Friday, February 23, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education VII: In Youth Action, Power Precedes Engagement, Learning, and Understanding

[To read the entire series, go here.]

[To see our full presentation on our youth action project at AERA in messy MS Word Format on GoogleDocs go here.]

People don’t do anything unless they are motivated to action first. As Saul Alinsky stated,

If people feel they don’t have the power to change a bad situation, then they do not think about it. Why start figuring out how you are going to spend a million dollars if you do not have a million dollars, or are ever going to have a million dollars—unless you want to engage in fantasy? (p. 105)
Alinsky argued that it is only when people sense they have some power to make some changes in their world that “they begin to think and ask questions about how to make the changes.” “It is,” he noted, “the creation of the instrument or the circumstances of power that provides the reason and makes knowledge essential.”

This creates some real challenges when one tries to engage inner-city students in social action projects, as we are trying to do in a project in Milwaukee. You can run into a catch-22: they don’t want to do anything because they don’t think they can accomplish anything, and they don’t think they can accomplish anything because they haven’t done anything.

In Milwaukee, we are working with students who are required to partipate in a social action project in school. In contrast with most youth action efforts, then, these youth don’t necessarily arrive with any particular desire to act or with any sense of their own power.

We are beginning to learn that one of the answers to the catch-22 may be just to have students “do something” related to an issue they have expressed some interest in. If they are interested in the police, have them tour a police station, or have them visit a children’s court. Such visits allow them to ask questions and engage with people in power, it gives them some voice, however small. And this voice may become a small kernel of accomplishment that we may be able to hang some interest in action on.

This “just do it approach” is not one that we understood at the beginning of this year, but we are planning to make it a central aspect of our methodology next year.

At the same time, we have learned that we should start only with topics around which we can imagine students taking some coherent action. The point is not to force students to do what we want them to, but to give them a sense, from the beginning, that this topic is linked directly to action—even if they want to change what that action is.

For example, last year some groups expressed interest in antagonistic police relations with young people—something all of them had some experience in. These groups stumbled around for weeks, unable to find anything that seemed to engage them and that seemed realistically achievable. We spent a lot of time sitting in small rooms having dialogues that didn’t really go anywhere.

This year, we started police relations groups linked to a planned action—that they would develop a curriculum to teach younger kids how to engage with the police. And we believe that it is in part because these students had a sense of a goal from the beginning that they began much more quickly to start actually doing something (distributing a survey, for example) than had the groups the year before.

Both of these techniques—getting youth “out there” to engage with the realities of the situations they want to affect, and defining some achievable goal from the first place—relate to Alinsky’s principle of power and learning. Only when youth have a concrete sense that they can affect some aspect of their community that they dislike is there much chance that they will begin to take ownership of a project that is otherwise just another school requirement.

It’s not rocket science. In retrospect, it seems obvious. But engaging youth in social action projects in school—however limited—is not something we usually do. And learning how to do this successfully will demand that a willingness to face up to our own ignorance.


mike3550 said...


I have loved reading your series on organizing and education. I am involved with my local as a graduate student and was shown, through my experience at the local my ability to have power over my working (and learning) conditions at my university.

It's funny, because I don't think that your comments here only apply to high school students. When I first tried to get involved, I was overwhelmed with the amount that it seemed like I was asked to do (contact journalists, set up a media database, etc.) it seemed impossible to accomplish. On my second effort to get involved, I was asked to keep people in my department (sociology) informed about what was going on. I got involved at that point and have been involved for the rest of my graduate career and have gotten progressively more involved.

Like I said, I love reading your posts and I look forward to reading more.

Aaron Schutz said...

Thanks, Mike.

I'd be interested in hearing more about your experience in unions. I feel like community organizing and union organizing have much to learn from each other. Alinsky actually interned with John L. Lewis of the CIO in his early years and wrote a biography of him. I know there is work being done between unions and community groups, and there are spaces that blur the distinction like worker centers.