Return-path: <owner-comm-org@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU> Date: Wed, 09 Apr 1997 22:33:05 -0400 From: Randy Stoecker <> Subject: Beckwith-Lopez discussion Sender: H-Net/H-Urban Seminar on History of Community Organizing & <COMM-ORG@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU> X-Sender: To: COMM-ORG@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU Reply-to: H-Net/H-Urban Seminar on History of Community Organizing & <COMM-ORG@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU> Approved-By: Randy Stoecker <rstoeck@UOFT02.UTOLEDO.EDU>

[ed: Corey Dolgon is the first of the volunteers to comment on Dave Beckwith Cristina Lopez' paper/ training manual "Community Organizing: People Power From the Grassroots." And very thoughtful comments they are. Cory is an Assistant Professor of american studies at Southampton College, and was a long standing member of the Homeless Action Committee in Ann Arbor.

From: Corey Dolgon <>

Bringing the People and Politics Back In: Comments on "Community Organizing: People Power From the Grassroots"

Dave Beckwith and Cristina Lopez obviously have much experience with community-based organizations and I want to begin by thanking them for sharing some of their knowledge and expertise. They raise many issues in their paper and I want to comment predominately on two areas which I believe represent the strengths and weaknesses of the article. But I kept wondering if people hadn't just been reduced to one component in a formula for organizational strategy. Organizations are not the death knell of social activism, but "People Power" raises a number of concerns (both practical and theoretical) that must be addressed effectively before such a guidebook might be more effective.

I'll proceed by breaking my comments into two sections: one based on a response to issues of strategies and techniques, and the other on the aspects of theory and practice.

Strategy and Technique:

The authors make a number of fine recommendations that all "organizers" (and who "organizers" are needs to be problematized as I will explain later) would be encouraged to consider. This is the article's strength. It is important to publicize meetings in an effective and timely way; people who come to meeting to get involved should be able to get involved and incorporated into the work of the struggle; everyone is capable of being leaders (and in the truly empowering groups, everyone is a leader); and it is crucial for groups to have fun, and recognize and celebrate even (and maybe especially) small victories that have occurred specifically because they have united to fight for or against something. Even losing can be winning if the struggle leaves a legacy of people prepared to fight for principles, resources and dignity despite their apparent lack of power. I would like to thank Beckwith and Lopez for these suggestions and reaffirm the importance the authors placed on these elements of good organizing.

I have worked with many organizations--political parties, unions, community groups, local legislative bodies, etc. While it is important for people who are fighting for improved access to resources, better working conditions, or against exploitation and degradation to work collectively, I have found that organizations are not always the best mechanism for doing this. Often, as we may have learned from reading Max Weber or going to a "business" union meeting, the interests of the organization don't always match the interests of its members. I am currently working with a group of unionized custodians who have been "contracted out" to a private management company by our college Provost. The union negotiated with the college and the management company in an effort to maintain the best possible contract for the custodians and, despite losing certain benefits (like tuition remission and a good retirement plan), all of the custodian kept their jobs at present wages, health insurance, vacations, and union representation. However, the custodians are angry that they weren't involved in the process or adequately notified of the changes, and they wanted the union to fight the decision, not make it easier. While the community (staff, faculty, students, and interested community members) are fighting the decision, the union is dragging its feet in supporting our efforts. It's clear that either the company will try to break the union when the contract runs out (since they don't make any profits with the current arrangement) or the College will not renew the contract and, therefore, be free to hire new workers at reduced rates. In either case, what is a decent job with decent pay now, probably won't be in 18 months unless our coalition fights now. The union did not and will not (I'll explain this later as well) represent the workers well. The coalition may be successful, but it will never be an "organization."

My point here is that the kind of organizing our community is now engaged in is crucial but may not lead to the creation of an "organization" in the way that Beckwith and Lopez describe. At this historical moment, for this specific group, and in this particular community, however, the work we are doing is vital. It may lead to organizing more formal groups, but that is not the goal. Too often, Beckwith and Lopez fall into assuming "organization" as the goal (Booth's OOO). I disagree. We struggle for many things collectively and organizations may be "mechanisms." But they may not be and in those cases we are better off collectively organizing people in communities to act, not necessarily with an organizational goal in mind. In fact, I have become more and more convinced that the Anarchist theory of organizations that arise when needed and die when no longer useful may be a more effective way to think about organizing in general. Although the difficulty in this approach is knowing exactly when to save an organization and when to let it pass, it poses a different set of questions than the a priori assumption that organization building and maintenance is the primary goal.

