MindFreedom International News - 20 January 2009


Why "community organizing" is relevant to
very disenfranchised people -- including
mental health consumers and psychiatric survivors.
BELOW is a chapter written about two decades ago by a community
organizer who is getting inaugurated as President of the USA today:
Barack Obama.
It's about the role of the little-known job of "community organizing"
in the empowerment of, by and for extremely marginalized people, in
this case impoverished inner city people addressing multiple problems.
Forwarding this essay to others isn't necessarily an endorsement of
all or part. But he does have helpful lessons that can apply to other
disempowered groups of "everyday people," including psychiatric
survivors and mental health consumers.
He warns that simple economic "self-help" is not enough.
He also warns against relying on "a 'consumer advocacy' approach,
with a focus on wrestling services and resources from the ouside
powers that be."
[First published in 1988 in Illinois Issues]
"Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City"
By Barack Obama
Illinois Issues, Springfield, Illinois
Over the past five years, I've often had a difficult time explaining
my profession to folks. Typical is a remark a public school
administrative aide made to me one bleak January morning, while I
waited to deliver some flyers to a group of confused and angry
parents who had discovered the presence of asbestos in their school.
"Listen, Obama," she began. "You're a bright young man, Obama. You
went to college, didn't you?"
I nodded.
"I just cannot understand why a bright young man like you would go to
college, get that degree and become a community organizer."
"Why's that?"
" 'Cause the pay is low, the hours is long, and don't nobody
appreciate you." She shook her head in puzzlement as she wandered
back to attend to her duties.
I've thought back on that conversation more than once during the time
I've organized with the Developing Communities Project, based in
Chicago's far south side. Unfortunately, the answers that come to
mind haven't been as simple as her question. Probably the shortest
one is this: It needs to be done, and not enough folks are doing it.
The debate as to how black and other dispossessed people can forward
their lot in America is not new. From W.E.B. DuBois to Booker T.
Washington to Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, this
internal debate has raged between integration and nationalism,
between accommodation and militancy, between sit-down strikes and
boardroom negotiations. The lines between these strategies have never
been simply drawn, and the most successful black leadership has
recognized the need to bridge these seemingly divergent approaches.
During the early years of the Civil Rights movement, many of these
issues became submerged in the face of the clear oppression of
segregation. The debate was no longer whether to protest, but how
militant must that protest be to win full citizenship for blacks.
Twenty years later, the tensions between strategies have reemerged,
in part due to the recognition that for all the accomplishments of
the 1960s, the majority of blacks continue to suffer from second-
class citizenship. Related to this are the failures real, perceived
and fabricated of the Great Society programs initiated by Lyndon
Johnson. Facing these realities, at least three major strands of
earlier movements are apparent.
First, and most publicized, has been the surge of political
empowerment around the country. Harold Washington and Jesse Jackson
are but two striking examples of how the energy and passion of the
Civil Rights movement have been channeled into bids for more
traditional political power. Second, there has been a resurgence in
attempts to foster economic development in the black community,
whether through local entrepre neurial efforts, increased hiring of
black contractors and corporate managers, or Buy Black campaigns.
Third, and perhaps least publicized, has been grass-roots community
organizing, which builds on indigenous leadership and direct action.
Proponents of electoral politics and economic development strategies
can point to substantial accomplishments in the past 10 years. An
increase in the number of black public officials offers at least the
hope that government will be more responsive to inner-city
constituents. Economic development programs can provide structural
improvements and jobs to blighted communities.
In my view, however, neither approach offers lasting hope of real
change for the inner city unless undergirded by a systematic approach
to community organization. This is because the issues of the inner
city are more complex and deeply rooted than ever before. Blatant
discrimination has been replaced by institutional racism; problems
like teen pregnancy, gang involvement and drug abuse cannot be solved
by money alone. At the same time, as Professor William Julius Wilson
of the University of Chicago has pointed out, the inner city's
economy and its government support have declined, and middle-class
blacks are leaving the neighbor hoods they once helped to sustain.
Neither electoral politics nor a strategy of economic self-help and
internal development can by themselves respond to these new
challenges. The election of Harold Washington in Chicago or of
Richard Hatcher in Gary were not enough to bring jobs to inner-city
neighborhoods or cut a 50 percent drop-out rate in the schools,
although they did achieve an important symbolic effect. In fact, much-
needed black achievement in prominent city positions has put us in
the awkward position of administer ing underfunded systems neither
equipped nor eager to address the needs of the urban poor and being
forced to compromise their interests to more powerful demands from
other sectors.
Self-help strategies show similar limitations. Although both laudable
and necessary, they too often ignore the fact that without a stable
community, a well-educated population, an adequate infrastructure and
an informed and employed market, neither new nor well-established
compa nies will be willing to base themselves in the inner city and
still compete in the international marketplace. Moreover, such
approaches can and have become thinly veiled excuses for cutting back
on social programs, which are anathema to a conservative agenda.
In theory, community organizing provides a way to merge various
strategies for neighborhood empowerment. Organizing begins with the
premise that (1) the problems facing inner-city communities do not
result from a lack of effective solutions, but from a lack of power
to implement these solutions; (2) that the only way for communities
to build long-term power is by organizing people and money around a
common vision; and (3) that a viable organization can only be
achieved if a broadly based indigenous leadership and not one or
two charismatic leaders can knit together the diverse interests of
their local institutions.
