Is organizing democratic?
colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
Mon Jan 9 21:53:16 CST 2006
[ed: Richard and Margo contribute to the discussion.]
Richard Layman <rlaymandc at yahoo.com>
Sun, 8 Jan 2006 21:38:13 -0800 (PST)
colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
This is a tough question. There is the issue advocacy-campaign piece
and the capacity building piece. An organizer is likely to have a lot
of knowledge in what capacities are needed, how to deal with press,
etc. "The people" are likely to have experiences, etc., but less likely
to be able to draw out the meta-lessons and learnings necessary to (a.)
build capacity and (b.) articulate succinctly how these experiences
relate to systemic and/or structural problems.
At times it seems like an unsolvable dilemma.
If I do go on to get a PhD in planning, one of the areas I want to
develop as one of my specializations is the idea of reconceptualizing
planning as a field of enabling citizen engagement, since land use
issues are amongst the issues most likely to engage citizens at the
local level. At the same time, I believe in deliberative citizen
engagement. All experiences are valuable, but all such experiences are
not necessarily relevant or apt to the situations that come before us.
Knowledge is a good thing, and citizens do have some responsibility in
learning and exercising citizenly duties. What I endeavor to do with
each planning exercise is to draw out meta-learning and work to help
people apply such learnings to other situations that come up later.
E.g., I work on urban revitalization issues. Since most people in the
United States are imprinted (without recognizing or admitting such) with
a suburban development and land use paradigm that is automobile-centric
and automobile-dependent, when they apply this paradigm to urban/center
city issues, their solutions are likely to be inappropriate. It is my
duty to explain why. (cf. Jonathan Kozol _The Night is Dark and I am far
E.g., Someone I know is trying to get our neighborhood planning board
(that's not exacttly the type of body that it is but it's close enough
for this example) to call for a downzoning and other for a decent size
of the city that's becoming "Downtown East," but her suggestions, such
as 100 feet separating commercial from residential, don't make sense if
you believe in mixed use a la Jane Jacobs (_Death and Life of Great
American Cities_), or in areas separated from residential by a railyard.
So am I just supposed to step back and say "everybody's opinion is
equally valid?" or am I supposed to go over, once again, the principles
of urban design and successful center cities. Basically, I say the same
stuff over and over and over again. I'm okay with that though...
As a friend of mine said to me at dinner a couple weeks ago, "people
aren't empiricists." Since I am, and I want evidence to support
assertions even as simple as "people are always running stop signs on
Fifth Street", people are often surprised when I ask for and seek
evidence supporting such statements.
I am no expert on democracy. But I do believe that representative
democracy is different from "consultative" democracy or treating
citizens as customers rather than as the owners of democracy ("We the
People..."). It might not be participatory democracy, but if we hold
that up as the ideal, and constantly work to build the capacities of the
people we work with (and they of us), all we can do is to keep trying
"to form a more perfect union."
historic preservation and urban revitalization advocate
From: "Margo Menconi" <malyme at hotmail.com>
>2) Margo's quote from the evangelist is well-taken, but I'd like to
>dimension to it in light of the current discussion, which is that
>groups that engage in "organizing" are also membership-based
>and it is their members to whom they are ultimately accountable.
>groups may or may not involve non-members in decision-making,
>development and campaigns, but they must, almost by definition,
>the voice of their members over the voice of non-members. In my
>ACORN falls very much in this mode of operation. As do most unions.
Of course, Richard is with ACORN so he should support their modus
operandi. On the other hand, it is interesting that they think they are
not there to help the neighborhood, per se (if I read you right), but
the membership. So the membership, which is identified by paying annual
dues, is really who ACORN serves. That's sort of elitist in my mind. I
mean, usually we think of membership-based organizations as being
self-serving. Examples of other types of membership-based organizations
are professional associations, membership-based clubs (including country
clubs), and the like. Is that what ACORN is? I generally thought of it
as serving a broader public. But maybe, now that you mention it, you
are right. But personally, I don't like it. My understanding is that
it basically comes down to money - ACORN doesn't want to take "tainted"
money that will make them serve outside interests, so in order to raise
the money they need, they require membership fees. And in order to make
people feel like they are getting something from their membership that
others don't get, they must ultimately serve the members, and not
outsider - other non-member community residents.