Perhaps this point relates to another absence in the article, not so much of people but that of politics and power. In the first section, Beckwith and Lopez claim that organizing often means confrontation as the people "who could give [a community group] what they want, get jumpy" when the groups asks for it. Well, I'm not sure what the business execs, government suits, and agency fascists that Beckwith and Lopez have confronted were like, but the ones that I've been lucky enough to confront have been more than jumpy. I don't see where in the authors' article a group undertakes the serious and difficult process of research and strategy on the politics and power involved in any particular struggle. All members of a group should be responsible for multidisciplinary research efforts and all members should be encouraged to participate in strategizing and planning. Each situation entails a myriad of economic and political interests that cannot be funneled through a formulaic approach that assumes the priority of organizational development. In fact, I would refocus the goal towards human development in which all members of the group became as knowledgeable and sophisticated as possible on the issues and strategies concerned. This emphasis slows the process down and often means pursuing an inefficient organization, but the results may be a more powerful group of people prepared to act not only collectively, but also cooperatively in the sharing of ideas, options, and solidarity.

Finally, on this issue of organizational focus, I find too much overlap between the formal community organizations that the Beckwith/Lopez model offers and the kind of service delivery they discuss. After all, most service agencies believe they, too, are helping people in need of assistance reach a position where they will no longer need it but can do for themselves.The organizer who goes into a community to encourage people to join a group in hopes of strengthening an organization, as these newly organized people become leaders themselves, seems to be offering a service where a "volunteer" buys into the group's promise of eventually satisfying a "self-interest." (I much prefer Lappe and Dubois idea of relational self-interest--see The Quickening of America, by Moore and Lappe). There is a troubling dynamic established by the idea of "volunteers" and "organizers" where the organizer works from the volunteers' collective self-interests because those are the effective foundations for building an organization where people might commit themselves because they believe those interests will be realized. On the flip side, the organizer's only interest, therefore, must be the organization since Beckwith and Lopez ignore any other discussion of why organizers' do what they do. Essentially, there seems to be a tension between the power of expertise and organizational identification on the one hand, and community identity/authenticity and membership on the other. This tension leads me to the second part of my comments.

Theory and Practice

If we problematize the identities of "organizer," "leader," and "volunteer," a number of important issues start to appear. First of all, who is the organizer and what is her/his political interests? Is this person also a member of the community and in what fashion? Who are leaders and how are they "developed?" I've worked with organizers who have followed many of the kinds of methods that Beckwith and Lopez have offered and have understood leadership development as the way in which volunteers are trained to take on the tasks of organizational maintenance and formulaic political strategies. Ambitious volunteers learn to call other volunteers and give raps; write press releases and talk to media; give personal narratives at press conferences and public hearings; etc. The work of research and strategy, political evaluation and tactical analysis remains the work of those who actually "run" the organization. This description may be exaggerated, but I believe the power differentials between "organizer" and "leader" and "organizer" and "volunteer" is just too important to leave unexamined in describing effective community organizing.

And this specific theoretical target--the deconstruction of language like "organizer" and "volunteer"--is part of a larger theoretical question of power and politics. Some important historical and cultural work on major social movements has recovered the significance of informal politics--the kinds of neighborhood networks and institutions that we rarely perceive as "political"--and the roles than have played in larger struggles. Much of this work has been inspired by Feminist Theory and Women's History, but also by African American Studies and anthropologists who have highlighted what James Scott called "the hidden transcripts" of social struggle found not in the records and histories of organizations, but in the lived practices and discussions of people's everyday lives. Good organizers (and I'm sure Beckwith and Lopez would agree) understand this political realm to a degree as they are often careful not to "step on anyone's toes" who may already be involved in certain issues. But there is no place in the article's proposals to really HONOR or build coalitions from the work that falls into this realm of political activity. To work from this type of humility and approach calls on different practices that cannot be formalized in a manual. While some of the necessary skills might be learned (listening, for one), the techniques and tasks must emerge from the activity of the group as it forms bonds of trust and creates what I've discussed elsewhere with colleagues as "communities of commitment." In fact, there is no group or organization, and certainly no organizational goals, that can precede this part of the approach.

