Advancing Community Organizing Practice: Mediratta and Smith

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

1. Introduction

In the small village of Somandepalli in South India last year, 400 landless families took over 1100 acres of a sisal plantation owned by a small group of rich landowners. The families were members of a union of agricultural laborers started by the Young India Project. They had led a long campaign to force the government to redistribute land according to little-used Indian land reform laws. The government finally agreed, but the courts intervened, returning the land to the plantation owners. The families seized the land in protest, and began collectively cultivating it to mark it as theirs. With a union of 173,000 members behind the laborers, neither the police nor the government dared challenge them.

The Young India Project is one of hundreds of innovative grassroots organizing formations fighting to bring about social, political, and economic change in India. These groups are working to build powerful movements of poor and disenfranchised communities that can change public and private sector policies and create a more equitable society. They follow organizing traditions laid down by Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and Karl Marx. Like their counterparts in the United States, they are struggling to develop new organizing strategies to challenge both age-old structures of inequality and more recent political, economic, and social changes.

In our visits to over twenty Indian organizing groups between October 1999 and October 2000, we examined how Indian organizations are addressing some of the critical questions that face U.S. organizations.(1) How do Indian groups build a strong membership base? What are the roles of values, ideology and culture in their organizing? How do the groups work to build broader movements to affect societal change? We believe that the wide-ranging work of grassroots Indian organizations is relevant to community and labor organizing groups in the United States, and hope an examination of their organizing strategies and underlying assumptions will help U.S. organizers think more openly and creatively about their own work.

This paper focuses on community organizing and community-oriented labor organizing. These forms of grassroots organizing are important strategies for building democratic participation and fighting for social justice in the United States. As governmental and corporate structures have become less open and accountable in the 1980s and 1990s, the need for a strong third sector to push for systemic change has become more evident and urgent.

It has become increasingly clear, however, that community organizing in the United States has had only mixed results. Organizing groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), for example, have won victories for their members and helped to increase political accountability on the local level. But their record has been less impressive in winning lasting systemic reforms that fundamentally shift the nature of participation and the balance of power in society.

In an effort to make community-based organizing a more effective means for achieving systemic change, organizers across the country are beginning to debate the basic premises and practice of their work. We attempt to bring an international perspective to this debate by studying community organizations in India, a country with a long and active tradition of community organizing.

This paper focuses on the organizing approach of three grassroots organizing formations in India: the Self Employed Women's Association, the Dalit Jagruti Samiti/Rural Education and Development Society, and the Young India Project and its member unions. These groups all place great emphasis on developing and nurturing a shared ideology and collective identity among their members. Some integrate struggle and development strategies in an effort to construct alternative forms of social, political and economic organization in their communities. They all focus explicitly on leveraging their local work to bring about broader social movements.

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