Organizing Across Difference

Similar perhaps to the experiences of many professional community organizers, much of my work has occurred in communities of which I am not really a part. In particular, I have spent most of my organizing time in low-income Latino immigrant communities, despite the fact that I am not low-income, not Latino, and not an immigrant. I was fairly acutely aware of this disconnect most of the time; I was asked at least a few times a week ‘what made you want to work in a Latino immigrant community?’, and I had several pretty intense conversations with the immigrant leaders with whom I was working about how our differences impacted our work together, as well as about the general wisdom (or lack thereof) of having an organizer from outside the community. Ethically, I am a little conflicted still about this arrangement–there were several occasions when I know that my leaders were received more warmly, for example, because they were with me, which made them less ‘threatening’ to those in power, and that is obviously problematic. There are other ways in which my mere presence organizing in the community created some concerns, namely this ugly assumption by some that I was there because no indigenous member of the community was capable of taking on that leadership. Still, there were things that I was able to bring to the community that they needed, and I like to think that my consciousness of our difference minimized the inadvertent damage that organizers in such a community can cause. I know that I am forever grateful to those who allowed me to work and learn and journey in their midst, and I think that something fundamentally valuable would be lost if organizers only worked in homogenous communities, setting aside the impossibility of finding a ‘perfect’ fit between organizer and community characteristics.
Here are some of my lecture notes about this very topic, informed by additional reading that I’ve done over the past two years, particularly of social workers of color who have done a lot of thinking about how their communities can be enriched rather than exploited by the presence of ‘outside’ organizers. If you’re an organizer working in a community different than your own, how has that experience been for you? In what ways are you cognizant of the differences, and how do they help or hinder your work? If you have been a leader or participant in a community organizing effort facilitated by an outside organizer, how has that experience been from your perspective? What should social workers preparing for macro practice in diverse communities read, think about, reflect on, learn in order to best equip themselves to work with, rather than on, that community?

Advantages of Working Outside your own Community
• Fewer preconceived ideas (about you and them)
• Authentic ability to see through others’ eyes
• Sometimes easier to get leaders to take ownership (‘we can’t leave it to this outsider’)
• Gives leaders a clear demand to be ‘experts’ in their own community/lives, which sets a pattern of authority and power
• Demonstrates solidarity and gives people the opportunity to practice working across difference

Disadvantages of Working Outside your own Community
• Stereotypes are powerful
• Trust more elusive
• Easier to make mistakes that brand you an outsider (examples: falling in with the outspoken ‘leader’ who no one can really trust/stand; taking what people say at face value rather than digging deeper)—we may falsely assume that we can overcome the fear or resistance
• Ethical dilemmas about the appearance of paternalism (power brokers often much prefer to deal with organizers who come from their same ‘group’ or community than with the community leaders who do not)—others may assume that there was no one ‘qualified’ within the community, which sends precisely the wrong message about the people with whom you’re working

Organizing Across Difference—Impact of Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Class, Sexual Orientation, and other Identities
A. The way that we see our community and the social problems around which we’re trying to organize inevitably shaped by our experiences as members of these identity groups
B. Gender—women have distinct ways of relating to each other and to power that come less naturally to most men (more process-oriented, affective, mutual support)
C. Race—the legacy and pervasive nature of racism in our society make it nearly impossible for organizers who are not of color
D. Ethnicity—Cultural traditions, celebrations, language, and other artifacts of ethnic group identity are essential parts of what binds a community together; an organizer who does not belong to this community will have more difficulty participating in these important rituals and, therefore, more difficulty truly understanding the community. Many ethnic minority groups have much more collective styles of decision-making than dominant U.S. culture.
E. Class—Cultural reference points, ways of speaking, and experiences of self-efficacy vary greatly depending on one’s class position in U.S. society. Organizers are almost all middle and upper-middle class, and most of those ‘being organized’ are poor are near-poor. (there are also some intersections here with levels of formal education)
F. Sexual orientation—The GLBT community, along with undocumented immigrants, are one of the few oppressed groups in the U.S. against whom it is still politically and socially acceptable in many quarters to openly discriminate. This leads to great difficulties in organizing in many contexts and can make constituencies very hesitant to trust outside organizers, but is an example of where solidarity is needed.

What Works
• Acknowledge your ignorance about relevant aspects of the culture in which you are organizing (It’s OK to ask questions, but there ARE stupid questions)
• Learn as much as you can (language, history, geography), but don’t assume that what you learn will be accurate—check! (give people an opportunity to teach you, but DON’T expect someone to be a spokesperson for a large and diverse group of people)
• Expect heterogeneity among the population you’re organizing (there is no “Latino” culture, no “female way of organizing”)—there is as much diversity within these identity groups, many times, as among different identities (this is especially true as people belong to multiple groups and experience multiple forms of oppression—ageism, sexism, racism, etc…)
• Find ways to connect your lived experiences to those of the constituency with which you are working (the use of multiple identity politics can be helpful here)
• Highlight the strengths that you observe within the group you’re organizing
• Find ways to make your natural strengths complement those of your members/constituents
• Remember that there are core elements of organizing that are common to all of humanity—treat people with respect, honor your commitments, share credit (treat people right, regardless of what you think you know about how ‘they’ act; example: showing up late because “We’re on Mexican time”)
• Use multiple forms of outreach, especially when you’re learning the best ways to communicate within the community/culture (and ask new members how they heard about your event/organization, as a way of checking how information flows)
• Observe, if at all possible, before you start to organize (be seen at events and institutions, attend community gatherings, walk around and get a feel for the physical environment)
• Connect to the organizations and institutions within the community, but do not assume that all of these are authentically of the community or that members feel represented by them

What Doesn’t
• Assuming you know all about the community because of X experience you had (a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing)
• Pretending that ‘good organizing is good organizing’ regardless of the context—culture blindness is blindness, and we can’t organize in the dark
• Being defensive about your culture or your organizing abilities—you won’t prove anything that way (except that people are often defensive when confronted with difference)
• Playing both sides of the fence—trying to act like one of ‘them’ when with both your constituency and power brokers who come from your same identity group (your members will find out, and they will never trust you again)
• Adopting the community’s culture as your own, ignoring your own identity and history (you need to be yourself, albeit a ‘yourself’ who is more consciously aware of how your identity impacts your work, how your membership in certain groups comes with privileges that oppress some others, and how you can build effective relationships with those who have different lived experiences)

One response to “Organizing Across Difference

  1. Pingback: 13 Compelling Social Work Blogs

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