I still don't like this model, however, and I think that there are some
people (I was, however briefly an ACORN organizer) who would get
involved through donation of personal time, and perhaps later on become
dues-paying members. But they are never given that opportunity unless
they fork out the money upfront. I don't like that. Nevertheless, I do
think ACORN does some effective work.
Silver Spring, MD
colist at comm-org.wisc.edu wrote:
> This is a COMM-ORG 'colist' message.
> All replies to this message come to COMM-ORG only.
> [ed: Nathan is replying to Candee, Margo and Richard.]
> From: Nathan Henderson James <nathanhj at gmail.com>
> A couple of things I thought of in reading these comments:
> 1) Candee notes a tension between being asked to join an
> (and seemingly large-scale) campaign, and working closely with a few
> on issues that are importance to that group. It is an interesting
> How do you mobilze enough people to show that you have the power to
> your demands, at the same time that you maintain enough flexiblity to
> for new recruits (who often lack the perspective and history the
> leaders have from being there since the elevator was on the ground
> floor) to
> participate effectively and creatively?
> I don't have any real answers to this tension, but I do know that ACORN
> attempts to address it through its multi-issue structure and
> willingness to
> work on issues from the neighborhood to the national levels. Thus if a
> person joins because of a large-scale campaign that already has
> goals and demands, there is always another campaign that is much more
> malleable and susceptible to the input of the new member.
> Also most successful organizing operations, geographic community,
> union, or
> interest-based community, have mechanisms for ensuring that their members
> are engaged in creative actions in support of their campaigns. Campaigns
> that aren't designed to allow this aren't concered with developing
> building capacity, or building infrastructure. They are just
> interested in
> winning a specific issue on a specific timeline. And that's not
> That's campaigning. Which lots of organizing groups do in the course of
> pursuing their broader aims.
> 2) Margo's quote from the evangelist is well-taken, but I'd like to add a
> dimension to it in light of the current discussion, which is that most
> groups that engage in "organizing" are also membership-based
> and it is their members to whom they are ultimately accountable. These
> groups may or may not involve non-members in decision-making, leadership
> development and campaigns, but they must, almost by definition, privilege
> the voice of their members over the voice of non-members. In my
> ACORN falls very much in this mode of operation. As do most unions.
> 3) Richard's points about the influence of money in blunting organized
> opposition to development schemes are well worth remembering. Moreso by
> groups like ACORN which claim to speak for specific constituencies. No
> wants to see groups with such promise devolve to the level of NY's late,
> totally unlamented Liberal Party, which went from push progressive
> values in
> the electoral arena to being the personal patronage and influence
> maching of
> Ray Harding, willing to sell the ballot line to the highest bidder. To
> this gets back to the issue of accountability on the part of the
> organizations/uions doing the negotiating of the CBA's. And, of course,
> their power to enforce what's written down on paper.
> Interesting dicussion!
> Nathan Henderson-James
> Performance Poet
> Director, Strategic Writing and Research Department
> ACORN Political Operations and Project Vote
> 510-213-1970 cell
> nathanhj at gmail.com
> "I want to inject your blunt caustic observations between my toes so that
> some day my truth will kick someone's ass!"
> colist at comm-org.wisc.edu wrote:
>> This is a COMM-ORG 'colist' message.
>> All replies to this message come to COMM-ORG only.
>> [ed: Candee, Margo, and Richard continue the discussion.]
>> Quoting Randy:
>> > Ed: Like Candee, I have seen the strengths of other models in
>> > 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
>> 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
>> change occur?
>> candee basford
>> From: "Margo Menconi" <malyme at hotmail.com>
>> I worked for ACORN for a bit and I was frustrated that they wouldn't
>> 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
>> for his method of evangelization is appropriate here: "I like the way I
>> evangelize better than the way you don't."
>> Margo Menconi
>> 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 a revelation.
>> 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.
>> Richard Layman
>> urban revitalization advocate
>> Washington, DC
>>> [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
>>> and how to support it, in this instance increased funding for special
>>> education services. The organizers message, "we know what needs to
>>> be done
>>> to make things better, just do it and then you can go away (until we
>>> you again)."
>>> those experiences of being organized feel a lot different than the
>>> when I've Participated in learning groups, when I've learned with
>>> over time, discovered my own powerful questions, took action and
>>> came back
>>> 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
>>> time, we quickly lost any certainty that there was one clear
>>> strategy to
>>> social change. We learned that improvisation was not only important
>>> 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
>>> 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
>>> 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
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