TEN WAYS TO WORK TOGETHER: AN ORGANIZER'S VIEW
Center for Community Change
101 Main St., 2nd Floor
Toledo, OH 43605
Who I Am
The Top Ten Ways You Can Help: The "Skill Menu" for Useful
As I Read These Papers
Who I Am
My background as an organizer began when I left a perfectly good job in
a curtain factory in Holyoke, Mass. for a $55/week chance at learning from
Stan Holt in South Providence, RI what real organizing for change is about.
I had ended up in the curtain factory after a two-year off-and-on tour
of undergraduate duty at UMass in Amherst. I had a couple of interesting
"close encounters" with sociologists there that shaped my attitude towards
UMass was part of the "five colleges" collaboration with other schools
in the area, and we were allowed to cross-register at the others. Many
of my SDS cronies were taking Dr. Norman Birnbaum's "Class" class at Amherst,
so off I went. ZOW! BAM! BOOM! this was the real thing. Intellectually
stimulating, European-rigorous, Marx no longer the devil but a legitimate
authority...school is for real!. I took the whole business so seriously
that I worked my heart out. I hoped to unmask UMass' part in the ruling
elite's secret plan. I snuck into the classified library at MIT and copied
the secret directory of research contracts with the CIA, Dept. of Defense
and others. I rooted around in the land-grant college histories. I wrote
a paper called (ripping off the Harvard students who ripped off Domhoff)
"Who Rules UMass." One sociologist at UMass, exposed as part of the CIA's
targeting process in Cambodia, got in some trouble from us leftist antiwar,
anti-assassination crazies. And Birnbaum liked it! He sent it off to the
guy who "wrote the book" on state colleges, UMass in particular, David
Riesman. He got back a scathing attack on my paper - "typical of the Old
Mole, Ramparts Magazine yellow journalism" is the phrase that stuck with
me. I knew then that, though I might have some fun in this business, sociology
was not for the faint-hearted. I also learned that sociologists play both
sides in the struggle.
My friend Randy Stoecker asked me to work on this project, though, not
because of what I know about sociologists (I am, after all, the proud holder
of a card issued for the 1991 Cincinnati ASA convention that certifies
me as a 'non-sociologist'). Rather he knows I've toiled since 1971 as a
migrant worker in the fields of social change. As a community organizer,
I've done training and technical assistance, been an Executive Director
and, for five years, was a part-time Research Associate at the University
of Toledo's Urban Affairs Center. Our mission was to connect the University
to the task of solving Urban Problems. With the other half of my time,
I worked for the Washington, DC-based Center for Community Change, providing
strategy, planning, organizing and development help to local community-based
organizations around the country. This September, frustrated with the contrast
between the fast rhythm of community action and the slow flow of the University
world and tired of balancing a Toledo agenda with the rest of the work
I was committed to through CCC, I went full time with the national job.
So I've seen the beast of Academe from pretty near the inside, and I've
tried my darndest over the years to connect up good people to do good work.
Randy Stoecker hopes I've learned something in the process.
So here goes.
The Top Ten Ways You Can Help: The "Skill
Menu" for Useful Partnerships.
1. Be quick. If you can't be quick, at least be honest. If the fight
against the landfill needs the land value study in time for the hearing,
and the hearing is a week from Tuesday, tell them if you can't deliver.
Better yet, make the time. It'll be fun. When Abigail Fuller quotes the
radical sociologists who did Movement work in the sixties and seventies,
there's an energy and vitality that is undimmed even by the years.
2. Listen. If you invite activists to speak to your class, take
them out for coffee beforehand and listen to what they say they need from
you. If you volunteer with a movement group, listen for the opportunity
to bring your academic and professional skills to bear. If you're really
ambitious, put together an intentional system for listening to activists
in your field - visit folks, hold a meeting, do a survey. But be prepared
to follow through. Good relationships are built by delivering on what you
say you care about. The community organizers and developers that Randy
Stoecker worked with in Toledo's Working Group on Neighborhoods are forever
going to expect to be taken seriously by their academic partners, as Randy
took them seriously when he devised and carried out his study of the field
of community development in Toledo in 1989. When Randy has students in
his social movements course who need to talk to some real activists, he's
now got a dozen folks to send them to.