In the end, I can't help but feel that there is an attempt in this article and the school of organizing it represents to "professionalize" the field of community organizing. And this process of professionalization might remind us of the arguments that some historians have made concerning the death of the civil rights movements at the hands of an institutionalization process where important community and movement leaders became professional neighborhood organizers and bureaucrats. In the example of our college's custodial unit and its union organizers, this process of professionalization and institutionalization has increased the distance between organizer/union rep and the rank-and-file. On the one hand, the union rep no longer really knows his members and their lives; on the other hand, the members have come to expect that, despite meetings, shop stewards, grievance procedures, etc. the union should represent their interests and they are no longer responsible for the fight. The focus on organization has disempowered both the individuals and the collective.

The custodians will not find adequate representation, partly because of this distance between the "official positions" of members and reps, but also because of the issue of race and experience. Organizers and union reps are white in our area and most of the custodians are Black, Native American, and recent immigrants. The lived experiences of the members are not a part of union people's methods and strategies. Even if reps/organizers "listened better," they would still be outside of the culture and political economy of these local workers' lives. I do NOT mean to say it would be impossible to revamp the organizational structure of the union, but I would argue that it would have to start from the kind of processes I sketched above in building a community of commitment.

I would also suggest that instead of formulaic organizing we consider more case-specific political research and community study that allows us to build groups based more on the bonds of collective engagements and collaborative work, not on door-to-door canvassing and task mastering. I guess I prefer more case-based studies where the complexities of power and politics can be fleshed out as particular models to absorb or disgard from. The manual approach seems to ignore too much of these complexities and the issues of power involved in organizing and politics involved in the community.

Without thinking about theoretical questions of power and politics within the community organizing effort, It is too easy to fall victim to the problems raised during the Miller/Delgado discussions that appeared earlier in the year. It's not just a question of identity politics or organic intellectuals and political movements (although these are important aspects of the discussion). It's also about rethinking what our goals are. In responding to this article, I've focused mostly on what the implications and ramifications of an "organizational premise and focus" might be. In no way have I intended to imply that organizations (formal or informal) are BAD things. Yet, organizations that take on a service model in their work (and even in their organizing methods) have led to the disempowering of many local and national movements where people once again have let others represent them instead of standing up for themselves. Both theoretically and practically I'd prefer to start with people and the political situations we face instead of organizations and their interests in organizing.

************************************* COMM-ORG: The On-Line Conference on Community Organizing and Development


Return-path: <owner-comm-org@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU> Date: Tue, 15 Apr 1997 14:23:27 -0400 From: Randy Stoecker <> Subject: Beckwith-Lopez discussion Sender: H-Net/H-Urban Seminar on History of Community Organizing & <COMM-ORG@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU> X-Sender: To: COMM-ORG@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU Reply-to: H-Net/H-Urban Seminar on History of Community Organizing & <COMM-ORG@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU> Approved-By: Randy Stoecker <rstoeck@UOFT02.UTOLEDO.EDU>

[Stephen Barton's comments on the Beckwith-Lopez paper/manual, like Corey Dolgon's, raise a number of broader issues about community organizing.]

From: Stephen Barton <>

March 8, 1997

COMMENTS from Stephen Barton on: "COMMUNITY ORGANIZING: PEOPLE POWER FROM THE GRASSROOTS" by Dave Beckwith with Cristina Lopez

This is an exemplary, well-written summary statement of what is considered community organizing practice. As such, it seems to me that it exemplifies some of the serious limitations of contemporary community organizing. These limitations do not mean that people shouldn't do community organizing, but rather that organizers and community leaders need to learn about and clearly understand these limitations to community organizing in order to take additional steps that will also be necessary.

The following comments elaborate on my views. My own perspective comes from my politics (democratic left), education (Ph.D. in City & Regional Planning), occupation (City planner), current experience as an officer in a City worker union, and past experience as a community activist and advocate. I have never been an organizer, although I have seen a lot of organizers in action.

Electoral Strategies

The range of strategies listed omits electoral campaigns entirely. The omission of electoral work is particularly serious for those of us in California and other states with the initiative and referendum. I work in Berkeley, California, population 105,000 where a small group of committed people can easily put a measure on the ballot for everyone to vote on. Berkeley is the size of what many people consider neighborhoods in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, even San Francisco. I live in a nearby City with a population of 17,000 people, scarcely more than a neighborhood in Berkeley. There, I would say our city government is a neighborhood association with governmental authority.

