselves over to enjoy the moment, and even if they are only viewers, they become active participants of the event. The American audience is very interactive: they reply, shout, cheer, boo. It often happens that the animator loudly asks questions so that the group can give the same or similar answers, e.g., are you feeling good? or why did you come here? The simultaneous loud replies help build group cohesion. At first sight, this is, of course, culturally alien for an introverted Central European, but if you accept that this is the rule of the game, and you give yourself over to it, you can learn a lot. I found it an honest and useful community attitude.

In Hungary, I often feel that people tend to recognize why things don't work - including the intellectual elite. We have a very good sense of critique to recognize why things can fail, which is very useful so that we don't delude ourselves and we see the pitfalls, but at the same time, many people often forget to observe with the same intensity what the chances are to avoid those pitfalls. So, instead of turning their good critical observations into more conscious and more precise action, they get stuck in the negative aspects and they come to the conclusion that it is not worth starting anything. The spirit of doing is often smothered by the sense of critique paired up with skepticism, which otherwise, paired up with some entrepreneurial spirit, optimism, pragmatism and in-the-middle-of-the process analysis, could otherwise be very fruitful.


Friday, November 23, 2012

The myth of small and winnable issues

Is this really the appropriate small and winnable social issue?
Source: trogerizmus.blog.hu
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: http://www.nhi.org/online/issues/102/stopsign.html

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Even though I don't want to establish a party, can I call you a voter?

My professional development training is coming to an end soon. There were a lot of things which captured me, and there were things which I would do differently. By the end of the summer, I had collected a lot of best practices in this blog, without making a particular effort to provide a critical context. So I would like to start some more reflection. In the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series about five things that I like in community organizing in the U.S. And five things I would do differently.


Source: USNews
Like: The citizen is considered a voting citizen - not only by political parties but also by community organizations.
One person, one vote, says the American. And that's how community organizations count as well. Not because they would want to recruit voters to a political party, but because they know that a forgotten issue will only be important for a decision-maker if they can make political capital out of it. Therefore, the "buying power of the vote" becomes important not only in political but also in civil campaigns. Before a campaign, community organizations make a political analysis: they research the makeup and size of the voting base of the decision-maker, or of their opposition, they check how big the number of undecided voters is and they build a coalition on the basis of this if necessary.

Having observed this, I have the feeling that in Hungary, and maybe in other Eastern European new democracies, we do not utilize this tactic enough. Many civil society organizations simply do not use it because they don't think they should act political in their role (i.e., making a political statement in social issues). Instead, the groups provide services or do soft advocacy, and they try to influence decision-makers behind the scene.

But even those civil society organizations which take a confrontational stance against people in power do not use this tool effectively. On the other hand, in the U.S., I have seen examples of letter-writing and phone-banking actions when citizens simply declared to the decision-maker: I voted for you, or I am an undecided voter, but I can't agree with this statement of yours; or they demonstrate power in a rally by emphasizing how many people they represent in their organization and who their stakeholders are.

The right to vote is a tool and power in the hands of the citizens. It can happen that a marginalized group in itself is big enough to demonstrate power, and it can also happen that it needs to build a coalition with groups which represent power in the eyes of the decision-makers.

In addition, before the elections, most community organizations run campaigns to register historically underrepresented groups and urge them to vote. (In the U.S. - as opposed to Hungary - there is no comprehensive voter database, so that's why voter registration is necessary here.) My host organization, Virginia Organizing, for example, reached out to tens of thousands of people by doing phone-banking in the months preceding the election. (You can read more on voter registration campaigns, and the overlaps between the agenda of the Democratic Party and that of community organizing here.)

Demonstration against harsh voter ID provisions. Source: TPM
Thinking over to what extent we as civil society workers can act as political beings (or to what extent we need to become one) has become relevant in Hungary because of the recent curbing of voting rights. Distancing from parties is naturally fundamental: holding accountable any political party on power, without expediency, always with the same vehemence. Co-option is a threat: we want to criticize the legislature from the outside, without having strong leaders becoming part of the establishment.

But we want to be involved in decision-making. That's why we act political but we do not do party politics (when we put pressure on the decision-makers on social issues). Beyond this, however, do we consider ourselves voters in a campaign? Do we build on this tactic at all knowing that reluctant politicians will yield to us only when they feel threatened, when they are afraid of their voting base shrinking (or that the opportunists stand by us in the hope of acquiring new supporters)? Do we make different groups of stakeholders visible in a bigger demonstration? Do we think about asking coalition partners to emphasize how many people and how different principles they represent when we manage to build bridges between very different stakeholders? As civil society workers, can we encourage the historically underrepresented groups to live with their most basic political right? Could we organize trainings, talks, community events on the voting topic?

The stance Ágnes Vadai (Democratic Coalition, Hungary) took in a recent television debate was an eloquent example of the fact that several politicians would like to monopolize voters for party politics in Hungary when she asked her talking partner, Péter Juhász, why he talked about voting citizens and socio-political goals if he does not want to establish a party. Irrespective of whether Milla establishes a party or not, is that really the proper social setting when only parties can count with citizens as voters? Should the civil groups only distribute food, make some attempts with their petitions, and occasionally jump in front of a ministry, and they can be considered voters only when a political party addresses them?

Read it in Hungarian.