August 21, 2008
Achieving effective political goals does not start with legislation, it ends with it. The way to bring about large-scale change is first to bring about small-scale change, change in individuals’ attitudes, practices, and vision of themselves and their communities. The sense of personal ownership of an issue is a powerful motivator, and it’s contagious, spreading from family to family and turning into political action.
This is what Barack Obama learned from his youthful years as a community organizer in Chicago, and it’s a major reason for the success of his quixotic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Though it has since hardened into the more-or-less typical political machine, his campaign started, you recall, as a movement, drawing its fire (and its dollars) from many thousands of people disillusioned by the system yet confident in the democratic process. Obama’s yes-we-can approach invited them to regain a personal stake in public decision-making.
The results of effective grass-roots mobilization can be significant, and the present revitalization of the South Bronx is a case in point.
The Bronx was burning in the 1980’s when a group of local clergy formed an umbrella organization called South Bronx Churches and invited the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) — from which Obama, at just about the same time, was getting his own training — to help them turn their congregations into agents of change.
Over the years, the IAF has expanded and refined the methods of community organizing that its founder, Saul Alinsky, developed starting in the 1940’s to confront discrimination in employment, housing, and public services in Chicago. Overall, it’s a kind of collective anger management: Take a disaffected community that’s seething with impotent and destructive rage and turn it into self-esteem and political power.
Developing community coherence is long, meticulous work. With South Bronx Churches, following the IAF model, it began with individual sessions called "one-on-ones." Organizers sat down with each head of the participating community groups, asking them to articulate their specific hopes for social change. These in turn repeated the exercise with one another and then spread it across their membership. Next came intensive meetings within their congregations and then with the entire organization.
Through this process, concerns common to the community came to light, and the list was long: housing, education, food quality, health care, drug-dealing, gun violence, police brutality, toxic waste dumps. Also through this process, natural (and often unexpected) leaders within the congregations were identified and trained in public speaking, running meetings, simulated encounters with public officials, and general bravery. It is amazing to see the transformations that occured with this training: Shy moms who’d been afraid to say a word at a PTA meeting became fearless, articulate advocates of their cause.
The movement was structured and mentored by the IAF organizers, but it authentically grew from the bottom up: People not only took possession of the issues, they took possession of themselves, following what the IAF calls its "iron-clad rule": "Never do anything for someone that they can do for themselves."
With the initial training accomplished, the group began to cut its teeth on small, achievable goals: petitioning for a traffic signal at a dangerous intersection, getting the police to break up a corner drug ring, forcing a landlord to repair an apartment building.
In the process, the people educated themselves about the structures of civic power to identify the levels of power that had to be confronted to most quickly and effectively bring about the desired results.
As the group gained knowledge and confidence, it moved to larger issues. The leaders, having studied a problem and formulated solutions, sought meetings with the responsible officials, who were then invited to speak at an assembly of the congregations.
IAF assemblies are rigorously disciplined. They begin on time and end on time, usually in an hour and a half. Each participating congregation is introduced, followed by several short inspirational speeches by members. A leader presents the issue to be addressed, and attending officials are given precisely five minutes to speak. (It is most gratifying to watch politicians in the midst of their bluster tapped on the shoulder by a neighborhood lady with a stopwatch.) Then the officials are asked pointed questions ("Will you back legislation to relocate this toxic-waste dump?") to which they must respond either "yes" or "no" — no qualifications allowed. After a round of thanks and a prayer, the assembly ends.
This is a compelling demonstration of people-power. Officials from the head of the housing authority to Mayor Giuliani himself, who once dismissed South Bronx Churches as another kooky fringe, eventually found it impossible to ignore. As reporter Sanford Horwitt wrote in the L.A. Times some years ago: "The fact that a politician can discern morality a lot faster in a roomful of registered voters has little to do with cynicism but says much about how the democratic process works — and has always worked — in our country."
The results were hardly instantaneous, but over the course of 20 years and through the mobilization of thousands, they came: Corrupt school boards were dissolved and new schools, some of them sponsored and mentored by South Bronx Churches, were built; acres of vacant lots were appropriated for affordable housing, much of which was also sponsored by South Bronx Churches; filthy public hospitals were modernized and re-staffed; waste dumps were relocated; the police force was retrained and redeployed to better serve the community.
The South Bronx is now beginning to flourish, thanks in no small part to the work of South Bronx Churches.
Obama’s experience in community organizing gave him the tools to mastermind his campaign. If only his experience will remind him that the politicians don’t own the issues, the people do.