[To read the entire series, go here.]
To understand what coherent, systematic community organizing is, it’s helpful to discuss what it is not. When people talk about social action, they often mix together a range of approaches that are actually somewhat distinct. I discuss three different approaches, here. Of course, one could distinguish more types, or fewer. But these three—legal action, activism, and mobilizing—are often referred to by organizers.
Lawyers are often quite important to those engaged in social action. Lawyers can get you out of jail, and they can help you overcome bureaucratic hurdles, among many other services. The problem comes when a social action strategy is designed primarily around a lawsuit.
My own state, Wisconsin, provides a good example. For a number of years, a major lawsuit was working its way through the courts in an effort to force the state to provide more equal funding to impoverished schools. During this time, statewide organizing around education, as I understand it, largely subsided. By the time we essentially lost the lawsuit at the state supreme court, little infrastructure had been created to fight on a political level for education. We had to start over largely from scratch. Lawsuits, then, can actually have a detrimental effect on organizing.
The pro-choice movement has been struggling for a long time with this issue. Few pro-choice people wish Roe vs. Wade hadn’t been decided in their favor. At different times, however, leaders have worried that winning Roe may actually have short-circuited the development of a strong political infrastructure for fighting for abortion rights while energizing the anti-abortion movement.
The legal battle over school funding in California may provide a contrasting example. Oakes and Rogers show, for example, how the Williams case in California activated a range of social action efforts across the state in an effort to get the state to respond positively to the lawsuit. This two-pronged approach—legal and political—is what you would ideally want to happen since, as any community organizer will tell you, winning a single battle is not winning a war. (Kozol discusses a number of states where such lawsuits have been won, and where little or nothing has changed.)
But I’m willing to bet that California is a somewhat unique case. California seems, from what I have read, to have many organized social action groups. In a more average state the social action infrastructure is likely to be much thinner. What I described happening in Wisconsin may be more likely in states like these.
Activists like to “do things.” They get up in the morning and they go down to a main street and hold up some signs against the war. Or they march around in a picket line in front of a school. (Activists love rallies and picket lines.) Activists feel very good about how they are “fighting the power.” But in the absence of a coherent strategy, a coherent target, a process for maintaining a fight over an extended period of time, and an institutional structure for holding people together and mobilizing large numbers, they usually don’t accomplish much. People in power love activists, because they burn off energy for social action without really threatening anyone.
Of course, I am exaggerating a bit, here (as usual). But I’m not exaggerating as much as I wish I was.
Mobilizers often accomplish something. They get pissed off about a particular issue or event, they get a lot of people out who are hopping mad, and they get some change made (for the better or for the worse). Like activists, they feel pretty good about what they have accomplished. But then they go home and go back to watching TV or reading obscure theory or whatever. They’ve accomplished what they wanted to and now they’re done.
The problem with mobilizing is that, as I noted above, winning a single battle is often quite meaningless unless you are in the fight for the long term. Once they go home, the people they were struggling against are free to do whatever they were doing before. In fact, mobilizers can actually make things worse without necessarily meaning to, or they can be used by those who are more sophisticated about what is really going on.
A good example happened in Milwaukee when our county executive pushed through a horrible pension payout rule that was going to cost the county and obscene amount of money. People got up in arms. They banded together to “throw out the bums” (the executive and the county supervisors who had voted for the change), and they were successful in recalling quite a few. The problem was that on many issues the county executive and the supervisors were quite progressive. And very little thought was given to who, exactly, would replace them. What happened is that an extremely conservative executive as well as some conservative supervisors were elected in a majority democratic county. And the groups that “threw out the bums” pretty much dissolved as far as I can tell. So no long-term structure was created through which an independent group of organized citizens might prevent a disaster like this from happening again in the future. All of this energy was, again, burned off and the potential of this anger was lost.
Another example came when the Milwaukee school board was moving towards a “neighborhood schools” plan that would have eliminated parents’ rights to bus their children to the school they preferred. A lot of “mobilizing” happened: parents banded together and a seemingly vibrant parent group emerged. Along with MOVE (the organizing group I work with) they fought the bussing plan. But the parent organization seemed to start dissolving even before the conflict was over. Only MOVE was left to try to hold the district accountable for any agreements it had made.
The take-home message here is pretty basic. Just because you are “doing something” doesn’t mean you are doing something useful. And even if you “accomplish” something, if you don’t maintain the capacity to continue the battle, you may end up losing everything you have gained, or even making things worse.