Reflecting on Critiques of Broad-Based Community Organizing

Where we stand determines what we see. These words have guided and disciplined my listening of others when I have found myself in spaces where consensus isn’t a priority. In such spaces, it is assumed that a diversity of perspectives, stories, experiences, and opinions is a gift that enriches our lives. Perhaps the best gift of these spaces is that they seem to create the conditions of comfortability where the virtue of curiosity can be lived out in questions and personal exchanges.

In my experience, I haven’t found many of these spaces outside my life in the classroom or the occasional meeting to discuss a book or film. Consequently, I admit that I didn’t expect to find many spaces of curiosity in the field of organizing. Of course, organizing requires listening to people, particularly to their stories of experiencing exploitation, but I brought the assumption to this work that listening was a means to an end, a means of generating enough consensus that a large group could effectively act together. While listening for the sake of acting is certainly one way to answer the question of how transform our communities, a conversation with a local high school teacher helped me realize that sometimes we may not be asking the right questions.

With the hopes of gaining new insight into my own organizing, I decided to have a conversation with a fellow congregant of the church I attend who is an active organizer for the teacher’s union serving Durham Public Schools. I haven’t spent a significant amount of time with this person outside a worship setting, but I had been around him enough to know that he’d be a good candidate to offer a critical perspective on broad-based community organizing, especially given his past experiences exclusively in union-based organizing.

As we began our conversation, I quickly realized that while union organizers and community organizers use the same language their work can be structured quite differently. For starters, my friend explained that union organizing was much different for the simple reason that it was organizing with people in the same workplace, under the same economic conditions, and often with the same issues making their lives more difficult. For teachers, this meant long working hours, low pay, and the fact they were forced back into the classroom during a pandemic. Naturally, workers choose to organize together against these conditions as opposed to organizing along partisan or ideological lines. According to my friend, union organizing incentivizes worker solidarity and tends to create a more sustainable power structure that can more effectively demand change in the long-term.

Our conversation took an interesting turn when I discovered he not only advocated for union organizing but had strong feelings against broad-based community organizing. His primary critique of broad-based organizing was that it wasn’t a sustainable form of power, by which he meant that it was a form of organizing too reliant upon fixing specific issues rather than flipping hierarchies of power within institutions. Further, he suggested that some community organizing groups fall prey to performative justice through marketing campaigns that attract white liberals who enjoy a certain distance from the issues they are supposedly against. In other words, he was concerned this form of organizing could easily become a patronizing form of charity, one where well-meaning people with resources throw money at an impoverished community without addressing the structural causes that created their poverty in the first place.

As I listened to his long list of critiques, I found myself getting defensive. The virtue of curiosity began to feel more like a punishment than a means of growth. Yet, the more I thought about his critiques the more I was able to recognize the validity of his points. Ultimately, I didn’t leave the conversation ready to throw away my work and give up on broad-based organizing. On the contrary, I learned that my work can be strengthened and improved by listening to those with whom I disagree, even those who see little value in my work at all. Our disagreements need not make us enemies who are unable to find any common ground. Rather, our disagreements can be catalysts for refining our crafts and cultivating communities of mutual curiosity, communities where we feel compassion for the stranger and understanding for our foes. We can’t organize for a better world until we are willing to see life from another’s shoes, and it is, I believe, the virtue of curiosity that gives us the imaginative capacity to do so.

Organizing Relational Power

As part of the work to address Durham’s crisis of evictions and unaffordable housing, Durham CAN began a court watching campaign to gather data and stories from evicted tenants to better identify some key issues at stake regarding the causes and process of eviction. My first couple of times at eviction court mostly consisted of sitting in the back of a small court room and taking notes on the few cases being presented that day. However, when I went for the third time, I noticed that court was being held in one of the largest court rooms that day. Numerous cases were to be heard all morning, but the interesting thing about each case is that they were all filed by the same landlord. This large courtroom was almost full of tenants who were being thrown out of their apartments and homes. I listened to story after story about how families were struggling to make ends meet during Covid, but they were unable to save their family from being evicted because this particular landlord refused to accept government subsidies from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. I found myself feeling both sadness and anger. These were real people with children. How could anyone willingly refuse the funds that would cover the cost of the landlord’s expenses and keep these families from homelessness?

My anger intensified as I listened to a couple behind me talk about their experiences with the landlord as they waited for their own case to be heard. They talked of the apartment’s maintenance issues and their growing concerns with mold near their child’s bedroom, both of which were largely ignored by this particular landlord. At one point, they even referred to their landlord as a “slumlord.” Given my own anger at the situation, I was quickly pulled by the power of that label. For the remaining cases, I subconsciously had accepted a new lens for understanding and interpreting what was happening around me, namely in that I could only see a hardened slumlord kicking struggling families out on the street. By identifying a villain and his victims, I was forced to take sides, for any attempt at neutrality would indict me as one who sympathized with a “slumlord.” In other words, my acceptance and reproduction of a demonizing label ensured that I would escape the risk of potentially being associated with a callous landlord and by extension, escape the risk of being seen as a bad person in general.

