City Lit: Passive Progressive

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As the director of a foundation effort to spur comprehensive change in five poor neighborhoods across the country, I looked forward to reading Community Organizing: Building Social Capital as a Development Strategy. Strengthening social capital–the relationships among a neighborhood’s residents and institutions that engender action on community concerns–is essential.

The question is, how do you create social capital? I think organizing is both the most obvious and best answer. But many funders don’t share my certainty. While most funders working on comprehensive community development agree that organizing is as important as housing, social services, education and economic opportunity, there is disagreement about how organizing should work.

The book’s authors–Ross Gittel and Avis Vidal, academics at the University of New Hampshire and the Urban Institute respectively–favor the consensus organizing approach. Invented by Michael Eichler, consensus organizing brings people from poor neighborhoods together with powerful corporate players to work on issues that they all can agree on. This book focuses on how the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national intermediary that links investors with low-income neighborhoods, used the method as the centerpiece of its effort to create community development corporations in Little Rock, West Palm Beach and New Orleans.

The authors don’t make outsized claims for LISC’s demonstration project, but neither do they say how dismal the results were. With its history as a housing developer, LISC deserves kudos for focusing on organizing, and Eichler should be commended for adding a tool to the activist toolbox.

However, the book does more than endorse an unproven strategy; it denigrates one with an impressive track record. Traditional organizing, the authors contend, is too confrontational in the community development context, alienating the people you need to achieve change.

The book’s critique of organizing networks–it mentions the Industrial Areas Foundation and ACORN by name–is unfair and unsupported by the facts. “Although in the short run, benefits may be derived by a disempowered group through conflict organizing,” they write, “long-term conflictual organizing efforts could lead to social and political division, harm the ability of different groups to work together, limit the amount of funding and access to outside resources, and be detrimental to larger community and societal interests.”

The authors are either being inflammatory or don’t know what they’re talking about. In the Southwest, the IAF got drinking water into desperate barrios and today works with 150 public schools. Banks that ACORN fought for years over redlining are now major partners in its loan-counseling program. These aren’t short-term accomplishments. And the groups’ confrontational approach didn’t forever alienate government and the private sector.

Perhaps the authors perceive confrontation the way they do because they’ve never sat at a negotiating table. After all, if you as an individual confront a bank president and call him a racist, he probably won’t come help you paint over graffiti on a Saturday afternoon. But if you represent a powerful, cohesive organization, and confront that bank president over his institution’s policies, his reaction will be different.

This book’s message about consensus organizing could be dangerous. It’s likely to find a receptive audience among funders who, despite pronouncements about wanting to improve conditions for the poor, really are motivated by institutional self-interest. Consensus organizing lets them participate in community development without risking controversy. By presenting the ascendance of consensus organizing as a fait accompli, this book cuts off a much-needed debate.

I think funders must allow communities to choose their own issues and organizing approach. Anything else is manipulative. It’s especially bad when white outsiders dictate organizing methods to poor people of color who have good reason to feel disenfranchised and discriminated against.

Consensus organizing might work in middle-class neighborhoods or in places where a seasoned group wants to work in new ways. But in unorganized communities, people are likely to come together around injustices. Foundations are in a unique position to help organizers, though. they could prepare banks or government to be called on the carpet, promising to chip in resources if the community’s grievances are addressed.

In the growing field of comprehensive community initiatives, organizing has received less support than housing, social services and the like. That’s because funders see organizations like the IAF and ACORN as scary and uncontrollable. But that’s not a good enough reason to avoid working with them.

If the authors of this book were trying to make funders comfortable and position themselves as consultants to the field, they succeeded. If they wanted to spark real debate about the role of organizing in building social capital, they failed, and did a disservice to those of us who take the issue seriously.

Garland Yates manages the Annie E, Casey Foundation’s Rebuilding Communities Initiative.