"Four Responses to PRRAC Feature, "How Publishing a Book Helped Our Organizing Process," by Eric Mann Poverty & Race, March, 1992,"by Wade Rathke, Heather Booth, Joseph McNeely & Mike Miller May 1992 issue of Poverty & Race
A careful reading of Eric Mann's argument for "book publishing" as an asset to the organizing process finds that there may be more to grab in LA's air than in his argument. As Mann states, "It will take at least a year for us to meaningfully evaluate how well LA's Lethal Air will have met its objectives." Thus far, Mann will only aver that the "fast hints" seem positive -- so carefully couched that to disagree seems to be grabbing at air itself.
What then was somewhat surprising is the elaborate assertion of the value of the publication and the invention of straw men to the contrary to disagree, especially since the obvious mint of the publication was unmentioned.
Part of the problem for any new organizing initiative is establishing "legitimacy." Whatever the organizing model, one can easily find the way organizers and organizations continually address and respond to this need to credentialize the organizing process in order to attempt to build a mass base or at the least a membership to support the endeavor.
In terms of legitimacy, a book --more or less -- would seem one alternative, even if an unusual one for the task of organizing. Certainly in advocacy book publishing is not unique, since Ralph Nader and others (take, for example, in labor's efforts to organize clericals, Solutions for the New Work Force by John Sweeney, SEW President, and Karen Nussbaum of Local 925 SEW.) But, if this is the use of the book, it was surprising not to hear more about distribution, numbers of copies out, press attention to the publication, and other indices of support for such an argument, as opposed to "fast hints."
Finally, it is those kinds of questions, along with the eventual outcome of the project, that will determine
whether or not this was a valid use of 20 people's time and energies and the resources involved. I suspect that -- if everything were equal (which of course it never is) -- and one had a group of people who couldn't organize, but could research and write, and the wherewithal to get the work published, many would publish. Why not? Many do already with less reason and considerably less to say.
In the meantime, it seems Mann "doth promote" too much. For his organizing argument to work, hopefully there is more to the book (as has been true of his past books) than there is to his argument as presented here.
Eric Mann describes a challenging organizing strategy and technique in the first issue of the PRRAC newsletter. It is challenging in two senses. First, it challenges the readers of the new organizing manual that the labor and Community Strategy Center has published to think differently about their own strategy for environmental and social change. Secondly, Mann poses a challenge for some traditional kinds of organizing to engage a broader conception--one that includes "ideology, strategy and consciousness."
The most effective change usually reflects and creates deeper levels of understanding -- rooting tactics in values and principles exposing how the world really works (ideology), teaches how history is made and how people themselves can make history (strategy), and how one issue relates to another. There are many variations on how to approach these insights. Midwest Academy's manual Organizing for Social Change offers another approach also with great effectiveness (225 W. Ohio St., Chicago, IL 60610), as does John O'Connor's Fighting Toxics, (National Toxics Campaign Fund, 1168 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA 02134) and others. Mann's approach makes a real contribution by framing the issue of the environment in a context of broader change of the society, and placing broader social and economic change of the society in a context of the environment.
It is important that our organizing keep expanding out and not become an orthodoxy with a rigidly held view that only one track can lead to effective change. At some point, the results we achieve, the numbers of people we recruit and mobilize, the new majority that we build for change tests the effectiveness of the ideas. The challenge of Mann's book should help keep our perspectives fresh. It now must be put to the test of the organizing impact it will have in the society at large.
There is something admirable and something disconcerting about Eric Mann's article in the March issue of Poverty & Race, recounting the creation and use of the book, LA's Lethal Air, as an organizing tool.
Overall, I admire and applaud the effort to frame the environmental issue in community terms and to mobilize a cadre of organizers for door-to-door work. The book may prove helpful in motivating and training those organizers.
I doubt it will be immediately useful, however, in the door-to-door work itself. As the author says, the book is just the fast step and the coalition itself is not ready to pursue the high-confrontation strategy that is recommended. The author recognizes this in saying, "We have to" (1) organize a powerful constituency-based movement; and (2) set the terms of the debate...."
For me, and I'm sure for many organizers, the proof of the usefulness of any process, book, or training method is its ability to produce that organizing campaign. The terms of debate are often forged in the heat of that organizing. If the book is a first step, it is still a far step from the engagement that spells real organizing. It is difficult to tell at this stage how useful the book will be. Coming so far before the organizing campaign, I find the article gives premature accolades to the book and the process of bringing the authors together.
Nonetheless, it is not uncommon for good organizers, in my experience, to thoroughly explore with community leaders an issue and its ramifications, to dissect its underlying causes and to create a framework within which to cast the issue and stimulate new leadership. While those efforts usually don't result in a book, the community issue analysis and the intellectual gains for indigenous leaders are often dramatic. If that is what LA's Lethal Air has been about, then this process, this method stands in continuity with much successful organizing of the past.
