Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Organizing chaos

"Nowhere is the promise of organizing more apparent than in the traditional black churches. Possessing tremendous financial resources, membership and -- most importantly --values and biblical traditions that call for empowerment and liberation, the black church is clearly a slumbering giant in the political and economic landscape of cities like Chicago."

Barack Obama, "Why Organize? Problems and promise in the inner city" Illinois Issues, 1990.

Let's be clear: when you trash community organizing --at least in the case of Barack Obama -- you are belittling the church.

But on another note. Obama's article and much of the recent discussion about community organizing has focused on the people, power, and social justice side of organizing. I want to talk about two other elements that don't receive as much attention but represent a significant civic contribution of community organizing.

If you read Sanford Horwitt's biography of Saul Alinsky,Let Them Call me Rebel: His Life and Legacy what you see is Alinsky organizing the money side of things and ongoing support among the well-to-do class. Sounds like fundraising. Yes, that was part of it, but he was also building a support network that was vital for carrying out campaigns that were inevitably contentious. That tradition of organizing the powers-that-be remains critical in community organizing and in a broader range of civic organizing efforts. Too often we think that these powers are more organized than they really are.

When I worked in city government I learned several other important roles for community organizing. Community organzing helped government focus on social justice issues. With lots of pressing issues on the government plate, someone has to help organize the "attention" of government to focus on equity issues.It has a "focus" problem. In Nonprofit Leadership I talk about the inside/outside game of community organizing pressure and city government reform reinforcing each other's strengths and compensating for weaknesses. A conscious, sometimes unconscious synergy created more benefits.

The art of politics is the art of organizing. Our fragmented system of government and governance requires it if anything is going to get done. Private interests rely upon lobbying and other forms of influence. Community organizing is a more democratic, more transparent process of surfacing and promoting priorities.

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