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The Square Pegs Find Their Groove: Reshaping the Organizing Circle

by Francis Calpotura and Kim Fellner

Sure, we progressive organizers are a skeptical bunch, the better to laugh in the face of near-impossible odds. But dig to the core, and most of us still cradle two intertwined dreams:

These are the ideals that truly separate us from the Right.

However, a debate is percolating in the progressive organizing community about how these two ideals are realized through our organizing practice -- and to what extent these goals are made explicit in our work.

This controversy is being mirrored in the funding community. Increasingly, the already limited number of organizing funders are choosing to support mostly congregation or faith-based organizing and the established organizing networks which emerged from the community organizing practice pioneered by Saul Alinsky. The language that tends to accompany these initiatives is that of participatory democracy and community economic development. Lost in the mix are the newer, more experimental organizing efforts, many of them based in communities of color, the gay/lesbian and immigrant communities, where issues of identity, diversity and the challenge of prevailing capitalist practice are among the explicit primary goals.

It is, in part, a re-hash of an old polemic -- do fights for incremental changes necessarily contain, or even lead to, a critique of prevailing social and economic structures, or do they only re-divide the same pie in other ways? Increasingly since the 1960s, we are also asking: Do organizations that engage in these fights -- purportedly to alter relations of power between the powerful and the dispossessed -- build more just and equitable internal structures or do they merely replicate the patterns and culture of the larger society?

An assumption of Alinsky-based organizing practice has been that if you build powerful neighborhood organizations that wield that bigger slice of influence or money in the offices of government or capital, then a fairer and more ecumenical community will result.

Based on our understandings and experiences, we believe that, while this approach can change the location of a highway or give parents a greater voice on their local school board, it alone is insufficient to build a truly equitable, multi-cultural larger society -- or even a progressive movement. It is like the San Francisco neighborhood organization strong enough to win speed bumps on the local thoroughfare, but unwilling to decisively oppose, much less work for, the defeat of an anti-immigrant ballot initiative. Yet racism is surely as crucial to the ultimate health of an urban community as traffic.

We would suggest that multi-cultural organizing -- embracing work that is specifically anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, or has as its primary goal the development of equitable, multi-cultural communities -- is a critical organizing arena, requiring a more varied palette of approaches, practices and techniques than have been customary in traditional community organizing. We suspect that, while we constantly discuss these wedge issues as crucial to address if we are to move beyond our current disarray as a movement and a society, far more organizers and resources are deployed to fight city hall than to fight racism.

Likewise, we believe that greater inclusion in the existing economic and political structures of this country, while empowering, is inadequate to bring about a democratic redistribution of resources. Democratic participation in the service of capitalism is not enough to change prevailing economic priorities. If we only buy into the existing economic system, without questioning its underlying assumptions, we will be unable to move from the over-riding criterion of financial gain and the survival of the fiscally fittest to a working concept of the common good.

Our goal is to reshape the organizing circle. We see ourselves as part of a community where traditional organizing to build powerful neighborhood organizations on immediate, winnable issues, union and class-based economic organizing, and the newer forms of organizing that explicitly address identity conflicts, promote multi-culturalism and challenge existing cultural frameworks, will all thrive.

And there is an additional leap that we, who identify ourselves as Left, need to make. For too long, we have regarded organizing to build a broad class-based movement for economic justice and identity organizing as competing, even antithetical, goals; and at their respective worst, they have been. We believe it+s time for these two streams to converge, and for a new synthesis to emerge. The Right has already served warning that if we cannot fuse the two pieces of our vision, they will forever play one off against the other -- and we will achieve neither. That is our challenge, if we are to build the society to which we aspire.

And therein lies this tale.


It seems to be fashionable these days, in certain liberal intellectual circles, to view identity politics -- political action dictated by oppressions based on immutable personal identities of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. -- as the murderers of a powerful progressive movement. This position is exemplified by Todd Gitlin's book, The Twilight of Common Dreams. In the progressive organizing community, it is represented by Mike Miller's critique of Beyond the Politics of Place , Gary Delgado's 1994 work on new directions in community organizing.

