LIVING FOR CHANGE
A New Kind of Community Organizing
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, June 29, 2009
I am often asked to explain the difference between yesterday’s Alinsky-type protest organizing and the kind of Community Organizing we need in this period when our cities are dying and life on our planet is threatened by global warming.
To help clarify the difference, I recommend “The City Belongs to All of Us,” a paper written by former Iowa Cities organizer Phillip Cryan as part of his internship with On the Commons and The Grassroots Policy Project in California.
Cryan reports “a growing commons consciousness on city streets as community organizations around the country – mostly in low income urban communities with many people of color – have begun to push back against the political and economic forces shaping our cities.”
“These groups challenge three underlying assumptions that are at the root of our market-based society: 1) that everyone exists primarily as an individual, not as a member of a community; 2) that everything people value can be delivered through the market system; and 3) that democracy means nothing more than casting an occasional vote.”
He names some of these groups e.g. Right to the City (RTTC) Alliance; Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH); Apollo Alliance; Sustainable South Bronx.
He also describes the strategies, which depend more on community initiative and leadership than on the market or the state, used by these groups.
- Local Production for Local Needs When we ask ourselves what we value most, we discover that most of these are not material goods sold on the market, but cultural goods we can create for ourselves: health and wellness, public gathering places, youth development, conviviality. To provide these, we can grow our own food, live healthier lives, create neighborhood and youth programs (e.g. mural painting, theatre, dance, sports). All these develop community and also local leaders.
- A Green Economy that works for all. In cities across the country, groups in the Apollo Alliance are bringing together environmentalists, labor unions and community organizations to improve the environment by practicing energy efficiency, biking or using mass transit, converting dirty power sources to renewable energy, restoring wetlands and riverbanks, creating high quality jobs in the modern energy economy.
- The Right to Housing. Groups like City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston assert the right of people to remain in their homes by blockading residences threatened with foreclosure and eviction, thus forcing banks or lenders to renegotiate loan terms.
- Community Land Trusts (CLTs). These are a unique form of commons-based property rights where a block of land is removed from the real estate market and owned by a board of trustees. E.g. In L.A. Strategic Actions for Just Economy (SAJE) negotiated with a developer to grant seed money to undertake a development in the Figueroa Corridor which includes individual houses, sites for businesses, parks, community centers etc. In the Figueroa Corridor individuals own and can improve and sell their houses or businesses but not the Land which remains the property of the CLT.
- Metropolitan Democracy. The secession of middle and upper classes has created a growing gulf all across the country between the tax base, public services, schools. etc, in the suburbs and those in the inner city. In Portland, OR, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, metropolitan/regional councils are struggling to reduce inequities by sharing revenues, reallocating investment etc.
- A New Kind of Governing. For these attempts to succeed, our cities and metropolitan need a movement which, like the civil rights movement, is grounded in a new concept of what it means to be a human being, thus empowering citizens, imbued with new concepts of ownership, citizenship, democracy, to engage in transformative activities, depending on themselves rather than on elected officials.
This is the vision and practice of Detroit- City of Hope.