Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dos and Don’ts of Community Organizing

Agitate. That’s the key word to understanding what I’ll call classical community organizing. “Community Organizing” is a relatively generic term and can mean a plethora of different things to different people. It’s also a term that has bounced around quite a bit in the past few months, now that Barrack Obama’s history as a community organizer has come to light and become evidence of his leadership experience. But while the term is relatively generic, Obama comes from a peculiar school of community organizing, one I’ve been somewhat exposed to firsthand.

By now, the Saul Alinsky method of community organizing has come to the surface, and his book, “Rules for Radicals” has been re-explored. I was unfortunate enough to be educated in this method for a short time as a continuing education class. (Yes, my denomination is so liberal that it has adopted communist community organizing skills as worthwhile techniques for pastors to learn.) Hey it worked on the South side of Chicago, it could work here too! But what are the techniques exactly?

First, the basic philosophy is one based in contrasting the ideal world with the real world. You’ve heard Michelle and Barack Obama reference it: whenever they've talked about the way the world is versus the way the world should be, this is straight from Alinsky. The goal of community organizing is to meet people where they are and transition the community, one person at a time, into the world as it should be: a world that demands fairness, equality, justice, and peace. Never mind that all of these terms are subjective to the communist mind, and virtually impossible to pin down. What’s fair to one person or just for one person is often not fair or just to another when a central planner decides. (It is true that perfect fairness and justice is not to be found in a free society, either, but then, a free society doesn’t promise fairness or even define it, just the right to attain it as a basic human right.)

The technique itself is simple: build a cadre of support through one-on-one contacts, then exploit that cadre when the masses are needed. These contacts can and should be anyone and everyone. From the person who bags your groceries, serves you coffee, lives next door or runs your city, anyone is fair game for these one-on-one conversations. And these conversations are not to be small talk, but a rather in-depth and personal conversation about what drives the person, what motivates them, what they’re upset about in their community. To talk about the weather would be a waste of time. These conversations with relative strangers are all about making contacts that can be used in future rabble-rousing demonstrations.

So when the time comes, when the grocery baggers wages are deemed too low, when racism is deemed to be plaguing public schools, or when the factory smokestack’s pollution level is deemed to high, the community organizer acts. The cadre he has worked to build is called into action and the agitation begins. Pickets, marches, phone calls, letter campaigns…whatever it takes. But the goal is absolutely not to try to persuade the powers that be: the goal is to agitate them.

Certainly, there is a time and place for agitating the powers-that-be. Power is almost always the enemy of those who espouse a love for limited government and liberty. However, it is absolutely worth asking whether the community organizer is actually a friend of the poor or not. Driving corporations away and inviting more government regulation has always led to an increase in poverty, not the other way around.

James Taranto has a wonderful summary of Obama’s experience as a community organizer here. I've also pasted some below:

"These efforts at economic development having failed, Obama "began to focus on providing social services for Altgeld Gardens," a government-owned and -operated apartment
complex.

"'We didn't yet have the power to change state welfare policy, or create local jobs, or bring substantially more money into the schools,' [Obama] wrote. 'But what we could do was begin to improve basic services at Altgeld--get the toilets fixed, the heaters working, the windows repaired.' Obama helped the residents wage a successful campaign to get the Chicago Housing Authority to promise to remove asbestos from the units; but, after an initial burst of activity, the city failed to keep its promise. (As of last year, some residences still had not been cleared of asbestos.)

"It is both funny and scary that one of America's major political parties would offer this record of sheer futility as its nominee's chief qualification to be president of the United States. Even more striking, though, is how alien the world in which Obama operated was by comparison with the world in which normal Americans live.

"Reader, when your toilet breaks, do you wait around for some Ivy League hotshot to show up and organize a meeting so that you can use your collective strength to wring concessions from the powers that be?

"Or do you call a plumber?"

Let me offer a model for community organizing I have found rather beneficial to all involved, be it citizens, corporations, or cities. If you’ve never heard of the Barnett Shale, it’s a massive natural gas reservoir that will bring billions of dollars into the Dallas/Fort Worth area. When “land men” began cruising the area to get land for cheap, they offered as low as hundreds or even $1,000/mineral acre. But the neighborhoods were pretty sure their mineral rites were worth more than that. So community organizers, working for the good of the environment, the community, and the pocketbooks of homeowners, negotiated as neighborhoods and have gotten as much as $27,500/mineral acre and substantial royalties once the oil companies begin to make a profit.

No central figure demanded this organization. Volunteers (as opposed to paid community organizers) rounded up the community with church meetings, front yard signs, and homespun websites. Instead of working against the corporations, the community worked with them. It was not the government that enabled these enormous paydays; rather, it was often local governments that worked to slow down the oil companies.

So here’s an idea for all the communist-leaning community organizers: instead of agitating, how about offering a message of progress and embracing companies that produce jobs? How about speaking against the very government that has failed you so many times instead of stubbornly relying on its grant money to fix deeper problems? And communities, instead of anointing agitators from the Ivy League to lead you, how about you work with those who actually live in your neighborhood, and have for some time? Community organizers are all-too-often class warfare experts stoking the flames. But they can do enormous good when they defend the right to free enterprise and profit.

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