Applying Community Organizing Principles in My Life

As the course is coming to a close, I’m finding myself picturing how I will use what I have learned in this course in my future endeavors. I plan to be a physician. At first glance, it seems hard to imagine how a physician could implement community organizing into his/her career. But I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and the picture is becoming clearer to me. Considering I will be graduating with a degree in Peace and Justice Studies, I plan on using my PJ courses in my career and in my personal life. I have had a thirst for justice and the well-being of the community for a very long time. Now, it seems in May I will become a master of such principles. For me, this course has been essential in my Peace and Justice Studies in that it has been one of the most revolutionary topics I have studied, and it has also been one of the most action-oriented courses I have taken at Regis.

One of the goals I strive for, and plan on continuing to pursue in my career as a physician, is that of equal access to healthcare for all. When reading Cold Anger, I loved Chambers’ quote about family. He says, “If you began to talk to people about their families–and about how they might protect and help them by becoming involved in community organizations–and if you talked about their own individual growth and development in the process, then you might have a strategy that could lead to stable political organizations anchored by people whose values derived from concerns deeper than transitory issues” (98). This concept struck me because I realized that this is essential in the fight for universal health care. It is my belief that health care is a human right. As we all have a right to life, so too must we have a right to protect that life as best as we can. That entails all available medical treatments without concern for ability to pay. In my thoughts on how to organize people around the issue of health care, I realized that I must connect with them on a personal level. After all, that is what all of our one-to-ones have been about. I realized that in those conversations, I am able to tap in to the most basic concerns of individuals. Health is a concern of everyone, no matter how rich or poor you are. Granted, illness is somewhat discriminant, it can affect anyone. Everyone has a personal experience with health care or knows of someone who has been failed by the current health care system. It is with that knowledge that I plan to organize individuals around their own basic concerns or their concerns for their loved ones. As a physician, I may not be able to discuss these issues in depth with my own patients, but I will certainly be able to speak from a position of education and power on the concerns of my patients. This understanding will allow me to pursue the issue of access to health care for all, throughout my career as a physician and in my personal life. Health care policy may very well become something that I get involved in.

Reflection on Community Organizing Project

When we first started this class, community organizing was a completely foreign idea to me. I remember the 1st day reading “This class is not theoretical” posted in giant letters on the screen. In the back of my mind, I was thinking “Yeah, OK…”. We’re at a university; theory, reading books, and critiquing thoughts and ideas are what we do. I honestly didn’t believe that we would be taking what we learned of community organizing and putting it to use in our communities. Reading Alinsky was incredibly frustrating for me, as I have mentioned in class discussion and other posts because of his rough attitude. But I must say that I respect him, especially in his desire to be a part of and learn from the communities the organizers are working in.

That was one thing that I struggled with in our project because we went in to the one-to-ones and original groundwork knowing what project and what issue we had in mind. I would have liked to had more time to start from scratch, hosting multiple one-to-ones to see what issues the Regis community itself cares about. I know that the people we talked to were genuinely interested in Sudan, but it did seem a bit forceful considering we went in to the meetings knowing what issue we wanted to work on. I do think, though, that that tension is something that is necessary in community organizing. Without a goal going into those meetings, I think all we would have gathered was a bunch of random facts about what certain students and faculty care about. I think if we were professional community organizers, we could have taken the information we gathered while organizing around Sudan and tapped in to other concerns students and faculty have.

Ultimately, though, my proudest achievement of our group was the amount of education we were able to do. Through our house meetings we were able to get in touch with people’s connections to Sudan and find out what ideas they had to organize around the issue. Alinsky said, “The organizer finds his goal in creation of power for others to use” (80). I feel that through our educational house meetings both in athletics and with the Regis and Arrupe communities, as well as our plans to teach courses on genocide in Sudan in Spring 2012 classes we were definitely able to give others the power in education to act on the issue. Also, I am incredible proud of our success in involving Arrupe high school students in our organizing. Just like Smith did, we realized that the youth are going to be the ones to either take up our issue and continue to make progress in organizing and acting, or they will forget about it because they have no passion for it. By involving them, we created a legacy that will hopefully last for many years to come at both Arrupe and Regis.

Who’s looking out for the little people?

