City Lit: Just Renew It

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It happened to movies, magazines, and fashion. It was only a matter of time before someone got nostalgic for 1970s social policy. “It was rare to see people sleeping in doorways. Sweatshops were read about only in history books,” writes Randy Shaw. “President Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act. This…is America in the 1970s, when social and economic injustices were still widespread but the nation was moving toward the equitable society envisioned in the ideals of its founders.”

The 1970s, Golden Age, doesn’t sound right somehow. Yet these lines are accurate. In the 1970s, strengthening neighborhoods was a front-burner issue. The New York Times and the newsweeklies routinely ran articles with headlines like “Here Come the Ethnics” and “Activist Neighborhood Groups are Becoming a New Political Force.” The lecture circuit buzzed with theories on the “death of the cities” and how to keep them alive. President Jimmy Carter even appointed a commission to investigate the state of neighborhoods. (Its recommendations, released toward the end of his term, were never acted upon.)

But urban America’s problems fell off the national agenda as the climate for activism changed. Community development organizations focused on local issues and learned to influence national policy by relying on lobbyists and playing by the rules. Fewer and fewer people stood up for neighborhoods–and rollbacks of social policies and cutbacks in funding hit cities hard.

Shaw says–and he’s right–that neighborhood issues can top the national agenda again. As the head of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Coalition, he’s in a good position to see both the need and the potential for a movement revival. Starting with anti-sweatshop work, Shaw looks at the activist movements that rippled through the U.S. in recent years. He outlines how organized people took on organized money–i.e., the Nike corporation–transforming the company’s image from sneaker king to demon taskmaster of starving Asian children.

In another case study, the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) takes on bridal gown maker Jessica McClintock for running domestic sweatshops. Shaw also looks at campaigns against the Pentagon and the successful push by membership-based environmental organizations, particularly the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) and the Sierra Club, to get Congress to pass tougher Clean Air Act standards in 1997.

Housing, jobs and education don’t get the national play these campaigns did. Disarmament, ecology and Third World issues are the “sexy” topics in the media and on college campuses for now. But Shaw is right that community-based organizations still need to coordinate advocacy on a national level; that could mean marches on Washington to roll back the worst provisions of welfare reform, pressing Congress to restore funding for tenant buyouts of HUD-subsidized housing or pushing the new national mega-banks to pay attention to urban neighborhoods.

The anti-Nike folks, the PIRGs and other recent success stories share certain essential elements that Shaw would like to see community organizations adopt. One is a sense of shared objectives no matter where you live–a member of MassPIRG in Massachusetts works off the same agenda as a member of OSPIRG in Oregon when it comes to enhancing the Clean Air Act. Other key elements include media savvy and focus on a single, galvanizing national issue. Don’t just aggressively market local successes, Shaw advises; keep the focus national by providing regular analyses of what’s going on with housing and other community development issues in Washington.

Shaw’s idea is like globalism for good guys. If corporations can draw the world closer together, then groups working on social justice ought to be able to work together at the national level, too.

Many groups capable of advocacy work don’t do it, Shaw finds, out of fear or misunderstanding. When he surveyed executive directors of San Francisco community organizations, Shaw found that respondents wanted, at least in theory, to do more advocacy but either didn’t know what to do or believed that being a nonprofit barred them from doing it. Lack of familiarity with IRS rules was common, but Shaw sets them straight: Depending on the budget and size of their agencies, each respondent could easily devote up to $25,000 a year to advocate nationally. Multiplied over thousands of groups nationwide, that could create a significant budget to fund social-change projects.

More effective organizing on bank mergers, housing policy, and other national issues would transform the climate for local organizing. That would mean more victories–and make it a whole lot easier for community-based advocates to achieve the high-minded goals of their mission statements.

Gordon Mayer works at National Training and Information Center, a Chicago-based resource center for grassroots organizing.