3. Don't just listen, participate. You should know what the right
questions are and offer that knowledge. You should respect the goals of
the group, but don't expect them to know the methods. You can write the
survey questions that get the answers they need. You can find answers --
or better questions -- when they face barriers. The homeless coalition
I work with in Columbus is trying to get money to organize the poor. They
were told by the funders that there are no models, that it would never
work. Somebody who knows about the base communities of South America and
the Philippines' experience in the shantytowns could help them make their
4. Know the sources. When a group is in a battle over an issue,
they want answers. You might not have them, but one of your skills is how
to use the tools of research: use Lexus, Nexis, searchable directories
and root around and find some help. Toledo's CDCs were struggling two years
ago to get a handle on the problem of jobs. We thought that, if we could
figure out what industry we have, maybe we could get the small manufacturers
together. The University researcher that opened the door to the databases
on manufacturing helped start a ground-breaking Flexible Manufacturing
Network. His list was the first, critical step.
5. Use your priestly power for good. I know, you don't like to put
that "Ph.D." after your name. A letter from Professor Jones, Ph.D., MS,
M.S.W., XYZ" could convince people they've really got somebody on their
side. In life, that matters. Ohio legislators funded a statewide Finance
Fund for community development initially, but they balked at a second appropriation.
The "market study" of Ohio non-profit, community based housing developers
that came from the Urban Affairs Center at the University of Toledo was
an important tool in the campaign. The study's legitimacy was as much a
factor of the University connection as its content.
6. Be creative. In the Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence,
Rhode Island, we had help from consultants and professionals to devise
a way to stretch money from CDBG to get the maximum 'bang for the buck."
We created a clever leveraging plan, to combine private market rate loans
from banks with one-time grants from city and federal money. We used Internal
Rates of Return, Leverage Ratios, lots of complex computations. That convinced
the bankers. In organizing, simple is good. We needed to convince the people,
in order to convince the politicians, so we needed simple. We came up with
a slapstick style street theater piece with the priest holding a little
box marked "city money", the mom holding a big box marked "bank loans"
and the fuel oil delivery guy who chaired our housing committee holding
a fulcrum labeled "Neighborhood Credit Plan", while three school kids waved
a long plank marked "leverage". It communicated in a way that the twenty-page
paper we had to back it up never could. Figure out dramatic ways to tell
the story the community needs told.
7. Use people. Information we gather ourselves belongs to us. Stoecker,
Gaventa and others have written about this. It takes longer, but it hits
hard. Barry Greever wrote the organizing book on this -- "Tactical Investigations
for Peoples' Struggles". We used it in Toledo when the city manager told
150 angry residents that the city budget just had to be slashed, and they
could never understand its complexity well enough to understand why. This
attitude pissed people off, and we began the City Budget Study Committee,
twelve regular folks who met twice a week -- once with ourselves, once
with the City Budget Director. We asked questions until we DID understand
and developed six specific recommendations to loosen up funds to mitigate
the cuts they'd offered. Our "experts" could talk their "experts" into
the ground. Backed by angry fellow residents, we turned the cuts around,
got written pledges of benefit to neighborhoods from a proposed tax, and
passed the tax. If we had had the City Budget Study done FOR us, it would
never have been our fight. We could have used help, but the "do with" kind.
8. Help us get ahead of the curve. Community organizing gets rapped
as reactive. Most of the time people are exercised about the immediate,
of course, but have a pretty good idea of the trends and the future. You
could help test that sense and validate it. The best example I know of
came from Boston. In the late '70s, economics and demographics combined
to cause pyrotechnics. Vacant (and sometimes not completely vacant) buildings
were burning by the dozen. The Symphony Tenants Organizing Project (STOP)
got somebody with a computer and figured out a model that predicted with
stunning accuracy the buildings at risk. They and the city and the insurance
companies targeted the buildings first. The owners, under scrutiny and
pressure, sold or renovated instead of burning.
9. Look to all your work for opportunities to help. Many of these
papers refer to research as the only tool available to sociologists. Certainly
organizing takes lots of research. But an organizational development specialist
could do an organizational checkup or a training for a Board of Directors.
