Why Community Organizing Matters Today

Vigil at the University of Rhode Island for the Orlando victims, June 13, 2016

Vigil at the University of Rhode Island for the Orlando victims, June 13, 2016

America today is replete with forces that simultaneously bring people together and tear them apart. On the one hand, more people than ever can share in the bounty of mainstream society, thanks to advances in civil rights, advances which, for example, allow women to secure their own livelihoods, African Americans to access housing, people with disabilities to live non-institutionalized lives, and gay and lesbian couples to marry.

On the other hand, extended families live miles apart and not always by choice, a phenomenon facilitated by the car, telecommunications, wealth-segregated suburbs and, for too many Black families, mass incarceration tied to the “war on drugs”; fewer individuals are members of religious congregations or civic groups like unions or mutual support organizations; and the dramatic loss of good manufacturing jobs and thriving small businesses in the face of tightened credit means that the American people live increasingly atomized lives. Public schools and universities are so woefully underfunded, especially in low-income and African American or Latino neighborhoods, that education is no longer the great equalizer. In fact, with learning increasingly taking place on-line and outside the classroom or quad, education is an expensive game of solitaire.

These societal changes should cause us to pause and consider for what reason living in community is important in the first place – or if it is at all, considering the amount of effort it took to realize the post-Enlightenment principles of liberty, freedom, and equality for all individuals – and how we can work together to create new forms of community. We need to move toward valuing interdependence with the same or, I would argue, greater esteem than we regard self-sufficiency. Indeed, self-sufficiency is a physical impossibility and moreover, usually attained at the expense of other people or the earth itself, like the “rugged individualist” of myth.

Community at its most basic is about people who have a common set of values, means of communication, and sense of safety, and who break bread together, live, work and play together, and care for one another. Today, the closest we come to community in an atomized world is through solidarity movements. These recognize the humanity of different people while not requiring more of one another than respect; Black Lives Matter and Stand With Muslims, to name two of these movements, translate as “live and let live,” side-stepping the corollary question which is, When do we venture beyond “intersectionality” into co-creating one community? In “The Big Uneasy,” an extensive review in The New Yorker (May 30, 2016) of student conflicts today on elite liberal arts college campuses, the author, Nathan Heller, finds that students regardless of background are pessimistic or afraid to communicate with one another.

“In class, sometimes I say, ‘Is your identity a kind of knowledge?’” James O’Leary, an assistant professor of musicology at the Oberlin Conservatory, told me. “The answer, for forever, has been no.” But his current students often vigorously disagree. In the post-Foucaultian tradition, it’s thought to be impossible to isolate accepted “knowledge” from power structures, and sometimes that principle is turned backward, to link personal discomfort with larger abuses of power. “Students believe that their gender, their ethnicity, their race, whatever, gives them a sort of privileged knowledge—a community-based knowledge—that other groups don’t have,” O’Leary went on.

As a result, these students have little faith in the ability of others to empathize with them as “allies,” assuming that an integrated community means that their own knowledge and culture will be watered down or obliterated.

But we hunger for friendship and the society of others. We long to trust. We feel this most accutely when we are threatened with the loss of something we might have taken for granted but enjoyed as a collective, like an historic building, a forest, a mom-and-pop restaurant, a leader in a congregation or neighborhood or music group or platoon. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this when he put forth the powerful, palpable vision of the Beloved Community where there is no poverty or violence and which exhibits the “type of love that can transform opponents into friends.”                                                                                             

Homogeneity, as Justice Pashman famously wrote in his New Jersey Supreme Court opinion in the 1970s favoring mixed-income communities at Mount Laurel, is “downright boring”: “New and different life styles, habits and customs are the lifeblood of America. They are its strength, its growing force. Just as diversity strengthens and enriches the country as a whole, so will it strengthen and enrich a suburban community.” As Heller closes his observation of Oberlin College and the almost complete breakdown of trust, he calls for a new norm that takes society past the fifty-year civil rights campaign and into what I would call the creation of community:

The historic bracket that opened in the sixties is starting to close; the boomers’ memoirs of becoming no longer lead up to the present. When that sort of thing happens—when experiential contradictions become acute—a window opens for people whom the legal theorist Cass R. Sunstein calls “norm entrepreneurs”: those promulgating new standards that others can adopt and defend, redefining bad behavior (say, from homosexuality to homophobia), rewriting social models, and shifting the default settings of political culture.

Community organizers and activists can and should be those “norm entrepreneurs.” Organizers connect disparate people with one another based on values and interests – people who otherwise feel helpless and “the only voice in the wind,” as one woman recently wrote to me. The alternative is to submit to the centrifugal forces of dislocation, violence, and susceptibility to scapegoat-seeking and demagoguery that is the result in the breakdown of democracy.

Together, organizers and the people they pull together add a 21st century dimension to the Beloved Community: the interdependent community of people who not only value diversity but invite it; who foster a culture of inclusion that is reflected in intergenerational, intercultural, and mixed-income housing, schools, board rooms, and city council chambers.