We have debates within our union over supporting candidates for office ("politicians can't be trusted" is the main slogan of those opposed), but no-one who is active in it argues that we shouldn't be involved in initative measures that directly affect us. Indeed, in California today obtaining services desired by a community, such as longer hours of operation for the public library, typically requires a 2/3 public vote to create a form of property tax called a parcel tax in order to raise the money to do it. (I comment later in on the limitations of activism that assumes there is already money and we just need to pressure government to redirect it more equitably to meet the needs of poor communities.)

The Role of Advocacy

Advocacy is unexplained and without examples, lumped in with service delivery. Really everyone does advocacy. Organizing is when you find a way to bring in the people directly affected so that they speak for themselves. In my own case, when I speak for the union alone at a City Council meeting I would say I am in an advocacy role, while when we bring out people beyond the officers to speak we are in organizing mode. Advocacy groups typically specialize and develop expertise on an issue or group of issues. The Western Center on Law and Poverty, the California Tax Reform Association, the Economic Policy Institute are all examples of advocacy groups with expertise. These are statewide and national groups that have expert advocates who can share their knowledge and point of view with community organizations. Sometimes there are local advocacy groups, and sometimes people don't understand the difference between an advocacy group and a community organization, but just as you need community organizing and community development, you also need advocate experts who know an issue area and can both apply their knowledge to the local setting, whether they are lawyers, planners, or nurses, and can also help the local community understand how they are connected to the state and national issues.

Building Institutions

"Building an institution" is different from organizing an organization. Our union is an institution. We have a contract that is legally enforceable and dues check-off that pays for trained staff who can the organization survives even when there is a downturn in rank and file participation. I'm not suggesting that there are not dangers from reliance on paid staff, or on dues check-off, and certainly the past 30 years of decline in the labor movement illustrate them very well. But unions are an institution, and institutions last a long time. Community organizing, as exemplified in the movements for union democracy, is something you need to do inside the institution once you have created it, in order to keep it democratic and active in its mission. But if you try to rely only on an ongoing high level of volunteer activity your organization will inevitably go through a low period and die, perhaps to be reborn. Direct community organizing rarely creates lasting organizations. The classic Alinsky model overcame this problem by organizing coalitions of organizations that are more stable, such as churches, businesses, and service groups, to sponsor the direct organizing.

What institution is the community organizing intended to build?

Middle and upper income housing developers frequently build permanent institutions, in the form of mandatory homeowners associations and condominium owners associations that own and manage common property such as recreation facilities, roads, and the buildings in which the condominiums are located. These organizations are financed by mandatory monthly assessments on all property owners in the development and controlled on the basis of one vote for each home owned, with renters excluded from the process. These organizations last, and their deed restrictions generally ensure that no-one will ever subdivide a large house into smaller rental units that would enable lower-income people to afford to move in. That's an institution, and not a pretty one.

In the area of housing we see limited-equity cooperatives, which are an equivalent form of institution that creates homeownership but also ensures permanent affordability for future generations, but rarely try to grow and expand. We see non-profit housing developers, who do try to grow and expand but don't do enough to involve their residents and too often are only socially responsible landlords. And there are organizations that try to do both. The community organizing perspective is frequently applied to get public support for more resources for community-based housing development, but is it applied to the residents of the housing development?

A major purpose of community organizing should be to build people's institutions AND to keep organizing within those institutions so that they remain democratic and their visionary mission stays alive.

Power and Self-Interest

The reference to "the science of power" is typical of the Alinsky tradition. Where is the science of democracy? In people's organizations people disagree. Where is the discussion of conflict resolution skills as an integral part of the organizing process. Yes, people need to learn to deal with conflict and confrontation with "outside" powers. They also need to learn dispute resolution, especially as the organization grows and some of those outside organizations get brought inside. As the organization grows the interests get more varied and keeping any focus other than the bland gets harder and harder. The section on developing a broader sense of self interest was very good, but focused on the "empowerment" needed for people to feel effective at broader levels and did not look at how to actually broaden their concept of self interest.

