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The Black Organizer Blues

by Mark Winston Griffith, Jul 23, 2003
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When I graduated from college armed with little more than a liberal arts degree and a penchant for fomenting campus protests, I moved back home to Central Brooklyn with visions of homespun revolution dancing through my head. My latest incarnation is that of a journalist, but the array of public identities I’ve traveled over the past 18 years – from political activist, to financial service provider, to economic justice advocate, to self-proclaimed community “organizer” – has always in some way been a pursuit of the idea that black-led social change can be professionalized.

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Of course I’m not alone. Across the city there is a small cadre of black people running scrappy, non-profit, community organizing groups rooted in Harlem, the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and other black and Latino neighborhoods, organizations that are trying to sustain modest institutional challenges against targets like slumlords, predatory corporations and government agencies. In most cases these black-led efforts to build social justice institutions under the banner of community organizing, are struggling to meet payroll, find qualified glack organizers or have their phone calls returned by potential funders.

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In a city with the largest concentrations of black people in the country, there are literally hundreds of relatively successful black-led organizations that are building housing, providing social services and fulfilling economic development needs. But when you identify the most well-funded and high profile neighborhood-based organizing bodies that operate in black (and Latino) neighborhoods, arguably none are black-led. An obvious question is, why?

Generally speaking, the term “community organizing” has itself proved problematic, if not exclusionary, in the way it is used. It has become a part of a jargon spoken by political activists, foundation program officers and other industry insiders to define a particular kind of social movement strategy. It is not that the concept of building a base of local leaders and using direct confrontation to address local problems and shift power does not have resonance among lay people. It is just that the assumptions made by many community organizers when they use the term – including myself – are not necessarily shared by the average person they are trying to organize. This is ironic, considering how populist the field of community organizing fancies itself to be.

In black neighborhood settings there is an even greater cultural disconnect when you use the term, especially if you invest it with the values and directives that hold sway among many professional community organizers, particularly those who have received formal training in the field. The problem starts with the idea of an organizer as an outside agitator, a benign progressive soul whose contribution to a community is to identify and train locally embedded leadership and help residents realize their own power. The fact that this model is fraught with paternalistic impulses and often carries with it a white middle-class man’s burden does not mean that organizers of color, particularly college-educated ones, are not susceptible to this view of community organizing themselves.

It’s been my experience that predominately black neighborhoods and organizations are steeped in a different activist tradition and sensibility, one that puts a premium on organizers not only living in, but actually having deep roots in and a personal connection to neighborhoods in which they organize. Consequently, black organizations often see “organizers” and “leaders” as being as one and the same.

Monifa Akinwole-Bandele, the co-executive director of the New York Chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), a racial justice organization that focuses on freeing political prisoners and fighting police brutality, observes that the dominant view of community organizing stresses the process and means of social change, as opposed to the end. In other words, some feel that the act of people exercising collective power is more socially transformative than the very cause they have taken up.

In Akinwole-Bandele’s view, this is not only a misguided, but disingenuous notion. The benign outsider-organizer paradigm, she says, claims “that the organizer is objective and that the organizer doesn’t come in with an agenda... But, someone’s agenda is always going to be pushed and just coming together for the sake of coming together does not mean the right road will be taken.”

MXGM occasionally finds itself at philosophical odds with others in community organizing circles, mainly because MXGM is upfront about having a political agenda, one that includes a particular historical perspective, takes a sharply defined ideological position and puts forth a social vision. As Akinwole-Bandele sees it, “To not push an agenda is to keep the status quo.”

Roz Lee, the executive director of the New York Organizing Support Center, an organization that provides training and technical assistance to community organizing groups in New York, echoed Akinwole-Bandele’s sentiments. Although the center itself espouses a fairly specific view of organizing, Lee maintains that community organizing opinion makers in New York often do not give enough attention or respect to things that fall outside a certain formula. “I don’t think that there is enough room given to political education and the healing from wounds from the past, wounds from hundreds of years of being degraded.”

Lee, herself African-American, believes that “black-led community organizing contributes to a different style of organizing where consciousness-raising is valuable and necessary…The times our organizing efforts have faltered are the moments we stopped doing consciousness raising.” If you are a black-led group in a black community, Lee observes, “you are probably doing [political education], particularly in the early stages of organizing, and it’s easy to dismiss this as ‘not organizing’.”

