Abstract and Keywords
The authors review the history of community organization, both within and outside social work, describe the various sociological and social psychological theories that inform organizing approaches, and summarize conflict and consensus models in use in the early 21st century. We review the constituencies, issues, and venues that animate contemporary organizing efforts and indicate demographic trends in aging, immigration, diversity, and the labor force that suggest new opportunities for collective action. Finally, the authors discuss dramatic increases in organizing for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and youth-led initiatives, as well as new activities involving information technology, electoral organizing, and community–labor coalitions.
Keywords: community organizing, social action, consensus organizing, social development, conflict, community–labor coalitions, youth-led organizing, Internet, electoral organizing, social planning, immigrant rights, environmental justice, social movements
The purpose, function, definition, and scope of community organization have been debated from its origins. In perhaps the most widely quoted article on community organization, “Roles and goals of community organization” (Rothman, 1969; later revised and elaborated in 2001), Rothman describes three community organization approaches: social planning (involving rational planning to improve the quality of community life); social action (building powerful “peoples” organizations that can impact policy and conditions that are injurious to their members); and social development, which establishes local economic programs to move people out of poverty by developing human and social capital (Dore & Mars, 1981).
Since the late 19th century, all these approaches have been called “community organizing”; the level of activity, the contexts and venues used, the organizing constituencies, and especially the model of organizing employed have been profoundly influenced by and responsive to the larger political, social, and economic contexts. Fisher (2005) appropriately describes community organizing as a “periodic shifting back and forth” in response to changes, both in national politics and in the economy, as well as the social-work profession’s response to those national trends (p. 35).
Although community organizing does have a noteworthy history within social work, it draws from many different disciplines and has roots, a central core, and multiple branches that lie well outside the profession. Certainly, most community organizers are not social workers, and most social-work practitioners are not organizers. Community organizing has strong linkages to many other arenas, including, but not limited to, labor, agrarian reform, racial justice, neighborhood improvement, welfare rights, the women’s movement, senior power, immigrant rights, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement, housing, youth-led organizing, environmental justice, education, tax reform, health care, transportation, public safety, city services, and disability rights.
Beginning with the Progressive Era, a combination of social development and social action approaches were used by settlement-house practitioners, such as Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, and Stanton Coit, to respond to the needs of immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe. World War I ended the stream of immigrants and ushered in a renewed respect for professions and rational planning. Community work during the 1920s reflected those trends, emphasizing social planning that featured the establishment of community-wide fund-raising and community data collection. Social workers such as Follet (1918), Lindeman (1921), Petit (1925), and Steiner (1925) actively applied the “study–diagnosis–treatment” approach of casework to neighborhoods.
Despite the widespread poverty and dislocation of the Great Depression, the Lane Report of 1939 conservatively defined the role of community organization as social development. However, outside of social work, labor unions, the Communist Party, and Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) introduced more militant social action approaches. During World War II and the highly conservative political environment of the 1950s, community organization was defined even more narrowly within social work (Pray, 1948), although there were collaborative efforts outside the profession to protest nuclear weapons and the anti-Communist “Red Scare” tactics.
The 1960s and 1970s unquestionably were the heydays of social action organizing, which flowered both inside and outside of social work as new funding sources became available and public initiatives like the federal government’s War on Poverty provided political support. Ross (1955), Brager and Specht (1973), Piven and Cloward (1977), Cox, Erlich, Rothman, and Tropman (1979), and Spergel (1999) wrote prolifically during this period, attempting to identify the concepts and skills that led to successful community action. The antiwar, civil rights, welfare rights, and women’s movements mobilized constituencies that previously had not been involved in large-scale social change efforts. A variety of organizing initiatives, such as National People’s Action (NPA), the Midwest Academy, the Pacific Organizing Institute, ACORN, and Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers broke new ground and realized ambitious goals to change housing policies, challenge lending practices, lower utility rates, institute tax reform, improve city services, and raise wages for migrant laborers (Bobo, Kendall, & Max, 2001; Boyte, 1980; Brueggemann, 2013; Delgado, 1986; Fisher, 1984; Jenkins, 1985).