Miller and Gitlin are struggling to protect legacies of our progressive past -- including the classic American democratic vision and the early civil rights movement. Both trace the deep fault lines in the movement today to an obsession with the differences that set us apart from each other, rather than the adoption of broadly acceptable goals of economic equity and political democracy.

As Gitlin laments, "What has become of the ideal of the Left...that federates people of different races, genders, sexualities, or for that matter, religions and classes? Why has this ideal been neglected or abandoned by so many of the poor and minorities who should share the Left's ideal of equity? Why are so many people attached to their marginality and why is so much of their intellectual labor spent developing theories to justify it? Why insist on difference with such rigidity, rancor, and blindess, to the exclusion of the possibility of common knowledge and common dreams?"

Mike Miller brings a similar plaint into his defense of the community organizing discipline developed by Saul Alinsky, which he implies is the only legitimate practice worthy of the name.

The definition of Alinsky-based organizing championed by Miller includes: "building units of permanent power, rooted in local communities, led by and accountable to local people." Its goals tend to involve redistributing power away from unaccountable institutions and towards the organization; with a professional organizer who brings the organization into being, and nurtures indigenous leadership from the organization's membership base. Characteristics of this organizing practice have included a pragmatic focus on issues that are "immediate, specific and winnable," and the dominance of white male organizers, albeit ones of tremendous intellect and energy.

Delgado proposes that "the ground-breaking work, the innovation, the experimentation, and the motivating livid anger that comes from the truly oppressed is at the heart of the work in immigrants' rights organizations, gay and lesbian organizations, disabled people's organizations and organizations of people of color. It is these formations, compelled always to struggle with the politics of difference, that will force the practitioners of traditional CO to move 'beyond the politics of place' to address the cultural dimensions of power in their own organizations, as well as in society at large."

Miller, however, likes the place he's in, and doesn't want to move. He argues that not only does Delgado malign Alinsky's legacy and misrepresent its contemporary offshoots, but he also contends that current Alinsky-based, and especially congregation-based organizing efforts, are changing sufficiently to meet the needs of women and minorities, so as to make new forms unnecessary.

Don't get us wrong. We are in debt to this legacy, which propelled many of us to a justice vocation and drew us to practice community and/or union organizing. From it, we learned to value the process whereby people come to act collectively against injustice, through which the disenfranchised and oppressed achieve voice and power. From among Alinsky's adherents, we have frequently found our own mentors, and culled our own organizing experiences.

Furthermore, we value the results these organizations have yielded and admire (even lust after) the longevity and savvy at marshaling resources that the organizing networks have achieved. In addition, many of us first try to fit our feet to the Alinsky footprint and adopt many of the assumptions and techniques that he, and his descendents, developed. We too want to nurture organizations that can win voice and power for our communities.

However, the past 25 years have added new dimensions to our efforts -- and refocused the lens through which we view the world. The labor movement, the New Left and the organizing discipline that Saul Alinsky built, despite their luster, also engendered many flaws of the larger society, notably the dominance of white males in the power structures of their own organizations. The dissonance between stated principle and practice stoked the demand by activist women, people of color, and later gays and lesbians and the disabled, that the movement itself live up to its rhetoric or, in some cases, rethink its verities and structures.

Most of us have our own tales of conflict, chaos and ludicrous excess along the mult-cult trail, but few of us who envision a successfully diverse society would return to the old world order of progressive action -- the one that preceded the emergence of identity-based power blocs demanding an equitable share of leadership and resources. The reason is simple: We would still be sidelined in the real decision-making structures of the organizations to which we devote our energies, and our own experiences and priorities would be relegated to a subsidiary position, if not entirely ignored.

This is not to say that traditional CO has not changed or absorbed some of the lessons of identity struggles. Miller suggests that, "throughout its history, broadly-based community organizing has dealt with inter-racial and ethnic tension and conflict and has built multi-racial and ethnic organizations .... Many of these organizations have people of color on their organizing staffs. Many of them conduct bi- and tri-lingual meetings. A growing number of people of color are now directors of organizing projects within networks. Further, most of the white males in these organizations are seriously addressing the gender and racial/ethnic imbalances in their respective networks."