The existence of a dominant model of community organizing is important to recognize if only because it affects the degree to which foundations support black-led community organizing work, a level of support that most people I have talked to feel is unsteady, unpredictable and luke warm at best. What “undergirds” this lack of support, is an “unintended racism”, observes Nia Mason, executive director of the Harlem-based Action for Community Empowerment. Foundation program officers like to support “people who know the same people as they do and speak the same language. They work with people who make them feel more comfortable with their investments.” Mason feels black-led community organizing groups are not aggressive enough in self promotion and that it’s “all in the marketing. Funders judge you on how much press you get. They fund who they’ve heard about. It’s a rare funder who will stick their neck out to fund an unknown”.

Alvin Starks, a black program officer with the Open Society Institute is one of the few funding agents in New York City who many black community organizers feel is sympathetic to their plight. Although Starks contends that funding for community organizing is hard to come by for everyone right now in New York, regardless of race, he acknowledges that black-led groups work at a disadvantage, in part because the socio-economic challenges for black neighborhoods are so multi-dimensional that groups often feel as though they don’t have the luxury to focus exclusively on community organizing as a neighborhood development strategy.

Starks addresses this by taking a broader and more ecumenical view of black-led social change work. Rather than getting caught up in defining community organizing, he said he is more interested in investing in “new voices who have strong community ties, have been nurtured by community ties and operate under some level of community accountability”. His guiding philosophy is to promote in disenfranchised neighborhoods “ social capital”, which he defines as public influence, power, access, and the ability to leverage resources.

The very idea of arming aggressive black community-organizing efforts is an unsettling notion, even to the presumed progressives in the funding world. Who can deny that a black-led protest or campaign, especially one that explicitly challenges what it perceives to be racism, has different political implications than the actions of a non black-led group? The specter of a rising “militant” black organization conjures up a singular kind of fear in the American imagination – even among black people themselves.

If you talk to those who care about the viability of community organizing strategies in black neighborhoods, they will concede that some of the most vexing challenges are closer to home. The social activism of the 1960s and 1970s in black New York gave way to a non-profit, civil society that emphasizes electoral activism, different forms of self-help and services like housing or daycare. Direct confrontation seems to be only popular in times of perceived crisis, such as when neighbors storm the local precinct after an act of police brutality or a community board stops a homeless shelter from opening.

Mason, who moved to New York in 1994, says her organizing work is not always understood, much less embraced in Harlem. “Most black people I meet think this work is too strident. They don’t think it’s the most effective way to get the resources that are needed in the community.”

When we look at the organizations that most shape the popular view of black-led social justice organizing – SCLC, SNCC, the Nation of Islam, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Black Panthers – the image that people are left with is a handful of charismatic figures – mostly men - who courageously lead the masses. The result is that unless there are personalities who commandeer the headlines, the perception is that there is a lack of social change leadership in black communities.

Historically, Lee observes, there is in black communities, a prevailing “ one voice, one leader, one people” paradigm: “There is a reliance on the kind of large scale leadership represented by people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and it gives the impression that there is a homogenous group of black people standing behind these figures and that this is the only activity going on. It’s hard to see other activity under the radar screen.” Even Akinwole-Bandele admits that her organization’s approach to leadership development, which eschews the cult of personality and promotes “platforms, not people” often goes against the expectations of most people in a neighborhood like Bedford-Stuyvesant, the area MXGM considers to be its base.

One way or the other, for real ass-kicking, black-led, professional community organizing to flourish in New York City, black organizations will certainly have to craft a model of organizing that resonates even deeper with its constituency and establishes a more mutually supportive relationship with this base. Because at the end of day, if you want to find what is truly driving the agenda of any organization, follow the money.

In that respect, maybe the current foundation climate is as much a time for hope and opportunity as it is a time of hardship. Akinwole-Bandele found that the difficult time she has had in attracting foundation support forced her organization to engage its membership more and raise a greater share of its budget through fundraising events and grassroots fundraising campaigns. “We have become more isolated” with regard to foundations, she says, “but it’s going to make us stronger”.

Mark Winston Griffith, a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Essence and Spin, is also founder of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership, which organizes people to build economic power.


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