Advancing Community Organizing Practice: Mediratta and Smith

contents | intro | background | three profiles | lessons | implications | refs/notes/apps

2. Background

Community Organizing in the United States

Community organizing in the U.S. grew out of the settlement house movement of the late 1800s and the labor organizing of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s. It developed in poor, urban communities as a strategy for building democratic citizen participation and achieving social change, and served as an alternative to traditional ward politics and workplace organizing. The goal was to mobilize residents of a neighborhood who held a common interest in addressing local problems such as access to housing, health care and education, and to collectively fight for and win positive changes.

Community organizing is rooted in the belief that those who benefit least from current social, economic, and political structures have the greatest potential to build long-term, successful movements to change those structures. Community organizing theory maintains that members of disenfranchised communities have the self-interest to build neighborhood-based organizations that can confront inequities that negatively affect neighborhood life. Community organizing groups differ from other neighborhood-based organizations, such as service providers and economic and housing development corporations, in that they bring people together to analyze local problems, develop solutions, and collectively pressure the public and private sectors to implement them. This work builds social networks between residents that directly benefit individuals in a variety of ways, and creates an avenue for ordinary people to influence public affairs. Organizing provides people with an opportunity to analyze and confront the inequities they face, and to create new paths to more equitable and just societal development.

While community organizing in the United States is varied and evolving, the most dominant organizing framework is based on five key assumptions. Community organizations:

Although not all groups operate on these principles, and many hold additional principles to be of central importance, these principles constitute the dominant shared framework on which national networks such as the IAF, ACORN, National Peoples Action, and the Center for Third World Organizing base their work.(2)

Over the past several decades, U.S. organizing groups have helped residents confront public and private sector policies and hold local politicians accountable for addressing neighborhood needs. For many of these groups, winning concrete victories on local, immediate issues is viewed as an important step towards building the organizational cohesion and strength that will allow the group to negotiate successfully for its constituency's needs. Strong organizations are seen as a necessary requisite to challenging the distribution of wealth and power in local communities and bringing about long-term systemic change.

In practice, however, few community organizing groups have developed the strength to change the balance of power in their communities. In New York City, where obvious inequities would be expected to create fertile ground for community organizing, many grassroots groups struggle year after year but have not succeeded in building large, powerful, democratic organizations. Even the most successful of these groups -- such as ACORN and IAF -- which are capable of mobilizing hundreds, even thousands, of their members, have not been able to sustain this participation over time. Nor have many succeeded in pushing beyond their immediate victories to connect their organizing to a broader vision of change.

While the limitations of current organizing frameworks have long been apparent, broad structural changes have recently compounded the challenges faced by community organizations. Recent macroeconomic and political changes have had a substantial effect on neighborhood life and public participation.(3) New social and economic policies are forcing more people to work with less financial rewards, economic security, and supports such as health services and daycare for their families. Corporate mergers and the globalization of capital have further concentrated power and wealth and moved decision-making farther from neighborhoods.

These changes, along with the limited success of existing community organizing models, have prompted organizers and researchers to re-think the underlying assumptions and premises that shape grassroots organizing. The National Organizers Alliance, for example, has engaged members in a rigorous debate of the merits and shortcomings of traditional organizing orthodoxy in an exercise called "The Sacred Cows of Organizing." Academics and practitioner/researchers have published several studies in the last decade that also offer a critical examination of community organizing.(4) Several common questions arise repeatedly in these discussions: Can community organizing groups achieve lasting social change without explicitly articulating an ideology and long-term vision? How important is culture and identity in building community and solidarity among members? Is it possible to work at the community level to fight macro level structural shifts? Can groups expand their work by combining local organizing with statewide, regional or national coalition-building efforts without sacrificing grassroots decision-making, participation and leadership?

Community Organizing in India

Grassroots organizing in India has a long and varied history. While India is a poor country compared to the U.S., the context in which Indian organizing groups operate has some important similarities to the U.S.. Both countries are large, diverse democracies that generally allow freedom of speech and assembly. Class stratifies both countries, and while race is a crucial force in shaping U.S. society, caste and religion play a similar role in India. The Indian groups in this study, like the majority of community organizing groups in the U.S., bring disenfranchised people together to fight for a more just society. These groups are working towards the same broad goals as their U.S. counterparts -- to build organizations of poor and disenfranchised people that have the power to advocate for their own interests. Their members are poor people, often with little faith in party politics, who are building independent organizations through which to assert their rights.

