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.