On the other hand, the assertion of the need for elaborate ideological development prior to organizing is disconcerting. If the exercise has been an extensive dialogue among like minds to produce a radical, anti-establishment, anti-corporate tract as a prerequisite indoctrination to righteous organizing, the effort will have the limited reach of many far left campaigns of the past.
Perhaps it is true that the environmental issue is so obtuse and complex that extensive analysis and ideological development is necessary before those who are daily being poisoned in their workplace and communities can understand its importance. Hence as Mann sees it, the necessity of a project like the book development.
In my limited experience, however, extensive and sophisticated analysis was not necessary for community residents to recognize and mobilize on the environmental issues once the simple facts were revealed, as in the book's example of opposition to building an incinerator in a community. Sometimes, the hazards are not publicly known; tough work uncovering the threat is necessary, and the book does a splendid job in its opening chapters exposing real dangers. However, the assertion that an extensive ideological framework must be evolved prior to organizing is disconcerting to me.
Mann's division of the organizing group who worked on the project into the "some felt" and "we knew" reads uncomfortably like the arrogance that undercut past organizing efforts of the far left. It may well be that Mann and his team are nitty-gritty organizers. If so, grassroots leaders will learn through action whether the public buys the alleged misdirection of attention by the political right away from corporate causes. They will ascertain the need for ideology. Mann's desire to begin with a comprehensive, complete "popular, assertive environmental manifesto with clearly articulated anti-corporate politics" may short-circuit that learning-through-action, however messy and long that process.
Eric Mann identifies and criticizes a view of organizing as simply technique, arguing that it should be "primarily a product of ideology, strategy, and consciousness, reflected in political education, leadership development, and organizational construction." I think he's right.
He also asserts that the American public has been brainwashed to believe that it is government, not corporations, which is to blame for the problems facing our nation, and that because of TV "a whole generation of all classes and races is losing the ability to sit quietly and think." He concludes that an "educational" program is necessary to get Americans to start to think, and to correct their erroneous analysis. I disagree.
Most Americans think that it is both big business and big government that are the source of their problems. They feel powerless to do anything about it, and retreat into private solutions to public problems. As the economy and environment increasingly threaten their already fragile quality of life, many strike out in anger -- blaming immigrants, Blacks, Jews, Japanese, humanists, women, or whoever the current devil might be.
I think the fundamental organizing task is to assist largely powerless individuals to begin to act together -- guided by the values of the democratic and Judeo-Christian tradition (namely those of freedom, equality, justice, and community/solidarity, as well as caring, sharing and loving one's neighbor as oneself) -- on the concerns that most deeply affect the quality of life for themselves, their families, their neighbors and their co-workers. Persuading people to do that is not simply a matter of presenting an adequate analysis. Rather, it involves identifying problems that are immediate and specific, and gathering people together to democratically identify and pursue solutions that are immediate, specific, and winnable. To get people from their living rooms and TV sets to meetings, other than for a large crisis mobilization or "GOTV" (get-out-the-vote), require proposals that are believable. To overcome the feeling and experience of powerlessness requires acting with power. To get nonparticipants to hold their skepticism in abeyance for just one more meeting is difficult: powerlessness tends to corrupt, and absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.
Mann correctly identifies the dominance of conservative ideology in today's political air. But the answer is not to be found solely, or even primarily, in articulating a new ideological statement or manifesto. I believe it is to be found by: (a) making the connection between private troubles and public life; (b) articulating the basic caring for the common good that still characterizes most Americans, and (c) outlining the strategy of autonomous, nonpartisan, multi-issue community organizing as the response to the
crisis of our times.
Wade Rathke is Chief Organizer for ACORN (1024 Elysian fields Ave., New Orleans, LA 70117).
Heather Booth is Director of the Coalition for Democratic Values, 1601 Conn. Ave., NW 4th Floor, Washington, DC 20009, 202/462-9121), a 30 year veteran of community organizing, and Founding Director and President of The Midwest Academy.
Joseph McNeely has done community organizing and development work for the past 25 years. He is currently President of the Development Training Institute, a national organization training community-based orgainizations for economic development and housing (4806 Seton Dr. Baltimore, MD 21215, 410/764-0780).
Mike Miller was a SNCC Field Secretary from mid-1962 to the end of 1966. In the summer and early fall of 1963, he worked in Mississippi. Most of his work was in Northern California, and included support work for the Southern movement, co-coordinator of the United Farm Workers’ Schenley Liquor boycott, and local community organizing in San Francisco.
He is author of A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco (Heyday Books, 2009). He directs ORGANIZE Training Center, www.organizetrainingcenter.org
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