In Berkeley we recently had a major push by one block association to put in a traffic diverter to protect them from traffic. The result would have been to put traffic down another street. Planning staff held public hearings that brought out residents of the other street and the result was that the plan was dropped. City staff were, however, the target of endless complaints and attacks from people who wanted the diverter. The culture fostered by assertiveness training and community organizing over small "winable issues" has its ugly and abusive side. I enjoyed the stoplight story, but in a lot of cases, what people in the neighborhood think is the solution is not, or will cause problems for another neighborhood so that a broader problem-solving process is necessary.

The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) theory is that it's okay for each small group to fight to exclude things it doesn't like because if all neighborhoods are organized to keep out something bad, then business or society will have to stop producing it. This may work for nuclear power plants and perhaps for toxic waste. It doesn't work for traffic. People will not all give up on their cars and get on to transit lines, except in rare circumstances. It especially doesn't work for poor people and people in trouble. If a neighborhood stops a subsidized housing development or a group home for people with substance abuse problems, this society will not stop producing poor people or addicts in need of detoxification and rehabilitation. How does the organizer help the community organization determine which solutions are appropriate for the problem, when "keep-out" is appropriate and when a broader effort and cooperation among many communities is essential?

There is an implicit naturalism here, assuming that if people develop a broader view it will naturally be inclusive and progressive. I think you have to fight for and educate people on inclusiveness.

(Editing problem: After the Heather Booth quote the paper says CO is "NOT a technique for problem solving" and then goes on to talk about demagogues with a selfish need for power. The one does not follow from the other.)


I think there is an implicit model here that community organizing is done among low-income people who have less power than others in society and that anything that empowers them and gets them "more" contributes to a more equal and democratic society. That is true, but yields results that are terribly limited. Fighting slum landlords and getting them to fix a building will help only temporarily. There are few long-lasting tenant organizations at the building level and not many at the neighborhood level except in New York City. Buying slum landlords out and putting housing into some form of social ownership creates an organization that is lasting and changes the principles on which the housing is owned on managed. Yet interestingly enough, buying them out is less immediately confrontational than trying to force them to fix up the building. Then it depends on where local government gets the money, general revenues or a tax on rental property that is substandard or where rents are high, for example.

Links to Broader Issues

The section on selecting an issue is good, but similarly limited. Yes, "an issue is a problem that the community can be organized around", and there are global problems that are too big, but all issues have links to broader problems and organizers should think about where each issue can take them.

For the past 50 years, community organizers typically assumed that their role was to pressure government to redirect more equitably the adequate funds already available to meet the needs of poor as well as middle and upper income communities. In the 1990s, with government at all levels being starved of resources, incomes of the poor down and incomes of the wealthy up, we need progressive tax increase campaigns to increase government resources at all levels.

We might find broad agreement in many communities cutting the Federal defense budget and move more money into domestic needs, and in some communities on cutting the State prison budget and put more money into job training, but those are too global for local activism. Similarly, everyone can find things in the local government budget they disagree with and recipients of funding that are in their opinion less deserving, but in most areas local government is cut pretty far back, and everything has its constituency. If we just fight over a pie that's too small to start with, we'll never get anywhere.

It is not easy to come up with local progressive tax campaigns, or ways to hook them into broader state and federal demands, but it has been done. There have been important community organization campaigns against underassessment of business property, for example. In 1994, however, voters defeated a statewide initiative to amend California's property tax limitation to create a "split roll" in which business property would be reassessed at current value. Even more recently, in California the state legislature allowed an income tax surcharge on people making over $120,000 to expire. A union-sponsored initiative to keep the surcharge and rebate the money to local governments narrowly failed, with 49% of the vote in November 1996. Clearly that was a winnable campaign. We need to build local support and consciousness about the income tax and provide something local enough for community organizations to link up with. Local income taxes are banned in California, but "occupational license" taxes, which are similar to an income tax are allowed. Perhaps we can get local initiatives in places like San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Los Angeles to establish such taxes on peole with high incomes, with a provision that they will be eliminated if the state passes a new surcharge and rebates the money to local government. But I am going on in too much detail about my own pet idea here.

Tax issues will never be as immediate as the desire for the services that taxes can pay for, so a challenge for organizers in the next decade will be to develop links between their normal campaigns and campaigns to increase revenue to pay for what community organizations demand with-out simply taking services away from other communities that aren't as well organized. Now more than ever, tactics are not enough. We need strategy.