Friday, November 24, 2006

Community Organizing and Urban Education II: Why Churches?

[To read the entire series, go here.]

In the educational literature, when someone mentions churches or religion they are usually arguing about whether particular aspects of (Christian) religion should be allowed inside schools and in the school curriculum. This argument usually positions progressives on the “anti-church” side. But there are progressive ways that churches and religion can engage with education, and powerful examples exist all around the United States.

Why churches? Because across the nation, especially in the impoverished areas of our central cities, old forms of “community” have largely broken down. The old ethnic and neighborhood organizations of the early part of the 20th Century have disintegrated as a result of concentrated poverty, the invasion of the justice system, and generalized fear. The organizations that remain mostly provide services, usually directed by members of the upper-middle-class with few real connections to the inner city. More broadly, while a range of scholars have shown that Putnam’s well-known arguments in “Bowling Alone,” were overblown, the vibrant forms of “community” that critics often point to, like 12-step groups and volunteer organizations, are quite different from earlier ones. Perhaps most importantly, they tend not to develop long-term bonds of mutual support and trust or a durable sense of belonging.

The one major exception is churches. Churches provide an already existing group of people held together by a set of common beliefs and a shared commitment to each other and to a transcendent set of values.

Today, if you don’t use churches to organize, you are generally forced to organize people one by one. And, as organizers for ACORN, the only national group that tries to do this, this approach is incredibly time intensive. It requires you to knock on thousands of doors. In communities without much “community” you have to create a sense of “us” that does not exist before you arrive. And you have to constantly work to maintain this sense of shared responsibility. A fallow period without much action can easily result in the dispersal of those you have worked so hard to bring together.

Churches exist before they engage in social action, and they keep existing even when there is no social action going on. Churches have recognized leaders already, and there are people there who aren’t leaders but who have the potential to be and who are recognized already as “members.” They represent an ongoing pool of people who can be trained and mobilized.

Right-wing religious organizations often seem to march in lockstep in response to a shared set of religious dogmas. Because they are usually made up of a diverse group of Christian (and frequently non-Christian) denominations, there is no place in progressive, congregation-based groups for religious dogma. Instead, these organizations argue that through our different traditions run a common set of social values. The aim is not to push religion; the aim is to push social change in response to religious commitments. In fact, while every meeting in a congregation-based community organizing group generally begins and ends with a prayer, each prayer usually comes from a different perspective. For example, MOVE's recent organization-wide public meeting began with a prayer by a Lutheran minister and ended with a reading (partly in Hebrew) from the Torah by a rabbi. (Frequently, in addition, many of these congregation-based organizations also include non-religious groups like unions, although MOVE in Milwaukee does not.)

In some sense, what I am talking about here is an interaction between two very different kinds of organizations.

First, there are more personalist organizations like churches that often focus internally on the development of their members and on the enhancement of the ties between them. These kinds of groups maintain themselves over time and are maintained by a web of shared relationships and a shared commitment to a vision of their relationship to God and to the larger society .

Second, there are more “public” organizations like MOVE in Milwaukee. Such organizations are held together by a shared sense of injustice, in many ways by a sense of shared participation in a common battle for social change. Public organizations like this are held together by action. No action, no community. Thus organizers are constantly struggling to cut effective issues and develop compelling campaigns that will bring the group’s constituents together in collective action. In fallow periods, groups like these often fade away.

In other words, the strengths and limitations of personalist and public organizations seem complementary to each other.

That’s why nearly all national progressive organizing groups in the United States are based in congregations.

See Stall and Stoecker’s “Community Organizing, or Organizing Community” for a good discussion of the tensions between personalist and public communities.

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