|Let me stress that the story I tell below doesn't necessarily reflect the current perspectives of the organization I work with, that I call CHANGE, or the larger umbrella group of which it is a part, that I'll call National Organizing. In the last few years I know they have begun to at least try to figure out how to address some of the core challenges I discuss. However, I think the experience I describe is important to hear about, because it raises a range of difficult challenges that community organizing groups need to address. There are organizations, like the Center for Third World Organizing , which have grappled with similar issues from the beginning.
In its early days, CHANGE was primarily made up of inner-city churches and the participants were mostly people of color. Shortly before I joined, however, the group decided that if they were going to have enough power to really make a difference, they were going to need to expand their membership to include churches outside the central city. Many mostly white middle-class churches joined.
What happened then will not surprise some readers. As the whites came in, the people of color began voting with their feet.
Ways of Talking
One key problem is that middle-class, white professionals have a fundamentally different discursive style than lower-income people of color. While this issue seems to be more about class than race, it is important to understand that being middle-class and black on the edge of the central city places one in a much more financially and culturally marginal position than is common among middle-class professionals, as Patillo-McCoy, among others, has pointed out. So even though, as I noted earlier , it's true that most members of congregational organizing groups come from middle-class mainline churches, what it means to be middle class, and how that links to particular discursive and cultural practices is much more complex than this observation might indicate. (Also see this earlier post about social class and organizing.)
"We Didn't Mean to Take Over"
For a while I attended a mostly white and mostly upper-middle-class (in culture if not in $$) Unitarian church in the city, and as a part of a CHANGE effort, we mobilized a number of Unitarians to attend a talking session with some local school-board members. A number of black churches also sent members, and participants of color significantly outnumbered the number of whites. This larger group broke up into smaller dialogue groups to come up with issue to present to the whole meeting. As I looked around, I noted that nearly all of the groups ended up having a Unitarian as their note-taker and facilitator. So when the groups presented back, most of the presenters were whites. Afterwards, predictably, the whites wondered aloud why the people of color didn't participate as much as the whites, and the whites complained that they didn't want to take over.
This is an incredibly common outcome when privileged whites and less privileged people of color come together in dialogue. Eric H. F. Law found in his work with multicultural/multiracial groups that "the white members of the group would disclose their insights and thoughts verbally and freely while the people of color would just sit and listen." When whites work together with people of color who have been traditionally marginalized, white ways of speaking give them power and lead them to assume that their opinions are important and should always be heard. Law argues that these and other issues often lead people of color and others to believe (often correctly) that their opinion is less valued by the group. This often results in those with less social power becoming marginalized and ultimately leaving.
The powerful wonder, "why don't 'those people' talk?" And the less powerful don't feel welcomed and don't come back.
Ignoring the Problem Won't Make it Go Away
Although I haven't been to many large CHANGE events recently, I remember a few years ago going to training meetings and noticing that the number of participants of color was falling quickly.
At one point, a powerful black pastor (a former president of CHANGE) tried passionately to explain to a group of mostly whites at a training mostly populated by whites why "his people" weren't coming. This also involved a lecture about the different ways his community was structured, and how they depended upon him to tell them where they should put there time, etc., but it didn't seem like others really heard what he was trying to say (and I'm sure I didn't totally get it either). (Some of what he said relates to this earlier post about the different ways people from different classes tend to organize themselves.)
Until relatively recently, the National Organizing was very reluctant to deal with these issues directly. In classic Alinsky-based organizing form (although there is evidence that Alinsky was more savvy than some of his followers) they tried to overcome these issues simply by finding common areas of interest that would allow different groups to come together on shared projects, making these other challenges irrelevant.
A Lack of Workable Solutions to Inequality in Dialogue
There is surprisingly little in the literature about how to deal with the inevitable power differentials that emerge when privileged whites and less privileged people come together in dialogue.
Law's short book also indicates how difficult it can be to find effective procedures for structuring meetings that promote more equality in diverse settings. And the particular solutions Law recommends seem inefficient for a direct action organization like CHANGE. In leadership training, at that time, the National Organizing tended to promote a very pragmatic and results oriented approach that would seem to conflict with the slower, more process oriented procedures recommended by Law.
Many solutions involve highly trained facilitators or intensive training, but community organizing groups seem too fluid and resource limited to allow this to happen in most cases. It is also not clear what kind of training would be effective, "who" would need to be trained, or how long such training would take. As Law points out, much of the inequality that arises in dialogue is unconscious and unintentional. Our "internal cultures" as Law calls them, are difficult to change, since they arise out of the fundamental ways we understand and perceive our environments, as well as out of our inability to acknowledge the different levels of power and privilege we bring to the table. This isn't about acknowledging our "internal racist" or something like this; it's about changing the very practices we use moment-to-moment to engage with other people. Others may know of successful training efforts, and I'd love to hear about them.
Law came up with a process that seems to work for groups engaged in cross-cultural dialogue, but it seems to me and to other organizers I've talked with to be too cumbersome to work in action oriented settings like community organizing meetings. CHANGE does not have time, for example, to operate like an "encounter group."
The point is not that nothing works. Instead, except in exceptional circumstances, it may simply be too difficult to find procedures that will allow equal dialogue in such settings without prohibitive amounts of educational and facilitational superstructure. A couple groups may be able to pull it off, but it seems doubtful that a reliable model could be created more broadly. The fact is that even though I know all of this, I often find myself butting in and interrupting as the white male that I am. I have had real trouble even training myself out of this.
One Possible Solution: Internal Representatives of Caucus Groups
There is some evidence from classrooms and elsewhere, however, that people from less powerful groups tend to feel more empowered if they participate in dialogue as representatives of external collectives. They come not just as themselves, but as representatives of the power of a number of people. (Of course, this idea fits quite well with more general organizing perspectives).
In CHANGE, I recommended at one point that we try to recreate a space or spaces where there aren't many privileged whites, where inner-city folks can build their own sense of collective identity and then send representatives to meetings with the larger organization that includes surrounding white churches. I actually wrote this up, exploring possible structures, checks and balances, that would insure that internal groups like this would not become marginalized. I have also heard that there are other examples of organizations with a "black caucus" or "inner-city caucus" but I don't know the details. For a range of reasons, this hasn't happened in CHANGE, but it seems like it might be a productive strategy.
Hannah Arendt once argued that
power can be divided without decreasing it, and the counterplay of powers with their checks and balances is even liable to generate more power, so long, at least, as the interplay is alive and has not resulted in stalemate.
More than a few community organizing groups may be in the situation where the existence of a single overall organization inadvertently reduces opportunities for participation for all. By creating internally differentiated groups, it might be possible to create space for more participation. The problem faced by congregational community organizing groups, especially, is not that they lack potential participants, but they we lack enough people who have decided that they want to participate. As Arendt noted, creating multiple arenas for participation-as long as they are planned carefully-may actually increase the power of an organization by drawing in members who might not otherwise be willing to participate actively in what they may perceive as unequal spaces.
This sounds nice in the abstract. But does it work in reality? I honestly don't know. I'd be interested in hearing other people's experiences with a solution like this. There would certainly be difficult tradeoffs involved in creating artificial boundaries of some kinds within organizations like this.
A Final Example
I vividly remember a meeting a few years ago attended by the head of National Organizing. He stood in front of a large group of members, berating us for our inability to get as many people out as CHANGE had done in its early days. At no point did he point out that most of his audience was white, in contrast with the early days when almost everyone would have been black.
(Next week: A Crisis? Privileged College Graduates Can't Find Low Paying Social Action Jobs.)