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"How Publishing a Book Helped Our Organizing Process,"

by Eric Mann March 1992 issue of Poverty & Race

In September of 1991, the Labor/Community Strategy Center, a multi-racial center for policy and organizing, published LA.'S Lethal Air: New Strategies for Policy, Organizing, and Action. The book was the culmination of two years of research and study involving more than 20 people in the analytical and editing process, and more than $50,000 in funds.

The book's objectives were:
1) To serve as the centerpiece of a multi-year organizing plan to build a new environmental organization, the Labor/Community WATCHDOG, with a primary emphasis on outreach to workers, residents of communities of color, and low-income people;

2) To articulate a new environmental politics that focuses on the public health impacts of the environmental crisis in general, air pollution in particular, on workers, people of color, women, and the poor; that places the blame for the environmental crisis squarely on the policies of corporate elites; that articulates new programs for environmentally sound industrial, transportation, tax, and urban planning policy; and that helps generate new social movements of workers, people of color, and progressive professionals to directly challenge corporate pollution, priorities, and power.

3) To help shape the regional and national strategic debate among environmental justice activists, especially those in communities of color, traditional environmental activists looking for new answers, reform elements of the union movement, and those concerned about rebuilding a hard-hitting, grassroots, democratic Left.

It will take at least a year for us to meaningfully evaluate how well L.A.'s Lethal Air will have met its objectives. One objective, however, has been met already -- the book's existence has begun to generate the fast hints of a broader debate about the role of ideology and strategy in the organizing process. Several activists from influential organizations in the environmental justice and progressive movements have made comments along the order of, "The book looks great, it raises some important questions, it even offers some challenging answers, but you can't build a social movement around a book. The Strategy Center would have spent its time, money, and organizers' energies more wisely by putting more people in the streets, and using less ambitious and costly educational materials. And given your emphasis on workers and communities of color, we're not sure how useful a book is for your stated goal of building an organization."

We appreciate the openly stated challenge. Here are our answers to "Why so much emphasis on a book in the organizing process?"

Confronting the ideology of the Right

Today, the political Right understands the role of ideas in the process of social transformation far better than the now dispirited and defensive Left, and has gone on the offensive with ideas of the "free market," "management rights," and "deregulation," attacking ideas of social justice with effective distortions such as "reverse discrimination" and "political correctness."

L.A.'s Lethal Air, as an effort to create a popular, assertive, environmental mani-festo with clearly articulated anti-corporate politics, needs the book format because so many of the operating assumptions of today's organizers have been impacted by more than 15 years of the Right's hegemony that a comprehensive analysis is needed to challenge those assumptions. For example, we outline "The Corporate Source of the Problem" in Chapter 5 of the book, to counter those who believe that "we all" are equally responsible for the environmental crisis, those who buy Styrofoam cups and Exxon which spills tons of oil off the coastline of Alaska, and those who advise us, "I know that corporate polluters are the overwhelming source of the problem but it's political suicide to appear to be ideologically anti-corporate in today's climate."

We do not begin the book, therefore, with a bald assertion that corporations are the primary source of the problems, but rather with a chapter on the chemistry of air pollution, and then two chapters on the health impacts of air pollution, with particular emphasis on class, race, and gender, and on which corporations and which chemical processes produce the chemicals that produce those problems. Then, when we make our case about why we feel that democratic economic contr over "privately held" corporate decisicion is necessary, the argument flows from a step-by-step public health, chemical, ethical, and logical discussion of cause and effect.

L.A.'s Lethal Air is not just a book about "strategy" in the abstract, but a strategic debate with many of the mainstream environmental groups, and even with some of the most militant grassroots toxics groups. The latter, often without full consciousness, adhere to a highly pluralistic view of U.S. society in which "the empowerment" of oppressed people through the "skills and resources" of the "organizer" (and not ideology or strategy) equals quantitative social change within a basically just and workable system.

By contrast, the Strategy Center and WATCHDOG believe that a critique of the system's unjustness and unworkability and its structural opposition to fundamental social change is a critical first step in the organizing process; and that "organizing," while of course focusing on development of skills and resources, is primarily a product of ideology, strategy, and consciousness, reflected in political education, leadership development, and organizational construction.

The book form best allows us to demonstrate the methodology by which we reach our conclusions, and is a written explanation of how we plan to build our urn organization and carry out our own theories into practice.

