organizing for freedom: how?

When I engage in public political critique, it comes from a discrete set of experiences: that of a
straight, white, middle class American male who continues to be influenced by the New Left, the organizing principles of Saul Alinsky and Fred Ross, the American Civil Rights movement and the wisdom of E.F. Schumacher's "small is beautiful" practices. I came of age during the close of the Vietnam War and the rise of 20th century feminism. My theoretical foundation for social action was built upon the hard work of MLK and Malcom X, Germaine Greer, Dave Dellinger, Ann Moody, Cesar Chavez, Carol Hanisch, Tom Hayden, Frantz Fanon, Mohandas Gandhi, Karl Marx, Dick Gregory, Gustavo Gutierrez, early Cornel West, James Weinstein, Dorothee Soelle, Todd Gitlin and Michael Harrington. At different times I was a member of Democratic Socialists of America and/or the New American Movement.

My worldview is neither unique nor more insightful than any other analytical frame of reference giving shape and form to theory, action and reflection in the USA.  No better than some, no worse than others. I live with the blinders and burdens of class, gender and race as well as the blessings of great teachers, mentors and experiences that far exceed the limits of my bourgeois origins. I have been able to:

+ Organize with the farm workers and Mississippi wood cutters for better wages and work place safety.

+ Work in solidarity with the Nicaraguan revolution in the early days (visiting Managua on the first anniversary of its liberation) as well as the revolutionary quest for freedom in El Salvador.

+ Collaborate in cross cultural, multi-racial education politics in Cleveland where I was twice elected to public office as part of an interracial reform effort to bring better schools to poor students.

+ Serve as a lead sponsor (and organizing officer) for three grassroots, community organizing projects (Cleveland, Tucson and the Berkshires) using Alinsky-esque principles.

+ Participate in multi-cultural, people-to-people peace and art projects to the former Soviet Union (four times) and once to modern Turkey.
The closer I get to retirement after 35 years of parish ministry, the more questions and concerns I collect about how to connect with the ever-changing dynamics and issues for social justice that are emerging in the 21st century. After the ups and downs of the "Occupy Movement" five years ago, the way organizing is being accomplished (and measured) is morphing beyond my experiential comprehension. The bold and creative expressions of liberation that are currently engaging the hearts and minds of many Americans - from Bernie Sanders' bid for the presidency to the advocacy of Black Lives Matter - strike me as insightful, passionate and yet organizationally "soft." That is, there is a clear articulation of the problems without equally clear lines of responsibility and accountability. 

Consequently, I have three questions about the viability of these movements for the future. And let me be explicit: it is not because I am trying to diminish the important work of a generation's expression of social justice commitments, nor is it because I think my old school ways are superior. Rather, my concern has to do with mobilizing social change that can endure.  It is no secret that during Obama's first bid for the presidency, he had a tremendous ground game that utilized both the traditional tools of empowerment as well as the new blessings of social media. After the election, however, no matter how hard they tried, his network was never able to turn out comparable numbers of people or money for on-going agitation. The time-tested axiom that "power is either organized money or organized people" was proven once again after the initial fervor had passed. This causes me to ask those currently engaged or re-energized for justice work in this era the following:

1) How does a social movement that operates fundamentally through social media hold participants accountable?  How do "members" learn discipline? How do they come to trust one another? Who drives the intra-organizational communication network? How is consensus achieved re: issues? Who formally articulates these issues? How are these leaders selected - and evaluated?  There is a school of thought about social change that has been best summarized by Frances Fox Piven:  social movements rise and fall like waves - the challenge is to ride these waves and get everything possible during their brief cresting before the energy subsides. The Alinsky/Ross school, however, questions the lack of sustainability of this approach. Their alternative is to train local grassroots justice leaders to build inter-faith/inter-cultural/inter-class organizations working in networks defined by local issues to draw disparate people into relationships of self-interest. As disempowered individuals achieve local power, they discover new ways to strengthen solidarity across personal differences and regional isolation so that larger, macro-issues can be tackled. One approach is dependent upon exploiting an unpredictable spirit moving through the culture. The other begins by listening to the felt needs of ordinary people and helping them act on their shared self-interest. How can this second approach ripen in organizing built primarily upon social media resources?

2) How will the advocacy efforts of 21st century organizing projects be sustained after discrete campaigns end or the emotional passion dissipates? Cesar Chavez used to teach that the reason he was committed to building an organizing base that controlled its own fundraising mechanism was simple:  good-hearted people grow weary. When good people get tired - or bored - or distracted, they always take their money with them. Not so for those with a vested self-interest in a cause, although even the most self-interested people still need systems in place to generate operational funds (or dues) on a regular basis. Without adequate resources for leadership, education and advocacy, too many justice projects die on the vine. The romantic, neo-anarchism of recent movements relies a great deal upon feelings - waves of social concern for motivation as Fox Piven describes - without much cultivation of self-interest and infrastructure. This is worrisome - especially when self-interest itself is so often confused with selfishness. The community organizing model posits that there are three responses to an issue: 1) selfishness 2) selflessness and 3) self-interest.  Selfishness is akin to greed, selflessness is about detachment, while self-interest identifies a personal need or concern that needs resolution. Resources for social movements without a well-defined understanding of self-interest tend to fizzle out. How is this being addressed today? IS this being addressed in a systematic and sustained way today? The Tea Party evoked grassroots self-interest but was funded by Koch Brothers money born of selfishness. How are progressive justice people addressing this reality for our era? 

3) How is new leadership identified, trained and empowered in what appears to be a
loose organizational structure?  When a wave of concern emerges over an injustice, local leaders rise to the surface. When the specifics of that wave pass, most of these leaders drift back into obscurity. Without a committed effort to leadership training and recruitment - like that which equipped Rosa Parks with the analysis, courage and skills to challenge American apartheid - social change remains locked into the ups and downs of the zeitgeist. Asking for volunteers to run for down ticket offices on social media is, at best, a meager nod to real leadership recruitment and training - and most likely ineffective. Recently Bernie emailed his cadre NOT to boo during the DNC - and it did not work. Emails do not evoke discipline or commitment. Electronic communication can sometimes offer one level of training, but nothing like the schools of civil disobedience that flourished during Mississippi Freedom summer or even the larger campaigns in South Africa. Those events took leaders who had been personally trained in time-tested organizing skills - and regularly evaluated to help strengthen their interactive relational tactics - and mentored them so that they, in turn, could mentor others. Where is a comparable effort like this taking place today? I am not being nostalgic, just strategic. Justice movement don't need more distracted dilettantes, but authentic and well trained leaders.

Some have suggested to me that slow cultural change helps people acquire the ability to think and act in new ways. That strikes me as partially true: over the past 10 years, for example, the core of American culture has embraced and even celebrated LGBTQ civil and marriage rights in ways that were once unimaginable. But this cultural change came about only after decades of sustained organizing, agitating, fund raising, education, movies, music and TV shows as well as the active participation of the once mainstream Protestant churches and synagogues of our land. It was not inevitable nor accidental.

Perhaps a music analogy makes sense in closing.  The Beat Poets of the 50s used to think that jazz improvisation was simply riffing on a feeling in the moment. This infuriated jazz artists who knew that being in the moment required hours of playing scales. And rigorous study and practice. To say nothing of trying new ideas out in the privacy of their studio or shed before bringing it to the bandstand. My experience suggests the same is true with advancing the music of freedom: it too needs a structure before it can maintain its beauty for the long haul.  What do you think? What am I missing? All kind and genuine comments and insights welcome!




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