Monday, July 6, 2009

Something Big?

"How could actions so often under the radar screen amount to something big? How can the disparate efforts of a wide range of grassroots groups...shift national politics..?"

Manuel Pastor Jr.,Chris Benner, and Martha Matsuoka, This Could Be the Start of Something Big: How Social Movements For RegionalEquity Are Reshaping Metropolitan America

The authors talk about the "fog" of regionalism at the beginning of their book. Unfortunately, the "fog" doesn't lift very far by the end of the book -- although there are lots of good ideas and stories. The authors are to be commended for their honesty about their complex roles as researchers, advocates, and grantees and their willingness to surface disagreements and counterexamples.

I have a bunch of questions/concerns/isues about the book -- and thus with the notion of "something big." On the whole, I must admit, I'm on their side of the argument.

1)Several times the book pivots off of David Rusk's critique of community development corporations(CDCs) -- that they haven't done much about poverty alleviation. Regional equity strategies have been around long enough that they should face the same question. Little is said about impacts people. At some point, it's not enough to invoke policy, etc.

2. Regional equity strategies and the "regionalist" component seem to cover too much ground. For example, there is a conflation of social justice and regional equity stategies -- most living-wage ordinances are not regional; nor are community benefits agreements.

3. Little is said about other regional (or city) equity strategies that don't have a social movement base. Think of regional mobility or open housing strategies like Gatreaux. Or think of mayors like Norm Rice or William Johnson or Harold Washington.

4. The LA story is a great story -- one we should all seek to learn from. Some of the other examples are not so well put together. For Milwaukee, for example, the Milwaukee Jobs Initiative as an institution was put together because two young conservative operatives infiltrated the Campaign for Sustainable Milwaukee and wrote it up for the Wall Stree Journal. This was during the "school choice wars" in Milwaukee. The Chicago story about the "green line" also does not inspire a lot of confidence -- sometimes the Chicago "El" is called a commuter line or light rail. Why is this a case of regional equity? Some data would have helped.

5. The story about community organizing over seventy years involves ever-expanding geographic domains -- from industrial white-ethnic neighborhoods, neighborhoods of color and changing neighborhoods, citywide campaigns, and regional organizing. And don't forget the national organizing around CRA that started in the late 1960s/ early 1970s and various versions of state-based citizen action. The authors don't offer a very nuanced version of this evolving story. It would be a mistake to think that the regionalist frame provides the only "structural" dimension of organizing.

6. Sometimes I got the feeling that this book was another in a long line trying to advocate the LA paradigm and experience as super-relevant for the rest of the U.S. Maybe, maybe not. LA certainly provides the most full-blown example, but there isn't much discussion about the traveling power of the whole model and experience, although I think a lot of lessons could have been drawn out. Of course, what do LA, Chicago, or NYC really have to say to all those cities and regions down the metro hierarchy?

7. My final question is about the future. With a new focus on energy efficiency, renewables, etc., lot's of people are talking about the irrelevance of the suburbs down the line and the density assets of cities. What's the balance of regional equity and holding onto a long-term economic assets? This gets played out in a lot of strong-market cities in which regional equity provides one rationale for emptying cities of low-income people and communities. These are not necessarily questions for this decade (although things are happening), but they certainly are relevant looking out a few decades.

So, in conclusion, any book that stirs up seven questions or more is worth reading and chewing on.

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