A writer could help put our grant reports together. Most academics are
teachers, too. Both Lee Williams and Sam Marullo refer to this part of
the work. The most serious shortage in movements for social change and
building community is the people to make it happen. Teachers can help open
minds to injustice, they can hold up true pictures of successful change
that give hope, they can motivate individuals and open up the possibilities.
When I left UMass, I went to Mike Best, the economist whose job the students
had fought to save. I told him I had to get out, to start making a difference
right now. He suggested the United Farmworkers. If I'd taken him up on
that, I might have avoided a year in the curtain factory.
10. Pecca Fortiter! Sin bravely! Revolution, rebellion, even community
organizing are all messy. People will misinterpret your motives, they'll
blame you unfairly, you'll get it wrong sometimes. Engage with those who
are engaged, and push for real results to your work. The education is satisfying.
The mess is worth it.
As I Read These Papers
As I read these papers, I was seized with a nearly uncontrollable urge
to shout "Lighten Up!" With a couple of exceptions (Fals-Borda, Gedicks)
nobody here seems to be having any fun! Most frightening of all to me was
the tendency to adopt the stance of the martyr. Participatory Research
as a field is probably not going to come into its own around a slogan like
"Join us, suffer and get canned"!
It seems to me, there are three important questions that a person asks
as a sociologist concerned about change. First, what's the best place to
be to accomplish social change? Second, what's the best place for ME to
be? Finally, what can I do from where I am?
The last is probably the most important for this journal, and for those
reading it. I might argue that we need bright, committed folks as full-
time organizers, but I know that the investment that people have in their
career and their pride in their work say they're going to stay with a sociology
job, teaching, researching something, working when they can with a network
of like-minded folks. I respect these constraints, and I like the writers
of these papers best when they show self-respect and political realism
like Amy Hubbard: "Activist work can be grand and glorious. More often,
it is simple and, one hopes, occasionally satisfying."
These papers sometimes offer very direct contrasts. There are two paradigms.
One presents the activist academic, valiant and valorous, risking and often
harming their career by controversial involvement outside their field of
academic pursuit, properly humble, politically subordinate to the outside
partner (Hubbard, Fuller). The other (Fals-
Borda) offers the picture of lively, shameless intellectuals, able, negotiating
the application of skills in a way that is mutually useful to themselves
and the outsider, open to learn but also to teach. I think the latter represents
a more sustainable approach.
The sustainability of the activist is certainly one of Randy Stoecker's
concerns. His sense of time hearkens back nostalgically to social movements
that swept us up in their energy, and drew stark contrasts and forced hard
choices. Certainly there have been wild times, and veterans are often forgiven
their nostalgia for the 'big war'. My experience with his work belies the
tone of wan longing for the good old days that I hear in some of his writing.
Randy has always seen his job as supporting today's social justice and
community groups, and building the skills of activists who can build tomorrow's
Movement. Every real life organizing experience is messy - maybe the kind
of documentation of the 'mess' that Stoecker and I have done regarding
Toledo's community groups leads people to believe that these have been
failures, that they don't live up to the standards of the '60's. As he
says: "Many of these efforts, perhaps mine in particular, do not look like
the heady high-tension social activism of the 1960's." To really power
the engines of change, though, we need a less explosive fuel. It's step
by step, issue by issue, leader by leader, member by member community and
issue organizing that will change this country, and the right wingers'
have found their way into this maze. The progressive activists who sit
around waiting for the past to re-emerge will be left behind. The energy
that Randy Stoecker has shown for the practical as well as the theoretical
is what sets him - and others like him - apart for me.
Stoecker hits the core of the question for me in his article when he says
that, "When only the victims know the situation and only the sociologist
know the theories, both forms of knowledge are weakened." It's this mutual
need that forms the basis for a dignified, respectful, useful relationship
between activists and academics. If we each acknowledge the possibility
we might learn from the other, we'll get along fine.