Certainly, the conservative political economy that followed this period of insurgency had a dampening effect on direct action organizing, but nevertheless, movements for LGBT rights, environmental justice, disability rights, antiglobalization, youth-led organizing, and immigrant rights have infused new energy into community organizing since the 1980s (Fisher, 2005). Countless other organizing efforts continue to prosper, including small independent neighborhood groups, ethnic organizations, community development corporations (CDCs), and large initiatives such as the IAF, PICO National Network, and NPA.
However, at the neighborhood level, NIMBY (“not-in-my-backyard”) issues may arise, and this phenomenon illustrates the fact that community organizing is not necessarily progressive. A neighborhood association may actively oppose the establishment within its midst of facilities such as a homeless shelter, a youth drop-in center, or a home for the mentally ill. Community members may democratically decide to take positions and actions that conflict with social-work values. When such situations occur, difficult ethical challenges are raised. Fortunately, these instances are the exception rather than the norm, but they can occur.
Sociological and Social Psychological Support for Community Organization
In its earliest days, community organization practice followed a model of study based on clinical diagnosis and treatment. Later, social action organizing models employed conflict theories: Coser’s (1956) ideas about conflict, Lewin’s (1939) notion of cognitive dissonance, Rossi (1969) and Gaventer’s (1980) theories of power, and Piven and Cloward’s (1977) understanding about how the alignment of political and economic forces allow for brief moments in which social movements can flourish and make change. Ideas about participation and working to empower participants emerged from liberation theology and popular education (Freire, 1970, 1973).
Although those concepts continue to animate organizing, in the 1970s scholars began uncovering more compelling data that contributed to the development of new theories explaining large-scale social change. Theoretical constructs of sociologists who studied historical examples of mass protest and social movements provided support for organizers using social action approaches. These theorists analyzed collective action by examining three distinct sets of factors: societal opportunities and constraints that shaped political protest, such as sudden deprivation or rising expectations following deprivation (Morrison, 1978); the mobilization of formal and informal organizational resources that enabled collective action (Gamson, 1975; McCarthy & Zald, 1977; Oberschall, 1973; Tilly, 1978); and the processes by which movement participants framed perceptions of injustice and developed a sense of shared identity (Gamson, 1992; Mansbridge & Morris, 2001; Meyer, Whittier, & Robnett, 2002). Although these theoretical approaches to studying social movements developed separately, they are frequently combined in the early 21st century to provide a more integrated, holistic analysis (Morris & Mueller, 1992; Ryan & Gamson, 2006).
Scholars have used historical data to develop and support theories about “protest readiness” (McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald, 1996), resource mobilization, the formation of collective identity (Castells, 1997; Gamson, 1992; Taylor & Whittier, 1992), and the development of “oppositional consciousness” (Mansbridge, 2001; Morris & Braine, 2001) to better explain a broad array of social movements by groups including but not limited to women, welfare recipients, environmentalists, LGBT activists, students, antiwar protesters, and people with disabilities. Studies of the growth of African American–owned newspapers, businesses, and professionals and how this “resource mobilization” encouraged the emergence of the Civil Rights movement support the importance of building strong, independent organizations as vehicles to press for change.
Social psychologists have studied the social psychological motivations of potential joiners, members, and activists. Roth’s (2000) research on women’s organizations suggests that “collective identity precedes and results from collective action” (p. 302). Kiecolt (2000) examines the self-transformation that occurs among activists and identifies several factors that enhance collective identity. Owens and Aronson (2000) explore whether participants join action organizations out of confident or stigmatized self-concepts. These theorists help organizers understand people with whom they work, as well as their own motivations and behavior.
Consensus models of organizing (Eichler, 2007; Ohmer & Brooks, 2013) also have sought theoretical grounding and have found support from scholars studying social networks and social capital (Putnam, 2000). Putnam studied associational behavior and proposed that joining enabled people to build social capital, which was much like economic capital. People could rely on social relationships and use them as an exchange for support and assistance. Putnam’s work quickly was adopted by those working in community or social development models (Cattell, 2001; Tempkin & Rohe, 1998; Woolcock, 2001). Loffler et al. (2004) sees social capital as the core of organizing. She writes about “the process of building trusting relationships, mutual understanding, and shared actions that bring together individuals, communities, and institutions. This process enables cooperative action that generates opportunity and/or resources realized through networks, shared norms, and social agency” (Loffler et al., p. 24). Kretzman and McKnight’s (1993) work on community building relies heavily on identifying community assets and protective factors, as well as involving community leaders in efforts that build both internal and external networks and partnerships, create community programs, and foster collaboration to improve community conditions. It assumes “strategic interconnectedness among individuals, families and communities” (Saegert, Thompson, & Warren, 2001, as cited in Reynoso-Vallejo, Miranda, & Staples, 2009, p. 5).
