A whole new world? Organizing for the 21st Century

I’m hopeful that the folks at the Building Movement Project aren’t freaked out by my rather obvious obsession with their work.

I’m friendly, I promise.

I just really appreciate how they are trying to stimulate thinking, among social service practitioners as well as those more naturally oriented to organizing and social change work, about such questions as: how is community organizing changing in the 21st century, and how should it?

I wrote about their Alliance for Change report before, so I’m not going to restate any of it here, but I’ve been doing more thinking, and reading more examples, of efforts to combine organizing/social change and direct services, and that has led to some questions in my mind, that I hope might spark some discussion in this venue about how organizing and service work might look later in this century.

Let me say again, lest there be any doubt, that I think that models along the lines of what these organizations are building are absolutely integral to the success of both “traditional” service providers (because who can stand, for long, to solve the same problems over and over?) as well as community organizers (who find fundraising and membership-recruitment increasingly difficult in today’s climate).

My questions, then, are about how we make this work, not whether it’s worth it.

First, what do social work ethics say about the practice, among some of these entities, to require membership in order to receive services? I’m not automatically opposed to it, but I do think we must confront the specter of coercion, especially as we hope to challenge it elsewhere.

Second, how do we create programs to address real needs in our members’ lives (and, thus, demonstrate relevancy and build legitimacy with them) without taking necessary pressure off public entities, reinforcing, in a sense, the moves towards retrenchment and privatization?

Third, how do we promote ownership and indigenous development of programs and services without sacrificing quality? This, certainly, isn’t a dilemma unique to this blended organizing/services model, but it’s still a real one. While non-professionals can provide professional-quality services (and professionals do not always!), assuming that those who can organize can also design and administer services is a potentially dangerous leap.

Fourth, while the organizations profiled cite the use of multiple strategies as part of what sustains their members, by offering interim victories (like electoral turnout, or program development), how do we fend off potential distraction, especially away from the longer-term goals of societal transformation? Many things that nonprofit organizations can do are “shinier” than slowly changing the world.

And, finally, how do organizations become sophisticated enough to be seen as legitimate players, yet remain transparent and accountable and accessible to members? Typically, strong grassroots organizations have relied on the size of their memberships for their power, but these new hybrids have other routes to that elusive ‘seat at the table’. Can they be both things?

The questions above are in addition to those identified by the Building Movement Project and its partner organizations, around the challenges of accepting public money, avoiding turning members into clients, and building deep membership while also building alliances across divides.

Towards these ends, they’re conducting additional survey work, connecting organizations in site visits and coalitions, and seeking to advance data about this nascent field.

But I want to hear from those of you seeking to bridge the false and counterproductive divide between organizing and social services: how have you tackled any of these challenges, and which ones have you experienced that I have not even foreseen? Where do you see organizing headed in this century, and what excites and worries you about those directions? What tactics hold the most promise in this climate of new political opportunities and unheard of threats? And where are the greatest risks of failure?

4 responses to “A whole new world? Organizing for the 21st Century

  1. The framing of “how we make this work” instead of “is it worth it” helps to focus potential future discussions towards action. I think one of the linking questions towards the heart of the post would be “how do policy/programs find The Balance.” The sophistication of organizations balanced with accountability to whom they represent, progress and quality vs. the potentially lacking skill sets of the indigenous populations, transcending the “Judge Dredd” complex of making the programs and carrying them out, etc… Through balance of these often contentious responsibilities may come effective policy.
    During the beginning stages of practice, I find myself additionally wrestling with theoretical knowledge vs. practical experience. While both minimal, the former is the basis of many of my interventions with the latter being grown as time in the field increases. The limitations of the former become apparent after multiple attempts to apply logical interventions that just don’t work. But, as this educated (…that’s the goal) trial and error process continues, real world experience is gained that often leads to a more effective (and informed) intervention.
    A nascent field for a nascent professional. An organization that is balanced and provides a structure of support is indeed an invaluable asset to this relationship.

  2. Thanks, Jacob, for these comments. So how do you define the competing interests to be ‘balanced’ by these organizations? I don’t see that sophistication and indigenous leadership are necessarily at odds at all, but maybe that’s not the balance of which you speak? Maybe an example would help. Similarly, can you give me an example of where you’ve felt constrained by the limitations of your on-the-ground experience? I have to admit that I don’t get the “Judge Dredd” reference (is it a popular culture reference? That would explain it!).

  3. All of these are brilliant questions and very relevant right now. I think everything is centered around balancing out the two, almost like the debate topic Vivien and I shared. Your first question, about accessibility through membership, is hard because of the way the system works, some organizations rely on exclusivity even when it comes to social services. We are still operating under the control of competition due to capitalism which makes things dicey moving forward. The second question seems to be in the same vein, choosing between the client or the system. The binary seems so cut and dry but it is much more then that.
    I would flesh out the rest of the questions but the pattern is there. I think we need several organizations that compliment each other to close the gaps they know that their individual organization can not do alone. I know there are arguments for each side on why one is more important then the other but if different organizations collaborated with a side that was different then their own then isn’t the problem solved? I could just be being really naive but I have always believed communication with the other side of the aisle (as long as the goal is common) is the only way things move forward.

  4. I think that’s broadly true, Isaac, that we can get closer to the truth when we try to find ways–not to the ‘center’, like moderation, but that incorporate truths from disparate perspectives. One thing I was thinking in rereading this post and seeing your comment, though, is how we handle the need for some sense of ‘exclusivity’, in terms of building a sense of group cohesion and shared identity, which often happens in relation to those who are not included (we define who we are in part in reference to those who are not us), in light of a growing imperative for embrace of difference. I mean, if everyone is part of our community, then does community become some diffuse so as to lose its meaning? But if not, are we embracing a parochialism that is antiquated and even harmful? Is there a middle ground here, so to speak, that I’m missing?

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