Sunday, November 12, 2006

Community Organizing and Urban Education, Part I: Introducing MOVE

[To read the entire series, go here.]

For the last six years or so, I have worked with a local community organizing group on their Education Committee. MOVE (a pseudonym) is now one of a number of allied organizations in Wisconsin, and operates under the umbrella of the Gamaliel Foundation,which has local chapters in many different states (the other large organizing groups in America are the IAF, PICO, and ACORN). MOVE currently has 37 different congregations as members with a wide range of Christian and even a few non-Christian groups. (image)

I didn’t know anything about community organizing when I came to Milwaukee. But I had been studying a range of different theories of agency and democratic social action, and I was increasingly unsatisfied with what I found. At the same time as I was visiting the Unitarian church, looking for a community to join, I heard about MOVE, and was one of the people that encouraged the Unitarians to join. Soon after, I attended Gamaliel’s week-long leader training, where we were taught some basic concepts and language relevant to organizing. (I was yelled at and managed to completely embarrass myself). And I was hooked. This seemed like a potential avenue for actually fighting for social change instead of just chatting about it, and it also seemed to provide an opportunity to reach across Milwaukee’s sharp racial and class divide.

While I have been part of MOVE we have worked to increase the number of low class-size schools supported by the state in Milwaukee (we were quite successful). We fought against efforts to eliminate parents’ rights to bus their children to non-neighborhood schools (almost single-handedly, MOVE forced the district to maintain these). And we worked on an effort to insure adequate funding for all schools (as I will describe later, this was a miserable—and predictable—failure). Currently we have shifted our focus a little and are working to improve health servMilwaukee Milwauk Public Schools (MPS). Just last week, we were instrumental in getting the state Department of Health and Family Services to put 27 new nurses in MPS schools (a three million dollar commitment), succeeding where a range of other groups have largely failed in their efforts over the last few years.

I plan to use this blog as an opportunity to write about my experience in MOVE: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I am writing as a researcher and as a participant, but it is important to emphasize that I have never made any effort to systematically conduct research on MOVE. These will be my personal reflections, drawing both on my experiences and on my broad reading about organizing.

In no particular order, topics I plan to discuss over the next few months include:
  • Why churches? A different vision the church/state relationship
  • How are organizing groups organized?
  • Racial tensions (or, “white people can’t shut up”)
  • Leadership training
  • The language and key practices
  • The ideal vs. the reality
  • A different kind of democracy (or, “is this really democracy?”)
  • What scholars can contribute
  • Cutting an issue
  • How to cut the wrong issue
For those who are interested, some key texts about organizing in general and organizing for educational change in specific include:
  • Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals. (The classic work about organizing from the iconoclastic organizer. Nearly all major organizing groups in America have emerged out of the Alinsky tradition.)
  • Warren, Dry Bones Rattling. (A nice overview of how organizing has developed from Alinsky’s day.)
  • Shirley, Community Organizing for Urban School Reform. (Even after ten years, still the best book on school-focused organizing.)
  • Chambers, Roots for Radicals. (A more contemplative book by one of Alinsky’s key apprentices, now head of the national organization Alinsky founded, the IAF [Industrial Areas Foundation].)
  • Ginwright, Noguera, and Cammarota (Eds.), Beyond Resistance. (Just published, and the first significant book on youth organizing.)
  • Anyon, Radical Possibilities. (An extended argument about the importance of community action and broader economic change for effective school reform.)

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