Community organizing groups in India fall into two broad categories: people's organizations with little structure or funding, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with more formal structure, funding and staff. NGOs have professional staff and are generally funded through foreign and Indian foundations or government programs. Most do development and service work, although some focus on organizing. In contrast, people's organizations and movements tend to be more informal in nature and to receive little if any foreign or government funding. They are generally membership-based, are struggle-oriented and have few or no paid staff. These groups cover a broad spectrum in terms of their memberships and issues. They include women's organizations working with poor women on workplace, community or domestic issues; alternative unions of agricultural workers working for land reform; Dalit organizations fighting caste oppression; people's organizations working on environmental and development issues; and Adivasi organizations fighting for self-determination.

The work of these groups has clear roots in grassroots efforts that began in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The work of Mahatma Gandhi in communities throughout India helped galvanize a long struggle that led to the country's independence. Organizing by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and others in the 1920's and 1930's launched a Dalit movement against caste discrimination that continues today. Marxist organizations initiated a great number of class-based struggles among industrial workers, landless agricultural laborers and peasant farmers across India. These organizing traditions have helped to build the vibrant third sector of grassroots organizations visible across India today.(5)

Political shifts in recent decades have also helped to define the organizing strategies and ideological perspective of these groups. Growing disillusionment with the state's failure to reduce poverty, and the introduction of Emergency in the mid 1970s (when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended democratic rule) sparked widespread grassroots protest activity and fueled the violent revolutionary struggles of Naxalite groups in rural India.(6) The unilateral suspension of political and civil rights during this period also helped bring together a number of organizing groups in a series of discussions in New Delhi.(7) Participants articulated a strategy for challenging the rise of anti-democratic political forces in India. One outcome of the discussions was a shift among participating organizations from organizing on issues to organizing to promote an ideological vision and worldview.

Like their U.S. counterparts, Indian groups face a rapidly changing economic and political environment. With the fall of the communist block in the late 1980s, India began to redefine its relationship with West, particularly with multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The introduction of economic liberalization policies in the early 1990s has dramatically increased Indian access to western consumer goods, images and values. For example, many more urban and rural families have televisions than a decade ago. This medium is powerful in promoting the values of capitalism and fundamentalism.

Along with these economic changes, India's political landscape is evolving in dramatic ways. Since the mid 1990's, Indian politics have been increasingly dominated by the conservative and Hindu fundamentalist ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The rise of Hindutva politics is constricting the public space for dissension, debate and social protest. Oppositional grassroots groups are increasingly coming under fire when they protest government positions and policy. Government harassment of groups most often takes the form of auditing organizations for allegedly failing to report funds received from foreign donors.(8)

Through all these changes, a powerful and dynamic grassroots organizing movement has survived and grown. There is a significant body of literature documenting the struggles of women, lower castes and other disenfranchised groups in India to challenge the social and economic conditions that constrain them and to work for broad, systemic reform.(9) Gail Omvedt, for example, documents the emergence of new social movements of the 1980s and early 1990s and examines the social, political and historical context out of which these movements arose. Omvedt's analysis shows how groups are weaving together class, culture, gender and caste analyses to construct new and dynamic ideologies to guide their organizing.

This emphasis on ideology is just one of the ways in which community organizing groups in India differ from their U.S. counterparts. Many Indian groups also utilize culture and religion in their organizing in ways that few U.S. groups do. These groups have developed strategies that enable them to pull together diverse constituencies to work in a unified manner. Such approaches may contribute to the considerable success Indian groups have had in building large and successful organizations.(10) For example, the Self-Employed Women's Association, a trade union of self-employed women based in the Ahmedabad, Gujarat, had over 200,000 dues paying members in 1999. The Dalit Samiti Jagruti, working with Dalits in the state of Karnataka, recently drew over 45,000 Dalits to a gathering to map out strategies for change. These groups have won significant policy changes and have also, in many cases, succeeded in changing the way in which society is structured.

Indian organizing groups, of course, have weaknesses and shortcomings just like any other organization. And their apparent successes may be due in part to factors outside of their control. The great social and economic hardships which many Indians face, for example, may lend a greater urgency to grassroots mobilization India. The goal of this research, however, is not to conduct an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Indian organizing groups. It is, rather, to examine some of India's most successful organizing formations in order to identify organizing approaches and strategies that are successful in India, and may be relevant to organizing in the U.S.

contents | intro | background | three profiles | lessons | implications | refs/notes/apps