As I later approached my work at CAN, I continued to wear these assumptions like armor. Following that day of court watching, I often told my colleagues in meetings about my experience observing a “slumlord,” with each reference making me feel more and more comfortable about my own place in the struggle between landlords and tenants. However, a meeting with one of CAN’s leaders dismantled all the assumptions I had made since that day at court watching. I began our meeting with catching them up on the recent work I had done, explaining that I was court watching the day this “slumlord” evicted numerous tenants. My colleague graciously responded, “I’m not sure ‘slumlord’ is the most helpful way to describe the landlord. When we stigmatize power, we remove the possibility of creating relationships with the people we need to change our community.” He went on to explain that landlords are part of the ecosystem of our community and that they do, in fact, provide a housing service to the community, even if we disagree with what they charge their tenants. Further, he argued that our credibility is strengthened when we listen to everyone’s perspective and self-interests.

It was in that meeting that I realized my assumptions and willingness to stigmatize power was more about protecting my self-image and less about actually doing the work of changing the living conditions of Durham’s most vulnerable. I learned that developing relationships with the powerful is not an endorsement of their harmful decisions, but rather, a way to gain their trust such that we can challenge them and petition them to change their policies or practices. Ultimately, we need “slumlords” at the table because they have the power to make meaningful and just change. My job, more specifically our job, is to organize enough relational power through coalitions of tenants that their landlord(s) must make room for them at the table as well. We can’t do that with demonizing language and broad generalizations, both of which prevent us from imagining our opponents becoming our allies. Social transformation requires that we be willing to do the messy, complicated, assumption-dismantling work of cultivating relationships, even with those we consider our enemies.

Working with Durham CAN

This academic year I will be working and organizing with Durham Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods (CAN). CAN is an organization that organizes and consolidates the institutional power of Durham’s congregations, associations, and neighborhoods as a means of inciting structural changes that will make Durham a more just and equitable community. CAN identifies as “a broad-based organization that works to coalesce, train, and organize the communities of Durham across religious, racial, ethnic, class, and neighborhood lines for the public good. Our primary goal is to develop local leadership and organized power to improve the conditions of low and moderate income families.”

I was first introduced to CAN’s work at Duke Divinity School through our certificate program in Faith-based Organizing, Advocacy, and Social Transformation. Since Covid had forced much of the world online last year, our certificate cohort was encouraged to attend CAN’s virtual community trainings on power, relational meetings, listening sessions, and organizing to supplement our classroom discussions on organizing and social change. It was my time with other trainees learning about how CAN uses shared relational power to overcome the injustices created by more hierarchal forms of power that left me with a desire to try broad-based organizing for myself. I was intrigued at the possibility of being able to organize coalitions of people that transcended social and cultural boundaries, boundaries that are often used to divide us and keep us from mobilizing. CAN’s approach to social transformation seemed intent on including those left out of the decision-making process and empowering them to create lasting change in their own communities, which I found to be a great model to imitate for my own professional plans. I was, and continue to be, drawn to this form of politics that is inherently relational and participatory, as opposed to the forms of politics that are overly technocratic and perpetuate inequality. In CAN and broad-based community organizing, I have discovered a way to overcome common needs and problems by cultivating a community of shared resources and power. Simply, organizing has become a way for me to practice my belief that we have more reasons for cooperation with and for each other than we do for competition against those with whom we may find difference.

My personal role within CAN will mostly consist of assisting our Affordable Housing Team and Eviction Team. Both teams are currently working on issues created by Durham’s affordable housing crisis. At this stage of our work, we are focused on research actions, meaning that we are gathering data and stories from our court-watching campaigns, relational meetings with Durham tenants, and listening sessions with Durham landlords. The findings from our research will ultimately inform our ongoing strategy of how best to agitate and apply pressure to key players in the Durham housing situation.

CAN’s current work in affordable housing and evictions is indicative of our overall approach of listening so we can organize, organizing so we can act, and acting so we can incite meaningful change. Having had previous experiences in listening campaigns and research actions, I am looking forward to partnering in the work of organizing our institutions around a specific issue and then helping in the process of planning and implementing a public action. The opportunities for growth I see in our upcoming organizing and agitating efforts are exciting, as these are areas of organizing I have yet to experience. As a person who has generally been hesitant to welcome conflict of any sort, I am optimistic I can learn to see some forms of conflict as a constructive means of social transformation. My hopes for my year with CAN are to grow as an organizer who practices radical solidarity well and learns how to best transform the conflict caused by institutional violence into the communal conditions whereby social justice can flourish.