This means bringing together churches, block clubs, parent groups and
any other institutions in a given community to pay dues, hire
organizers, conduct research, develop leadership, hold rallies and
education cam paigns, and begin drawing up plans on a whole range of
issues jobs, education, crime, etc. Once such a vehicle is formed,
it holds the power to make politicians, agencies and corporations
more responsive to commu nity needs. Equally important, it enables
people to break their crippling isolation from each other, to reshape
their mutual values and expectations and rediscover the possibilities
of acting collaboratively the prerequi sites of any successful self-
help initiative.
By using this approach, the Developing Communities Project and other
organizations in Chicago's inner city have achieved some impressive
results. Schools have been made more accountable-Job training
programs have been established; housing has been renovated and built;
city services have been provided; parks have been refurbished; and
crime and drug problems have been curtailed. Additionally, plain folk
have been able to access the levers of power, and a sophisticated
pool of local civic leadership has been developed.
But organizing the black community faces enormous problems as well.
One problem is the not entirely undeserved skepticism organizers face
in many communities. To a large degree, Chicago was the birthplace of
community organizing, and the urban landscape is littered with the
skeletons of previous efforts. Many of the best-intentioned members
of the community have bitter memories of such failures and are
reluctant to muster up renewed faith in the process.
A related problem involves the aforementioned exodus from the inner
city of financial resources, institutions, role models and jobs. Even
in areas that have not been completely devastated, most households
now stay afloat with two incomes. Traditionally, community organizing
has drawn support from women, who due to tradition and social
discrimination had the time and the inclination to participate in
what remains an essentially voluntary activity. Today the majority of
women in the black community work full time, many are the sole
parent, and all have to split themselves between work, raising
children, running a household and maintaining some semblance of a
personal life all of which makes voluntary activities lower on the
priority list. Additionally, the slow exodus of the black middle
class into the suburbs means that people shop in one neighborhood,
work in another, send their child to a school across town and go to
church someplace other than the place where they live. Such
geographical dispersion creates real problems in building a sense of
investment and common purpose in any particular neighborhood.
Finally community organizations and organizers are hampered by their
own dogmas about the style and substance of organizing. Most still
practice what Professor John McKnight of Northwestern University
calls a "consumer advocacy" approach, with a focus on wrestling
services and resources from the ouside powers that be. Few are
thinking of harnessing the internal productive capacities, both in
terms of money and people, that already exist in communities.
Our thinking about media and public relations is equally stunted when
compared to the high-powered direct mail and video approaches success
fully used by conservative organizations like the Moral Majority.
Most importantly, low salaries, the lack of quality training and ill-
defined possibilities for advancement discourage the most talented
young blacks from viewing organizing as a legitimate career option.
As long as our best and brightest youth see more opportunity in
climbing the corporate ladder-than in building the communities from
which they came, organizing will remain decidedly handicapped.
None of these problems is insurmountable. In Chicago, the Developing
Communities Project and other community organizations have pooled
resources to form cooperative think tanks like the Gamaliel
Foundation. These provide both a formal setting where experienced
organizers can rework old models to fit new realities and a healthy
environment for the recruitment and training of new organizers. At
the same time the leadership vacuum and disillusionment following the
death of Harold Washington have made both the media and people in the
neighborhoods more responsive to the new approaches community
organizing can provide.
Nowhere is the promise of organizing more apparent than in the
traditional black churches. Possessing tremendous financial
resources, membership and most importantly values and biblical
traditions that call for empowerment and liberation, the black church
is clearly a slumbering giant in the political and economic landscape
of cities like Chicago. A fierce independence among black pastors and
a preference for more traditional approaches to social involvement
(supporting candidates for office, providing shelters for the
homeless) have prevented the black church from bringing its full
weight to bear on the political, social and economic arenas of the city.
Over the past few years, however, more and more young and forward-
thinking pastors have begun to look at community organizations such
as the Developing Communities Project in the far south side and GREAT
in the Grand Boulevard area as a powerful tool for living the social
gospel, one which can educate and empower entire congregations and
not just serve as a platform for a few prophetic leaders. Should a
mere 50 prominent black churches, out of the thousands that exist in
cities like Chicago, decide to collaborate with a trained organizing
staff, enormous positive changes could be wrought in the education,
housing, employment and spirit of inner-city black communities,
changes that would send powerful ripples throughout the city.
In the meantime, organizers will continue to build on local
successes, learn from their numerous failures and recruit and train
their small but growing core of leadership mothers on welfare,
postal workers, CTA drivers and school teachers, all of whom have a
vision and memories of what communities can be. In fact, the answer
to the original question why organize? resides in these people.
In helping a group of housewives sit across the negotiating table
with the mayor of America's third largest city and hold their own, or
a retired steelworker stand before a TV camera and give voice to the
dreams he has for his grandchild's future, one discovers the most
significant and satisfying contribution organizing can make.
In return, organizing teaches as nothing else does the beauty and
strength of everyday people. Through the songs of the church and the
talk on the stoops, through the hundreds of individual stories of
coming up from the South and finding any job that would pay, of
raising families on threadbare budgets, of losing some children to
drugs and watching others earn degrees and land jobs their parents
could never aspire to it is through these stories and songs of
dashed hopes and powers of endurance, of ugliness and strife,
subtlety and laughter, that organizers can shape a sense of community
not only for others, but for themselves.
- end -
[bio] For three years Barack Obama was the director of Developing
Communities Project, an institutionally based community organization
on Chicago's far south side. He has also been a consultant and
instructor for the Gamaliel Foundation, an organizing institute
working throughout the Midwest. Currently he is studying law at
Harvard University.
above is from Chapter 4 from "After Alinsky: Community Organizing in
Illinois" ISBN: 0-9620873-3-5
First published in the August/ September 1988 Illinois Issues
[published by then-Sangamon State University, which is now the
University of Illinois at Springfield].
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