the failure of organizing

colist at colist at
Wed Nov 3 21:34:46 CST 2004


Your maybe-less-humble-than-angry-and-scared-moderator here.  It's the
day after, and I have been trying my best to just go about my work and
pretend that there was no election yesterday.  But no one will let me. 
All day I have been receiving messages either bemoaning the election of
George Bush or trying to find "bright spots" in this miserable
aftermath.  Eventually, I decided I had to either stop checking my
e-mail or let it rip.  Guess what I chose?

I promise you, however, that this is about community organizing.  Because
it fundamentally is.  It seems my reaction to this election is different
from most of my friends' and colleagues'.  I am not that bothered by
the re-election of George Bush, even if it was probably mostly the
result of out and out disenfranchisment engineered through the State of
Ohio Secretary of State's Office in collaboration with the Ohio
Republican party.  No, John Kerry, Mr.
I-oppose-abortion-but-support-choice, I-will-give-you-tax-cuts-too,
I-like-guns-as-much-as-the-next-guy, etc. etc. was hardly a choice worth
cheering for.  And I am almost relieved I don't have to live down the
embarassment I felt after I voted for Clinton the first time and vowed
to never compromise my principles again except that my wife, the love of
my life, said she would refuse to talk to me if I didn't vote for Kerry.

What bothers me most about this election is not that Kerry lost but that
hatred won.  Eleven states--even one of the blue ones--voted to outlaw
gays (might as well call it that) by overwhelming margins.  Why isn't
that the big headline?  And especially why isn't that what we are
talking about?  Because that is where we failed. And as much as I would
love to blame the Republican right for promoting hatred, it is much more
a failure of community organizing and community education. Elections
happen only every few years, and we organize for them for a few months
every few years, at most.  But the issues that drive campaigns go round
the clock, and hatred is one of the deepest issues we face.

What went wrong that community organizers can win an increase in the
minimum wage in Florida but they can't stop a gay ban in Oregon?  Or
Ohio, Or Michigan, or the eight other states where it passed?  Because
if our organizing was effective enough to have stopped the gay bans in
those states, we wouldn't have had to settle for a compromise candidate
to begin with.  So we need to understand this.

What I will say next is meant to provoke, to start a discussion.  Because
if we are going to stop things from getting even worse, we need to begin
now, rethinking not just our political organizing strategy but our
community organizing strategy.

Let's start with homophobia, one of the primary driving issues of this
election.  It brought out the right in droves, and wiped out whatever
gains had been made by the massive voter registration drives led by
community organizers and groups like MoveOn.Org.  You and I both know
that many of the people that community organizers and democratic
organizers brought out to vote were the same people who voted for gay
bans.  Here in Ohio, for example, at least 49% of the voters went for
Kerry (for all we know it was 51%), but only 38% opposed the gay ban. 
No wonder we needed a compromise candidate.

We all know that gay rights is one of those wedge issues in community
organizing.  And it points to one of the most severe weaknesses in our
community organizing models.  For faith-based organizers, the power of
religious ideology prevents even bringing the subject up except in a
very few progressive congregations.  And even for neighborhood-based
Alinsky-style organizers, the subject can split a community organization
faster than you can say 'failure.'  Every good organizer knows you
focus on the issues that everyone agrees on and that is how you build an
organization.  So organizers avoid the tough polarizing issues.  And
yet, those are the very issues that need to be confronted if we are
going to be able to run truly progressive candidates who will not have
to pretend to be conservatives (or actually are conservatives). 
Community organizers, who are working on the ground in those
communities, are the only people in the position to do the work. Only
when community organizers are able to build organizations on the basis
of not just narrow self-interest, but broad human rights principles,
will we stand a chance of turning the right wing tide.  Not until.  As
an example, one of the frightening findings of the exit polls from this
latest election disaster is the strong proportion of Latino/a voters who
chose Bush on the basis of conservative cultural values.

Accomplishing this requires a new model of organizing that combines issue
work with community-based education.  It requires broaching those issues
of reproductive rights, gay rights, women's rights, animal rights, and
others that may directly challenge the cultural values of the people
with whom we work. There are models out there--the Highlander popular
education process, learning circles, and other community education
strategies that respect community culture at the same time that they
challenge it--that we may be able to integrate with self-interest
community organizing.  We may be able to find ways to partially insulate
community education from on-the-ground organizing.

Ah, but you say, issues like gay rights are middle-class issues,
irrelevant to the poor and working class communities that community
organizers work in. And yet it is the taught hatred of gays that causes
the unemployed factory worker to vote against his class interest and
choose Bush.  Middle-class issues become poor and working class issues
when the right uses them to mobilize the poor and working classes.  So
*we* have to make them poor and working class issues too.

Us academics have a role to play in this.  Our work with organizers,
finding good accessible information to build community education
processes, can provide the support necessary and save the organizer's
time.  We can also put ourselves on the firing line in community
settings so the organizer doesn't have to.  But us academics have to
learn and practice a different form of pedagogy in those settings,
because community folks won't pretend the deference that our students
normally will.  Here is where organizers and academics need to work

So we have our work cut out for us--to build a progressive culture from
the ground-up, establish a community-based respect for human rights, and
help everyone understand the connections between the concrete issues and
the abstract ones.  Or four years from now we will all be moaning about
the election of someone maybe even worse than Bush.

Randy Stoecker
moderator/editor, COMM-ORG
randy.stoecker at

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