Is organizing democratic?
colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
Thu Jan 5 20:39:45 CST 2006
[ed: Candee, Margo, and Richard continue the discussion.]
> Ed: Like Candee, I have seen the strengths of other models in empowering
> members individually, but have also seen the weakness of those models in
> attacking power (you can view my paper with Susan Stall in the 1996
> COMM-ORG papers collection). There is a tension between individual
> empowerment, and campaign success. The organizers I know value both,
> but recognize that winning with an inexperienced community requires, at
> least for a time, the organizer to lead more than they might like.]
I haven't read the paper yet but plan to soon. Another difference that seems
to lies between individual/group action and an organized campaign is the
amount and quality of creative solutions or attempts that can be generated.
I'm thinking here of the work on positive deviance - in which people
(individuals and small groups) try things out. In the few instances when
I've been asked to support an organized campaign my biggest concern is the
rigid-ness and narrowness of the focused action. This makes it hard for
people to move around inside an idea or to take creative actions or even
discover and make visible underlying issues and assumptions if the
solution/action already set. And without that sort of learning can real
From: "Margo Menconi" <malyme at hotmail.com>
I worked for ACORN for a bit and I was frustrated that they wouldn't really
listen to anyone unless they became a member. In that respect I think there
is a modicum of un-democracy in their modus operandi. However, I will say
that a quote from D.L. Moody (19th century evangelist) upon being criticized
for his method of evangelization is appropriate here: "I like the way I
evangelize better than the way you don't."
Silver Spring, MD
E-mail: malyme at hotmail.com
[ed: ACORN has recently changed its membership practices to include
levels of memberships. You still need to be a paying member to vote,
but not to participate in the discussion.]
From: Richard Layman <rlaymandc at yahoo.com>
I am not that familiar with ACORN, but I do have some experience with
observing co-optation processes. I went back and read the original
DMIblog story, and it covers the same ground, not so much about ACORN,
but about Forest City Ratner's active program in soliciting-buying
support of community organizations, that I wrote about in a blog entry
on October 18th, 2005, based on an article in the New York Times.
("Money, Money Changes Everything" --
Dealing with developers is difficult for any community organization.
The same goes for community development corporations, which the
moderator of this list wrote about in an excellent paper in 1996 (in the
archives on the website associated with this list).
While not commenting about ACORN, I do know that the system of
negotiating community benefits is completely unstructured in DC, and
most neighborhoods wholly outmatched when it comes time to negotiate. I
think that the "system" is a massive violation of the equal protection
clause of the 14th Amendment, but lawyers I've run that argument by have
said that such Constitutional law arguments are extremely difficult to
win. In short, I say that most neighborhoods get negotiated out of
their underwear without even knowing it, and the Zoning Commission and
the Office of Planning provide little if any guidance in how to go about
equalizing the power dynamics.
I find that the best education on these broader issues is Harvey
Molotch's seminal paper "The City as a Growth Machine" (linked on my
blog) and the book by Logan and Molotch that grew out of that paper,
_Urban Fortunes: A Political Economy of Place_.
Rather than go back and forth about ACORN this or that, everybody on
this list would benefit far far more by reading that book. Here's what
I wrote about it in an amazon book review:
Molotch's basic argument is that previously, local government and
community studies focused on intra-elite competition and the like. His
major point was that regardless of differences of opinion within the
local political power structure, all in fact were united behind a
"growth agenda" directed to an intensification of land uses and an
increase in rents (the economics term, in the sense of the rentier
class). The book extends these arguments much further. For example, one
of the points made is about the "use value" versus the "exchange value"
of place. The latter is about making money off place, the former about
the intrinsic value of home, etc. The other major point (also in the
article) is the growth machine's "value-free development" ideology, that
growth is always good, adds jobs, etc. This book is as important to
urban studies as Jane Jacobs _Death and Life of Great American Cities_.
Whereas Jacobs focuses on design, density, and mixed uses; Logan and
Molotch focus on the
sociology, politics, and economics of local government. In the argot of
today, they focus on the "back story." Sections on the role of sports,
gambling, etc., in the growth machine efforts are no less worthwhile.
Any one who is active on local land use issues will find this book to be
I am not close enough to the situation or ACORN to say who is right or
not. What interests me more are the dynamics of the situation and how
these systems work, pretty much the same way, all the time.
This example is no different.
urban revitalization advocate
> [ed: thanks to Candee and Jerry for engaging the discussion.]
> From: Candee Basford <candee at bright.net>
> When I've been 'organized " to speak at hearings or write letters to my
> government I've felt conflicted. ON the one hand, I may have been
> for a brief time, in part because I did something new and bold like
> my way to the state capital or speaking in front of really important
> But later I felt like a pawn because I was literally told what to support
> and how to support it, in this instance increased funding for special
> education services. The organizers message, "we know what needs to be
> to make things better, just do it and then you can go away (until we need
> you again)."
> those experiences of being organized feel a lot different than the times
> when I've Participated in learning groups, when I've learned with others
> over time, discovered my own powerful questions, took action and came
> together again and again to learn more about what just happened.
> IN those times, I found power from within and power with others. I
> discovered how to move forward in spite of the muck. I discovered
> where to
> invest my energy as I became more clear about what mattered. At the same
> time, we quickly lost any certainty that there was one clear strategy to
> social change. We learned that improvisation was not only important but
> necessary if we really expected anything new to happen.
> A note to myself here - that first experience, the one of being
> organized to
> increase special education funding resulted in just what the organizers
> wanted - increased funding. Indeed, because of that increase in funding
> more professionals were hired but, as far as I can tell, nothing much
> changed for people with disabilities.
> Seems to me that the two experiences invite different perspectives of
> people & problems - invitation and approach.
> Candee Basford
> 3320 Buck Run Road
> Seaman, Ohio 45679
> (937) 695-9145 (fax)
> From: jerryhoffman <jerryhoffman at earthlink.net>
> What's the motive here? Is it to talk about whether organizing is part
> of the democratic process? That answer seems too obvious. Is this a
> critique of an organization's involvement in organizing? That is, if an
> ACORN fell out of a tree, and people weren't there to notice that it
> fell, would there be any organizing? Of course there would. People
> organize because they're being screwed in someway, by someone, and they
> want to turn-around that set of circumstances. By doing so, they turn
> the position of power to be more favorable to them. That's empowerment.
> If an organization has its own agenda that is not indigenous to the
> people, then this turns from organizing to coercion. People are being
> coerced, not organized, for the organization to win something. This is
> just another form of power. People who must live daily with the
> consequences of organizing must make all the decisions along the way.
> Whether the issue is housing, loan sharks, health care, corporate raid
> of education funding, whatever, the people who benefit from the results
> of organizing are the leaders, the researchers, the messengers, the
> public correspondents, the informants, the agitators, the negotiators,
> the winners.
> If an organization is confused about this, then they're selling out the
> self-interests of that community, and should consider either reframing
> its role or dissolve. That's a dangerous game to play with peoples
> Jerry Hoffman
> Lincoln, Nebraska
> They don't need ACORN , and would that organizing lead to direct
> actions and wins for community folk?
> From: Benjamin Shepard <benshepard at mindspring.com>
> what is acorn doing? is it
> democratic? is it empowering people?
> [ed: I don't know the source of the blog about ACORN, or its accuracy,
> but I do know the critique, and it has been leveled at organizers
> since the day Alinsky gave his first press interview. Should
> organizers simply organize or do they get to lead as well? When is a
> deal a sellout? Who gets to decide, and at what level, in community
> organizing? There are no easy answers, but it is a worthy discussion.]
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