Lately I have been hearing of the Portland Port protest that Occupy Wall Street recently put on. You can read about it here: http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2011/12/occupy_portland_protestors_pre.html. Essentially, OWS occupiers blocked trucks from getting to certain terminals at the port, and succeeded in halting business at least for that day. However, I was a bit surprised when I started researching the subject and found that it wasn’t only large corporations who were affected by their actions. People were criticizing the protests for causing distress for average workers and small business owners as well. While OWS’s intentions were to hurt a Goldman Sachs company (SSA Marine), they also ended up losing union workers at the port a day of work and pay. It got me thinking about collateral damage in the process of community organizing and protests. I don’t think this was something any of our authors touched much on, but it really sparked interest in me. When an organized group of people stage a protest or other action, is it a necessary evil that they will hurt some people they don’t intend to hurt?

I think that Alinsky with his rough, sometimes harsh personality would say that it’s all part of the process. Some individuals will get hurt by the organized group’s actions. But I wonder if part of community organizing is ensuring that whatever the community needs does not hurt those in the community. In this case, OWS (or the 99%) hurt the 1% (Goldman Sachs), but I would imagine the depth of the damage done was greater in the union workers than it was to the giant corporation. In Cold Anger, Cortes does a bunch of work with communities in San Antonio, but nowhere in the story is anything mentioned about people within the community being hurt by the organized group’s actions. It certainly seems like fixing drainage issues are something that the entire community would benefit from. However, in a movement like OWS where they are fighting an institution that (for better or worse) is ingrained in the community or society, the line becomes much more fuzzy. There are plenty of average Joes who work at a lower level within these institutions and whose families rely on the institution for their security and well-being. I agree that the corporations and institutions in place generally benefit a minute number of people at the top, but is there a good way to tackle the giant without hurting those who currently need it to survive? What happens during the overhaul that is imagined by OWS? I’m not sure anyone has the answers, but it’s certainly something that needs to be addressed and examined carefully before we go tearing down this giant. Things DO need to change, but ideally there would be social systems in place to take care of those who rely on the very institutions OWS plans to take down.

Organizing as a Political Act

While reading Alain Badiou’s analysis of revolutionary politics Alinsky kept popping into my mind.  This may be due to the attacks on Alinksy as a Red or perhaps just because they fit so well together.  Badiou argues that the process of the revolution is a constant spiral of political acts which govern and shape constitutive truth (21).  This implies that the process of truth discovery is revolutionary.  Badiou highlights that the revolution is that which challenges the benign truths of a community.  The Revolution of Occupy Wall St. challenges the benign truth of capital in politics.  The Bolshevik Revolution challenged the truth of inequality and involvement in foreign wars.  While Badiou is attacking the “truths” of capitalism and democracy Alinksy offers this revolutionary lens as well. 

Challenging the held power principles of the community allows the organizer to create action.  It is by challenging “truth” that the organizer agitates the community to action.  The “truth” of poverty is challenged through the organization of the community to hold strikes, sit-ins, protests, marches.  In fact challenging a “truth” is what Badiou highlights as the “in-common evil” (Badiou 20).  Even if one does not live in a state of poverty they are impacted by the evil that allows such poverty to exists and hold firm in a community.  The same evil that creates the barrier between workers and employer is the same “truth” that circulates in the domestic community.  Alinsky highlights our inability to challenge these truths in his analysis of the haves and have-nots (Alinksy 19).  The reason those with a little are willing to keep silent is the fact that the same evil that keeps citizens in poverty is that which can move a have to the position of the have-not.  The same social constructions that Badiou criticizes are those which formulate the meat of Alinsky’s theories.  Therefore can we argue that Alinksy is a revolutionary?  The issue that Badiou would hold, and I as well, is the fact that Alinksy prioritizes some benign truths.  While he may attack the benign conceptions of power and self-interest he also prioritizes the political system.  In fact Alinsky’s primary aim is to take have-nots and push them into the democratic discourse.  The democratic discourse, according to Badiou, is also a benign evil in the theological credit we place upon it.  Alinsky’s relationship with this discourse is different than Badiou’s but highlights a unique tension that can be discussed further.

                Even past this disagreement we can find commonality in the localized political act.  For Badiou that which is political is also that which is relational (Badiou 27).  The act of being a member in a community is a political move.  The location where you buy you coffee is political, fair-trade is political, even the clothes that we choose to wear is political.  Tactics are political (Alinsky 127).  Badiou is arguing that actions that we associate within the community are those that carry political weight.  Alinksy is the actor that Badiou imagines as for Alinksy change cannot come from sitting in an office watching the world and wondering what it’s like.  Rather for Alinksy the task of the community organizer is to enter the world and participate in the political nature of communities (Alinksy 103).  It is about emersion within the political processes of the community is fighting the evil corporation and at the same time viewing this as a stepping stone for future political acts.  From this aspect of political change we can see the similarities in the radical democracy of Alinksy and the authoritarian nature of Badiou’s philosophy.  Not only is this an interesting thought experiment for the philosophy nerd (me), but also an interesting lens into the core thought of Alinksy.  What Saul is proposing is truly groundbreaking in the processes that one views the relationship within the community and the process of the political becoming localized.  The localization of the political narrative, the discussion of “truth”, is what Badiou attempts to create in the community.  Alinsky does this.

