Journal of Community Power Building      COMM-ORG Papers 2004

Contents | Walking the Fine Line | The Power of Patience | Fear and Coaxing in Waltham | A Seat at the Table | ¡Sí Se Puede! | The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote | Laying Down a Speed Bump | Jook Sing

Walking the Fine Line

By Danny LeBlanc,Somerville Community Corporation

It was March 16, 2004.  We had just finished our Tuesday morning staff meeting at 10:45 AM.  I checked my voice mail and had one message:  “Hi, Danny, this is Phil Ercolini.  Can you please call me as soon as you get this message?  The mayor would like to meet with you today and we’re hoping you can do it at 11:15 because we have that time slotted in.  Thanks.”  (Phil Ercolini is the current Housing Director for the City of Somerville.)

I was quite sure that the mayor wanted to meet about our organizing work to generate support for a proposal we had submitted to acquire the Conwell School, a former elementary school, from the city to develop affordable family housing.  There was a community meeting scheduled for that evening to present and discuss the bids for the school, and Somerville Community Corporation was one of the bidders.

I was thinking, Should I respond to the phone call?  Perhaps I could say that I had been tied up all day in meetings and didn’t get the message until late afternoon.  Should I try to put the meeting off until later in the day, saying I couldn’t come any sooner?  Should I insist on having some board members with me at the meeting?  Could I even get any board members to come with me on such short notice?

Executive Directors/CEOs are often placed in this position of responding to political pressure related to some aspect of carrying out the CDC’s mission.  When the CDC is committed to community organizing as part of its practice, the CEO usually ends up in an acutely sensitive position.  What kinds of demands will the mayor make?  How will those square with the CDC’s agenda, including its organizing agenda?  What are the potential costs to the CDC of different actions you take or commitments you make in response to the demands?  How do you gauge when to make which judgments?  To explore these issues I will relate two stories involving such demands, my own decisions as CEO and those of our CDC, and the ongoing ramifications of those decisions.

Like most CDCs we rely on a good working relationship with city government, both politically and financially.  We are the only CDC in our city so the importance of the relationship goes both ways.  We are also a small enough community that it is not unusual for the mayor, or the mayor’s staff, to call me directly on something that we are working on or on some issue the mayor wants to take up with the organization.  In my three years as CEO at SCC during the former mayor’s administration (our current mayor took office in January 2004) there were a number of instances when I had to respond in some way to the mayor’s call.  One such instance took place in November 2002.  

SCC had just held a first meeting of around twenty-five residents in the Union Square neighborhood to kick off our effort to form a new neighborhood action group.  The day after the meeting one of the mayor’s aides called asking for us to meet with the mayor and the ward alderman* to discuss Union Square.  Both the mayor and the alderman questioned why we were organizing in Union Square since they believed there was already a lot of activism in that neighborhood (and the alderman believed that she should be allowed to handle things herself).

Our board president and I went into the mayor’s office together.  We spent considerable time explaining what we were trying to accomplish by organizing a neighborhood group, that we were not intentionally working at cross purposes with city government, and that we expected to continue.  Our explanations did not change their opinions.  We left the meeting saying that we intended to continue, but that we would bring their concerns back to our board and staff for further discussion. 

I had my own concerns about our organizing work. In addition to the opposition from the mayor and ward alderman (1) we had not succeeded in getting participation from a range of ethnic groups at the first meeting, one of our key goals; (2) among the attendees at that first meeting were a couple of activists that I knew would be trying to use our new group for their own ends (one of the activists had been the current alderman’s opponent in the 2001 election); and (3) our organizing staff at that time was quite inexperienced.

I felt that we had taken on a very difficult challenge in particular, and in general that we were new at neighborhood organizing work and would gain experience over time.  My own conclusion – and the recommendation I made to our board of directors – was that we stop organizing in Union Square and start fresh with that type of organizing in East Somerville, a separate neighborhood in a different ward.  In my mind, I was more worried about the concerns identified above, and the opposition from the mayor and alderman only added to my concerns.  However, the overwhelming perception of our own board and staff members was that we backed off from our Union Square organizing because the mayor and alderman had pushed us to.  Even our board president felt that way, and the perception persists to this day. 

