Over the past several months I’ve been involved in organizing a series of community dialogues in my neighborhood. We had 5 circles of residents, which each met for 2 hours for 4 consecutive weeks, covering such topics as race & ethnicity, housing & beautification, and shaping the future.
All this has led to the Action Forum a few days ago. As the chair of the Action Committee, a neighborhood resident, dialogue circle facilitator, and notorious under-estimator of tasks, I was nominated to help MC the event. Residents from the different groups took the stage for 5 minutes each to describe their action ideas. I got to get people’s attention with my favorite hand clapping attention getter (more on that later?), shake hands with the City Council President, and lead about 60 people through a somewhat tricky but ultimately successful collective decision-making process.
Several years ago, my politics was centered on policy change. I worked with young folks across the state on energy and climate issues. I didn’t care much for educational events, was averse to service projects, and was sick of the electoral boom and bust organizing cycles. While some of this rings quite true for me to this day, I’ve come to change my tune a little on one thing. I’ve realized that if policy change comes from those in power, then in order to really change anything we have to simply be powerful, all of us. This isn’t a permanent truth for me, but at least here and now, a time of insidious racism and polarizing inequality, we need to decentralize social power.
Well that sounds easy! I guess that means we have to do things on a small scale? And that small scale action and organizing will always work (better)? Sounds too good to be true.
Nuggets of Ideas
Here’s some of my reflections from this process:
- The process is important as ever. Working with a diverse group of “normal” folks, there is so much for everyone to learn (yes, even me and you!). We benefit from structured yet open-ended conversation and short-term action goals, in order to create time and space for organizational development, political analysis, and interpersonal connection.
- The container a group builds for itself is very useful, and worth reminding people about. At the beginning ask people how they want to treat each other and be treated, and then remind them about that every time they get together! I personally like the Maximize/Minimize angle for this.
- Maybe this is a Midwest thing, but people tend to be pretty polite, and slow to confrontation or collective action. If a group wants to talk about a thing, if they have to tell stories about disrespectful kids and litterbugs and and and… then let them. Give them a specific time and place to do it, and move on. Otherwise it’s probably all they’re gonna be thinking about, and they’ll keep complaining about things and never move to substantial collective action.
- When people have not been in an organization together, their ideas are less bound by the experience of collective failure. That means we will be both more visionary and more unrealistic. Keep an eye on that, and offer SMART criteria or checklists along the way.
- Structured meetings and events tend to attract and retain people with something they may clearly gain or lose. Another way to put that: privileged people gravitate towards these things. Writing that out, I want that to be false, but that’s my experience so I’m leaving it there (please tell me I’m wrong!?).
- There’s a real need for people with grassroots political experience and analysis to participate. It was clear at the Action Forum that some (though relatively few) people were able to annunciate the ideas and desires common to many — without this, the evening may have been lost.
- So much is required to make this stuff work. Meetings, one-on-one conversations, room reservations, training, copies of agendas and handouts and flyers. PS — reminder calls! I think I have needed to enjoy these things in order to see this process through.
The Conundrum of “Development”
The first resident presenting an action idea the other night elegantly described this vicious circle of a word. We, as people that live in a socioeconomically diverse place, want to have dignity and be free to make our lives wonderful, but whenever we do this we threaten some of the very things we and others enjoy. Development in this neighborhood has meant great things, like less young black men getting killed. However, as time has gone on, it increasingly seems to mean that those same young black men will be shot in the other neighborhoods they’ve since moved to.
This is a challenge for me, and I’ll present it to you as well. What organizing can we do in a mixed-income community that doesn’t create a cascade of rising rents? What projects can we take on now that will serve the people that live here, rather than the next-rung-up that replace us by the time we get to accomplish something?
The two ideas groups came up with specifically to address this conundrum were:
- The creation of a Community Land Trust
- Educating renters, landlords, and homeowners of folks’ property rights (see Legal Aid for useful resources).
We’ve created power outside of the standard routes. We have 3 motivated teams of residents who have gotten to know each other, identify and share their common interests and concerns, and envision collective action. What now?
This week the 3 action groups met. One person from the Action Committee will help each group create a road map for their work together, and then provide ongoing support as needed. The Organizing Committee will meet to assess the Action Forum and lay out any next steps. We will report ongoing progress to the Civic Association and other relevant venues in the neighborhood.
Already, we’ve given people a sense of their own power, connected people across the neighborhood, introduced some radical ideas like direct democracy, collective ownership, and non-hierarchical group facilitation. I see this process as successful already, and worth doing. And, at the same time, honestly it seems unlikely to significantly slow the rapid pace toward development and displacement in this neighborhood.