It's also clear from many of these papers that there's a cross- cultural
aspect to the communication between academics and activists. Gedicks had
to negotiate a way through the outsider status of being a non-
native. Peller and Parks recognize that, being FROM the community they
serve, there's less of this. I wondered, though, whether they are still
OF that community. Do people treat them differently to their face? Do they
see the tension of inside/outside as applying to themselves? Gedicks was
legitimized, in part, by the ham-handed thugs from Kennecott and RTZ corporation
who went after his job. I'd bet that the Native American partners he serves
saw the admiration he got from like minded colleagues as part of the "compensation"
he gets for his work. I wonder if they care or know about his academic
Thomas Jenkins talks about insider baseball, and it looks to me like the
kind of specialization that leads to the kind of job creation that old-line
unions and guilds have always been good at. It made me wonder: are planners
just planners, or does it matter for whom you work? Some of the "Applied
Sociology" he cites sounded so top/down, like the capitalist/social work
of Henry Ford's "welfare" system for workers that pried into and prescribed
every aspect of life. In the end, I wonder if these planners were driven
as much by their commitment to their profession as their commitment to
Sam Marullo recognizes the teaching aspect of the academic job description.
Service learning, though not all that new, is certainly a good way to test
skills, learn street wisdom and do some good. It makes me wonder, though:
if service learning is the laboratory equivalent of a liberal arts program",
what does that make us, the dead frogs? Service learning must always heed
Fals-Borda's attitude of mutual respect, "The results of Participatory
Research are open to validation and judgment...not only by fellow scholars
and bureaucrats...but also by the opinion of the subject peoples themselves."
It is certainly useful to have the menu of approaches to service learning
laid out. It would be helpful to hear more about how he sees folks deal
with the patronizing attitude of teacher/social worker/helper/expert and
what tools have been used to overcome this tendency. I agree with Marullo
that service learning can be revolutionary for both the community and the
academy, but only if each party learns from the other and from the experience.
Lee Williams challenges activist academics to turn back towards their function
as teachers, not just researchers who work with community groups on the
side. He quotes one of the giants of popular education of this century,
Myles Horton: "You have to trust the people, you have to love the people,
and you have to care for the people." Powerful guiding words for this whole
endeavor. Williams has a lot of good ideas about how to teach and learn
at the same time, for example listening to culture to find the seeds of
resistance. He calls this, "taking seriously the cultural capital of the
oppressed." Williams takes a step, in all this democracy talk, that may
frighten some. He suggests, "We must stop reproducing existing power relations
and move toward the goal of promoting democracy in the classroom, the community
and in society at large." Fighting words, and well worth listening to.
Park and Pellow write two interesting stories. Certainly both stories ring
true. Nobody works in a community group without confronting the factionalism,
interpersonal dynamics, mistakes and disagreements that make for reality.
This topic -- what role the activist academic might play in these situations,
and how the presence of an "observer" changes the action -- deserves a
lot more thinking. No group is perfect. In the environmental movement,
the race and class tensions that erupted into the "Environmental Justice"
movement have been exploited by polluters and government to drive a wedge
between groups that could have more power if they worked together. Activist
academics need, as Park and Pellow say so well, "intimate knowledge of
[the] arenas of loyalty."
Gedicks gives us a story of his own journey from a naive politics of crisis
to a more mature, equal, dignified, mutual relationship with community.
"We assumed that, if the American people understood exactly what American
corporations and the American military and the CIA were doing in Latin
America, they would demand fundamental change..." later becomes: "This
citizen activist victory stunned the nation's largest copper company and
reinforced my belief that informed and politically organized communities
could in fact challenge the power of multinational corporations." What
an education! I respected Gedicks for his humility and openness. He shares
with us the mistakes as well as the victories, and we learn about how he
learns from his work. One key factor in his successful relationship with
the Sokaogon Chippewa was the invitation, which grew over time. He was
asked to help, he helped, he was asked to help some more, and the relationship
built. The legitimacy and trust he built must also have been helped by
the resistance he faced from the powers that opposed the community. He
reports that the COACT research team was passionately attached to the cause.
This clearly helped, too. The whole effort was marked by building capacity
within the community -- the experts not only testified but held training
conferences to teach the activists and organizers what the science was
telling them. I was fascinated by his frank admittance that his own values
and agenda sometimes conflicted with some Native American leaders. I wanted
to hear more. I'd bet these were powerful, and mutually educational, battles.
Amy Hubbard focuses on the power of the priesthood and the relationship
between the doers and the talkers. She has clearly enlightened us that
an academic visiting a community organization is engaged in a cross-cultural
experience. Like any such encounter, a person first needs to understand
the culture she's visiting. Who sets up the chairs here? Do the men touch
each other? Do the women speak out? Then she needs to measure these cultural
norms against the core values she holds, and against the purpose of the
relationship. Does this end justify these means? Should I wear the chador
to get the interview? Do I let them pick up the coffee cups I leave behind?
