query: graduate degree in organizing

colist at comm-org.utoledo.edu colist at comm-org.utoledo.edu
Wed Jul 21 17:11:24 CDT 2004


[Doug responds to Bill, also addressing the questions brought up in Al's 
July 10 message.  Charles also responds to Bill.]

 From: DougRHess at aol.com

"What’s not been noted is that graduate training, * when done 
properly,  *  with asterisks intended, is valuable for the simple reason
that it  improves the work. It makes the work more effective."

I'm surprised Bob said this, since I think several people have made
exactly  this point. Maybe this is one of those conversations where people
are all  expressing some degree of frustration with misunderstandings they
fear exist,  that which are not in fact held as widely as they believe. 

"First, and possibly foremost, graduate training exposes the student to a 
body of verified principles of how human beings operate, both 
individually and in groups. Not theories, not models, but demonstrated 
facts of human behavior, based upon multiple  empirical investigations.  "

I also have to disagree here. I am not aware that academics have 
settled many debates in theories of how people develop, grow, are 
socialized, act in  groups and movements, network, develop political 
opinions, etc. A good class (or  good readings on your own) can help 
you think better about these issues and  debunk some myths, and what 
not, but there are not always settled answers.  Nonetheless, I think 
there are many applications from empirical research (which, again, is all 
about theories and models) that students can apply to organizing,  but 
only if they have a teacher helping make that connection or are skilled  
enough to do it themselves. Having said that, there are many technical 
skills  courses now being offered (fundraising, management) that may 
appear to be all  practically based, but are still often based on practical 
wisdom/theory of other  practitioners as much as experience and much 
more than empirical research.  

I do, however, like Bob's list of what a good program needs. I am not  
yet convinced that a degree program is the best way to offer this to the 
largest  number of people who desire/need it. Degree programs limit 
location choices,  family choices, work and income choices. I would like 
to see if some distance  learning seminars or classes would be of 
interest. Another possibility is  the long retreat model that some 
distance programs that have been mentioned  used. Again, degree 
oriented should not be a requirement for entrance or even a  point of 
the program, just bring people in for a week of reading time, lecture,  
research and some technical practice (researching your community, 
geodata,  designing a campaign, etc.).  

"At the minimum, I think that ideal Academy would be fact-based,  
case-oriented, life-affirming, inspirational, and demonstrably effective."

Those aren't bad requirements for the content of some courses, but I think
 a curriculum should have in its base some quality courses that are less 
empirically driven. These focus on social and political theory and 
interpretation of historical events/biographies/movements. Several people
have  mentioned why this was/is important to them. 

Doug Hess
NVRA Project Director, Project Vote 
phone:  202-955-5869 cell: 202-276-4807
email: dougrhess at aol.com
postal mail: 2114  N Street, NW, Apt. 23
Washington, DC 20037

*****************************

From: Charles Heying <heyingc at pdx.edu>

I too have been somewhat surprised by the antipathy to academic 
training.  At Portland State University we have developed an 
undergraduate program which successfully integrates academic work 
with community based learning. We are now in the very early stages of 
discussion about a 5th year masters program that might have three 
tracks, (a) community organizing, (b) traditional community 
development (CDC type work) (c) social enterprise (social vision 
organizations that combine aspects of nonprofit and private).  

By our students comments, we have a very demanding curriculum 
especially because it requires extensive group work, concensus 
decisionmaking, detailed project planning connected to real work for 
communities.  Students engage in substantive and sometimes 
controversial projects and they seem to thrive on these challenges.  

And members of our faculty are involved in their communities as 
neighborhood activists and as issue organizers.  Portlands 
neighborhood organizations are a mixed lot but some are very 
politically active. Tonight our neighborhood association will decide 
whether it wants to oppose Ballot Measure 38, a measure that could gut 
Oregon's land use planning laws. While SEUL, the neighborhood 
coalition, and the city-wide neighborhood land use committee have 
taken a position in opposition, there are some at the neighborhood level 
who think we are getting too political.  It will be a testy meeting to fight 
this out and I will be fully engaged in the discussion.  

