I’m a community organizer. The shibboleth of community organizing is “educate, agitate, organize.” Lay out the reasons behind the problem, get people pissed off about it and then work together to change the situation. It’s the opposite of social work, a field of work that identifies personal problems to correct rather than the “powers-that-be” that cause oppression.
One effective way for organizers to get a handle on the agitate part of the equation, to truly understand another’s oppression, is to focus on the oppression you may have faced in your life. Understand the disrespect and disenfranchisement in your own life–and allow yourself to truly feel the anger that oppression creates within you. This will allow you to help others to harness their anger and use it to to empower both themselves and their community.
I’ve always felt like I had to intellectualize this part of my professional training. Why? I’m The Man. Name a societal privilege and I’ve had it bestowed upon me–I’m a white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, Ivy League college graduate, from a solidly middle-class family with a home in the suburbs, a two parent household, with a stay-at-home mother and a professional father. Currently, I’m a homeowner, happily married and we’re both employed. I’m empathetic toward suffering, but have faced no really serious societal problems. Or have I? I’ve been fat my entire life. Continue reading
A friend of mine, someone I hadn’t seen in awhile, commented on a Facebook posting of mine today. He asked how things were going in Syracuse, and since he has labored as an organizer, I laid the typical, world-weary organizer rap on him as a reply:
Things are limping along in Syracuse–more poverty than ever and less compassion because the upper and middle classes are feeling constrained as well. Unions fight to elect politicians who then ignore them when it counts. City government is going broke paying for city employees (police and fire) who refuse to live in the city–contributing to the decline of our tax base. You know–same shit, different day.
Too snarky, by a longshot. It’s all true–but somehow incomplete. I thought of a phrase that my wife used the other day: “So, what do we know?” It’s a nifty line that really resonated with me. I think it’s a great opener for a leadership meeting: short, snappy and demanding others to leap into the breach! Continue reading
Of all the folks I’ve met since becoming an organizer in 1994, I owe more to Claire McGrath–both professionally and personally– than anyone else.
At SUN, she has been an integral leader–chairing meetings, plotting strategy and deciding policy on the Board of Directors (even signing my paycheck as treasurer.)
Personally, she and her family rescued two doggies, Sammy in 1998 and Andie in 2011–that she then turned over to my family to raise and love! Continue reading
I recently came across a quote from one of the leaders of a grassroots group in Pittsburgh that organizes to make sure that any public tax benefits to private corporations come with a Community Benefits Agreement (C.B.A.)
These agreements guarantee that the projects receiving civic largesse will provide in return jobs for low-income residents, environmental accountability and preferences for local businesses.
Talking about a recent demonstration, the neighborhood leader remarked:
We did good to get 120 out here today. That gets the politicians’ attention. But it’s 500 people that worries them and 1000 people that scares them. We have to get scary.
Today, I attended a public Board of Directors meeting of the Greater Syracuse Property Development Corp., more informally known as the Land Bank. The Land Bank is foreseen as a way for the city and county to jointly manage the increasing number of vacant and abandoned buildings in our neighborhoods. These vacant houses have created numerous problems for residents with crime, trash, decreased property values, arson etc. By creating a non-profit agency with the ability to foreclose on tax delinquent property, an agency that works full-time on only this issue, the area will be able to take back control of residential development from speculators and redevelop properties written off to abandonment.
At the meeting, a discussion ensued about a tour of Syracuse neighborhoods that the five Board members had taken with city officials from the Department of Neighborhood Development. At the Near West side stop, the Board members heard from officials of Home Headquarters, a housing non-profit that had rehabilitated properties in the neighborhood. The Board members also heard from some SUN neighborhood leaders, the community organization I work for as an organizer, describing the effect of vacant houses on their neighborhoods.
During the discussion, a Board member alluded to the fact that one of the city officials leading the tour had only lived in the area for four years, and that he himself had lived in the outer suburbs his entire life. The Board member was humbled that the official knew the city and its problems while he did not. The Board member then offered up a nugget of wisdom that was as profound as it was rare to hear–a clear and unambiguous assessment of the problems facing our region and its inability to integrate city and suburb:
“That’s our problem. We have 1-2 generations that have become so disconnected from the city that we don’t know our way around.”
OK–What do Syracuse, Bruce Springsteen and community organizing have in common? Me!
SUN is a member of National People’s Action, one of the main organizations behind the 99% Spring. This coalition is sponsoring a massive nationwide training on non-violent, direct action protest. I’m helping to put this training on in Syracuse. Bruce Springsteen lent the tune “Land of Hope & Dreams” to a video promoting the training. Continue reading
I spoke with a group of Jesuit Volunteeer Corps members last night, a focused conversation on organizing, power, race and class in Syracuse. The group of 8 young people are working for a year with various social service agencies around town.
Stephen Lerner from SEIU (the guy who helped create the brilliant Justice For Janitors campaign) gave a keynote address at the 11th anniversary dinner of Grass Roots Organizing in Missouri–a kick ass group that is, like SUN, a part of National People’s Action. Check out the last part of this speech if you need a dose of fire and brimstone, flat-out enthusiasm for the fight to make Wall Street pay for crashing our economy and ending the economic inequality that plagues our nation. Occupy This!
This is our moment
this is what we’ve waited a lifetime for
this is our chance to do it right
this is our chance to change the world
this is our chance to save our homes
this is our chance to get fair taxes
this is our chance to bust up the big banks
this is our chance to save the world
I hope you’re with me
I hope you’re ready to do what it takes to do what it takes to win
This is a wonderful group
There is no better time to believe in justice than right now.
OK, we’re all probably being a little too dramatic about the possibilities of Occupy Wall Street, but damn if it isn’t inspiring. THE media story of the moment is now about economic inequality, not budget cuts and austerity. That alone is a victory. Anti-bank activists have been fighting some of these same battles since post-World War 2, FHA redlining policies led to the block-busting and panic peddling of the 1960′s. Major victories came in the early 1970′s with the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) and Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), but our work to fight back equity theft, predatory lending and the foreclosures caused by the Wall Street securitization bazaar has had only mixed results. Our organizations need to leverage the energy and the media attention of the Occupy movement, the benefits could lift our work to a much higher level. This is an era where direct action and civil disobedience is being lauded (and creatively used!) The time to act is now!
So what have I been doing? Some mucking around the edges of the battle to stop Governor Cuomo from giving N.Y. millionaires a $5 billion tax break on December 31st. He’s threatening to allow the high income tax surcharge to lapse, putting the state back into severe deficit. But the battle is just starting and seems to have only really been joined by our NYC colleagues able to use the Occupy Wall Street crowds to bolster the cause. My main event of the past month has been much more quotidian–planning and putting on a candidate forum. Continue reading