the failure of organizing

colist at colist at
Wed Nov 10 21:03:08 CST 2004

[ed:  Spencer and Martin continue the conversation.  A bit from me at 
the end.]

From: ohiotenants <ohiotenants at>

thanks to windy for articulating a view that is too often missed in the
discussion of grassroots organizing and politics.  it's not about
philosophy or policy as much as it is about relationships and community.

Spencer Wells
Tenant Outreach Coordinator
COHHIO, 35 East Gay #210
Columbus, Ohio 43215
message: 888-485-7999 or 614-280-1984
fax:  888-485-7999 or 614-463-1060
cell phone:  216-374-6357


From: "Martin C. Tangora" <tangora at>

I'll snip your original post freely.  Hope you don't mind.

At 10:34 PM 11/3/2004 -0500, you wrote:
 >I promise you, however, that this is about community organizing.
 >Because it fundamentally is.

It's about political campaigning.  Not the same thing.

 >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.

My purpose is to make sure that all of you realize a very obvious fact
that you often lose sight of.  Namely: 
What you call "community organizing" is actually "organizing on the left." 
What Randy calls "The failure of organizing" is actually the failure of 
the left. 
You yourselves say it: the right organized better than you did.

Full disclosure: I am not on the left or the right (at least in my own 
I guess I am a moderate.  Certainly a Kerry voter and a Bush hater.
Note that you all say that hatred won.  What about all the hatred for Bush?
That hatred obviously lost.

When I object to the fifth or tenth subsidized housing project
in my block-club area, I am told that, although I live in the neighborhood,
I am "not a member of the community."

I think you will all do better if you think about this
and see yourselves honestly as, not organizing a community,
but trying to move the community toward your own -- leftist -- agenda.

 >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).

There, Randy said it.  You are not trying to advance the community's agenda.
You are trying to advance your own agenda.
And to "educate" the community to your own goals and purposes.

Not saying you're doing anything wrong.  Just saying that
it's blind, and maybe arrogant, to assume that your own goals
are already those of the community you are trying to "organize."

 >Only when community organizers are able to build organizations on the 
 >of not just narrow self-interest, but broad human rights principles,
 >will we stand a chance of turning the right wing tide. 

Just in case anyone thought that organizing was left/right neutral.

 >Us academics have a role to play in this. 

That should be "We academics ..."  Couldn't resist (being an academic).

It is not the job of an academic to push a leftist agenda.
It is the job of an academic to produce students who are informed and 
You can hope that the result will be a lot of active young leftists,
but that should not be your goal.

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

Martin C. Tangora
University of Illinois at Chicago
tangora at


[ed:  Martin's message presents a difficult position for me as 
moderator.  He is not the first who has reacted this way (apparently my 
original message has been distributed a bit out there).  Of course I 
feel angry and mischaracterized.  But I don't think it is my position to 
respond.  I do think it is important for us all to recognize, however, 
that what Martin describes is exactly what we are up against.  It has 
become so easy to use the labels of "elitist," "arrogant," etc. against 
those of us on "the left" and to make them stick. And those of us who 
believe in the things that are labeled as on "the left" need to behave 
inconsistent with the charges that we are trying to shove ideas down 
people's throats, know the difference between educating and 
indoctrinating, and persevere when the opposition tries to characterize 
education as indoctrination.  That is why I emphasize the importance of 
a popular education process that puts the people--not their politicians 
and not their ministers and priests and not us professors--in charge of 
their education.  Paulo Freire, Myles Horton (of the Highlander Folk 
School), and many community organizers have developed this and its 
related methods.  One of my favorite stories about the Highlander Folk 
School, which was so important in the early formation of multi-racial 
union organizing and the Civil Rights movement, was when the southern 
White Citizens Council put up a billboard of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 
at a Highlander workshop with the caption "King attends Communist 
training school." Myles Horton lamented with a wry smile "Darn, they at 
least could have put our phone number on it." ]

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