Is organizing democratic?
colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
Fri Jan 13 13:57:47 CST 2006
[ed: Stephen continues the discussion]
From: StephenMeacham at aol.com
A few brief thoughts on the discussion.
It's impossible to evaluate questions like the role of the organizer,
the contradiction between campaign success and empowerment, and methods of
leadership empowerment, without having an analysis of the system we live
especially as regards the market, property, etc.
I'm a tenant organizer. If I go to a first meeting where people have
gotten a $400 rent increase and ask, "What do you want to do?" People
say, "I want time to move." "The landlord doens't keep the place up so it
isn't worth the increase." Etc. Very possibly, no one will question the
fundamental right of the landlord to increase the rent. Questionning
this right is
crucial to tenant organizing. But if I go to the meeting, lay out a
analysis of why people have the right to challenge the role of property and
market, and then ask what do people want to do, invariably they want to
People are not primarily disempowered by lack of skills, lack of
experience, etc. They are primarily disempowered by the enormous
at the disposal of private wealth and power. That propaganda machine
infuses our culture with unquestioned assumptions that, if not
successful organizing. The role of the organizer is to pick short term
issues, tactics and strategies, which allow challenges to thos e
rise organically out of the work. That is certainly leadership; it is
very empowering indeed.
Political and economic power in our society is primarily held by
private, not governmental, officials. It is the struggle against
power which most requires the kind of organizing ever so briefly described
> From: "Genevieve Borich" <email at genevieveclare.com>
> I am actually doing my planning doctoral work on this as well. I am
> 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!
> Genevieve Borich
> 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 organization.
> 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, and Canada).
> 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 the shots.
> 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 course.)
> 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 organization.
> 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
> 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
> 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-)
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