Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The lay of the land

Community organizers begin their work by conducting a thorough analysis of the targeted neighborhood, where they analyze patterns of informal relationships, avenues of communication, support networks, personal and political allegiances, and sources of conflict.
--Mary Ohmer & Karen DeMasi (2009, p. 131)
My friend Walter (pictured with Frank Koehn) was a good community organizer. Not perfect, but very good. He was also a charismatic public speaker, which sometimes greatly amplified his effective organizing and sometimes interfered with it (when he was occasionally angry his speeches caused some to draw back, as explained in the health care debate context by consensus organizer Michael Eichler). One thing he did remarkably well was develop and upkeep relationships, the hallmark of the best consensus organizers.

Walter was Red Cliff Anishinabe, from a reservation on a peninsula into Gitchii Guumi, Lake Superior, a peninsula geologically connected to the Apostle Islands, with a beautiful bedrock of red sandstone, easily carved by the power of the ice and water of the sweetwater sea. Walter was an artist, a writer, and a speaker, coming to his political work with all those forms of power arrayed around him. His sensibilities were tuned to protecting what was left because it was beautiful, valuable, and was the legacy of the Creator. 

The eye of an artist serving the needs of the community harnesses special powers. Some evoke that protectiveness that can help people decide to commit beyond reason because it evokes prospect theory. That is, we can be drawn into a state of fearing loss more than excited by gain, and we can be convinced by a brilliant community organizer that sacrificing something ourselves in the quest to preserve the best of our community--its beauty, its wholesomeness, its children, its life-sustaining essence--is a worthy bargain. Helen Caldicott did that for many people on an international basis, convincing us that our risks in opposing nuclear weapons were worthwhile. Walter did that for many of us in the far north of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, convincing us that the Original People have a sacred trust relationship to the land, that we all need to learn that, and that the air, waters and land are worth defending.

Part of the power of the charismatic is the ability to make us feel acknowledged and cared for, as though the power of the charismatic is all focused on us, even as individuals. That relational style can change lives, alter directions, deepen commitment and involvement. Once, back in the early 1980s, sitting in my jail cell for a few weeks for joining five others in climbing a fence at a navy nuclear command center, I wrote a piece making the connections between nuclear weapons and Third World poverty. After I was out, Walter asked me out for coffee. He said, "I read your piece. You know you made me cry." Any writer knows that if you hear a comment like that you will love that person at some level forever. Walter's been gone for 13 years and I still love the guy. He took that gift and made us all believe that we were real, that we were important, that our gifts were appreciated, and that he noticed and evaluated it all. 

Community organizing is a demanding profession and a challenge for an activist. Consensus organizing--the inclusion of disparate and not necessarily obvious partners--is the trickiest, but the most effective. I'm still learning from those I've known and will never be a master, but it is how we connect and pull together, so it is worthy and is the alternative to living in a world solely organized from the top down, a world of victims instead of players. Walter was a player and helped us all lace up and take the field with him. This is the necessity of good community organizing.


Ohmer, Mary L. & DeMasi, Karen (2009). Consensus organizing: A community development workbook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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