Sunday, July 18, 2010

It's not the heat, it's the humility

"In consensus organizing, the major distinguishing features are the preference of a consensus building approach over conflict, and the creation of strategic partnerships built around mutual self-interest among members of internal neighborhood resources, as well as individuals who represent powerful external interests that can provide valuable resources for community change" (Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009, p. xxi).
So, if we try to avoid conflict, are we selling out?
Not necessarily. Sometimes consensus can be gained and sometimes a consensus tack toward large coalition can create a new power that can itself present such an overwhelming presence that conflict melts away.
Sometimes consensus organizing is the smartest way to make gains and sometimes it sacrifices too many principles.
For example, Obama (pictured here teaching about community organizing) and the Democrats tried consensus as they worked on health care reform. The Republicans stonewalled and sabotaged each and every hour of every day of every effort put forth.
Many Ds, Obama included, folded up their principles, if indeed they actually had them to begin with, and the final result made no one happy except the insurance corporations, naturally. Indeed, corporate power seems to have become the only sacrosanct sector of our society. The insurance industry gained some 23 million new paying customers as a result of that 'reform'. With reform like that, who needs corruption?
On the other hand, striving for consensus and building a serious coalition is a relatively low cost, fast track to power. My friend Jo Ann Bowman, (pictured) for example, is a fighter for the rights of the dispossessed; you will find her accompanying the poorest of the poor, those recently from incarceration, the ones who are marginalized and disenfranchised--and she will draw them in. Then she'll volunteer to serve on boards for non profits that serve the community and she will help steer them into strategic partnerships that will bring together people of different colors, disparate financial strata, and various separate but interlocking interests. She weaves together powerful and multicultural groups who achieve goals, build community and succeed in helping people get livelihoods and political clout.
If more movement organizers would learn when to make partnerships and when to initiate and escalate conflict, they would do far better. Instead, you see some who avoid conflict even when it means giving away the ethical store and some who engage in conflict at the drop of a hat.
Jo Ann Bowman is a model for those who not only know how to choose a battle, but how to bring the largest force to the field of contest. She's modest and she speaks out publicly, but works so hard behind the scenes that her support is lined up when she speaks. While she is giving human agency to those who are disregarded, she is also working with the external powers to help convince them to assist--powers like the Democratic party, large foundation funders, and top elected officials. When she's ready, it all works to put a serious set of pincer pressures on the social structures that need to change.
Being a community organizer is not rocket science--it's much harder than that, at least to do it right. Rockets answer to math and metalurgy, and straightforward power equations, calculus and trajectory. Doing an excellent job organizing for nonviolent social change involves the infinitely complex human community. Watch the best ones. They speak in favor of the vulnerable and do not just empower themselves; they get the community in touch with the power they never knew they had.
Ohmer, Mary L. & DeMasi, Karen (2009). Consensus organizing: A community development workbook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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