The Value of Social Knowledge in Community Organizing

When you’re in an academically rigorous program like Duke, it’s tempting to think the rigor of your academic environment alone merits leadership skills, power, and respect. You might assume you can walk into a room and people might crave your perspective simply because of institutional credentials. While many people appreciate the mind of a Duke student, there are certain trades and spheres of life which defines leadership primarily on what you do and less on what you know. One of these trades is community organizing.

In his book Roots for Radicals Ed Chambers writes “Academics and pundits love to throw around the word “social capital” and debate its nuances, but most of them couldn’t organize a block party (Chambers, 2005, p. 68).” In some ways, I disagree with this statement (mainly because I think Chamber’s definition of social capital ignores the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Jane Jacobs, and Robert Putman), but I think Chambers is right to suggest a background in academia carries little over into the world of organizing. Organizing is like playing basketball, and while history of the sport or theoretical knowledge of the inner workings of transition offense won’t hurt, what makes the best players is the ability to score, pass, rebound and play defense. Similarly, organizers appreciate what you do over what you know:

Are you willing to commit hours of research for a proposal? How many relational meetings have you organized? Did you attend the meeting last night? How many people did you bring to the meeting? Did you follow through on your commitments? Will you sign-up to criticize the mayor during public comment? Did you read the current policy change? Will you take no for answer? Have you done your homework?

As you can imagine, the emphasis of praxis in organizing, challenged me to work hard and lead through my actions, not my thoughts. With Durham CAN, I’ve partnered with local leaders at Hoover Road and other CAN members to start a garden project at Hoover Road, I’ve organized relational meetings with the City of Durham’s Neighborhood Improvement Services to implement summer camp at Hoover Road, I created a video to give Durham Residents a safe space to share their experience at Hoover Road, I organized several meetings with the Six-Eight church to help members engage with Durham CAN, I committed several hours of research while we developed our Eviction Policy, I provided key insights about how to get more young professionals involved in organizing, I summarized and analyzed  the City of Durham’s Community Development Department’s lengthy Master Plan to illuminate where Durham CAN and the City might have shared interest, I’ve used my voice in several meetings to prioritize the voice of residents and more. But some days, I felt guilty because I didn’t lead well—maybe I didn’t speak up in a listening session or volunteer to speak at a City Council meeting. Despite this, many days, I felt a sense of pride in the small tasks like making the extra effort to invite a resident into a following meeting.

Of course, an organizer is better off the more educated they are, but too often people (like myself) who enjoy the blessings of higher education, miscalculate the value of practical wisdom and good ole’ hard work in organizing. Instead, organizers put stock in social knowledge or to use the Greek term “phronesis” or practical wisdom. Chambers defines it as “the kind of know-how based on the hard lessons of life experience that guide a good parent, boss, or leader….People with this kind of practical know-how earned it in moments of challenge and struggle, or on the street—not in the ivory tower (Chambers, 2005, pp. 16-17).”

This spring, I learned the basics of organizing: the world as it is vs. the world as it should be, the importance of civil society and social capital, the relational meeting, public actions, listening sessions, organized money and organized power, in light of Chambers insights on social knowledge, the most valuable thing I learned was the stories of residents. Of course, the formal tools of organizing helps, but the foundation of organizing lies in learning your neighbors. The great urban sociologists Robert Park and Ernest Burgess handed down this insight to Saul Alinsky when they taught him the practice of ethnography (Bretherton, 2015, pp. 25-26). Indeed, in his book After Virtue, Alasdair Macintyre writes “I can only answer the question what am I to do? If I can ask the prior question Of what stories do I find myself apart of? (MacIntyre, 2007, p. 216)”

Through community organizing, I’ve found purpose and joy, amidst headache and heartbreak, in organizing. I hope to spend part of my career organizing in Durham or whatever community God places me in. In Durham CAN I’ve witnessed the church live boldly and embody the prophetic imagination in a contemporary religious context where the church either serves as “the opium of the oppressed” or explodes into a riot on the capitol. I cherish my priceless experience with Durham CAN because through my internship I’ve gained experince and vision for how church and community can work together to repair the fallenness of this world, engage “The Powers that Be” and work towards the Beloved Community. I’m glad to announce that through the Office of Field Education at Duke Divinity School, I will continue my internship with Durham CAN into the summer. I encourage people interested in organizing and Durham CAN to follow us on social media and watch our calendar for future meetings to attend.

TJ Bryant is a first year Master of Divinity Student at Duke Divinity School where he is in the Thriving Communities Fellowship. He holds a Dual-Degree from Carson-Newman University in Sociology and Religion. He enjoys Theological reflection on various topics including: Race, Social Inequality, Community Development and Community Organizing.

All posts by