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Grassroots Community Organizing Is Malnourished

 I recently received a polite letter from the Organizing Support Centerannouncing that, due to a funding shortfall, it was shutting down its office, letting go of its staff, and putting its programs on ice, while it figures out how to sustain itself financially.

Over the last six years the center has provided training and technical assistance to hundreds of community organizers, many of them from communities of low or moderate income, who attempted to change their living conditions by confronting decision-makers. In the process of this direct action organizing, every-day people came to develop and exercise leadership collectively and exert power at a local level.

Small organizations, like the one I used to work for, were, through workshops, classes, social functions and other events coordinated by the Organizing Support Center, connected to a vast, sometimes underground, network of other organizations and activists. Disparate grassroots organizing campaigns, some with barely two sticks to rub together, learned from one another, supported each other’s work and grew stronger as a result.

The fact that the Organizing Support Center’s future is unclear is hardly shocking news. In these days of deep philanthropic cutbacks, well-intentioned and well-managed organizations alike are having either to scale back or to shut down. In New York, which is the poster city for unbridled corporate privilege, the grassroots community organizing is notoriously malnourished. While New York certainly has its share of organizing groups doing excellent work, especially around juvenile justice, housing and environmental justice, there is very little formal coordination of grassroots efforts that takes on the proportions of a city-wide movement. As a result, effective neighborhood- based organizing has occurred largely in isolation.

Take for example, the opposition to the New York Nets stadium complex being proposed for downtown Brooklyn. Rarely will you see such a high profile public display of local people and environmental interests going up against larger corporate and political interests. But the residents and business owners who have joined together to challenge the stadium proposal should be able to link up with a diverse, equally high-profile network of allies, a standing organizer army if you will, that is taking on other forms of corporate elbow-throwing. That is not happening.

I recently spoke to a leader of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, one of the groups organizing against the proposed stadium. While he had never heard of the Organizing Support Center, he nonetheless lamented the fact that it, or something else like it, wasn’t around to support his group’s campaign. He explained that neither their strategists nor their foot soldiers had been involved in an effort such as the stadium campaign before. As a result, there are a host of needs – fundraising, legal resource development, negotiation consulting, assistance with team-building and coalition-building – that his group struggles with while going toe-to-toe with the mayor, the local political establishment and one of Brooklyn’s most powerful real estate developers. And this is a group that includes a fair share of homeowners and relatively well-resourced professional people. Imagine how the strictly poor and property-less would fare.

The handful of foundations that consider community organizing worth supporting have long recognized New York’s unrealized potential. The creation of the Organizing Support Center by a group of activists was, after all, the direct result of a series of conversations that a small number of progressive foundations held in the mid-1990s about how to expand the capacity of community organizing groups, nurture a professional community organizing culture and coordinate organizing efforts in New York City. Some of these foundations even funded learning tours in which the center staff and board members visited regions – like the South and Los Angeles - where community organizing networks were reportedly thriving and relatively well-coordinated. Unfortunately, the conversations once held by these foundations, as well as the visions and goals of building a social justice support apparatus, now resemble American intentions to convert to the metric system.

In the meantime, the opportunity costs of not having the Organizing Support Center run on all cylinders are steep and self-limiting. Consider for a moment, the Ford Foundation’s fund for community organizing which has invested millions of dollars in building strong networks and strengthening collaborations in Chicago, Los Angeles and the South. Ford is now mulling over whether it will venture into other cities, including New York, in a new round of community organizing funding. The catch is, Ford forms partnerships with existing community organizing intermediaries and seeks places where a fairly sophisticated community organizing infrastructure is already in place. Without an institution like the Organizing Support Center or at least a recognizable effort to build a broader platform for organizing, New York’s chances of attracting Ford as a partner are slim.

Dating back to when I served on its steering committee, the Organizing Support Center’s board has been confronting issues that, in my mind at least, remain critical questions: Some are internal to that organization: Should the center become a membership organization? How should it define “organizing”? Should it have an explicit political ideology? What model should it use for financial sustainability beyond foundation support?

But there are basic questions that the center can help other organizations answer, like “Where do I find experienced, qualified staff and how do I find the money to do it?” And in the case of spontaneous campaigns and fully volunteer efforts that are trying to level the playing field against commercial and governmental Goliaths, where can these movements turn to find the kind of political consultancy that so many politicians enjoy?

Six years, a handful of staff people and a two hundred thousand yearly budget is not a lot to work with when trying to address these issues, especially when you are simultaneously struggling to provide some semblance of value to an organizing community desperately in need of emotional and material support. It’s like trying to feed the thirst of an entire city with a single garden hose.

Mark Winston Griffith, a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Essence and Spin, was also founder of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership.

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