Tag Archives: SDS

Robert Fisher on Community Organizing: the glorious 1960s

Part 2 on Robert Fisher’s great book on Community Organizing (read part 1 from 1886 to 1946 here). This might be the best part, the most inspiring at least, because weren’t the 60s amazing? We have won so much since then and I wouldn’t want to go back, but that feeling that revolution could come tomorrow?

Damn, I wouldn’t mind that at all.

The Neighborhood Organizing “Revolution” of the 1960s

Another great quote from Malcolm X:

I, for one, believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what it is that confronts them, and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program; and when the people create a program, you get action. When their “leaders” create programs you get no action. (98)

I find it hopeful, even if I will never believe revolution is right around the corner, that there is a steady progression in how we come together to change the world, and that the issues encountered through one struggle inspires new, and often better responses to carry the struggle forward. Fisher writes:

As preceding chapters have demonstrated, the stop-gap solutions and tenuous class and race relations of one decade often become the central problem and basis for change in the next. And each new situation seems to breed new forms of neighborhood organization activity. (98)

I think he’s right, we have come a long way, and it feels good to look back to these years and see the seeds there, things I took for granted but that were invented, tested, put into action. The chapter looks at ‘the quasi-anarchist experiments’ of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) — I’ve ben reading all kinds about the first (Ransby and Cobb and Morris and Zinn and others). Fisher writes:

The groups were important innovators in a new style of community organizing, but only one of many types of grassroots efforts during the decade. (99)

He notes how geographical shift to suburbs meant poverty invisible to those living outside city center, which allows poverty to be redefined as a “black problem” both because of its concentration, but also because African Americans are leading the fight back. This connection between the spatialities of segregation, white privilege and struggle are so important, and I think finally through the new Movement for Black Lives and #BlackLivesMatter, much more of this is being explored. But at the same time as there was a spatial separation of elites, the NAACP and SCLC tended towards an elite way of working (and for the NAACP always had, with some exceptions amongst the branches), despite King’s vision of democracy. The youth entering the movement opened it all up and made it more participatory through student sit-ins and freedom rides.

Fisher notes that like Alinksy, SNCC and SDS called themselves “nonideological”:

they advocated  in their words and behavior a moral revolt and nonconformity…rejected liberal faith in modest reforms…emphasis on direct action and the formation of locally autonomous, insurgent community organizations…rejected all centralized, bureaucratic, hierarchical forms…

They moved away from concerns with organization and power, and

substituted an all-embracing political credo that emphasized democratic action and relationships, processes and values. “participatory democracy,” they called it. “Let the People Decide.” (107)

The common ‘ingredients’ of these approaches (I love these lists):

  1. Be a catalyst, not a leader
  2. Let the people decide
  3. Develop loose organizational structures – to encourage maximum participation, consensus decision making (108)
  4. Establish places in the community free of external restraints – development of community unions open to all. My favourite idea, why don’t we have a million of these?
  5. Develop indigenous leaders
  6. Create supportive personal relationships (109)

A lot of those ideas are still part of the canon, along with some new additions. Many of them to deal with the shit gender dynamics that Fisher notes were still in operation here, with women doing much of the work while ‘men always remained center stage and dominated the organizations.’ (113) That picture at the top of the post was carefully chosen to make sure I don’t feel too much nostalgia.

Gender issues (and race for damn sure, and homophobia, and etc) must have damaged the strength of the movement. Fisher notes another three principal factors that hurt their efforts up to 1965. The first, the decimated state of the left and the absence of any national program to provide support, so they had to rebuild from scratch. I am divided on that as a negative factor actually, after my experiences here in the UK. The second is the difficulties in building a ‘leaderless’ movement of ‘organizers’. Fisher writes:

It is critical in community organizing to provide leadership, to do organization building, and to teach leadership and rudimentary organizational skills, but most new lefters though this ran counter to the idea of letting the people decide. (116)

I am rather fascinated by that because I can see where they were coming from ideologically, but it seems so clear that direct democracy in practice is something that is learned, that you improve with practice, that takes skill to make work effectively in a way that ensures everyone’s voice is heard, everyone can speak, everyone has power. That shit is hard. Anyway.  He describes the third factor as the ‘sheer physical and emotional drain of organizing’ (117). That shit is real too.

But undoubtedly these have had a big impact on the developing  models for community organizing.

The 1960s also brought the Great Society, it’s organizing projects and its Community Action Agencies. An attempt to buy out revolution really. Fisher describes the havoc that government funds caused, thrown at community organizations to try and quell the disorder that was beginning to effect economic and political centers, He writes:

The Great Society, however, was more than a traditional liberal reform program to palliate and co-opt mass insurgency. It sought not only to defuse protest from below but to reincorporate African-Americans into the political process and thereby solidify their support for the Democratic party. It sought in essence to create new black political organizations in the inner cities and the rural South that would strengthen black political involvement and electoral participation. (122)

And in many ways it succeeded. The theme of a Black elite co-opted by the establishment and becoming part of the foot holding people down, well, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation does a brilliant job at looking at that. And this is long, so the 1970s are continued next post.

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