Is organizing democratic?
colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
Thu Jan 12 09:10:43 CST 2006
[ed: Genevieve and Nathan continue the conversation, replying to
Richard and Margo's messages below. And thanks to all for the
fascinating, thoughtful, and important discussion.]
From: "Genevieve Borich" <email at genevieveclare.com>
I am actually doing my planning doctoral work on this as well. I am calling
them informal planning networks. See
I am trying to merge social network theory and planning theory.
Great to know there are others out there interested in this sort of idea!
University of Illinois Doctoral Candidate
From: Nathan Henderson James <nathanhj at gmail.com>
More good points here from Richard and Margo. Again, I should note that
although I use "we" throughout my message in refering to ACORN, I am
speaking only for myself and not for the organization. It should be
pretty obvious, as Margo points out, that I do carry a strong ACORN bias.
Herein I Address Richard's Points:
I think Richard's examples point out the roll that "experts" can play
within a campaign or within organizing. Both an issue-area expert such
as an urban planner, and a skills-expert such as an organizer.
It seems to me that the roll of the skills-expert (henceforth
"organizer") should be to impart as many of those skills as possible to
the group/community's leadership and membership. Formal leadership
development trainings are a part of this process, as is one-on-one
conversations, assistance with developing agenda's, rollplays,
discussions of "what ifs", and debreifs, among a host of other things.
If the organizer is doing her job correctly, then these processes will
build skills that members and leaders can use to direct their campaigns,
speak for themselves and, in some stellar cases, be seen by the
mainstream as the experts on a rage of issues.
Part of the job of the organizer is also to ensure that members are
well-versed on the particulars of the issue(s) they are tackling. So
workshops with "experts" are essential to imparting specific knowledge
useful for shaping demands and campaign goals. Sacramento ACORN held a
series of workshops a few years ago for its members and interested
community members on the impact of sprawl on central cities and the need
for the idea of "equity" to be a part of smart growth planning efforts.
After that, a core group of ACORN leaders became the experts on equity
and smart growth and pushed campaigns emphasizing that linkage.
Herein I Address Margo's Points:
The question raised by Margo is a bit different in focus, looking as it
does on the relationship between who an organization claims to speak for
and who it is ultimately accountable to. In so doing she also touches on
funding issues and, in ACORN's case, the role that dues plays within the
Certainly many groups have both a membership and a constituency. In
community organizing (and hopefully labor organizing as well), the
membership is a subset of the constituency. In ACORN's case, we see our
constituency as low- and moderate-income generally, though in practice
this is basically low-income blacks and Latinos/recent immigrants living
in urban areas (as of this writing 99 in the US and 4 in Mexicao, Peru,
ACORN claims to speak for low-income people generally, seeing ourselves
as we do as a mass-based membership organizing, but we are directly
accountable to our dues-paying members. This is due in some part to the
fact that to be a decision-making member of the organization one needs
to be current on one's dues and in some part to the fact that ACORN
members generally see themselves as accountable to each other. Thus
decisions are made by the people who show up, but among the people who
show up the ones who are paying the freight for the organization call
Which brings me to the braoder question of dues. There are many
different apporaches to dues within organizing. Unions and many
community organizations see them as fundamental both to organization
survival and organizational independence. ACORN sees both these things,
but also sees something else. Dues-paying members are more commited to
their organization, more willing to take leadership roles, more willing
to do work, and have a stronger sense of ownership of the organization
than people who participate without paying dues. (Generally speaking, of
Thus ACORN asks members to begin paying dues immediately, seeing dues
both as a means of maintainig independence and thus accountability to
its members and as a sign of comittment on the part of the member to the
I should note that while in the past ACORN has focused very closely on a
specific definition of what makes a member in terms of willingness to
pay dues, over the past year or so we have been making a concerted
effort to broaden our definition so that we may involve more people in
the life of the organization.
In large part this has been allowed by the advances in database and
communcations technology so that the cost of communicating with our
members is going down. Our labor-intensive organizing model of
door-to-door contacts coupled with our generally small local operating
budgets has long meant focusing scarce resources where it made the most
sense: dues-paying members. We now have the luxury of working with
people who aren't as willing or able to make a full dues commitment when
we first talk to them by offering them the option of becoming either
associate or provisional members in addition to full members.
We can now communicate with our members using e-mail, text messages, and
robo calls, in addition to our retail neighborhood presence. We hope
that getting interested people into our database and then following up
using a variety of these communication techniques will allow us to do as
Margo wishes: accept what people are able to do immediately and then,
over time, win their commitment to full member status.
Overall, this discussion of membership recruitment, organizing model,
resources and related issues is rare, at least to my knowledge. The only
converstaion I can recall about this was one I had a few years ago with
a Poli Sci prof about the "freeloader" question in organizational
sustainability. But then maybe I'm not going to the right bars... 8-)
Director, Strategic Writing and Research Department
ACORN Political Operations
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!"
> [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 from home_)
> 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
> 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."
> Richard Layman
> historic preservation and urban revitalization advocate
> Washington, DC
> From: "Margo Menconi" <malyme at hotmail.com>
> Nathan said:
> >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
> >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.
> Margo Menconi
> Silver Spring, MD
> colist at comm-org.wisc.edu wrote:
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