While I feel we made the right decision, and that to continue would have gotten us into a protracted battle that I don’t think our organizers at that time could have handled, the fact is that we made our decision after we were challenged by the mayor and alderman.  My own thinking and understanding about the neighborhood organizing we were trying to develop was significantly more developed than that of anyone else on our board and staff, not to mention the neighborhood residents we were working to engage.  It’s quite natural for folks to jump to the most easily identifiable explanation for our shift away from Union Square.  And once that perception is in the air, it takes on a life of its own and becomes part of the internal and external discussions regarding our CDC’s community organizing work and political challenges. 

That brings us back to March 16th and the ConwellSchool.  That evening there was to be a community meeting regarding the disposition of the Conwell.  There had been a public bid process for the property.  Four bids were submitted, including SCC’s, but the previous Thursday we had been informed that our bid had been eliminated, and that the three others would remain in contention.  While we did not expect to be reinserted into the process – and, in fact, had never expected to win the bid – we had decided to do some organizing to up the ante and to raise the profile of the affordable family housing crisis that our community faces.  Even after learning that the Reuse Committee had eliminated our bid, we decided to continue our organizing work up through the community meeting. 

Our community organizers, along with a few board members, had worked hard to line up community support for our proposal, with hours of door knocking and dozens of follow-up phone calls.  It turned out that there was some strong support for the development of affordable family housing in general, and our proposal in particular.  Our staff and leaders had succeeded in lining up some residents to speak in favor of our proposal and to attend the community meeting in support.  One of our board members was going to request that our bid be placed back in among the top three.  Our board president and I had also written an Op-Ed piece on the affordable family housing crisis, and why our proposal for the ConwellSchool posed one way to address it.  (Ironically, the Op-Ed piece appeared in the local weekly Somerville Journal the morning we were informed that our proposal had been eliminated from consideration.)  

When I got to the mayor’s office, he immediately took issue with our organizing efforts around the Conwell bid, just as I had suspected he would.  He made it clear right away that he was treating our efforts as an indication that we did not want a good working relationship with his administration.  He said that SCC was treating Conwell as though we had a right to the school that other developers didn’t, and that we were wrong about that.  Our proposal just didn’t measure up, he said, and we had to live with that and not fight him on it.  There would be plenty of opportunities for development during his administration.  We’d get some of them if we worked with him, but we couldn’t expect to get all of them.  If we didn’t want to work with him, there would be other developers he’d be happy to work with.

The mayor’s overall message was clear: he didn’t want us picking a public fight with him over the ConwellSchool.  If we did, he would take it as an indication that we only wanted an adversarial relationship with his administration, and he would proceed accordingly.  As one indication of how he perceived our work, he had taken offense to the Op-Ed piece we had written the previous week, as though it was an attack on his administration.  In fact, the Op-Ed piece had never mentioned him or any members of his administration, or any other player in city government at all for that matter.  Our piece had focused solely on the crisis in family affordable housing, and the opportunity the ConwellSchool presented for responding to that crisis.

The mayor asked for my assurance that we would do the right thing that night at the community meeting.  He threatened to come and mount some sort of attack on our organization if he had to.  I told him that I would take the message back to our board of directors and staff, and that we would figure out our position in light of his concerns.  I also indicated that we couldn’t control all the people who were going to attend the community meeting, and the interest they had in our proposal and the crisis it addressed.

Following the meeting at city hall, I called our office and asked our organizing and development staff to gather so that we could meet as soon as I got back to the office.  It was 12:30 PM and I knew we would only have the afternoon to figure out our strategy for the meeting that evening.  I thought back to the Union Square situation sixteen months earlier.

Our staff met for well over an hour after I got back to the office.  I laid out the mayor’s concerns and the specific statements he had made to the best of my ability.  Our staff, although not surprised, was generally outraged at the mayor’s aggressive approach.  The SCC Board of Directors had spent an hour-and-a-half just the night before debating, developing and refining our approach for the community meeting.  With that backdrop, the staff spent over an hour discussing the board’s strategy, and whether and how to adjust it based on the recent pressure from the mayor.

We came to a few conclusions regarding our approach to the community meeting:  (1) we couldn’t – and shouldn’t – control all the comments that might be made about our proposal by community residents; (2) the two board members who had been determined to speak on behalf of the organization the night before would still make statements at the meeting on behalf of our proposal and on the broader issue of affordable family housing; (3) those board members, however, would stop short of pressing the Reuse Committee to reinstate SCC’s proposal; and (4) we would not seek to disrupt the meeting by attempting to speak before comments had been made on the three other proposals.