Finally, international development models in social work have borrowed on social capital literature (Midgley & Livermore, 1998) and combined this approach with theories of economic development (Dore & Mars, 1981), modernization (Midgley & Livermore, 2005), and bootstrap capitalism (Stoesz, 2000; Stoesz & Saunders, 1999). Economic development approaches have tended to prize individual entrepreneurs over both collective microenterprise endeavors (Midgley & Livermore, 2005) and attempts to coordinate state, market, and community efforts to manage pluralism (Midgley, 1995). The addition of social development approaches encourages local participation in these efforts.
Despite the emphasis on social development as an international organizing form, a variety of models can be found in countries throughout the world. Liberation theology in Brazil (Boff, 1987), microenterprise development in India (Dignard & Havet, 1995), organizing for reconciliation in the Balkans (Despotovic, Medic, Shimkus, & Staples, 2007), community development in Kenya (Ellis, Cutura, Dione, Gillson, & Manuel, 2007), social action in Bolivia (Olivera, 2004), antiviolence work in Northern Ireland (Meyer, 2003), and popular education with indigenous people in Australia and Chiapas, Mexico (McDaniel & Flowers, 1995; Morrow & Torres, 2001) are but a small sampling of different approaches being employed around the globe in the early 21st century. Community organizing in the United States certainly has been enriched by international examples that emphasize a value-based approach, the development of critical consciousness, self-reflection, and a focus on intragroup processes (Burghardt, 1982; Freire, 1970, 1973; Gamble & Hoff, 2013; Hyde, 1996; Minkler, 2005). Increasingly, academic macro social-work programs and community organizing journals have begun to reflect a more global perspective. Nevertheless, much more can be learned from the successful work being done in other countries.
Contemporary Community Organizing
As it exists in the early 21st century, community organizing encompasses both conflict and consensus approaches and includes groups that organize around interest groups based on identity, geography, and faith. Community organizers come from within social work and from organizing networks that are not based within the profession. There is perhaps greater diversity in practice than ever before. We define community organization today as “the process of helping people understand the shared problems they face while encouraging them to join together to fight back. Organizing builds on the social linkages and networks that bring people together to create firm bonds for collective action. It creates a durable capacity to bring about change” (Rubin & Rubin, as cited in Weil, 2005, p. 189–190).
Similarly, Staples (2004a) focuses on a definition that includes “dual emphasis on participatory process and successful outcomes” (pp. 6–7) and the establishment of disciplined and structured organizations as vehicles for change. This conception of community organization includes both community or social development in which people use cooperative strategies to create improvements, opportunities, structures, goods, and services that increase the quality of community life and social action in which people convince, pressure, or coerce decision makers to meet predetermined goals. Community-building or social development models that encourage consensus and social action models that promote conflict often can be used simultaneously or sequentially as targets become allies and allies become targets.
Coexisting Conflict and Consensus Models
Despite the conservative political and economic climate since the mid-1970s, social action approaches have continued to be used, most notably in AIDS activism, opposition to violence against women, environmental justice campaigns, and a variety of other organizing projects in communities across the United States. A number of social workers and others have chronicled this social action extensively, including Fisher (1984), Gutierrez and Lewis (1994), Hanna and Robinson (1994), Hyde (1994), Mondros and Wilson (1994), Rivera and Erlich (1998), Rubin and Rubin (2001), Hardina (2002), Burghardt and Fabricant (2004), Staples (2004b), and Weil, Gamble and Ohmer (2013). These “conflict” models of organizing assume that people can organize to force power holders to acquiesce to community “demands,” whether they seek more police protection, increased funds for health services, or better working conditions for migrant laborers.
