In the past year I have been involved in the Occupy movement in Kansas. Right now we're working on a local police problem, but one which seems to have analogues across the United States. It's more serious than I initially thought I'd be involved in, and I know that without my fellow activists/organizers and the experience of organizing over the past year I'd be in over my head. Heck, I feel that I'm in over my head now, but that positive things are coming out of our work.
I've been a community organizer for awhile, now. I've always started groups and interacted with my local bureaucracies. I learned some on my own, but the previous year has gotten me in contact with activist/organizers of many stripes and depths of experience.
Being of a scientific bent, a thought that's been with me during this time of learning is: There needs to be more theory on this stuff!
Sure, there's some. But it's treated with too much respect. And, on the converse side of things, pomo philosophy has inundated activist culture to a point where a number of organizers are hesitant to make generalized statements. Its understandable why, I think this is a healthy attitude -- especially in addressing problems of race, gender, and class which largely depend upon personal experience and social institutions, which aren't as amenable to generalized statements or scientific inquiry. (I'm far from anti-pomo). But I feel that there needs to also be *some* kind of generalized statements so that we can pass on what we've learned from organizing to other potential activist/organizers that aren't around us.
That's basically the whole point of theory: to pass on refined and useful beliefs to others, so that they aren't stuck re-inventing the wheel.
While I don't think that I'm "top notch" in community organizing, I feel that I've learned a thing or two which is worth sharing with those who may be interested in doing some of the same, even if on a different issue. I think that community organizing is important for addressing many social problems, regardless of our particular situation in regards to work/class/politics/whatever, and that its the sort of thing that isn't taught because it has no economic benefit or classical basis.
But it needs to be taught.
I can understand the hesitancy to make generalized statements about community organizing. A lot of the decisions made at the ground level are dependent upon the circumstances one finds oneself in as well as the people you're working with, and you don't want to be paternalistic towards other localities or at fault for screwing up a campaign you're not actually involved in. The best way to teach an organizer is "on the job". The best way to learn how to make decisions is with people who have made more heuristically driven decisions.
But I can't help but think that I would have been better off starting with some kind of advice. I didn't even know, when I started organizing, that what I was doing was called "organizing". I just did what I could to effect change in the world on things I cared about. Had I known what I now know, even if the circumstances were different and the model of organizing had to be changed to meet those circumstances, I would have been much more effective.
There needs to be some kind of balance, I think. We can emphasize the need to pay attention to local circumstances and having to make judgment calls on the basis of a crazy network of heuristics that have little to do with whether something is true or the best solution to a given situation, while simultaneously passing on knowledge we've gleaned to help others in their organizing efforts.
This week's C&EN
6 hours ago