The stakes were pretty high.  What we were attempting to do was to walk a fine line between backing down completely from our original position regarding the community meeting and consequently be seen as weak, and moving so aggressively that we would be seen as picking a fight with the mayor. 

Since it was already 2:00 PM, we had very little time.  Nevertheless, we determined that we needed to call as many board members as possible about the new situation, especially those who were planning to come to the meeting.  In addition, our organizing director would call a few key residents who had been found through our outreach efforts, and who were planning to speak on behalf of our proposal at the meeting.

The community meeting unfolded in pretty much the way we had anticipated.  The Reuse Committee, led by the alderman, introduced the meeting and invited each of the three remaining bidders to make brief presentations regarding their proposals.  Community members were then allowed to ask questions of each of the bidders after each presentation. 

It was in the context of this portion of the meeting that our work played itself out.  One of the first community members speaking during this portion asked why they hadn’t seen SCC’s proposal as part of the meeting.  The ward alderman responded by explaining that our bid had already been eliminated by the Reuse Committee.  After two more residents expressed disappointment in not seeing SCC’s proposal to consider, and that they had come because they believe affordable family housing is a critical need in their neighborhood, the ward alderman responded by asking the third speaker whether she was affiliated with SCC.  The alderman, a strong ally of the mayor’s, was clearly looking for a fight at this point.  The resident responded that she had no affiliation whatsoever with SCC, but had simply heard about and read our proposal.

It was precisely at this point that I felt we had accomplished what we set out to do that evening.  We had been able to push our issue and gain substantial community support in the process, without crossing the line.  While the residents who had asked about SCC’s proposal were not affiliated with SCC we knew that, in fact, they had surfaced through the organizing outreach we had done in the neighborhood.  They knew about our proposal mainly because of our door knocking and follow-up conversations. 

Following that point of tension, virtually every other speaker that evening was compelled to address the absence of SCC’s proposal in the mix.  The mayor and ward alderman, in particular, felt that they had to assure the community folks that they agreed that affordable family housing was a critical need in Somerville, and that they would be working with SCC and others toward that end.

Sitting in the audience that night – not speaking publicly, but developing a nice tension headache – I felt that our work that day would allow me to feel that I had been part of our success in acting on three key lessons learned from our earlier experience with the former mayor.

First, it is always important to figure out your organizing strategy so that you engage as many people on as many levels as possible.  Then, when a potential battle looms, there are layers of folks – board, staff, and community residents – already engaged in what you’re doing.  The CEO’s challenge then becomes how and when to engage which actors in determining the strategy to respond to political conflict.

Second, when the mayor calls out your organizing and pressures it to stop, that dynamic by itself becomes the most important thing for the CEO to address.  I put much more time and energy into directly addressing the issue of the political pressure in the Conwell situation in a very compacted period of time (one day) than I had put into directly addressing the pressure around Union Square over a much more extended period of time (a couple of months).  The time spent in staff and board discussion and in one-on-one conversations to sort through the complexities of a political pressure situation is absolutely critical for organizational growth, and for feeling right and true about the decisions that get made.

The final lesson is that it is very important to find some way not to back down, at least not entirely, from the fight.  Our decision to ‘walk the fine line’ in the Conwell School disposition case was far more empowering to all constituents than the decision to rationalize walking away from our Union Square organizing, however well thought through on my part the latter decision had been. 

(As expected, SCC did not win the bid for the ConwellSchool.  However, at the time of this writing, we are planning to meet with the mayor to discuss opportunities for SCC to acquire other public buildings that are being disposed, following the lead he gave us at the Conwell community meeting.)

Danny LeBlanc is a lifelong Massachusetts resident with a Master’s Degree in Public Affairs from the McCormack Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He has worked in community organizing, community development, and nonprofit management in several organizations in Massachusetts over the past 26 years. Danny currently serves as Chief Executive Officer of Somerville Community Corporation and Board Chair of the Massachusetts Association of  Community Development Corporations.

* In the City of Somerville, the correct term is ‘alderman,’ regardless of gender.

Contents | Walking the Fine Line | The Power of Patience | Fear and Coaxing in Waltham | A Seat at the Table | ¡Sí Se Puede! | The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote | Laying Down a Speed Bump | Jook Sing