As an issue based activist, I just spent 2 years helping organize the 
effort to stop the city from burying our historic open water reservoirs 
that are the keystone features of two of our major public parks.  The 
decision to bury the reservoirs (at a cost of 200 million) was taken 
without public input and in reaction to a supposed terrorist threat. Our 
opposition was a case study in successful organizing with all the 
attendant problems of developing and maintaining a volunteer based 
effort. We found ourselves immersed in city and neighborhood politics, 
highly technical water infrastructure planning issues, international 
issues of water privatization and fighting an international private 
consulting company that had essentially captured our local water 
bureau.  In the end, we were successful in getting the council to reverse 
its decision and stop a planning juggernaut that wasted $4 million 
dollars in consultancy fees over the two years.  

And the reservoir battle became one of the signature public issues 
highlighting the current city council's lack of responsiveness to 
neighborhoods.  This has had an impact on the Mayoral campaign 
where an upstart neighborhood-friendly candidate, who refused to take 
contributions larger that $25, upset an incumbent council member who 
spent nearly $1 million in the primary.  If the challenger prevails in the 
general election, it will mark a significant shift in political direction for 
the city and a victory of citizens over special interests.  

My point is simple.  Its not either/or.  An academic can be fully engaged 
as a volunteer activist. The things I learned by being engaged have 
informed my teaching and they bring a level of credibility to what I do as 
an instructor.  But the reverse is also true.  What I learn in the 
classroom and as researcher also inform my activism and my academic 
training and credentials bring credibility to my work as an activist.  And 
programs that train persons for work in community development can 
also combine the best of both scholarship and activism.  

So I am surprised that very thoughtful folks have a sense that 
organizing can only be learned on the job and reject scholarly reflection 
and analysis.  I can hardly imagine one without the other.  

Then again, I am feeling good today because we have been victorious.  
Tommorrow, if things get reversed, I may be hip deep in nihilism.  

