Advancing Community Organizing Practice: Mediratta and Smith

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

5. Implications for community organizing in the U.S.

Efforts to build movements for social justice that help disenfranchised communities change social, political, and economic conditions and structures are increasingly important in the United States today. Low income people and people of color face political and economic systems that are less and less open to their input and participation. Community organizing has great promise for increasing participation and bringing about social change, but it will only succeed if organizers and members look critically at their practice, and explore ways to expand and improve it.

The organizing work of Indian groups suggests possibilities for expanding the practice of community organizing groups in the U.S. The work of YIP, SEWA, REDS/DJS, and other Indian organizations highlight the important and interconnected roles of ideology, collective identity, and movement building in organizing. Their work also suggests that organizing for change is integrally connected to developing alternative visions and models for how society might be structured and function.

Community organizing groups in the U.S. often focus on winning concrete local victories in order to build people's understanding of power and collective action. Many move on to undertake campaigns to win policy change, often with a continued focus on improving the concrete conditions under which their members live. Most groups, however, stop short of analyzing the underlying structural issues that cause these conditions and the broad changes that would be necessary to correct them, and thus, fail to develop a clear vision of the kind of world they are fighting for. Some organizations make a clear choice not to do this. They see broader questions of social, economic, and political structure as either irrelevant or out of their reach, and consider ideology an issue for academics or unproductive left activists with no organized base. Others do set out to challenge the broader structures of society. While a few have considerable success in articulating values and a vision for the future, some get stuck in the fight for concrete local victories as they struggle to build strong organizations that can challenge the local power structure. In general, with so much energy dedicated to winning a bigger slice of the pie, many groups fail to question what type of pie it is.

Most organizing groups in Indian consider ideology one of the most crucial building blocks of their organizations. Without an understanding of what kind of world they want to build, they believe it is impossible to undertake any serious effort to bring about change. Ideology is not a lofty or academic term, but a straightforward matter of values, goals, and approach. We find the YIP definition of ideology - basic values, a vision of what the world should be, and approach for moving in that direction - to be very relevant to organizing in the U.S. Developing a clear ideology by this definition could help some organizations to clarify their goals, be clearer in their direction and more strategic in choosing issues, and build an organization to which members could develop a deeper connection and commitment.

Although there are U.S. organizing groups that work from an identity-based perspective, efforts to build group identity are not common among most traditional U.S. organizing groups. Many U.S. groups believe identity-based organizing is inherently divisive, and would fracture rather than unite their communities. They rally people around broad identities - as being poor or being poor people of color. Many of the Indian groups we visited, however, have developed a collective identity that goes beyond the common experience of poverty or racial or ethnically based oppression. SEWA, for example, puts forth a compelling model for building a strong, unifying collective identity among an incredibly diverse membership. SEWA weaves together gender, class, occupation, values, vision and regional pride into a powerful new collective identity for its members. This identity celebrates difference and diversity, and makes them a central component of the value system that unifies its members. While they are extremely diverse in terms of caste, religion, and occupation, SEWA members are unified in terms of gender, class, values, vision, and approach to change. In today's Indian society, the members' acceptance of these differences is as unusual and important as their commitment to values of simplicity, equality, courage, and struggle. This collective identity is complex, but SEWA members clearly understand and embrace it. As a result, it has the power to create a sense of belonging, build ownership, and serve as rallying point for action. It gives people a framework for reaching across differences to work together for change, even in times of enormous social upheaval and conflict.

Efforts to integrate community organizing and development approaches in the U.S. have a history that is uneven at best. Development approaches, which are less politically controversial, easier to manage in a traditional "professional" manner without membership, and easier to fund, often push out and eventually replace organizing efforts. Service and community development approaches also have the potential to confuse the process of building a decision-making body of member-leaders. Many community organizers fear that their efforts to move people out of a service mentality in which they expect social workers and other "professionals" to solve their problems would be set back if their organizations offered services or development activities. For these reasons and others, many organizing groups in the U.S. are hesitant to combine organizing and development approaches.

In India struggle and development approaches are commonly used together. Development activities are related to ideology, in that many organizations use them to put forth alternative models of how they believe society should be structured. For U.S. organizations that want to challenge the existing social, economic, and political structures, such a dual approach may be worth considering. Efforts to develop models for combining development and organizing approaches that strengthen community organizing rather than weaken it are underway in several places around the country. Such experimentation could make an important contribution to the further development of community organizing.

In the U.S., traditional community organizing groups see their primary goal as building power for their organization. They focus on winning concrete victories that will both bring more people into their organizations and demonstrate their power. The development of the organization is seen as the primary means for bringing about change, so little effort is paid to building broader movements. Coalitions of similar groups are often developed in an effort to bring about broader changes. Even in these efforts, however, the focus on the growth of individual organizations often leads coalition members to make decisions based on their own best interests rather than those of the broader coalition. This organizational focus exists in many Indian groups as well, but a broader movement-building approach is also common. Such a focus, whether based on building coalitions or on spreading the influence and work of an organization beyond its formal boundaries, has contributed greatly to the success of Indian organizing, and helped in building a much stronger movement for social justice in India than the U.S.

In the U.S., ideology, collective identity, and movement building are seldom discussed by community organizers. Groups shy away from lengthy internal discussions that might divert them from taking action to confront the power dynamics in their communities. In contrast, the Indian organizations examined in this report believe that ideology and identity are central to building strong organizations that can leverage their organizing into broader social movements. Each organization has developed intensive training programs to teach members about the organization's history, and to provide a forum for members to help shape the organization's overall approach, values and vision. This work has helped build both strong local organizations and powerful broader movements. U.S. organizations that are looking to push the boundaries of their work and build strong movements have good reason to be interested in these approaches.

But how applicable are these approaches to organizing in the U.S.? Differences in the history and culture of the U.S. and India are great enough to make this a significant question. Collective thinking is common in India. This can be seen in its socialist-oriented past, as well as in the strength of family, caste, and regional identities. Ideology is also very important in India, which is a country with a wide diversity of political thought and a lively spirit of public ideological debate.

U.S. culture and society are markedly different. Individualism reigns in U.S. society today, as it has through most of the country's history. People's problems are seen as the result of their own action, not as the result of the structure of society. The American dream offers the promise that if an individual works hard, he or she will be rewarded. Collective approaches to problems are often looked on with skepticism, as are collective identities other than "American." Although class, race, gender, sexual orientation and other identities have risen to prominence from time to time, many Americans tend to avoid identifying collectively. U.S. society is also markedly non-ideological. For the most part, U.S. residents share a faith in the free market capitalist system, even if it has not delivered for them individually. Our only two major political parties put forth the same basic vision of how the political, economic, and social elements of our world should be structured. To the extent that most Americans share this set of beliefs about how society should function, we are an extremely non-ideological nation.

These factors make it difficult to integrate ideology, collective identity, and movement-building approaches into organizing in the U.S. They may also explain in part why such approaches have not often been used by U.S. groups. Yet, the current state of American society is what makes these approaches potentially powerful and timely. To develop broader movements for justice in the U.S., organizing groups must address the fundamental challenge of how to build larger and more unified membership bases with the power and vision to change the underlying structures of American society. Organizing approaches which include ideology, collective identity, joint strategies of struggle and development, and an explicit focus on building movements offer new and exciting possibilities for U.S. groups. While the work of these Indian groups offers no clear blueprints for organizing, we hope that their experiences will stimulate new thinking and experimentation by grassroots community organizations in the U.S.

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