Consensus-building social development approaches have gained popularity and momentum since the mid-1980s and have been used in many neighborhoods and cities. These approaches, which are described by Kretzman and McKnight (1993) and Beck and Eichler (2000), feature a data collection and organizing strategy that focuses on community strengths, resources, and asset building. Consensus organizing encourages partnering with both internal and external power holders in an effort to produce community improvements. The community-building or social development approach is also the prevailing model used in many international settings (Lingam, 2013; Midgley & Livermore, 1998; Sherraden, 2001). Fisher and Shragge (2000) assert that endeavors to bring about large-scale systemic change can be expected to produce opposition from those who benefit from the status quo. Because social action has the potential to generate the requisite power and pressure to overcome such resistance, it should be part of any community organization’s repertoire.
Coalitions are organizations of organizations that enable participating-identity or shared-experience organizations to maintain special focus on diversity issues, while also providing a structure through which they can join with other groups on wider ranging campaigns, especially those that bring together low- and moderate-income people (Butterfoss & Kegler, 2012; Foster-Fishman, Berkowitz, Lounsbury, Jacobson, & Allen, 2001; Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 1992; Mizrahi, Rosenthal & Ivery, 2013; Roberts-DeGennaro & Mizrahi, 2004; Rosenthal & Mizrahi, 1994, 2004). Coalitions and other forms of interorganizational relations have grown as a form of complex organizing that brings diverse stakeholders to the table, manages tensions, and utilizes strategies of negotiation and compromise.
Organizing Around Identity, Shared Experience, Geography, and Faith
Community organizing entails collective action to decrease power disparities and achieve shared goals for social change. Therefore, it is a logical course of action for any undervalued societal group that faces discrimination and disempowerment. Since African Americans launched the civil rights movement in the mid-1950s, numerous constituencies have organized around their common identity—along dimensions of diversity that include race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and physical or mental disabilities. Others have organized around issues related to their shared experience, such as welfare recipients, tenants, prisoners, students, day laborers, single parents, homeless people, women, and immigrants. One reason for this phenomenon has been the failure of existing community organizations based on geography or selected issues to effectively meet the needs of diverse subgroups within their own membership. Frustrated by the inability or unwillingness of “mainstream” organizing to address their interests, members of these constituencies have organized separately around mutual concerns related to their identity and shared experience.
Community organizing along identity or shared experience lines has mobilized many new activists who previously had not been engaged in collective action to assert their own rights and has infused fresh energy into countless initiatives for social change. Pursuing a separate issue agenda helps ensure that matters of fundamental importance to diverse interest groups are not swallowed up and lost within broader based organizing efforts that cut across dimensions of identity. However, there is a challenge to prevent the fragmentation and balkanization that may occur when a more separatist organizing strategy is employed.
Beyond organizing that focuses primarily on identity and shared experience, many traditional turf-based geographic groups and single-issue efforts also have tended to recruit and involve more multicultural memberships that are reflective of the changing demographics of the United States. Neighborhoods that once were synonymous with single ethnic group populations frequently are becoming more diverse. Most community organizations have embraced this increased diversity but have been challenged to address new issues, such as immigrant rights, interpreter services at health and social service agencies, bilingual education, and the lack of cultural competence at a variety of local institutions. Many also have needed to make adjustments in their own organizational culture, operating procedures, and group processes in areas such as meeting sites and starting times, availability of child care and transportation, provision of food at meetings, translation, chairing and discussion styles, decision-making processes, and leadership development content and training methods.
Faith-based organizing has been a deliberate recruitment strategy of community organizers since Alinsky (1969, 1971) built the Back of the Yards organization in Chicago in 1939. Reaching people through churches, mosques, and synagogues remains a recruitment strategy for many organizing networks today (Parker, 2000). Additionally, individual churches, denominations, free-standing religiously affiliated organizations, such as Catholics for Free Choice and Progressive Jewish Alliance, and interfaith organizations, such as Clergy and Laity United for Change in Los Angeles, have begun to organize as religious communities.
Organizing Within and Outside of Social Work
In the early 21st century, there are a number of large community organizing networks in the United States, such as IAF, NPA, and PICO, as well as training and support centers, including the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO), Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART), Gamaliel Foundation, Grassroots Leadership, Midwest Academy, National Housing Institute, National Organizers Alliance, ORGANIZE! Training Center (OTC), Organizing and Leadership Training Center (OLTC), Highlander Center, Regional Council of Neighborhood Organizations (RCNOs), Southern Empowerment Project (SEP), and Western States Center. Additionally, hundreds of smaller independent grassroots organizations are not affiliated with one of the major networks, including numerous single-issue mobilizations (Delgado, 1997).
