Sunday, September 07, 2008

community organizing.

I'm a day early on this one, but I've got a few long days of work/babysitting/etc ahead of me, so I'm throwing this up on Sunday instead of Monday. Which is probably fine, since this post doesn't really fit in the parameters of what tomorrow's virtual mobilization of community organizer/bloggers is supposed to be about anyway. I may still throw one up tomorrow, and maybe it'll actually fit into said parameters.

Tomorrow, a lot of bloggers will be blogging on community organizing. The idea behind this is to have bloggers who are community organizers blog about their experiences, about what being a community organizer means, and about why it's important work.

This is all in response, of course, to the "jokes" about community organizers at the RNC, coming from both Giuliani and Palin. Really? If you're going to make fun of Obama, you've gotta at least find some better material.
This whole thing is just absurd. The reason they need to mock Obama, though? Not because he was a community organizer. Because of what Ezra points out:
But look, let's call a spade a spade: When Giuliani sneered about community organizers on the "South side" of Chicago, it's pretty clear what he was saying: Barack Obama spent his time rabble-rousing among black people. It's no different then when the RNC called him a "street organizer."........
Community organizer isn't being used to describe a job but a background. Obama organized poor black people. Helped channel their anger and grievances and anxieties. That's change you can fear.

The RNC debacle created a wave of defense among a whole slew of bloggers, especially feminist bloggers.
As it should. Because grassroots, community organizing is vitally important to movements like feminism. Organizing on the personal, community level is how you build a movement. And community organizers are the people who do the dirty work, who make change happen, who are a lot more in touch with the people they're serving than "public servants" like politicians and most lobbyists ever dream of being.
The mainstream feminist movement? Not really all about building a movement. The mainstream feminist movement isn't really about community-building on a local level. They do great work on the state level, they do great work in legislative processes and working with bureaucratic bullshit and getting funding toward their causes. They sometimes provide important services to the community at large. But when it comes to getting into a community, becoming immersed in it, becoming part of it, so that they can be responsive to what people really need, they're usually pretty absent. That's not where their priorities lie.

When I say "they," I'm talking about the Big Feminist Organizations. The "career feminists" (most of them, at least). The feminist organizations in the beltway ("national" organizations) are mostly concerned with beltway politics. This is important, but they aren't organizing communities. They're organizing politicians. Rounding them up, gathering them together, getting legislation passed or working within the state institutions to make change. (I suppose politicians can be considered a "community," in some sense, but that's really not the kind of community I'm concerned with here.) This is great. It needs to happen. But it's not community organizing.
Even organizations that function within their individual states don't always engage with community organizing. NARAL Massachusetts is a perfect example. I have a million grievances with NARAL's political choices nationally, but even in Massachusetts, the NARAL organizers are not community organizers. I say this because I live in western Massachusetts. In my 3 1/2 years here, including 2 in college, I've heard about exactly one organized NARAL MA event here - meeting with an aide of western MA's congressman in Springfield. I almost went, but couldn't get off work, and didn't want to pay the gas to drive all the way down to Springfield. I think they drew maybe one or two volunteer activists from the area to that meeting. NARAL MA's priorities don't bring the organization outside of Boston or Beacon Hill. They lobby the state assembly and the state senators. I think they've held events for Obama in Boston. They probably work with some student groups at some of the many colleges that Boston is home to. But that's pretty much it. Their priority is at the state level. Their priority is purely capital-P Political.

What NARAL MA, and NARAL Pro-Choice America, and PPFA, and PPLM, and NOW, and so many of the Big Feminist Organizations do is organizing, I don't deny that. And, depending on how broadly we're defining "community," it could easily be considered community organizing, as well. But what I'd like to see celebrated and validated more isn't just that kind of Big Feminist Organization advocacy. What I'd love to see this movement, if we're really going to be a movement, doing more of is movement-building. Getting Obama elected and fighting court battles and working to get congressional funding allocated to abuse victims is important work. But it's not (necessarily) building a movement.

When I think of "community organizers," much like the organizing that Obama did on the south side of Chicago, I think of movement-building. Organizing state players is one thing. Organizing the community and building a base for this movement is an entirely different thing.

Which I guess is why I, like some other bloggers, are a little confused about why all of these big feminist bloggers are now coming to the defense of community organizers. An awful lot of them are career feminists. An awful lot of them have gone the "strategic" route in lieu of the community organizing, collective route (perhaps because we live in an individualistic culture and collective feminism is not what we do?), because collective organizing is not 'practical' or 'realistic.'
(Thank you, thank you, to the always amazing bfp for hitting the nail on the head and helping me understand, in sentence form, why the sudden rush to defend community organizers seemed so off to me.)

And now, with all of that said, this is how I see community organizing.

  • Community organizers value collective action and movement building.
  • Community organizers are not always paid staff of a recognized activist organization.
  • Community organizers listen to what the people in their community need, and do whatever work they can, whatever is in their power to do, in order to find ways to help their community get their needs met.
  • Community organizers don't wait for power to be "granted" to them by bureaucratic governmental agencies. Community organizers don't take power for themselves. Community organizers help communities to gain power, collectively, to make the changes they need.
  • Community organizers empower their communities, help their communities to empower themselves.
  • Community organizers do not forget about the "forgettable" members of their community, the least privileged, the ones most often denied a voice.
  • Community organizers are facilitators. They facilitate dialogue, they facilitate your finding of your own voice. They do not speak for you. They enable you to speak for yourself.
  • Community organizers are political, by nature of being organizers, but can move beyond capital-P Politics. When community organizers are helping to organize for capital-P Politics, they do so collectively, as part of a community, and without losing sight of their community's roots.
  • Community organizers are catalysts.

Also, via ybp:
Anyone who blogs, ESPECIALLY to give a voice to those often not heard, is a community organizer.
Anyone who has helped younger generations understand their relevance is a community organizer.
Anyone who has volunteered to help register voters is a community organizer.
Anyone who has tried to organize a group for a cause is a community organizer.
Anyone who has spoken out about injustice, whether writing into a campaign, talked to their friends, or made a phone call is a community organizer.


PerfectMomentProject said...

Hey, thanks for the heads up. Didn't even know this was coming, but just blogged about this song of hope... that really is in praise of community organizers...

feel free to share..

A message of hope for the week...
Daughtry's message: What about now

Regina said...

Great post! I love how you broke down what Community Organizers are!
I think the organizers of this movement should be applauded for getting the word out about this Blogging Day For Justice! I am honored to join the ranks of other Community workers to let our voice be heard! I am proud to be a Community Worker and Community Organizer!

Yobachi said...

Good commentary; I linked your post to the round up I did at the bottom of this post