Why do we experience such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society? Why is it beyond us to conceive a different set of arrangements to our common advantage? . . . . Our disability is discursive: we simply do not know how to talk about these things any more.
—Tony Judt, Ill Fares The Land (2010)
After forty-three years of organizing, I stepped down as co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) six months ago.
When I started in 1976, I had two big questions about organizing. The first was whether one could have a normal family life while organizing professionally. The second was whether organizing could really work. Could it have impact that lasted and that reached significant scale? Thankfully, over the course of my career I found the answers were yes to both: I was able to have a full family life, and our organizations figured out how to create real change that could be sustained over decades and across regions.
I saw firsthand the extraordinary courage of African American civil rights leaders in Chicago, but I also saw the power of the Cook County Democratic machine.
But I didn’t anticipate a development that troubles me as I shift gears: that the large-scale and long-lasting impact of our organizations would not be recognized by the mainstream media or by the vast majority of academics and analysts who study and document these trends. Howard Zinn once lamented, “The obliteration of people’s movements from history is one of the fine arts of American culture.” Apparently, longer-lasting people’s organizations are overlooked as well.
Today you could drive all around New York, or San Antonio, or Washington, D.C., and a dozen other places and not realize that the streets and sewers beneath you, the thousands of homes along the avenues, the new schools rising in formerly forlorn neighborhoods, the park along the East River, the person on the bus or subway sitting beside you going to work from his or her affordable home or apartment—all that and more were imagined, designed, fought for, delivered, and maintained over decades by a form of organization that receives little or no recognition.
That neglect is due, I think, to the approach to organizing that we took—rooted in local institutions, focused on real leaders instead of media darlings, proudly pragmatic and non-ideological, focused on a few major issues not a long litmus test of policy positions. Observers of social movement are more typically captured by the polarizations that they often decry, but nonetheless amplify and accelerate: free market libertarianism versus socialism or progressivism, conservative Republicans versus liberal Democrats, Trump versus Pelosi.
So, as I transition into my new role as senior advisor, still doing on-the-ground organizing, I want to tell the real story of social change: how it happens, who creates and implements it, and what foundational work allows, for example, a job training strategy to succeed, a local library to innovate and flourish, a series of neighborhoods to be rebuilt by and for the people who already live in and near them. The appetite for change, the hunger for improvement, is still strong, but the clarity about how to organize effectively is not.
When I started at the IAF my worries about impact were justified. The IAF was a small and struggling experiment in organizing, building fragile toeholds in Texas, Chicago, New York, and Baltimore. In the 1970s we had a handful of young organizers—most of us flying by the seats of our pants. Today the IAF has strong and muscular organizations in twenty-three states and the District of Columbia. It also has a range of working relationships with organizing efforts in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. And we have about 250 well-trained professional staff of all ages and levels of experience and literally tens of thousands of sharp and savvy volunteer leaders engaged in our efforts.
The calculus of power isn’t defined by hits or clicks or tweets. It is measured in relationships and meaningful reactions over time.
In 1976 we were what would now be called a “start-up.” We weren’t trying to create another organization. We were experimenting and testing the feasibility of a new kind of organization at a time when two other organizational types—local civic groups and broader national issue-based movements— were dominant. I started organizing as a student who first observed and then participated in some of the actions of the civil rights movement in Chicago. I saw firsthand the extraordinary faith and courage of African American deacons and deaconesses, of young black clergy, and of Roman Catholic priests and nuns, who walked a gauntlet of white-hot hate in housing marches on the southwest side. Those leaders remain heroes and heroines to me to this day. But I also saw the power of the Cook County Democratic machine and its paid clergy apologists—power that blunted the impact of civil-rights activists and sent them out of the city bruised and partially defeated. I also worked in two local civic efforts in Chicago—the Contract Buyers League in an African American community known as Lawndale, the other a small neighborhood association in a white ethnic community a few miles away. Each had some impact.
