Finale: Robert Fisher on Community Organising in the 1980s

Community Organizing in the Conservative 1980s — exciting stuff (though we’ve been through the late 1800s through 1946, the 1960s, conservative organizing in the 50s and 60s, and the 70s). The chapter opens with a fabulous quote:

We live in a society that is like a house on fire, and it’s arson. (Heather Booth, organizer, p 168)

Ah, the 1980s. My lifetime. Reagan and economic crisis, the reemergence of voluntarism, agreement amongst community activists that there has been a movement away from dissent and confrontation. There is now talk about how organizing¬† is no longer ‘against’, instead it is ‘for’ something, it is increasingly about establishing common ground, political partnerships, moving into development, CDCs and ’empowerment’ though seems like they are doing less of that in a radical way. But on the positive side you have ACORN and City Life staying radical, there is increased thinking about cooperatives etc

You also see the rise of the neoconservative movement building on some lessons from community organizing. Fisher writes:

The neoconservative movement, in fact, sees itself, not the New Left and new social movements, as the true proponent of “the community revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s.

They are the ones giving ‘power back to the people’ (178)

Fisher describes a process in which the IAF has shifted to faith-based organizing as part of a move to understand people need more than self-interest but continues trenchant in his critique:

The strategy of moderation, the commitment to moderates, the grounding of IAF efforts in mainstream religious institutions, and a definition of power that emphasizes relationship building leads to a politics that limits the parameters of IAF work and excludes alliances with other movement activists and organizations. It encourages IAF to work alone with its constituency and mainstream allies and avoid confronting the causes of the imbalance of power that oppresses its constituents. (196)

On the other hand, ACORN continues to follow a social justice movement model, committed to radical ideology and confrontational tactics. It has a clear political program. Its “people’s platform” emanates from–but goes beyond–neighborhood politics to integrate both a constituency and class-based mode of organizing and critique of American political economy.

There are also some new developments, a raising of critiques around the intersectionality of oppressions (my words there).

There is the founding of CTWO, the Center for Third World Organizing, where I did some training myself and love well (more about them later). Fisher describes their work as multiracial organizing and a ‘critique of the systemic, institutional bases of racism and ethnocentrism’ (197). More on them next. You have the rise of ACT-UP among others…there is actually a rise of all kinds of awesomeness in this decade, despite its bad rap.

This is a decade of new social work models developing out of a radical feminist movement — a movement I was completely unaware of, but now feel the need to explore, starting with the work of Lorraine Gutierrez, Edith Lewis on the elimination of power hierarchies and support to realize full potential, Ann Withorn and Cheryl Hyde, explorations of tensions in service delivery and social action.

In response, Fisher writes:

It is this decentering of political struggle, away from the core class struggle of the old social movements to a more diverse, polyvocal discourse of the varied new citizen initiatives, that gives current grassroots efforts such potential and such problems (207)

He accepts the importance of this, and continues

the challenges of the 1990s and beyond is for groups to learn how to maintain their identity, focus, and constituency and work together in progressive organizations that advance social justice. (209)

I am struggling with Boaventura de Sousa Santos at the moment and he is all about this in a way that is quite amazing. But more on that later.

Conclusions. Finally.

The conclusion wraps up all of this up quite well, summarizing Fisher’s understanding of the three main approaches he looks at: political activist, social welfare and neighborhood maintenance (which maybe I haven’t drawn out enough over the course of these summaries):

The political activist approach regards the community as a political entity and/ or potential power base. It focuses on obtaining, maintaining, or restructuring power. Or…is political in that its goal is to develop alternative institutions. The community’s problems, as defined by organizers, is the absence of power needed to defend the neighborhood and/ or give people more control over their lives.

Where the political activist approach differs most significantly from the social work approach is in its class perspective. The social work approach often seeks a class rapprochement based on a “partnership” between upper-class supporters, social welfare professions, and working- and lower-class neighborhood residents. (212)

Again we have an analysis of the positive role played by conflict in challenging structures people didn’t think they could challenge, and the ways in which this is where people find power, and how this is where class balances are actually altered. He looks a bit at ‘New Social Movement Theory’ too, challenging it in more ways than one, but particularly the idea that after the industrial revolution all organizing was factory organizing or entirely class oriented until post WWII. Sock it to them, I say.

The main lessons from the past as Fisher sees them:

  • Neighborhood organizing cuts across the political spectrum. Not inherently left or right.
  • Neighborhood organizing movements develop in a historical context that includes yet transcends local community borders. (222)
  • There is a critical interaction between neighborhoods organizing efforts, national politics, and nationwide social movements. (223) Movements can be buoyed by these larger forces or crushed.
  • Problems besetting neighborhoods demand political organization beyond the neighborhood level. (224)
  • Neighborhood organizing requires a gentle balance between organizing, leading, and educating. (225)
  • Political education must be an integral part of neighborhood organizing. (227)
  • Neighborhood organizing must create a more consciously ideological practice. (228). Must connect ‘popular, inherent ideology rooted in people’s traditions and a derived ideology, primarily external, that connects their concerns to forces and events beyond personal experience. (23)

And finally

  • An organizing ideology for our times needs to combine new demands for autonomy and identity with older ones for social justice, production for human needs rather than profit, and a spirit of connectedness and solidarity rather than competition. (232)

That’s the real trick.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]

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