However, this is not really adequate for developing a multi-cultural community. The critical difference is between the concept of inclusion and that of self-determination. Some traditional community organizing has moved, in more and less effective ways, to be inclusionary, bringing women and people of color into their existing organizational structure and culture. But the women and people of color who rise in the ranks of traditional community organizing endeavors are those who buy into the traditional culture -- a policy and practice of affirmative action, at best. That is far different from having the room to redefine or transform organizational life.

Nor is Miller the only one who advocates that diversity play second fiddle to pragmatism. As we were writing this, we received a mailing from a fledgling national formation, suggesting that their organizational culture, "...should not get so bogged down with diversity issues that we lose the focus on economic democracy....The fundamental issue is reconciling the tension between 'going smarter' and 'going broader.'" A peculiar formulation at best.

This question of reframing organizing culture is hard to capture. Traditional Alinsky-based organizing practice does indeed have its own culture, which is largely hierarchical, defined by a specific methodology, focused on issues that can be won sooner rather than later and uncontroversial enough to be broadly subscribed to within the target geographic area -- i.e. not so contentious that it alienates key members or funders.

But these cultural indicators do not merely deter the "square pegs" from feeling welcome in the organization or impede the development of diverse leadership. They also exact a price in building what one young organizer we know calls an "holistically progressive" societal vision.

It is an inevitable consequence of funding only congregation-based organizing, for example, that the issues of gay/lesbian rights and reproductive choice will be swept off the organizing agenda.

This is made explicit by Miller's discussion on ideology and the choice of issues. He asks whether we would dismiss the approach of an IAF project minister who "also thinks there is more power in being part of an inter-racial alliance that includes organizations that are based in white ethnic communities elsewhere in New York and which aren't 'progressive' in the sense that they have (quoting Delgado) 'a perspective that views racism as a primary mode of oppression in US society.' Anyone who tried to organize white ethnics in Queens on that basis wouldn't get very far.

Miller notes that the minister "seems to prefer that he be in relationship with a broadly-based organization than with one that has a 'progressive' way of understanding racism.... Should the test include gay marriages? Or pro-abortion? Or: fill in the blank. While you're filling in the blank you better think about all the Latino and Black Baptists, Pentecostals and Catholics who agree with Catholic ethnics on some of these issues."

But this is exactly the reason that the emergence of identity has surfaced new directions in the progressive organizing arena -- and these are exactly the issues that the Right has raised with such gusto to woo our own constituents.

There is no demand that organizers in a white ethnic neighborhood in Queens lead with anti-racism or pro-abortion issues. Rather, there is an imperative that other organizing occurs that does address these critical issues head on -- even if they do not lend themselves neatly to the traditional admonition that the issues we select should be "immediate, specific and winnable," or mimic the structures and techniques that have worked in different circumstances, or even turn out large numbers of people on command.

Miller warns that, "Those organizations that speak out on what they think is right, without regard to effectiveness, may be prophetic voices, but if that is all they do they are sure to remain far away from where decisions are being made."

Yet, if there is not a second organizing path, with a different culture, that takes these risks, how are we to address the attitudes that can turn the most dedicated union member or community safety activist into a vote for the latest immigrant-bashing or tax-slashing initiative?

If we do not explore organizing that raises a direct challenge to unfettered capitalism, how will we begin the task of refocusing our society on the importance of collective good over private gain?

And how are we going to make the leaps that forge a proactive class-based solidarity that transcends barriers of conflicting identities?

It is part of our work to incorporate the new realities of our society, to take the lessons of identity struggles and forge the next step. In doing so, we need to build on the wisdom that we have gleaned from existing organizing disciplines and experiences -- and take some leaps into the unknown.

In our experience, for example, communities are often too fractured to engage in meaningful collective activity before building a culture that embraces its diverse members. This disarray has been compounded by the Right's ideological influence in framing critical issues in ways that divide, rather than unify, communities.