Charles

> 
> From:	"Bill Berkowitz" <Bill_Berkowitz at uml.edu>
> 
> In following the Co-List discussions about graduate training in
> community organizing, I have been surprised and taken aback by
> the badmouthing and robust antagonism toward graduate education
> found in many of the comments.  Some of this critique may be
> warranted, but much of it is not.  
> 
> So as someone whose professional work since the 1960’s has been
> evenly divided between local organizing and community development
> on the one hand, and university teaching on the other, including
> directing a graduate program in community change for several
> years, I feel motivated to weigh in.  
> 
> 
> Let’s readily acknowledge that (1) you can do great organizing
> without graduate training; (2) our best organizers to date have
> not had graduate organizing degrees; and (3) much of what it
> takes to be a successful organizer is learned on the street, or
> at least outside the traditional classroom. Compelling and
> unassailable truths, all of these.  
> 
> But graduate training in community organizing has compelling
> value as well. It has value in supplying credentials, in securing
> better salaries, in establishing career paths, and in gaining
> access to power, all of which have been noted in previous
> comments, but none of which is my point here.  What’s not been
> noted is that graduate training, * when done properly, *  with
> asterisks intended, is valuable for the simple reason that it
> improves the work. It makes the work more effective. Well-trained
> organizers are more likely to accomplish their goals, to get the
> job done, and to keep on keeping on.   
> 
> Why is this so?  
> 
> 
> First, and possibly foremost, graduate training exposes the
> student to a body of verified principles of how human beings
> operate, both individually and in groups. Not theories, not
> models, but demonstrated facts of human behavior, based upon
> multiple  empirical investigations. Any organizer will gain from
> learning how to apply principles of reinforcement; or how to make
> a message most persuasive; or how seating patterns will affect
> group dynamics; or what will motivate someone to join a group; or
> what leadership style will work best in a given situation.   
> 
> There are such verified principles, refined over generations, and
> a prospective organizer who ignores them limits his impact. You
> can learn them in the field, or on your own, but you can often
> learn them best in a program of systematic study. Will knowledge
> of these principles ensure success?  Would it were so. Will they
> make success more likely? Yes, they will.  
> 
> 
> Second, good graduate training promotes a more disciplined and
> thoughtful approach to the work. Flying by the seat of your pants
> is a wearing mode of travel. All of us appreciate planning, but
> how many times do we sit down and write out step-by-step action
> plans (even if they get changed in practice)? All of us pay
> homage to evaluation, but how many times do we put actual energy
> into evaluating our work systematically, and abiding by the
> consequences? All of us value facts, but how many times are we
> challenged to demonstrate, perhaps in writing, the factual basis
> behind our assertions?   
> 
> Graduate training done well obliges the student to be systematic
> and rigorous, in those respects and others. These are not the
> only organizing virtues, but they are virtues nonetheless, and
> we’re better off cultivating them. Ideally, such training carries
> over into the work outside the classroom. It becomes a life
> habit.  
> 
> 
> Third, proper graduate education nourishes the student
> personally; it helps sustain the work over the long haul. It
> gives you a broad community of support, one not always found at
> work, or within one’s own organization.  In graduate training,
> your supports come from diverse colleagues who’ve been there
> before, from those who’ve stood in your shoes, or those whose own
> shoes have gotten scuffed around elsewhere, but look, they are
> still striding forward.  
> 
> An organizer’s work can be lonely and hard. Many organizers quit,
> or lose the gleam. Finding peers to affirm you, as well as models
> to inspire you, can strengthen your effort and maintain your
> commitment over years or decades or a lifetime, which of course
> is what needs to be done.  
> 
> ***  
> 
> These are strong reasons, I think, for a prospective organizer to
> get graduate training in community organizing, over and above
> learning on the job or in short  workshops or courses. The work
> is worthy of a degree. Even at that, we’re only talking about one
> or two years of structured education, not signing your life away.
>  
> 
> Granted, some graduate education can be distancing and bloodless,
> dull as dirt. It can make you rue the day you plunked down your
> money and stood on a registration line.  But we mean graduate
> education  * when done properly, *  so we should be clear on what
> that involves. The answer could be a treatise in itself, yet I
> think we can specify some of the basic elements. Here are a
> dozen:  
> 
> 
> 1. The instructors should have practical organizing and community
> development experience.  
> 
> 2. The students should have some organizing background as well,
> so that they can learn from one another.   
> 
> 3. The classes should be small, to maximize such learning.  
> 
> 4. The local community should be closely tied to the program, so
> that both students and faculty can deepen their community
> connections, and so that the program itself can be influenced by
> community needs.  
> 
> 5. The curriculum should emphasize practical applications
> throughout, with field assignments and community-based projects
> being part of most courses.  
> 
> 6. The curriculum should teach proven principles of individual,
> group, and organizational behavior, and how they apply to
> everyday organizing and community change situations.  
> 
> 7. The curriculum should describe objective methods for studying
> community life, so that analyses and decisions are based on facts
> rather than speculations.  
> 
> 8. The curriculum should feature problem-oriented case studies
> and case examples of actual community situations, to complement
> and supplement more generalized instruction.  
> 
> 9. The program should draw upon the considerable number of on-
> line community development resources now available. [One of them
> is the Community Tool Box, which my colleagues and I have been
> developing over the last ten years, now with over 6000 text pages
> and growing. Check it out at ctb.ku.edu if you are not familiar
> with it.]  
> 
> 10. The program should explicitly teach about the personal
> qualities essential in outstanding community work – for such work
> draws upon the entire person, not just one’s technical skills.
> Those qualities can in fact be taught, or at the very least
> modeled and exemplified.  When we do so, we can inspire, and
> that’s half the battle or more.   
> 
> 11. The program should create a sense of community and solidarity
> among all those involved in it. It should walk the walk; it
> should model the community values  we desire in others.  
> 
> 12. Finally, the program should be evaluated, frequently and
> continuously, to make sure it is achieving its pre-established
> goals, and meeting the needs of its students and the larger
> constituencies it serves.  
> 
> 
> 
> This is a start. There’s much room for elaboration and
> improvement throughout.  I’d be especially interested in reader
> response to these guideposts, and in how they might be modified
> or expanded to help shape the development of organizing programs
> more generally.  In dreamier moments, I can also envision a small
> printed volume based upon these Co-List discussions, or even a
> face-to-face gathering of those wanting to advance graduate
> education in our field.   
> 
> To pose the issue more broadly, suppose we imagined an ideal 21st
> century Academy of Community Change, or call it what you will.
> What would that look like? At the minimum, I think that ideal
> Academy would be fact-based, case-oriented, life-affirming,
> inspirational, and demonstrably effective. It would respond to
> the objections that previous readers have raised. And it would
> prepare us to cope with the momentous issues we will surely be
> dealing with in the decades to come.   
> 
> Can we bring this vision about? What do you think?  
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
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