City Lit: A Taste of Power

Print More

You gotta love organizers’ stories. Tales of tenants standing up to lousy landlords, communities picketing irresponsible public officials, people using creative tactics to shine light on injustices previously ignored. As a one-time professional organizer who’s stayed involved in community organizations, I’m particularly fond of them. Such stories speak of bravery triumphing over stupidity and venality, justice triumphing over entrenched power. They show us it’s possible for organized communities to exercise power, and they encourage us to keep fighting when things get tough.

Mike Gecan tells some great organizer’s stories in his new book, Going Public. Gecan has been an organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) for more than 25 years. A national organizing network, IAF’s modus operandus is organizing church congregations to work together for the empowerment and improvement of their communities. IAF, and its East Brooklyn Congregations in particular, is famous for its Nehemiah housing plan, which built 3,000 single-family, low-cost homes on large tracts of city-owned land in Brooklyn. Perhaps the most wonderfully outrageous story in the book is that of IAF bringing an entire Nehemiah house on a flatbed truck to the Gramercy Park offices of the New York State Democratic Party to shame presidential candidate Al Gore, who had refused to meet with IAF.

But Gecan intends to do more than tell stories. He says he wants to encourage and guide others to “play their rightful role and claim their rightful places in the public arena of our nation,” as members of IAF organizations around the country have done. Many of us, Gecan says, “just don’t know where to sign up, or how to start. This book is about how to do just that.”

Gecan’s stories engage and inspire, but the book falls short in showing people “how to do just that.” To build power organizations, he maintains, people need to develop four basic habits: the habits of “relating, action, organizing, and reflection.” Yet while Gecan uses the word “power” frequently in his book, he never clearly explains exactly how these four habits build it. Given his frequent claims that IAF’s focus is not on building houses, but on “building power organizations,” Gecan offers surprisingly little reflection on the nature of power itself.

_______

How do community organizations get power? Gecan tells the story of one of East Brooklyn Congregations’ early actions as an illustration. Betsy Head Park and Pool in Brooklyn had long been closed for renovations, and although most of the project’s budget had been spent, the community was no closer to getting its park back. East Brooklyn Congregations leaders–volunteers from the community who took on a leadership role within the organization–researched the situation and called a meeting with the city’s director of major construction projects. They explained who they were and what they had learned, and then the meeting’s chair, Alice McCollum, asked the question: “When do you expect to complete the renovation of Betsy Head Park and Pool?”

Before the meeting, the group had anticipated that city officials would try to distract them from this central question. They agreed that in response to distractions, McCollum would simply restate the question. So when the city’s construction director congratulated them for coming, saying, “This is really democracy in action. This is something Thomas Jefferson would appreciate and applaud,” McCollum repeated, “When do you expect to complete the renovation of Betsy Head Park and Pool?” As McCollum continued to repeat the question, the director became increasingly agitated and upset, until he was screaming at the calm, quiet Brooklynites. They left with their question unanswered, but within months, they celebrated the grand re-opening of the park.

How did East Brooklyn Congregations accomplish this? What power did they have in this situation? Gecan tells us we have power through our relationships, and that East Brooklyn leaders planned their action in part to introduce themselves and their organization to some of the city’s power players. But clearly their relationship with that city official was just beginning in that meeting; it grew and became useful when they congratulated him on finishing the park. This story is an example of what we might call the power of shame–no one likes to be exposed as doing a bad job. But how do you take shame and turn it into a productive relationship? Gecan, with 20 years experience as an organizer, surely has some thoughts on this question, but he doesn’t share them.

Perhaps the most intriguing story, told at length in a chapter entitled “Ambiguity, Reciprocity, Victory,” is that of East Brooklyn Congregations’ relationship with Rudolph Giuliani. The group first sought U.S. Attorney Giuliani’s assistance in handling a shakedown from a construction union, and their good relationship continued as Giuliani became mayor. When East Brooklyn Congregations won a living wage for city contractors’ employees, however, the mayor forbade commissioners to meet with IAF, and his housing commissioner froze the funding for Nehemiah housing.

When Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by police officers, Gecan writes, the IAF organizations in New York City (known as Metro IAF) chose not to participate in public protests, but instead requested a private meeting with the mayor. At that meeting, the mayor agreed to reestablish IAF’s access to his administration. They had another difficult meeting following Patrick Dorismond’s death. Gecan reports some tangible gains from the renewed relationship, and some less tangible ones; in the weeks after the Dorismond meeting, Gecan says, Giuliani “seemed to moderate his tone and to try to identify more with the entire community.”

The story is indeed an ambiguous one. It’s clear that Giuliani and IAF both had something to gain in their initial relationship; IAF needed to be protected from labor racketeers, and Giuliani was making a career out of prosecuting such people. But Gecan never explains why the mayor chose to meet with them after Diallo’s shooting. What was in it for him? Did they offer him anything, or did he simply perceive a benefit, at that point, in renewing a relationship? For Metro IAF, it was an opportunity to once again work with the mayor and his commissioners, to see funding restored for its housing development projects and to encourage greater minority recruitment in the NYPD. But Gecan doesn’t tell us why the mayor went for it. He even absolves the mayor of responsibility for holding back funding for 700 Nehemiah homes in Spring Creek, Brooklyn–it was the mayor’s housing commissioner, he says, who blocked the project. This seems disingenuous. Gecan is leaving out some part of the story, and that prevents us from understanding the use of power in this situation.

_______

Gecan contrasts the Betsy Head Park action with that of a small band of global justice activists who staged an action in front of the midtown offices of Fidelity Capital. “They writhed on the sidewalk,” he writes, “while a graying demonstrator pounded a drum and a young woman harangued the passing crowd” to “save the U’Wa Tribe.” This was, Gecan tells us, “not an action at all, but a reenactment,” an “odd attempt to recreate the pain of a tribe somewhere in South America.”

Gecan says that East Brooklyn Congregations organized its first actions to show that it was “not just another group, but a different kind of group.” Every mention of another group’s meeting or action is used as an example of the dysfunctionality that reigns outside of IAF. He derisively tells us of a meeting in a suburban town to plan the town’s center: After sitting through 90 minutes of the poorly organized meeting, Gecan asked how long the group had been discussing “library expansion and these other things.” Twenty-seven years, he’s told. We can almost hear him snort in disgust.

At great pains to distinguish IAF from the global justice activists, from housing organizations and from the fuzzy-headed suburbanites at that meeting, Gecan never compares IAF to other community organizations that develop leadership, build power and win important things for their communities. The habits of relating, action, organization and reflection would be familiar to community organizers outside the IAF network, although perhaps in different forms in different organizations. Without an explanation of how using those habits builds power, Gecan encourages the recreation of IAF’s forms without an understanding of the underlying strategy.

It’s not often that someone with more than 20 years of organizing experience, and lots of victories under his belt, sits down and writes a book about it. And Gecan is a good storyteller. So it’s disappointing that he doesn’t share any trade secrets here. The book’s intended audience appears to be the solid citizens who haven’t figured out a way to “go public.” They’ll probably find this book inspiring, but they’ll have to keep looking for guidance on how to do it.

A political science professor at Manhattan College, Margaret Groarke has been active in the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition since 1985.