When parents of color fight queer activists over school curricula, or when neighbors are pitted against each other over the siting of polluting industries in their community, then the emergence of a powerful movement is stunted. A few months ago, Black ministers refused to attend an action that started out at the headquarters of a gay/lesbian organization -- even though they supported the action itself -- ironically, part of an affirmative action campaign.

Recently, Labor Party Advocates, an effort to develop a progressive, labor-based third party, struck reproductive choice off their platform so as not to alienate some of their Latino supporters. This capitulation epitomizes the "class struggle uber alles" approach to organizing, that discounts the fundamental rights of part of the collective as a strategic expedient -- and in the process disregards all the lessons we should have learned in the last 30 years. Even the Republican Party seems to have second thoughts about antagonizing the majority of women voters. Yet the LPA leadership will undoubtedly express dismay if we fail to embrace their efforts -- and blame those bad identity politics for blinding us to our own class self-interest.

These examples from our own organizing world graphically challenge the traditional assumption that broad-based organizing efforts that tackle immediate, winnable issues will inevitably lead to a more equitable and tolerant society -- or that progressive views on economics or class will yield progressive views on gender, race or sexual orientation (or vice versa for that matter).

Therefore, some of us are exploring an inverse proposition to prevailing practice: Perhaps, if you forge a diverse and respectful community culture, then creative and cohesive work to build organizations to redistribute power will follow.

This approach asserts that the task of forging an equitable, respectful, multi-cultural, shared, cohesive, progressive justice community out of many diverse and competing identities is, in and of itself, an appropriate and necessary organizing objective. As such, it demands the allocation of time, personnel and financial resources; it cannot be relegated to the sidelines, as the casual by-product of other, more tangible organizing goals. It also requires a different set of techniques and sensibilities, including heightened emphasis on political education that links economics with wedge issues, the celebration of diverse identities and the forging of a new, shared culture that embraces the broadest possible constituency for a progressive economic, social and environmental agenda.

It will require experimentation, some of which will fail. But who is to say, in the long run, that it will not contribute new strengths and dimensions to our collective struggle for justice and equity?

Once upon a time, when we were young, almost all newspapers and major printing jobs were typeset in hot metal by feisty, frequently radical craftsmen, who were organized in the typographical unions and had won good pay for their labor.

Then computers came into use -- "cold type" -- and younger workers with less craft, frequently women, making low wages, were hired to sit at the terminals and type in copy.

Because the wages and working conditions were low, the cold type workers asked to join the typographers union. But the typographers refused to let them in, because they were not viewed as craftspeople, only typists -- and lots of them were women, to boot.

But cold type technology ruled. The machines and programs became more sophisticated, and the computer typesetters became highly skilled in their own right, perfecting their speed, adaptability and artistry. The hot metal shops closed down; the men who had so carefully guarded their craft became as rare as manatees.

And the world of computer typesetting, and the generation of women and men who do that work, have remained largely unorganized.

There is nothing to be gained by defining a dynamic, dedicated, diverse and innovative new wave of organizers as pretenders, except a shrinking corps of purists. We want to honor our mentors and learn the craft as they have practiced it. And we also want, and need, to make some new additions based on our own life experiences, the conditions we encounter in our communities and the changing times. Together, we can build a stronger progressive movement that contends for power while reconstructing communal space. A movement where square pegs can find their groove.

The time has come for us to reshape our progressive organizing circle. In the struggle for justice, there is work enough for all.

Francis Calpotura is the Co-Director of the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO), and Kim Fellner directs the National Organizers Alliance (NOA). You can write to us at: CTWO, 1218 E. 21st Street, Oakland, CA 94606, or at NOA, 715 G Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.

Copyright (c) 1996 by Francis Calpotura and Kim Fellner, all rights reserved. This work may be copied in whole or in part, with proper attribution, as long as the copying is not-for-profit "fair use" for research, commentary, study, or teaching. *No* part of the work may be used for profit without prior permission of the authors. For other permissions, contact the authors.