Thursday, July 11, 2013

Flexibility, appropriate and not-so

Most community organizers are flexible, using adaptive management and iterative techniques, approaching communities with an open-minded sense of needs, capacities, and changing contexts. We must try to keep track of how greater social, political, and economic forces operate to change the organizing environment.

This isn't the same as a moral flexibility that allows any conduct seemingly in favor in any particular community. Dr. King didn't take a poll to find out who liked armed rebellion, who preferred bricks and bats, and who might choose nonviolence. Gandhi didn't send out SurveyMonkey email blasts to check on methods of fighting oppression. Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez didn't run focus groups to determine if armed enforcers might help or hurt. They all made some absolute choices and tried to sell them to the community.

Absolute choices should be rare for the best community organizer. Choosing nonviolence is almost the only absolute I would suggest. Some communities might want to legalize all drugs with the hope that the damage would fall away, as Jerry Garcia used to claim. Others might want to organize to make their neighborhoods drug-free. Is it up to the community organizer to choose what the neighbors should want? Many issues are far more nuanced than we originally assume. A party-line approach to what others should prefer is usually a poor choice. Should a woman refuse to help defend sex workers who operate within the law but who are being victimized by roving bands of teen boys who lurk and attack dancers as they leave nightclubs? Should an Indian country organizer snub tribal members who work at a casino and want to organize collective bargaining? Of course we can all make those hard choices for ourselves, but if we make too many we can come off as insufferably imperious and arrogant. Sticking to our nonviolent guns, so to speak, is much easier, I believe, when we follow the advice of most community organizers and avoid the appearance of Morality Judge.

Consensus organizers Mary Ohmer and Karen DeMasi do tell us to be aware of context as we begin to work in communities (2009, p. 28). Keeping in mind the shifting economic sands and what that does to the sensibilities in a community is crucial. The US is becoming more and more the Land of Unequal Opportunity as our income disparity--known as the gini coefficient--grows to record levels and remains the highest in the industrialized world. We reward the profiteers and punish the workers 'better' than any other 'developed' nation. What a distinction.

How does that affect our relationships in communities? It's tricky. On the one hand, it makes people afraid to rock the boat, to lose their grip on a job that is seeming increasingly precarious and precious. On the other hand, as people do lose jobs--and lose everything else in a cascade of misfortune, from homes to health care to vehicles to status--people become willing to get active if they believe someone can help them regain their lives. The campaigns that matter to people right now are the campaigns that will stand a chance for success, even if we wonder about them. Did Dr. King really care about bus seating? He had a car. He was raised middle-class. He could have chosen to tell his community to organize around a 'bigger' issue that 'really mattered.' But he stuck with what was important to that community in that moment and it launched a decade of nonviolent campaigns that gained more and more for the broader and broader community, changing our entire national history.

The best organizers don't come in with either an agenda or an attitude of knowing best. Do residents perceive violence as their primary problem? If so, do you help them bring in more police or do you help them organize their own interventions? The correct answer is found not by prescription but by listening and helping to identify capacity (Ohmer, Warner, & Beck, 2010). Low-income neighborhoods are frequently the targets of outside helpers, nongovernmental organizations who set up shop to fix problems. This is great--when it's done with humility and inquiry rather than a patronizing control. Listening to many views helps inform the design of a strategy that can win.

All these basic principles go to the heart of conflict management; showing respect is the first and most important step in each case. From there it's much easier. Being a smartypants is not about arriving with the answers, but showing up with the questions and commitment. Then you choose a goal, then, says Gandhi, they ignore you, laugh at you, fight you, and finally you win.

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

OHMER, M. L., WARNER, B. D., & BECK, E. (2010). Preventing Violence in Low-Income Communities: Facilitating Residents' Ability to Intervene in Neighborhood Problems. Journal Of Sociology & Social Welfare, 37(2), 161-181. 

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