Writing as a process of developing theory and building organization

Some people assume that "writing" is merely a mechanical process of putting down what you already understand. For us, the writing process begins with a hypothesis and a basic analysis, and then involves a steep uphill learning curve as the writing process exposes factual inadequacies, flawed reasoning, unpersuasive arguments, and political disagreements within the organization.

The core group of 20 people who participated in the formulation of L.A.'s Lethal Air had rich histories as organizers, which prepared us for the obvious but not always agreed upon assumption that an organizer has to know what she or he is talking about; and the more complex the problem, such as the industrial and transportation policies at the root of much of the urban air pollution, the more complex the study and preparation of the organizer.

We used the writing of L.A.'s Lethal Air as a step in the training of organizers. In the process of reading public health reports and analyses of smog and air toxins, analyzing our strategies and those of other environmental organizations, and developing specific programs for policy and organizing, we raised our own understanding and consciousness a hundredfold. The result, overall, was a far larger, clearer, and more unified organization.

Some felt that such explicit presentation of politics was "condescending" to low-income communities who could best "figure things out themselves." We countered that in an age when the dominant ideology, presented in the media, through both political parties and through every cultural and workplace institution, has never been more explicitly and forcefully presented by the establishment, to assume that the "consciousness" of the people in oppressed communities is "their own," freely arrived at and only to be mechanically organized into "actions," leaves them hostage to only one side of the argument. It is precisely in an extended political dialogue with the people you want to organize, with politics presented openly and honestly, that real mutual respect and mutual ability to impact each other's thinking is possible. In our view, it is the spoonfeeding of the oppressed" and "hiding of one's agenda," or, worse, the absence of an agenda, that reflects the worst of what passes for "grassroots organizing."

Re-establishing traditions of literacy in oppressed communities

L.A.'s Lethal Air is being used by organizers, going from door to door in low-income, predominantly Latino and African-American communities, talking to union activists in service and industrial workplaces, and recruiting faculty and students in both "working-class" and "elite" colleges. Not just in the communities, but in the workplaces and universities, the majority of the constituencies we are targeting, and who are most attracted to our organizing plan, are people of color.

One of the many victories of the Right's rewriting of history is the view that people of color and low-income people don't read, or that we are now "in the age of television and films." Unfortunately, there is a kernel of truth in this facile oversimplification: traditions of literacy are being eroded, and a whole generation of all classes and races is losing the ability to sit quietly and think. We are well aware that many people in oppressed communities have reading problems or are illiterate, but many community members do read and are hungry for good literature. Our direct experience has shown that many of the most effective worker and community leaders are avid readers of everything from environmental impact reports to books on political strategy.

Combating passivity --involving the reader as thinker, then actor

LA.'s Lethal Air ends with a membership card, encouraging the reader to join the WATCHDOG. It makes an explicit and immediate connection between thought and action. It is, by design, a short book, utilizing techniques to maximize reader interest, such as multi-color graphics, more than 50 photos and charts, "side bars" with sketches of key activists, many headlines, and short subsections within the chapters to allow two- and three-page rest-stops for digestion, and a straightforward writing style that attempts to clarify but not oversimplify a complex treatment of a complex subject.

Our present plan is to publish a Spanish edition in the Spring of 1992, which will dramatically expand the impact of our ideas to some of the key communities and individuals we are attempting to reach, and allow further testing of our organizing hypotheses.

Finally, while we have emphasized the unique and pivotal role a book plays in our organizing work, we utilize the book in a multi-faceted tactical approach, not as a rigid tactic standing on its own. Right now we have three full-time organizers going door to door using public health questionnaires as our main form of initiating public health discussions in highly vulnerable communities. We have just won a milestone, one-year campaign to convince the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a mega-agency responsible for cleaning up L.A.'s air, to pass a "Social Equity Amendment" that we introduced to prevent air policies from discriminating against workers based on race, gender, income, union membership, and disability. We publish articles, produce films, organize press conferences and demonstrations, use leaflets, house meetings and many other tactics to expand the influence of our work.

The Strategy Center's efforts to develop a new school of thought that re-emphasizes the role of ideology and consciousness in the organizing process made our decision to focus so much energy on the publication of an analysis/ polemic/manifesto on environmental politics a logical outgrowth of our organizers' worldview.

Eric Mann has served as organizer with CORE, the Newark Community Union Project, SDS and United Auto Workers Local 645 in Los Angeles. He is presently the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center and a member of the Planning Committee of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union. laborctr@igc.ipc.org
 
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