Social workers can be found in all of these forms of community organizing. The continued presence of community organization as a method of social-work practice is strengthened by the existence of the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA), as well as the Journal of Community Practice, which has served as a forum for disseminating new issues and approaches to community work since 1994. However, a majority of the organizers come from other academic disciplines, such as political science, sociology, urban affairs, women’s studies, psychology, economics, public health, labor studies, human services, education, law, or community development, whereas others do not have formal educational credentials, but draw on rich life experience. Given the fact that a small but significant number of social workers are likely to continue to be employed as community organizers, macro social-work educators should strengthen interdisciplinary linkages to other academic departments that are most likely to support this practice modality (Alvarez, Gutierrez, Johnson, & Moxley, 2003).
Trends in Organizing: Constituencies, Issues, Arenas, and Tools
Demographic, social, and economic trends shed light on not only who will be the next populations to organize, but also what the critical organizing issues of the future will be, the arenas in which collective action is likely to take place, and the methods and tools that can be employed to achieve goals for social change. Trend data indicate that America will experience seismic demographic changes through 2058. The largest subgroup of the population will be older adults, the fastest growing cohort of whom will be those 85 years old and older. The aging population will strain, if not shatter, an already troubled social security and health-care system. Ironically, organizing for “senior power” has witnessed a slight loss of momentum since the late 1990s, but given this demographic imperative, organizing among the elderly can be expected to grow significantly through 2028.
The foreign-born population reached 40 million in 2010. By the year 2020, Latinos from various Caribbean and Central and South American countries will be the largest ethnic group in the country, requiring attention to issues of immigration, bilingual education, health care, education, employment opportunities, and adequate wages. In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy in 2001, immigration reform has become a highly charged political issue. Increased resources have been allocated to limit the flow of undocumented immigrants, including border patrols, the National Guard, high-tech surveillance, and fences along the Mexican border. Historically, the United States has been a “nation of immigrants,” and the initiatives to decrease the influx of newcomers have raised controversy across the political spectrum.
As neighborhoods across the United States have become more racially and ethnically diverse, often partly because of the arrival of newcomer groups, community organizations have begun forming committees and initiating campaigns that deal with a wide range of immigrant issues and problems related to employment and training opportunities, poor working conditions, low wages, lack of affordable housing, restricted access to health care, refugee status, mental-health problems, posttraumatic stress, educational and language barriers, difficulties navigating various public and private bureaucracies, changes in family roles, intergenerational conflicts, tensions between ethnic and religious subgroups, youth gang violence, inadequate police protection, and multiple forms of discrimination.
Immigrant worker exploitation is currently a very real, if largely unacknowledged and hidden, social problem—especially among those who are undocumented. Immigrant worker centers have sprouted in low-income communities across the United States to provide information about rights and to support efforts by newcomers to organize on their own behalf. In 2003, an Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride helped draw attention to this social problem across the United States. And during spring 2006, huge rallies and marches in large cities around the country raised the stakes for immigration reform. An immigrant rights movement has begun to gather momentum, and community organizing in this area can be expected to expand.
Growth in the workforce most likely will be in the low-wage sector, and young workers with the fewest skills and least education can be expected to experience several periods of prolonged unemployment and shifts in industry during their lifetime. The trends in immigration and workforce development suggest that workplace issues and venues may again become salient. Efforts to organize janitors, hotel workers, home health aides, food service employees, security guards, and other low-wage sector workers, as well as the secession of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) from the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to form the Change to Win Federation, seem to point to new activity in labor organizing.
There also has been a marked increase in community–labor coalitions, which assemble community organizations and labor unions working together on issues outside the workplace to engage in what Fine (2001) has termed “community unionism.” Typically, these coalitions form when community organizations and labor unions identify mutual interests around economic justice issues, such as state minimum wages, municipal living wage ordinances, child care, job-training programs, welfare policy, community health benefits, plant closings, or hiring preferences for local residents on development projects (Simmons, 2004). Such coalitions have organized successfully for living wage ordinances in more than 100 cities across the United States. The workers most impacted by these victories tend to be employed by companies that contract with local government to provide basic necessities, such as janitorial work, sanitation, landscaping, and food services. Often, these workers live in the same low-income neighborhoods where community organizations are active, and frequently they hold dual membership in both labor unions and grassroots groups that participate in the coalitions.
