Community Organizing

Published January 24, 2020 in Warp & Woof

Community Organizing

New Challenges in Our Area

William Sundwick
Let’s start with some assumptions about 21st century American politics. Assumption #1: many, many people are poorly served by their local governments; assumption #2: virtually all communities have some people who are quite content, but most others much less so; assumption #3: those who are most content are that way because they have a voice in the political process.

Assumption #4: the political power imbalance requires extra-governmental activity, or organization, to move it. That’s what community organizing is all about. Those who are discontented because they lack access to their local governments can gain more access through these organizing intermediaries.
How is this done? All local jurisdictions in the United States, like state governments, and the federal government itself, have popularly elected representatives and executives. Yet, some elections are less democratic than others, because of voter interference by political parties, or incomplete (or inaccurate?) information made available to voters.

Since community organizing entities are usually 501(c)(3) organizations – they cannot support partisan actors, or lobby on their behalf – they must limit themselves to non-partisan voter information and registration.  Nevertheless, community organizers can easily advocate for ballot initiatives, economic plans (including allocations in public budgets), and even changes to law, without running afoul of those 501-c restrictions.

How do they accomplish this advocacy? Elected bodies in local jurisdictions must at least appear to be working for their constituents if they intend to stand for re-election, so they have an incentive to be responsive to organizations that present public clout, through media exposure and support from influential community leaders – often the pulpits of religious institutions. Advocacy is carried out in these venues, sometimes even including street demonstrations and marches. It often comes down to sheer numbers of bodies – “seat-warmers” at a local county board meeting, or marchers gathered outside with placards (and reported by local media). That’s my usual role!

There is some risk in these tactics. Arrests can be made at demonstrations, and media exposure can be negative from some outlets. Community organizers should always expect that their actions will cause, at the very least, increased tension with those forces who support and benefit from the status quo. A poorly planned campaign for some social good may experience blowback from the targeted groups, which can dull community momentum. And the interests of the marginalized community members must always be paramount — they must be the final arbiters of any actions.

Fifty years ago, when Saul Alinsky wrote his book Rules for Radicals, he laid out the principles of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), concluding that the strongest community organizations were religious institutions. An interfaith alliance of churches and synagogues could pool their efforts at community betterment around local umbrella organizations. These were the IAF chapters around the country.

VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement) is the Northern Virginia IAF affiliate, founded in 2008. VOICE includes an active cadre of Muslim places of worship, along with traditional Catholic, Protestant, Unitarian, and Jewish congregations. But our region, like others, has recently seen a decrease in concentrations of affected communities. Churches in the area have been losing members. Their budgets have been strained. Some of the old congregations have been dropping their VOICE partnership, mostly due to their changing demographics, and consequent challenges keeping up their dues. New clergy and new congregations can be approached. Some new ones are being added (an established Presbyterian church in my neighborhood just joined).

But many marginalized groups leave the area, or at least move farther out – where they can afford to live. Arlington and Alexandria, especially, are becoming more affluent (and white) as gentrification inexorably pushes the less privileged out of the community. The coming of Amazon to Arlington will only exacerbate an already untenable situation for much of the local service sector of lower income families. “The rent is too damn high!”

This has led VOICE to alter its strategy for 2020 and beyond. Expanding on the model proposed by Alinsky, it now seems that religious institutions need to be supplemented by other community allies. Organized labor, shunned by Alinsky as too parochial in its interests, now may be a potential target for outreach. Likewise, teachers (by law in Virginia, non-unionized) have professional associations; these, too, could be VOICE partners. In addition, tenants’ associations for housing issues, and PTAs for school issues.

While the tactics for advocacy remain unchanged – get local politicians to listen because they fear electoral reprisal if they don’t – the changing demographics in the “inside-the-beltway” communities like Arlington and Alexandria make that somewhat harder. Wealthier citizens are now beginning to outnumber the marginalized in these places.

Arlington and Alexandria do have an important service sector, however, including teachers, police, firefighters. Increasingly, these public servants cannot afford to live in (or even near) the communities where they work. Hence, affordable housing remains a goal of VOICE organizing, both locally and in Richmond (the General Assembly will be voting on funding for housing this session). Localities and Richmond also share responsibility for zoning (yes, the Dillon Rule in Virginia, gives the General Assembly potential influence over city and county zoningauthority!). “Upzoning” for multi-family development in single family neighborhoods is an important tool for increasing affordable housing availability.

Criminal justice reform and education resources for school counselors and pre-K are also on VOICE’s docket for 2020. Suspension of drivers licenses for non-payment of court costs is an issue in Richmond, as is state funding for more guidance counselors (current rate: 500:1 ratio of students to counselors – VOICE advocates halving it to 250:1).

Whether the venue is the Arlington County Board meeting or the General Assembly in Richmond, the basic principle is still to show up! Numbers are what politicians, and the media, can see and report.

The original Saul Alinsky theory remains valid. Voiceless people need numbers to be heard; numbers have power for elected officials. But the IAF “Iron Rule” still applies: Never do for people what they can do for themselves. It’s about giving voice to the voiceless, not amplifying the voice of those who are already heard!

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