Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education XII: Locating a Target

[To read the entire series, go here.]

A key term in the neo-Alinsky community organizing toolbox is “target.” Fundamentally, in this model, if you don’t know what (or preferably who) your target is, then you can’t really act in a coherent way.

A target is “the institution or person who can make the change you want.”

Imagine, for example, that you are a leader in a local action group that wants to get sports re-funded in your district. The first thing you need to do is find out who makes that funding decision. And this involves not only figuring out how power works in your district, but also the different ways that sports teams might get funded within that system. For example, the superintendent might have the power to shift some funds to the sports teams. In other districts, the school board might need to decide. And the amount of money involved would be important, too. The smaller the amount of money, the lower on the totem pole the decision will probably be made. And generally you want to go for the weakest link, the target that it will be easiest to influence.

Figuring out the target is crucial, because once you figure out how the decision you want is made, you can start figuring out what might influence the person or institution that makes the decision. To act, you need to understand what motivates your target: its interests, fears, powers, etc.

Another example: About a year ago, a local conservative radio personality made a pretty repugnant statement about latinos in our city. So one or more groups decided to try to get this personality removed. They protested, and picketed in front of the radio station, and (as usual) basically had little or no impact. In this case, they knew in general terms who their target was (the radio station), but they don’t seem to have done much analysis of the internal power structure of the station, or even of its interests and concerns in more general institutional terms.

Around this time, a local organizer came to my class and used this case as an example. He asked the class what a radio station cared the most about, and after some prodding they gave him the answer he was looking for: money (although I thought some of their other answers were good, too). He then informed the class that the largest advertiser for this radio station was a local car dealership. He speculated: what if instead of doing yet another picket line, this group had targeted the car dealership? They could have first met with the owner of the dealership. If the dealership refused to pull its ads, they could have moved to the development of some creative actions. They could have sent fifty people a day to test-drive new cars, or to picket outside the dealership with signs declaring that it supported hate speech, until, hopefully, the owner caved.

In this specific case, this organizer was talking about what is sometimes called a “secondary target.” A secondary target is some powerful group or institution that can influence the target. The car dealership couldn’t make the decision to pull the personality, but had pretty impressive influence over the station’s management.

The point is not that this organizer was right or wrong. What’s important is that his process of analysis fits right within the neo-Alinsky tradition I’m talking about, here.

Another thing about a target is that, in most cases, it is helpful to pick a person rather than a group or institution. In this model, you want to generate some outrage about the actions the target has taken in its public role. And it’s easier to get pissed off at an actual person. It’s hard to get mad at the legislature as a group, for example. It’s too abstract. The speaker of the Assembly who is blocking your plan is easier to be upset at. But sometimes you are stuck attacking an abstraction rather than an actual individual. And sometimes it isn’t better to have an actual person. Every organizing campaign is unique.

The amount of power your group has will affect both the issue you choose to address (see this earlier post) and the target this issue requires you to influence. For example, as I have noted earlier, the organization I work most closely with is based in Milwaukee. We don’t have the power, alone, to really affect the legislature, especially since the key votes we need are Republican, and there aren’t a lot of Republicans we can directly affect. So this really limits our ability to work on school funding issues.

A couple more examples.

First let’s talk about the Iraq war for a moment. I was in Madison some months ago, and I drove by a group of three people waving signs against the Iraq war quite energetically on a streetcorner in the middle of campus. Now, I’m sure they felt much better about themselves after they did this. But I doubt that Madison is a hotbed of Iraq war support. And I doubt that a couple of signs are going to effect anyone that much anyway. Furthermore, the fact is that most of the nation doesn’t support the war anymore already.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against sign waving or big marches etc. And I’m sure they have some effect, especially if you can get a lot of people out in them. And there are many different ways to approach any problem. But it may be helpful to look at the Iraq war problem (e.g., in my opinion, how we can get out of it) from a neo-Alinsky perspective.

There is actually at least one group taking this approach. The group Americans Against Escalation in Iraq is sponsoring an Iraq Summer, in their words, “targeting 31 members of Congress and 10 Senators to bring a safe end to the war in Iraq.” They have tried to figure out which lawmakers are most likely to change their minds about the war, and they have put their $$ into influencing these lawmakers by threatening their interests. They have figured out who can make the change they want, and they are focusing their resources on the individuals who can make it.

