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Monday, February 17, 2014

Revolutionary Scale

I just returned from the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Denver organized by the Local Government Commission. This is a very productive annual conference in which government, business, and community organizational partners tell each other their accomplishments, failures, and learnings through projects in green infrastructure, compact development, linking urban/rural food systems, preserving land and water, reducing carbon emissions, clean energy use, linking homes and jobs through transportation oriented developments, creating new economy jobs, and ensuring equity in everything. All this can be summarized as creating healthy communities with vibrant economies.

Some important considerations emerging from the movement and its actions are:
  • Everybody at the planning table: government, business, labor, health institutions, creative developers, youth, non-profit mission driven agencies, and local communities. Each having its own mission, but relating that to an overriding vision and collective mission.
  • Engage local communities (i.e., publics), organized through powerful community organizations, driving the process and pushing for results based on community interests, values, and affiliations. Community based power is essential to the process.
  • Align resources through partnerships, e.g. the federal agency partnership aligning innovating funding, local government partnerships aligning towards local and regional outcomes, national and community foundations aligning private and public investment and supporting the communities in building power in the partnership.
  • Create, explore, and use the tools: community organization, fiscal impact, environmental impact, health outcome, GIS mapping, comprehensive interests and values survey, data collection, and collective design tools. 
  • Cut across boundaries: see how rural and urban affect each other, watch language so as not to be pigeonholed as liberal or conservative, translate technical terms into common sense terms, let data speak for itself through pictures, pursue diversity in race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, income.
But I think what needs much further discussion are:
  1. Using the good community organizing that is already being done to position both rural communities and urban neighborhoods into powerful positions.
  2. Bringing the movement and its many successful experiments to scale by transforming the present political economy which is actually increasing poverty, undermining equity, blocking health, fouling our habitats, and destroying the planet. 
1.  We are missing a tremendous resource by not engaging the organizations that have been building power in communities and the networks which have been helping them get funding, training, and quality organizers. For example, the prevalent model for SC2 (Strong Cities, Strong Communities) of the White House Council and even the Sustainable Cities Initiative is getting high level technical consultants connected to local mayors and other government officials who bring in "the community" later to test their hypotheses or worse to sell them on their solutions.

Since they seem to want to fund "consultants," I suggest that besides "private professional consultants," we fund "professional community consultants" which are the organizations and their networks that are already in place or have the wherewithal to build powerful local vehicles for ordinary people to experience and assert their power. I will keep trying to work with the Federal Partnership with which I was a part in California and now in DC to do that.

However, part of the problem I discern is with the organizations and their networks themselves Because they do not see the bigger picture or avail themselves of the opportunities. They get caught in their single-issue campaigns, are too cautious about working with government agencies, and do not know how to or are too arrogant to collaborate with one another. I think there will have to be some one-on-ones with open-minded, non-threatened leadership where they can articulate their concerns and help design the process.  That might be a big order.

The feds need some quick, concrete results. The professional technical consultants don't recognize the need or know how to build community people into the process from the beginning and with power. And professional community organizers are often stuck in their old ways and don't see the opportunities for broader change.

2.  What also was missing for me was the radical analysis that identifies the political economic structures and processes that are both creating the poverty, inequity, and environmental devastation that we were trying to deal with, as well as preventing the bringing of successful experiments in community development and new economy to scale.  This analysis includes the clash of classes and the institutions that represented them. I am of course thinking of many large corporations and financial institutions which are speculating in land and gambling for short term winners. As Doug, one of the participants said, all those who invest in "fast money" that simply enriches the Wall Street casino owners, rather than the "slow money" that takes time to multiply in community benefits.

Because of the lack of such analysis, these wonderful experiments are not becoming power centers for transformation at the state and national level. As Doug said (and I loved his metaphor) we are working in the eddies and missing the roaring river that is washing all of us away. Instead we have a sort of "thousand points of light" strategy without the combination into the light that would enlighten and vivify the whole world.

Now I would not expect government agencies to raise this analysis nor the private consultants that rely on government and corporations for support. I mean the analysis of shareholder corporations, freely speculating financial institutions (now creating new bubbles), continued investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, rule of government by the rich through their lobbyists and payments to government officials, and support of fast over slow money activities.  But hopefully the "community consultants" could raise this analysis and the policy implications of this analysis: stakeholder corporations with worker councils, community over national banks, investment in clean energy infrastructure, prohibition of political payoffs, reduction of trade imbalance and global debt, and climate justice through economic democracy.

Let me illustrate with a story:

When I was learning community organizing in the 1960s and 70s, I worked with Jack MacNamera and Fr. Jack Egan with the Contract Buyers of Lawndale (CBL) that expanded to be the Contract Buyers League in Chicago. It was an incredible experience in which the central dynamic of racial housing segregation and its relation to inequities in jobs, education, services, and income was exposed. We learned that racism did not consist in the enmity that some white people and black people felt towards each other, but in the patterns of real estate development and the financial practices supported by government that used and reenforced that racial antagonism. The organizing stopped much of the redlining in Chicago and the HUD/FHA underwriting of that redlining. It was a great and successful experiment on the march to racial and social justice.

At the same time other community organizations were developing in communities that were being torn by blockbusting, racial fear mongering, and financial institution redlining. Austin was one right to the west of us being organized by Tom Gaudette and Shel Trapp who were advising us in Lawndale.

I received further training and went with the Industrial Areas Foundation, first in Chicago, then Toronto, and then San Jose, which was now being run by Ed Chambers after Saul Alinsky retired and died. Ed began to promulgate a practice called "Greenlining" with which some communities, by threatening to remove deposits, were using successfully to get banks to provide lending to lower income families. (Big parenthesis here: I left the IAF after Chambers was pushing for a Greenlining strategy in San Jose which might have been a good idea, but really didn't fit the local community nor come up through a community process.)

But it was Shel Trapp to whom I give most credit, along with Gale Cincotta, for taking the redlining practice and pushing it to national policy level after organizing many communities being threatened by the practice into National Peoples' Action. NPA took on HUD and got them to change regulations and Congress and got them to pass the Community Reinvestment Act to change a major structural practice that exploited poor people and caused racism. Both political parties ultimately adopted this policy and enshrined it in legislation. For awhile at least.

I tell this story to suggest a sort of revolutionary progression in community action. Of course the big banks and their practices with Wall Street remain. Taking advantage of deregulation and new financial investment tools, they were largely responsible for the recent housing bubble and the exploitation of much of the middle and lower class. So the revolution is hardly won though the Occupy Wall Street Movement has started shining a larger light on these institutions and our fast money economy again.

The progression in revolutionary movement goes from a) successful local organizing and experiments to b) deeper structural analysis and broader national organizing with local constituencies and power to c) state and national policy change to d) transformation of the political economy. This requires local community power organizing, radical class and institutional analysis, broad based organizing for policy change that will lead to the transformation of political and economic institutions.

So the challenge is local: community organizing for power. But the challenge is also intellectual/spiritual: engaging people at all levels in an analysis that goes to the roots of the practice and the very values that support that practice. And it is national and transnational: pushing to a new political economic order that emerges through the community power and understanding process that can capture or create a political party for transformative change.

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