Monday, July 08, 2013

Organizing as if we are all equal

There are many schools of community organizing. Barack Obama comes originally out of the Saul Alinsky mold in Chicago, and Alinsky taught us all a great deal. James Lawson came out of the Mohandas Gandhi model, having spent three years in India studying that before coming back to the US in 1959 to help strategize the next round of advances for the Civil Rights movement. Mary Ohmer and Karen DeMasi (2009) write about consensus organizing, which might almost be a meld between all the paradigms. Like Obama and Alinsky, they suggest learning about the hidden strengths of any community in order to learn the potential capacities. Like Lawson and Gandhi, they insist that the opponents not be objectified, ridiculed, or treated like enemies.

Thus, a good consensus organizer would not worry so much about how to bring down the one percent, but would rather seek to unite everyone. When a relatively powerless community can unite, it can begin to flex its political, social, and economic muscle, and that can, at times, even be funded by foundations. When the elites not only see that, but begin to see their self-interest in introducing reform in order to better partner rather than self-destruct, consensus organizing can bring victories much faster and more sustainably.
The counter-argument is that partnering with elites, with owners, with the rich, with those in political power, is selling out and joining forces to benefit a co-opted sector of the rest of us at the expense of justice and of the victims. This argument must indeed be a part of the calculus and must be satisfied and well met in order for consensus organizing to be legitimate in any ethical or justice-related sense. If the iron workers union partners with the owners to make sure that their relatively few high-paid jobs continue to exist at the expense of immigrants, of a particular ethnic background, or of those who simply want to work and don't have iron worker skills, then that level of consensus is a false consensus because it joins a sector of average folks to the elite in a divide-and-conquer scheme that benefits the elites first and a relatively small number of others second, while unfairly excluding others. Real consensus involves all stakeholders.

A permutation of consensus organizing is sometimes mandated consensus-based decision-making, giving community groups more or less equal footing with industry and government (Pellows, 1999). CBDM can of course be quite equal indeed, if done correctly, or may be no more equal than the justice system is now. If industry comes to negotiations with full-color flip charts, brochures, hired expert testimony and junkets for the deciders, that CBDM process is inherently asymmetrical and divisive. In many quarters of the environmental activist world, this is exactly what has given consensus a number of black eyes for about 25-30 years.

This is not to suggest that consensus organizing cannot proceed without creating utopia, but it is to say that there is a bell curve of appropriate partnership between the community in question and powerful elite actors. Getting a fat bank loan to create many jobs for a community is a Good Partnership when the only strings are financial payback and nothing else. Getting a fat bank loan to create some organization that will benefit a few people in the community and exclude strong credit unions from opening shop in the community is a poor process not worthy of the name consensus organizing.

In short, there is no substitute for robust process, for metrics of justice, for transparency, and for reduction of absolutes. For all of us who aspire to be good community organizers, I might suggest one absolute, physical nonviolence, and one absolute aspirational, a just and fair set of standards. Coming to an understanding of what physical nonviolence is, is usually relatively easy. The just and fair set of standards is a much more complex set of considerations that are themselves primarily in existence to prevent structural violence, that is, the violence of unjust institutions, political structures, economic systems, and cultural norms. This is what takes so very much care and a unique combination of robust, tough, challenging yet tenderly respectful community conversations. That public discourse may be the hardest work of all, but it leads to a self-organized community in ethical, transparent partnerships with external parties who control many resources needed by and usable by the community.


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

Pellow, D. N. (1999). Negotiation and Confrontation: Environmental Policymaking Through Consensus. Society & Natural Resources, 12(3), 189-203. doi:10.1080/089419299279696


Kelly said...

Good job, Tom, thanks.

Kelly said...

Good job, Tom, thanks.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Thanks, Kelly. Now if everyone could learn the Gandhi-Lawson way...