Opportunities of Enrichment

As this class has progressed and I have been exposed to so many organizing practices, inspirational people, and organizing opportunities that growth and change have been inevitable in my experiences.  My original intentions for taking this class were to earn three more credits towards my Sociology major. This class sounded intriguing; however, I have never thought of myself as an “organizer, at least the little bit I knew about organizing.  In furthering my understanding about the organizing practice, I have learned that every person has organizing characteristics and organizing potential.

What held me back from seeing myself as an organizer are my sometime passive personality, my issues with allowing myself to be vulnerable, and my acceptance that I have the potential to be a leader. The simplest, yet difficult step that helped me become a better individual in general is applying Alinsky’s idea “of not just allowing things to happen to you.” Alinsky taught this to his organizers and Fretz tried to instill this in all of us; further, this lesson taught me that the best way to experience life is to actively engage in every experience. When I applied this idea to this class, I was able to have a more enriching experience inside and outside of the classroom. To just go through this class holding the view and intentions of it only being “three more credits” would cheat me out of an enriching experience and the chance to grow as a potential organizer as well as an individual that takes full advantage of life experiences.

So what, who cares?

Throughout my time at Regis I have written many papers. They have ranged in length, topics, number of drafts written, number of hours spent on them, and so much more- but the one thing that they all have in common is that they all require me to ask the question: “So what, who cares?” The more time I spend at Regis, the more I realize that this question Dr. Palmer posed before my first paper for Honors Seminar really is an important question to ask.

Looking back at the semester and all of the things that we have discussed and even debated about, I have to stop and ask myself, “So what, who cares?” What am I going to get out of this class, what am I going to do with the information I have learned, and who is going to care that I have actually spent time on it and learned it? If nothing else, I think that it is valuable for me to reflect on this myself because I feel that it will help me take the skills that we have learned and figure out how I want to apply them to my everyday life, and especially how I can apply them to my future career.

One of the quotes that came up in Smith’s book that really spoke to me and my intended path of Social Work deals with knowing why we do what we do in order to keep us going. I think it also came into play during many of our projects. Smith says, “Defeat and frustration will find us- whether we are slogging through a campaign for a new neighborhood playground or lobbying for recycling services or opposing a popular war. Knowing why we do what we do keeps us going when we would rather be doing almost anything else” (Smith 25). To me, this addresses the problem of burnout. Since many of us are Peace & Justice majors and many of us are passionate about different issues, it is easy to lose sight of reality and get burnt out. This concept of burnout was something that Andi also mentioned during their group’s presentation. We are going to face defeat and we most likely will become frustrated with the issues that we face in our future careers, but the thing that Smith points out is that “knowing why we do what we do keeps us going” even when it is hard and even when we want to give up. I think this is a big “so what” point. What did I get out of this class? I got an appreciation for realizing that doing what I love and organizing people around my causes will definitely not always be easy, but I also learned that because I know I am doing something I love- that passion will keep me going during even the hardest times of my work.

Another aspect of this class that we discussed was how to organize those around us. I think the part of this that struck me the most was a quote that came from Rogers. It talked about how I shouldn’t simply sell someone an idea that I like and want them to get behind, instead I have to propose it to them and make them so excited that they want to own the idea themselves, “‘If I want to organize you, I don’t sell you an idea… I try to kindle your imagination, stir the possibilities, and then propose some ways in which you can act on those dreams and act on those values and act on your own visions. You’ve got to be the owner’” (Rogers 17). This idea of being to “kindle your imagination” is beautiful imagery and I think that it portrays the idea of community organizing perfectly. When I think about the question “who cares?” in relation to this quote I think about all of us and our organizing project. Who cares? We made people cared because we took our passion and got so excited about our projects that others couldn’t help but get involved. They saw us working towards a goal that we ourselves cared about and that inspired others to care. To me, this is such a powerful lesson and I get excited when I think about it.

We all have the power to make a change. We have the power to make others care but showing them how much we care and how much we want to invest into our passions. While it might not always be easy and while we may see defeat like Smith talked about we will find the strength within ourselves to keep going and even when we think we can’t, that’s when we will turn to those we have organized and they will help us keep going. That strength comes from the relationships we have built, and those relationships help us realize why we love doing what we do.