Monday, July 16, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education XI: Scholarly Participation in Organizing Campaigns: Research that Makes a Problem “Hit Home”

[To read the entire series, go here.]

[Note: post has been revised for more accuracy]

Given the enormous gulf between the realities of life in the academy—even in relatively marginal research institutions like mine—how might education scholars contribute to organizing campaigns?

First, I think it is important that scholars resist the urge to “help” by trying to turn organizers and leaders into scholarly researchers, into people like us. Organizers generally use research very differently than do scholars. In organizing, research done by participants is almost always deeply intertwined with the day-to-day activity of social action. As I noted in a review of a book by Oakes and Rogers, in social action groups

data collection is [usually] integrated into efforts to build relational power. Survey efforts, for example, become opportunities to engage with and recruit potential members. Leaders and organizers in Alinsky-based groups do not learn to be “scholars” or “researchers” separate from their identities as activists. In fact, in my experience “research” is sometimes pursued as a thinly veiled strategy for engaging people in an issue. And it isn’t unusual for these organizations to simply hire someone to get the data they need to act, allowing them to keep their limited resources focused on activities more directly related to organizing.

Community organizing groups need research to serve very particular purposes. (Exactly what skills a particular group or individual needs (or wants) at any particular time is always an emporical issue, of course.) In any case, at least three key uses of research come to mind: research that brings a problem into stark relief, research that helps define a particular solution, and research that contests assertions made by the opposition.

Here, I want to talk about the first use, making often vague social problems more concrete, making them “gut” issues around which one might recruit participation.

Of course, it would also be wonderful to have more scholars with a strong social action background. But given limited resources this may be more an issue of recruiting particular individuals than a strategy for supporting groups.

In the last few years, the education committee of the organizing group I work with, MOVE, has been focusing on health in schools as an area ripe for intervention. The reasons for this choice of issue are complicated and emerge to some extent from the specifics of our situation in Milwaukee. In the simplest sense, focusing on health allows us to seek out support for schools that is outside the usual funding streams and that, therefore, doesn’t “count” under the caps that currently limit funding in Wisconsin. Further, we believed that it would allow us to seek funding on a city instead of a state level, avoiding the need for power to move the state legislature that, as a city organization, we lacked.

To rally support from our own members and from other groups, we thought we needed some simple document that would lay out the challenges the health problems of poor children and their effects on learning in the starkest terms. We didn’t need a document that went through everything; we didn’t need a research study; we didn’t need a forty page review of the literature; and we didn’t need a document that would meet the requirements of a peer-reviewed journal publication. We needed a brochure.

The fact is that I knew little or nothing about health problems when I started working on the brochure. But I knew how to read through a mass of research documents and pull out key information, and I knew how to locate information that seemed to come from reputable sources.

So I pulled together the documents we’d been collecting through the preparatory interview research we had been doing, and searched on the Internet, and searched on the proprietary databases available at my university, and I searched through the archives of our local newspaper.

What I was looking for was data that would make readers stop in shock. What I needed was information that we could state publicly and not fear being attacked about for its accuracy.

The brochure that I completed, with the input of my committee is pasted in, above. You can see a more readable version here.

The first panel on the inside left is the most important. As I have noted before, it is crucial in organizing to find a “gut” issue that makes people want to stand up and act. An abstract crisis, a need for more “money” in general is not very motivating. But thousands of kids with their teeth rotting in their heads, thousands of kids that can’t see well enough to read easily, that’s motivating on a visceral level.