Do I want to "join" -- be one of "them" -- or "help" -- do a task? Certainly
part of the answer is in the invitation - who asked me here, and to do
what? Whose needs are being met, mine or theirs? I can say from experience
that the question most often asked about a researcher who we have lined
up to help a group is "is their work getting done", not "does she do her
Abigail Fuller's paper was the most excruciating of all for me to read.
I was there, in the "New Left", and I remember all that angst, all that
intellectualizing, all those meetings, statements, position papers, manifestoes!
I think the Revolutionary Sociology Movement connected loosely to the sense
of "Movement" of the times. Like most of the "Movements" that connected
thusly to 'The Movement", it fell into internal strife and factionalism
and failed to connect to an effective organization working to accomplish
specific goals. As Tom Lehrer sang about the Spanish Civil War, though,
"They won all the battles, but we had all the good songs." The stirring
rhetoric, the Big Arguments, all seemed so important at the time. Maybe
they were. It's hard to believe, though, that the practical examples here
of good work done in a good cause -- writing the real story of the Black
Muslims, surveying readers of a community paper, studying banks and grocery
stores for a community group -- weren't a welcome relief from the ideological
Sturm und Drang. The FBI and the administrations that hammered Radical
Sociologists probably did us the most serious damage of all. They made
the most controversial work the most serious, and we spent time defending
jobs and principles, and missed the chance to build a practice of sociology
useful to social change. Fuller hits the nail on the head: "We must continuously
reflect on how we purport to further social change."
Orlando Fals-Borda talks to the Southern Sociological Society as a group
of old friends and tells some important stories. He is honest: "the hard,
earthquake realities encountered in the South had the effect of nibbling
at and undermining the neat Parsonian structure of action which we were
taught." He is clear: his four guidelines for field research and scientific
reporting made me want to dump my ten rules as too loose and unfocused.
He is unselfconsciously intellectual: I find his parallel between the chaos
theory and social science developments fascinating, and I wanted to run
out and grab a dozen books he mentions in passing. He has, finally, the
two best lines of this whole collection. "...I could not consider myself
a scientist, even less a human being, if I did not exercise the 'commitment"
and felt it in my heart and in my head..." I'll quote the second at the
end of this paper. First, I'll introduce another sociologist I've worked
Mark Lindberg was nowhere near the stature of Norman Birnbaum, my teacher
at Amherst. Mark taught at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., and
was the teacher who covered for an internship program that I ran as Director
of the New England Training Center for Community Organizers (NETCCO). Undergraduates
worked for a semester and a summer full-time as community organizers in
one of the Providence groups that were part of NETCCO. Once a week Lindberg
met with them, and they got full course credit and low wages. A number
of truly great organizers came out of this effort - - Ellen Ryan of Rural
Organizing is one. Lindberg had a curious attitude, new to me at the time.
He was truly excited about what the groups were doing. He wanted to learn
more, to talk to the do-ers, to write up what they were learning. He respected
the skills and interests of the volunteers in the groups, of the organizers,
of the students. I was intrigued. When the Holy Cross internship program
looked doomed, I offered him half what he could make in academia for the
chance to be the "Director of Training" for NETCCO. He jumped. For the
next year, Mark worked like a dynamo. He wrote training manuals -- mostly
interviews with practitioners, practical guides with lively stories. He
collected the "literature", published a bibliography and worked to make
community organizing of the door-to-door-agitation-kick-butt-raise-hell
type more broadly recognized by the people that study that sort of thing.
He trolled the halls of the Academy for like-minded comrades and hooked
them in to internships, externships, released time, all kinds of schemes.
When I lost him, it was to the Community Development program at Springfield
College in western Massachusetts where, for a time, he helped Scotty McTaggart
build a truly useful net of relationships that fed and nurtured social
change efforts in the region for many years.
I'll end these reflections with the second quote from Dr. Fals-Borda, which
expresses the best instincts of the activist, sociologist or not. "The
study of society is not worth the trouble if it does not help its members
to grasp the meaning of their lives and to move to action for progress,
peace and prosperity for all." Now that, I could march behind!