Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing in Milwaukee: Community Organizing and Urban Education

[For other entries in this series, go here.]

I have been playing around with a way to frame the key challenges that seem to block the emergence of a robust ecology of community action organizations in my city, which is probably fairly similar in many ways to a range of mid-sized, segregated U.S. cities. I tried to get it on two typed pages, but ended up with three. Many of the basic issues won't seem particularly surprising to people familiar with organizing, and it repeats some points I've made before (as usual) but it seemed useful to put them all together.
Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing in Milwaukee
Note: these different dilemmas are deeply intertwined with each other.
  1. Training
    1. Organizations with their own training programs may be limited by the “dogma” of a restricted set of strategies.
    2. At the same time, groups without their own training programs often end up either “recreating the wheel,” or picking up scattered training here and there.
RESULT: Robust cross-fertilization of ideas and strategies between different groups is limited, and new groups often lack coherent training.
  1. Recruitment
    1. Existing organizations sometimes compete for the same restricted categories of constituents (e.g., churches and unions), giving the impression of a shortage of possible recruits.
    2. Some key organizations (e.g., ACORN) are essentially missing from the city, so that many residents are never approached at all.
    3. Many identifiable groups with social justice interests (e.g., foster parents, child care workers) lack robust social action organizations, and thus have little or no collective power.
    4. There are few existing efforts to recruit and form new organizations.
RESULT: Many constituencies are never organized, and many issue areas remain unaddressed, while existing groups run up against limits in their possible size and power.
  1. Single vs. Multiple Issue Groups
    1. Multiple issue groups can draw in a range of constituents with different interests. But these groups have limited “attention,” generally focusing on a single project at a time in each of their issue areas.
i. This means that, for example, in the area of health care for kids, dental care may get attention while vision care gets none.

ii. At the same time, prior “wins” can be lost as attention shifts to new campaigns.
    1. Single issue groups have more limited recruitment possibilities than multiple issue groups. But a large number of such smaller groups have the potential to maintain a wider range of campaigns at the same time and may be able to maintain accountability better on past “wins” because of each group’s clear ongoing focus.
    2. A robust process for bringing single and multiple issue groups together on different campaigns over time is lacking.
RESULT: Prior “wins” are sometimes not maintained and the number of issues addressed in the city are limited by our small number of organizations, despite the incredible need for action on a wide range of important challenges.
  1. Service vs. Organizing
    1. Organizers have generally found that it is a mistake to have social action groups directly involved in social service. Historically, doing “service” has tended to dilute efforts to confront power, and has also opened the service aspects of groups up to retaliation (e.g., “If you fight for more health services, I’ll shut down your clinic.”)
    2. However, many of the poorest residents in our city need services of a range of different kinds before they will have extra time to participate in organizing.
    3. Also, unless organizing groups can provide basic supports, like child care, meals, and stipends to partially reimburse residents for the cost of their participation, it is unlikely that they will get full participation from impoverished members.
RESULT: Organizing groups too often fail to successfully recruit and sustain a broad range of impoverished and/or overworked community members.
  1. Funding
    1. Social action is the only community function that cannot be funded by the government.
    2. Financial support from constituents is a key measure of organizational sustainability, but the money available from low-income populations cannot fully sustain even small organizations.
    3. The focus of foundations on project-based or initial seed funding forces organizations to constantly scramble for dollars and reduces organizations’ capacity for maintaining clear long-term focuses as foundation interests shift.
    4. The need for funding to survive fallow periods forces many organizations to turn to funding for “service” or non-organizing “political” projects to maintain themselves, diluting their focus and reducing long-term growth and strength.
    5. The need to acquire foundation or other donor funding creates resource barriers to entry for new organizations. This means many new organizations never emerge in the first place, or end up dissolving fairly quickly.
RESULT: Existing organizations struggle to survive, often losing a focus on organizing in favor of fundable service efforts, or shifting too quickly between issues in response to funder preference changes. At the same time, many new organizations never get the chance to emerge because of their lack of fundraising connections, knowledge, and skills.

Key Questions
  • Training
    • How can existing groups come together with emerging groups in contexts where their different visions can inform and challenge each other?
    • In what ways can training be provided to help ongoing organizations look outside the “box” while bringing new organizations “up to speed” on the “basics”?
  • Recruitment
  • Single vs. Multiple Issue Groups
    • What mechanisms can be developed for recruiting and forming new organizations without threatening the constituencies of existing groups?
  • Funding
    • How can the ongoing maintenance costs of existing organizations be reduced to allow these groups to survive and focus more on action than fund-raising?
    • How can entry costs for new organizations be reduced to allow the emergence and survival of new collections of committed groups around key areas?
  • Overall
    • How could we develop overlapping answers to these questions, creating a synergy across different organizations and long-term, shared, institutional support for sustaining old and developing new organizing groups?

KEY SUGGESTION: A Milwaukee Organizing Retreat
In conversations, a number of key organizing leaders have expressed discouragement about the extent to which groups in Milwaukee work independently instead of as a collaborative team. They noted that the emergence of the (c)3 Table is a good sign, and have expressed interest in creating other contexts to explore ways to overcome these barriers.
One key suggestion was for a retreat that would bring the major organizing groups in Milwaukee together with other interested leaders to explore how to improve our ability to nurture organizing in Milwaukee. Such a retreat would focus on issues external to the day-to-day concerns of individual organizing groups and seek to create a roadmap for addressing these challenges.
For such a retreat to be successful, however, organizers and other over-worked local leaders would need to understand how participation would pragmatically serve their self-interests at the same time. For this reason, it seems likely that a retreat will only succeed if:
  • It was co-sponsored by one or more significant funders of organizing in the city, and if
  • Retreat participation was linked to potential new funding to support emerging plans.
Other possible solutions
  • Co-location of organizing groups to share costs and allow cross-fertilization.
  • Creation of an "incubator" where new and old groups can come together and support each other.
  • Endowing basic infrastructure for groups (a building, training, recruitment, and basic support staff) but requiring groups to find support for themselves, allowing long-term support while retaining flexibility in organization development (and, where necessary, die-off).
Analysis Developed by: Aaron Schutz, Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,  Schutz@uwm.edu, www.educationaction.org.


A. G. Rud said...


What are the goals of your organizing? I figure it is social progress and such, but unless I am missing something key here, I don't know what you are organizing around...is it to empower communities to have better grocery stores, safe playgrounds, or? I just don't have a handle on this, only having been to Milwaukee a few times (liked my visits). Help me out here, perhaps I am the only one needing more illustration!

Aaron Schutz said...

"Community Organizing" used in this context generally means organizing for systemic change against powerful groups and individuals that have resources you want.

Is it just me, or are others having issues with firefox and comments?

Sherman Dorn said...

The historian in me screams out for Bill Reese's and Jack Dougherty's work on Milwaukee and schools, but I suspect you're looking for something more practical (though they're both very good books!). So even something like Manuel Castells is probably too theoretical.

Yes, the idea of a social entrepreneur/activism incubator sounds like an interesting idea. Physical proximity will help... if the group dynamics are productive. Some time would need to be spent on that, or agreements on what's okay to wrestle with as a group and where the boundaries are.

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