The Contract Buyers League successfully exposed the habits and abuses of the predatory lenders of that era—securing an average $14,000 payment for each homeowner who had been exploited. The Northeast Austin Organization spearheaded, with other groups, the attempt to end the practice of redlining by local banks and savings and loans—the first step in the effort that led to the creation of the Community Reinvestment Act. In spite of those successes, the impact was limited; both the African American neighborhoods affected by contract selling and the adjacent white ethnic neighborhoods crippled by redlining continued to decline; and the overall arrangements of power and exploitation remained largely unfazed. A new book by Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit, does an extraordinary job of documenting the structural racial bias baked into the nation’s real estate practices. She details the damage done by those practices on generations of working-class African Americans seeking to live a better life in safer neighborhoods. She honors the attempts of some communities to counter these trends, but concludes that they were no match for the power of the real estate industry and the political machines that supported it and benefited it.
Chastened by what we believed to be the limits of these two options, senior IAF organizers at the time developed a training session that compared civics, movements, and this new experiment that we gave a clunky name: “institutionally-based power organization.” When we did that session, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, all hell would break loose. Those devoted to local civic efforts would accuse us of ignoring the wishes and priorities of block clubs, homeowners associations, and the like. Those committed to the anti-war and other movements would say that we had sold out—giving up on their strategy of sweeping (often national or even international) change for our vague process of power building that required years of painstaking ground work before the first public action even took place. Those were exciting, heated, raucous sessions. (The only thing that would get people more worked up was when we banned smoking from our meetings!)
Because we built deep and powerful bases in cities and counties, we were eventually able to target and tackle a series of issues that everyone thought were intractable.
Four decades later, I am certain that the IAF made a good bet. Because we built deep and powerful bases in cities and counties; because we sought out and engaged the institutions that still made sense to people in those places—churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, libraries, other not-for-profits, labor locals, and more; and because we created a culture of high-powered leadership training and development for our small but growing professional staff and large and expanding teams of local leaders, we were eventually able to target and tackle a series of issues that everyone thought were intractable. And they were intractable if your starting point was a small community of a few hundred homes or apartments—which was the reality for most civic efforts. And they were intractable if your movement insisted on the non-negotiable demand of immediate and total change—a demand that often failed to untie each knotty issue and wore out and confounded activists.
In 1983, for example, we decided to try to rebuild the abandoned, burnt-out, and most desperate sections of East Brooklyn. We had a very powerful local organization in place by then called East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC). Its leaders believed that they could do something unprecedented— rebuild a community by and for the people who already lived there. They understood that neither the market, nor the state would ever make things fair for black homeowners. So they created the kind of third sector power organization that would—and did.
Just two weeks ago I was working with a talented young organizer; we met in a home that EBC built in 1986, in Brownsville, with a woman who was the original buyer. It’s a modest brick townhouse that has stood the test of time. But, more importantly, its owner, retired comfortably, was sitting in a home that she and her late husband had paid off I full, enjoying a retirement that included travel and miniature golf. She is one of almost 5,000 such homeowners (and another several thousand renters) in east Brooklyn. The average increase in equity for each buyer has been more than $200,000. That translates into nearly $1 billion of equity in the wallets and savings accounts of new African American and Hispanic homeowners, and many more billions in increased equity for the local owners of homes and apartment buildings in their surrounding area. If someone had told me in the 1980s that it would take thirty-five years, I am not sure I ever would have started. But having been part of the effort, I can say with confidence that I would start tomorrow with another city that is open to this, even if it takes thirty-five more years. I wish Taylor had included more consideration in her book of the efforts of East Brooklyn Congregations and others that created conditions on the ground for black homeowners to thrive.
The notion that communities no longer have institutions, or have only crippled institutions, is false at best, racist at worst.
Another success: in the late 1990s, our Illinois affiliates led by United Power for Action and Justice focused on access to health care, becoming the nation’s first state to require all insurance companies doing business in the state to keep young adults on their parent’s insurance policies until they had their own or turned twenty-seven or thirty years old. The effort expanded health coverage to more than 900,000 Illinois residents through an effort called Kids Care and eventually, Family Care. The organizer who helped craft that effort, Cheri Andes, moved to Boston, where our affiliate, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization worked with Republican Governor Mitt Romney and a Democratic legislature to pass the country’s first statewide health coverage plan in 2006—parts of which informed the Affordable Care Act several years later. Just last week, more than 800 leaders in Boston met to push for controls on the high cost of pharmaceuticals there.
Full article and Source: The Story of Social Change | Boston Review