Monday, June 9, 2008

The most important rule in community organizing

I've just come from a meeting at my organization, Arise for Social Justice. It was not a regular meeting. We'd asked a guy who has been an ally of Arise for many years to come and talk with us about some recent happenings that had left us wondering about where he stands toward us. The outcome was neither as good as we'd hoped for nor as bad as we'd feared, but at least we know, and can proceed from there.

At the root of the issue we talked about tonight is, I believe, institutional power. Arise is a low-income rights organization, founded by women on welfare more than 20 years ago because we believed then-- and believe now-- that we have a right to speak for ourselves about the issues that affect us. And, of course, we want to change the things that make us poor in the first place.

Many times I/we have thought about just what it is we've accomplished since we've been around. I know that there are thousands of individual people who are better off for having connected with Arise. I know there are many poor people who have been able to up their analysis a few notches after having been with us. But institutional change? Institutional change, as compared with winning an occasional traffic light or getting a vacant lot cleaned up, is the hardest job of all.

Someone asked me not long ago if it was easier or harder to make change now than 20 years ago. Harder! Back in 1985, we mostly had to make government and its myriad agencies accountable. Now, in 2008, the major decisions in this country are made by the unelected, the corporations, the power behind the throne.

I still remember when, in the early 90's, my friend Jean Grossholtz said to me, "There's something going on that you've got to know about if you want to make any sense at all about what's happening: structural adjustment and its tools: deregulation, privatization and globalization,." And my! What the last 15 years have wrought!

One clear-cut example of institutional change that Arise has been able to accomplish is moving Springfield, MA's city council and the school committee from an all at-large system to one where each of our wards will have an elected representative as well as at-large seat. The first elections under the new system take place next November. It took 13 years! I really think that one reason we were able to win is that nearly every citizen of Springfield had a self-interest in the outcome. Of course, at first the only people who knew they were being denied their voting rights were people of color and poor people. If we didn't frame it that way directly, we sure knew we had limited access to power. Eventually, after our trying every trick in the book (referendum, persuasion, a federal lawsuit) 74.2% of the voters felt the same way.

A victory-- but we didn't fight for ward representation so that any of us individually could run for elected office. We did it because it was the right thing to do. But just one thing feels off for me: it was not directly a victory for poor people. Yes, I know, if ward representation works well, then poorer wards will have a voice. It's just not enough.

Now that the campaign for ward representation is done, the community partners we worked with and who are more likely to directly benefit from better democracy (because they know how to use it) are fading into the background. I know we can call on them if we really need to and if the issue fits them them, but once again we can feel the gulf that separates those with instututional power and those without. In a weird way, it feels good. We turn once again to our own struggles against poverty and injustice, which are so deeply linked to the struggles of others even when they don't know it. But that's part of our work, too, to make those connections.

So the most important rule in community organizing? Don't stop. Don't stop, be true to yourself, accept your failures and successes, but above all, don't stop.


springfieldmedia said...

In regards to ward representation, your organization did a tremendous job. At this time, citizens should not stand by and watch ward representation become diluted. Councilors and school committee members elected by ward must have equal power to those elected on an at large basis.

Michaelann Bewsee said...

Thank you. Legally, all the reps have the same power, whether they are elected by ward or at large. That doesn't mean attitudes will support such equality. But we'll keep on it!