The Political Potential of Community Organizing

A social work professor studies grassroots groups that help people learn to fight for their rights.

<p>Robert Fisher, professor of social work, at his office. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Robert Fisher, professor of social work. Photo by Peter Morenus

When President Barack Obama signed the national health care bill on March 23, he hoped to put behind him nearly a year of partisan bickering. Robert Fisher, a professor at UConn’s School of Social Work who specializes in the study of community organizing, thinks the year-long debate would have been easier for the President had he returned to his roots as a community activist.

“If there was a more aggressive group pushing for a single payer system, and thousands of people pushing for it, there would have been no extended debate – something would have passed long ago,” Fisher says. “At the least, we might have had the public option. Without organizing you don’t change much. Little happens if those disproportionately hurt don’t get it going.

“When people were clamoring for help in the 1930s for the New Deal, FDR essentially said ‘Make me do it,’” Fisher says. “They did.”

Fisher, an expert on ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), and, to a lesser extent, the Christian Coalition, late last year published The People Shall Rule: ACORN, Community Organizing, and the Struggle for Economic Justice, his sixth book. His seventh, Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing, jointly authored with James DeFilippis and Eric Shragge (Rutgers University Press) is due out in July 2010. The book examines the proliferation of community-based efforts in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, emphasizing the limits and potential of contemporary efforts.

“If the whole community organizing universe could congeal, it would have a huge impact,” he says. “But it’s hard to survive as a single unit and it’s hard to build coalitions, especially without resources.”

Community organizing has been around for a century or more, and for a wide range of issues. Fisher says community organizing came out of the volunteer movement, and is responsible for a number of major changes in America, including the end of slavery, women’s rights, worker’s rights, and civil rights. More recently it has been used to organize people around local issues – nutrition, housing, and red-lining to name a few.

ACORN was founded in 1970, but its heyday didn’t arrive until the early 2000s. In 2008, when it was revealed that then-candidate Barack Obama had been a community organizer, right-wing attacks proliferated. But just as conservatives were mocking community organizing, activists began pointing out all the positive work that the grassroots groups perform. These efforts are largely built around helping people who can’t help themselves learn to fight for their rights. The Golden Rule of community organizing is “never do for people what they can handle themselves.”

But now ACORN, beset by internal problems as well as charges of fraud during their voter registration efforts in 2008 and by a scandal surrounding video of three ACORN members allegedly showing a prostitute how to hide money – a charge that a court dismissed in early March – has a major image problem that is affecting its funding and effectiveness. And, Fisher says, most of the other progressive or moderate community organizations in existence are too small to be powerful. (Shortly after this interview concluded, ACORN leaders announced that the organization would close its doors on April1, retaining some local chapters but not under the ACORN banner.)

Into that void has come a range of conservative groups, most prominently the Tea Party organizers, who have co-opted the theory of community organizing.

Says Fisher, “Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing, once said there were several keys to bringing people together for a common purpose, but one thing stood above all: ‘It’s important to rub raw people’s resentments.’”

The Tea Party groups have taken that philosophy to the extreme, using nearly every initiative put forth by Obama as another rallying cry, and holding raucous protests in cities across the nation.

“It’s all about Obama,” whose background is based in community organizations, Fisher says. “Palin, Giuliani, other Republican candidates. They all mocked him and said ‘Here’s this radical appearing to be a moderate, but he’s really a radical.’ And they used his prior community organizing as proof.”

The attacks have continued. And, while Obama is still standing, Fisher isn’t certain about ACORN.

“Can they come back? I don’t know. They may reappear as state organizations with different names,” Fisher says. “But these attacks seem to have put the national organization in great jeopardy.”

Currently, he says, ACORN’s larger locals, in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and New Orleans, among others, will persist, though not as ACORN. But other, smaller chapters, including one in Hartford, have shut down.

“Despite the dramatic demise of ACORN per se, its work will continue, albeit in a different organizational form and without a strong national foundation,” Fisher says. “ACORN’s legacy, while imperfect and incomplete, has much to offer community organizing. It’s worth remembering. It’s worth replicating.