organizing is renewable energy

I teach a four-class module on why people move in and out of urban neighborhoods. This as an opportunity to think about social change: good and bad, accidental and deliberate.

First, we consider uncoordinated movement: what happens when individuals or families move to satisfy their own preferences. People should be free to move. But we consider how segregation, blight, and harmful gentrification can result from private choices.

Then we add social capital to the equation, noting that if people have habits and norms of cooperation and mutual support, their individual choices will change—although not necessarily for the better. (Readings from Robert Putnam.)

Next we add rules and organizational structures, using Gerald Gamm’s argument that Catholics and Jews have responded differently to demographic changes in their neighborhoods because Catholic churches and synagogues have different governing structures. (Reading from G.H. Gamm, Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed)

Finally, we study a deliberate organizing campaign against urban blight and abandonment, Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), as described persuasively (although not independently) by Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar, in Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood.

Medoff and Sklar tell the story of a characteristic, broad-based organizing effort. It begins in the 1980s in a truly blighted Boston neighborhood, where average incomes are on par with the Mississippi Delta. Many lots are completely abandoned; visible organizations are missing; city services are poor. The story ends with a powerful community organization that is able to construct housing and influence city policy.

The effort requires outside support. It begins with two university-based studies, one by professors and students at MIT and another by students at Roxbury Community College, who provide data and analysis. The next important step is a large foundation grant. These interventions are essential but also problematic. A university or foundation could set bad priorities, misunderstand the realities of the situation, or simply alienate locals. In fact, the relationships are complicated and full of tension, but they are resolved thanks to crucial decisions. At one pivotal early meeting, a row of foundation executives and local NGO leaders sit (like the disciples at the Last Supper) at a table on the dais of a Catholic church, facing an increasingly restive nave full of ordinary residents. “Who the hell are you people and what do you want?” someone shouts. The atmosphere improves when one of the foundation’s leaders, also a corporate lawyer, steps down from the table and tells his personal life story.

The organization develops formal democratic structures, with rules of membership and voting. It does not adopt a rule of one person, one vote, because various stakeholders (such as the foundations and the city) need to be represented. They are “stakeholders.” But the DSNI drops its early plan of being an “organization of organizations” to make room for unaffiliated residents on the board.

The organizers and funders try to avoid developing and pushing their own agenda. Instead, they listen to a broad range of residents, often shouting through locked doors to begin their conversations.

They discover latent civic assets. An early report by the city had claimed that residents didn’t care enough to participate in community meetings. “Apathy” was the word the city used. But, as one DSNI organizer found, residents “not only cared, but they had already been doing things about [local problems]. In some cases, I came across veteran activists.”

Once DSNI chooses an issue that resonates with many people’s concerns, the members address it through a combination of discussion, direct public work, and relationship-building. Those are the three key concepts in my forthcoming Oxford University Press book, We are the Ones We are Waiting For: Philosophy and Practice of Civic Renewal.

The first issue they choose is illegal dumping of trash and stolen cars in their neighborhood. They exhaustively discuss the dimensions and causes of this problem. They organize a day of direct service when residents volunteer to clean up trash. And they persuade the city to adopt new policies.

From the beginning, the issue of “dumping” has symbolic dimensions. For example,

Even as they contributed to cleaning up the lots, some employees of the city Public Works Department dumped some trash of their own in the form of racist stereotypes. After handing out 100 rakes and shovels to local residents, one of the city employees snidely remarked, ‘We won’t be seeing those tools again.’ They weren’t even planning to return at the end of the day to pick them up.

The residents respond by making sure to return 97 of the rakes and shovels, apologizing for a 98th that was broken.

Relationships are important, at several levels. One of the initial barriers is the lack of mutual knowledge. One resident asks, “How can we nominate people to represent us when we don’t know them?” DSNI spends a lot of time developing relationships through the classic means of one-on-one interviews and public meetings.

The DSNI creates power just by existing. A competitive mayoral primary is pitting Raymond Flynn (white, Catholic) against Mel King, a Black activist (whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I was a college student). Flynn shows up uninvited at a DSNI public meeting, because there are votes to be had. The DSNI also gets a completely unsolicited city grant for the same reason. The organization decides that it is not afraid to confront power but also not afraid to cooperate even with agencies and politicians who are partly opposed to its agenda.

Medoff and Sklar say, “Organizing is the renewable energy that powers DSNI.” They are right, but it is important to acknowledge other factors. DSNI would have received less support from City Hall (or perhaps none at all) if it had not been for Mel King’s insurgent political campaign, which used traditional channels. Dudley Street would not have thrived economically if it had not been for very strong growth throughout the Boston metro area since 1980. So formal politics and macroeconomics matter—but organizing can help steer these forces in beneficial directions.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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