Importantly, I don’t waffle about the data. I make clear statements about the condition of child health. Only in the footnotes do I record where I got this information and possible limits of the data. For example, two large studies of poor inner-city children in different cities that both showed that 50% of the children had vision problems. In the full text of the brochure I simply state that 50% of poor kids have problems with vision, and then in the footnotes I note my extrapolation. In other cases, I have not bothered to put conditions on my knowledge, even though (as with most research) the data may not be as clear as the specificity of these numbers imply. For example, some of the data comes from statements by the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) superintendent. I think I know where he’s getting this data, and in one case I think it’s from a study that seems somewhat more limited in the population it covers than he indicates. The fact is, this is frequently true of data like this on a district level, often gathered for one purpose and used for other purposes. I don’t go into this in the brochure. It just isn’t important for the reader. The superintendent’s conclusion and the magnitude of his number is quite reasonable given the other research I’ve read, even if I’m not certain about the exact percentage he cites. There is no reason for us to complicate issues by constantly qualifying our statements because of small (possible) differences or uncertainties that, in the big picture, are pretty meaningless. These are the kinds of issues that matter to scholars, but not to policymakers, politicians, and people on the street. Statistics I could not defend in this way I did not include. In any case, the data is as accurate as I could make it, and readers know where to go to pursue it in more detail if they want. As far as I can tell, there is nothing in the brochure that could subject our organization to critiques from reputable research or professional groups (and I passed a draft by a key local stakeholder just to make sure).

Then, in the next panel, the brochure goes on to lay out the kinds of issues these health problems may raise for learning. And in the final panel I give some key quotes. Some of these are from Milwaukee, and some aren’t. And the picture isn’t of a Milwaukee kid, but it’s a good picture. None of this is really important to the reader.

On the outside of the brochure, I summarize the key limitations of MPS’s approach to solving these health problems. As a committee, we worked to lay these issues out without attacking the school district. And we tried to emphasize the district’s limited funding so that people wouldn’t misread us as saying the district should cut other programs to fund health instead.

Finally, in middle panel on the outside, we lay out our plan for fixing these problems. It may be surprising, but this is probably the least important part of the brochure. The reality of a campaign often necessitates changes in abstract plans stated ahead of time. But at least we make it clear that we’re not just complaining. We have plans to do something about the problems.

I don’t want to overstate my case, here. The brochure isn’t perfect. In retrospect there are some other things I wish I had done. But it's the first time I've tried to put something like this together, and I'm going to cut myself some slack. And I believe that it has been a useful organizing tool for us. It looks fairly professional and gives us credibility among health professionals, administrators, and politicians. It also gives readers the sense that there is organized, coherent, and well structured campaign. (This is true regardless of the "reality." As Alinsky said, what is key is not the power you actually have but the power others think you have.) Participation on our committee increased significantly after we passed it out to MOVE members. And instead of moaning about the fact that life is difficult, it lays out a path for some postitive change. It is empowering to some extent, just to have the brochure.

In fact, we have actually been successful at some important first steps in getting better health care for Milwaukee kids. I’m not going to talk about that right now, however. Our effort is still ongoing, and there are good reasons not to talk too much about it publicly until it is farther along.

Let me conclude this long post by contrasting this example of scholarly contributions to social action with that discussed by Oakes and Rogers in their book. They describe the development of a robust education policy round-table that they put together with a range of different organizations, providing them with research and facilitating dialogue.

Their's seems like a wonderful model. But it clearly requires dedicated funding and a significant commitment of other resources. I don’t have either of these available to me. Mostly it’s just me and my computer and my “enormously messy” office, as my daughter says.

This example shows how a relatively isolated scholar (like most of us, I bet) with access to the basic data available to all professors, some limited facility with Microsoft Word, and a week or so of time (spread over a couple of months) can put together a key “research” document to support what could end up being a major campaign. Perhaps my key skill, here, was in understanding just which data might be reliably leaned on without undermining the credibility of our effort.

It is crucial to emphasize, however, that I could only create this document because I am a long-term member of this organization. In our meetings, other members helped restructure the brochure and change the layout. In fact, it probably helps that I generally don’t emphasize the fact that I’m a scholar in my participation. I understood what this group needed because I’m a part of this group, and the group didn’t have any trouble working with me, or trusting me to put this together, because I’ve been there for a long time. Without this kind of embodied knowledge, I probably would have ended up creating yet another “lit review” that wouldn’t have really helped them that much.

Of course, the reverse could be true as well. This familiarity may have also made me less self-critical about what I was doing. Others may want to respond with their own opinion.

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