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School of Social Welfare Dean’s Corner: Thoughts of a Community Organizer — Post-Election

Dear Friends,

In my mid-twenties I was the director of a small settlement house in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Kensington was a hard-core working class neighborhood, primarily Irish Catholic, with some Italian, Polish, and African American families. It was not unusual for the families to have 10 or more children. Almost all the men worked union jobs in manufacturing and the mothers were still at home. There were plenty of problems- lots of drug use among the kids, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, poor housing with few opportunities for mortgages, not enough jobs. I cut my organizer’s teeth in that neighborhood. Post election I have had many occasions to think back to that time.

I did my organizing training in Chicago. Those organizers believed that you chose issues that impacted a broad heterogeneous cross- section of people. That way, you built far-reaching support that made it difficult for elected officials to dismiss or ignore. Also, you were working on changes that would help a wide range of people. Another benefit was that people from different races and religions worked together for change, and invariably some of their assumptions and prejudices diminished in the light of their common concerns. So in Kensington we worked on things like making mortgages and insurance available to residents, on creating a revolving loan fund to support affordable housing, on attracting a supermarket to the neighborhood, and creating apprenticeships for youth. We also worked in coalition with other neighborhood organizations that were primarily African American and Latino. It was called “issue organizing” and my memory is that it worked pretty well.

At the same time I was organizing in Kensington, there were other groups that were doing what we might call “identity organizing.” Animated by the success of the civil rights movement, these groups organized women and the LGBTQ community. Usually they tackled issues pertinent to the group like equal pay for equal work or sexual harassment or the need for AIDS services. I did some of that organizing too. And my memory is that it also worked pretty well.

Certainly the election results have made us think about divisions in our society. Data from the election clearly shows that urban areas have one view of the world and rural areas another. It shows that progressives have entirely different perspectives than conservatives. It shows deep divisions between people of color and the white working class. The election was very close. As of this writing, there is a difference of just 2.6 million votes out of the 130 million votes cast, a difference of just 2.8%. So with the caveats that 41% of eligible voters didn’t vote at all and that we don’t have good data on why people voted one way or another, it seems Americans are almost equally divided on the future direction of our country.

This state of our union has made me think back on my organizing days. On the one hand, there are many issues—employment, housing, transportation, public safety, health care—around which there is common interest and concern, particularly amongst people of color and the white working class. And yet there is no doubt that there are also profound issues of identity—immigration, racism, the criminal justice system, access to birth control and abortion—that speak to our differences. And certainly, we must all confront hate, racism, and oppression, and stand fast for everyone’s dignity.

So what does community organizing suggest that we do?

First, let’s organize around issues where we can identify common ground on things that everybody wants—like jobs and housing. Let’s try to find basic points of agreement. For example, how about support for a federal jobs program? We should organize around issues that allow us to convene a broad cross section of people despite their racial or political differences, and encourages participants to focus on what they share rather than what divides them. Issues also reach people, non-activists, who may never have thought about participating before.

Second, let’s do some more organizing that is both issue and identity organizing. For example, Caesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers movement was about the conditions of farm labor, but since most of the work was done by Mexicans, it was also about their identity. The “Fight for Fifteen” organizing to increase the minimum wage is about sufficient income, but since most people working in low-income jobs are African-American, Latino, or immigrants, it is also about the rights of those communities. They must lead those organizations, but we can all be advocates and allies. Let’s find ways of making organizing as much about the issues as it is about the group’s distinctiveness.

Third, our organizing should eschew rhetoric, ideological litmus tests, and the idea that someone has to agree on all issues to join. We know from research that language and ideology alienates people who might be interested but who don’t know the code words or hold all the politically correct positions. People mostly join organizations not because of ideology but because of their social networks—a friend or family member asks them to join and gets them involved.

Instead of rhetoric and ideology, organizers should diligently educate people about issues, using data and facts to make arguments. This includes developing training sessions and fact sheets for everything we do. First, data helps show who really wins and loses on most of the issues people care about, and that almost always connects to identity. It is true that white working class men may not be doing so well, but African Americans and Latinos are doing much worse. Data helps people understand the issues more deeply so they can explain their thinking, counter arguments in their conversations with others, and empathize with others. Perhaps most important, we must communicate that facts matter in the decisions our society will make on these important issues. Then, by clarifying who’s really winning at the expense of whom, identity organizing can join with issue organizing and eliminate some of the manufactured divisions to fight the real sources of inequality.

My very best wishes for a peace filled holiday and new year,
Jacqueline Mondros, DSW, Dean

The author thanks Dr. Carolyn Peabody for her thoughtful input.

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