Second, let’s talk about NCATE’s decision to drop “social justice” from its list of “dispositions.” I have to admit, I’m not really up on the details of this controversy, but let’s look at it from a neo-Alinsky perspective anyway. To start with, who is the “target”? This isn’t clear to me, but it might be Arthur Wise, the president, or it might be the people (or key persons) on the task force that Jim Horn said was looking at this issue. Or it might be “NCATE” more generally.

You might say, well, it’s not really fair to target individuals on a task force or Arthur Wise. They’re just doing their jobs. And they may be your friends. From a neo-Alinsky perspective, however, this answer is part of the problem. In taking on particular roles, they have inserted themselves into the public space in a particular way and they should be held accountable for their public roles. Part of what organizing does is transform roles people would like to keep somewhat “private” into more public stances. And it’s not personal. Or, at least, it’s not supposed to be. Remember, “no permanent enemies, no permanent friends.” (I’ll speak in more detail about “public” and “private” from this perspective in a later post.)

Once you have chosen a target, you need to think about the specific interests and motivations and fears of the target as you have framed it. For example, one of NCATE’s key interests as an institution is to have universities that are interested in being accredited. What if a number of universities were willing to sign a letter refusing to re-accredit with NCATE unless the disposition were added back? What if a group of powerful professors at key institutions were willing to sign such a letter? Of course, what you can do depends on the particular resources your organization (or potential organization?) has.

You may discover that you just plain don’t have the right set of resources to effectively influence the person or institution you would most like to target. If this is the case, maybe it’s time to face reality. Maybe it’s time to switch your issue and pick another target.

In any case, if you are going to act, it is almost always helpful to figure out who the key targets are (or might be) and what motivates them, regardless of the set of strategies you will eventually end up using.


Jim Horn said...

Aaron said:

"You may discover that you just plain don’t have the right set of resources to effectively influence the person or institution you would most like to target. If this is the case, maybe it’s time to face reality. Maybe it’s time to switch your issue and pick another target."

I agree that it would nice to have the wherewithal to know ahead of time how our actions may affect or not affect the parts of the system we want to influence. I am sure that if Rosa Parks had had that kind of insight the day she became an inspiration to the world hungry for social justice, she would have felt better on her trip down to the slammer.

Unfortunately, most of us don't have to power of foresight to judge the eventual impact of our actions. Therefore, we, I, act and speak to issues that I care deeply about, hoping that some ripple will be generated as a result.

The opportunity to exercise small truth against great power is one of the attractions of blogging. If there were not a handful of bloggers and letter writers willing to ridicule the capitulation by NCATE to the demands of the likes of George Will and David Horowitz and Margaret Spellings, and thus bring this issue front and center, I am convinced that the pending glossary item for the 2008 standards would have already been filled in.

There is always an unpredictability associated with our actions. We can never know which grain of sand will advance a small cascade or even an avalanche. Most likely it will do neither, but then who knows.

Aaron Schutz said...

Hi, Jim. In general I agree with you that we don't usually know the ultimate effect of our actions.

Further, I was thinking about the NCATE example as one where the results of creating a new organization and trying to act collectively would be pretty unpredictable. Would it remain limited to a small number of folks, or would it snowball?

However, I would argue that it would be better if many of us thought more strategically as opposed to simply hoping that what we were doing would maybe have some kind of reverberation. The failure to do this kind of strategic thinking means that a lot of the resistance that does happen doesn't do a lot. And it perhaps allows those of us that do want to do something to do what feels most comfortable for us instead of getting into areas that might be less familiar but that also might be more effective.

I also think it is crucial to emphasize that Rosa Parks is actually an example of an event that resulted from just the kind of strategic thinking I am talking about. While the specific decision to not move was not planned, there was a lot of planning going on about how to respond to the "bus" problem. The groups linked to Parks had actually planned to act on an earlier event, but then decided that the specific person wasn't "upstanding" enough. Throughout this effort they were constantly making judgments about the power they had. They were following a model developed earlier in the south in another city in a bus boycott that didn't last nearly as long. I am willing to bet that most effective acts of resistance have these characteristics, even if they created a public myth that this was not the case.

Anonymous said...

Milwaukee is currently engaged in a bus route cutting series conducted over the years. This directly impact working and non working poor throughout Milwaukee county. I attend meetings and pass out flyers asking people to contact their county supervisors. Most people have not or perhaps never contacted elected officials to unite and deny life altering cuts and changes. Why?