Census Bureau data indicate that nearly one quarter of all families that include children and at least one full-time worker are still below the poverty line. Only about half of all workers have health insurance. Economic data show an increasingly greater concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. According to the Survey of Consumer Finances, the wealthiest 1% of households own roughly 33.4% of the nation’s net worth, the top 10% of households own over 71%, and the bottom 40% of households own less than 1%. This erosion of economic security may generate both traditional “pocketbook” issue campaigns related to employment insurance, health care, and affordable housing and new “bread and butter” concerns that engender organizing around the need for increased student financial aid and efforts to reduce and roll back unprecedented increases in college tuition. Increased numbers of low- and moderate-income people can be expected to organize to address the responses of federal, state, and local governments to these and other critical economic justice issues.
Community organizing approaches, strategies, and methods continue to evolve to meet challenges and opportunities that are a function of the larger sociopolitical economic context. Technology and globalization will continue to have profound and unprecedented influence on how people connect and communicate; there is potential for both greater closeness and more alienation.
Certainly, the growth of information and communication technology (ICT) has had a profound impact on the greater society and has opened up new possibilities for community organizing. The use of ICT has had a major impact on the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, the rise of Occupy Wall Street, and the outcomes of the past two presidential elections in the United States. McNutt (2000) originally identified six ways that technology can help initiate and sustain an organizing campaign: (a) coordinating activity and community with stakeholders; (b) gathering tactical and strategic information through online databases and discussion groups; (c) analyzing data with mapping or Geographic Information Systems (GIS) programs, community databases, and statistical packages; (d) using web pages for advocacy; (e) fund-raising and recruiting volunteers or members through online venues; and (f) automating office and administrative tasks. More recently, interactive communication utilizing social media has opened new possibilities for engaging potential activists, expanding networks, building community (both physical and virtual), sharing information, collaborating, planning, mobilizing for action, debriefing, and evaluating outcomes. Schoech (2013) points out that advances in ICT also have changed organizational management as hierarchies have been flattened and decentralized because of changes in communications patterns.
New strategies and software programs such as GIS, social network analysis, and concept mapping can be employed in various ways. Organizations can use GIS to document where community problems are clustered and where asset gaps exist (Coulton, Chan, & Mikelbank, 2011).They can also use GIS to facilitate recruitment, action research, strategic planning, and the production of maps. Concept mapping can be helpful in identifying themes or perceptions that would attract new activists or be employed in the framing of issues of a coalition (Miller et al., 2012). Social network analysis has been widely utilized in the public health field to analyze how networks assist the effective communication of information about positive health practices (Cross & Parker, 2004; Valente, 2004). Social network analysis can be easily adapted to examine how to identify new individual and organizational actors, understand the social networks of elites or vulnerable populations, and help activists to create and manage their social change networks (Hasan, 2009). Network analysis may be particularly effective in building the civic capacity of coalitions when there is a great deal of conflict over goals (Ansell, Reckhow, & Kelly, 2009). We expect to see more widespread and effective use of these tools in future organizing.
A variety of ICT tools and forms can be employed in organizing campaigns, including smartphones, tablets, video teleconferencing, faxing, transmittance of images, video streaming, text messaging, organization of web pages, webcasting, blogging, e-mail discussion lists, discussion boards, Internet search engines and information sites, computer programs, and videos (Hick & McNutt, 2002; Mulroy, 2004; Roberts-DeGennaro, 2004; Satariano & Wong, 2012; Schoech, 2013).
A partial listing of other social networking sites and ICT resources that are particularly applicable to community organizing includes Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Slideshare, Flickr, Google Analytics, Skype, and SurveyMonkey. These tools make it possible to connect across wide distances and to coordinate activities and actions.
The Internet has facilitated organizing in multiple locations, making a significant positive impact on the scale of collective action (Stoecker, 2002). Electronic advocacy, Internet activism, and online “flash campaign” organizing methods have been used widely and successfully by groups such as MoveOn.org to reach individuals and groups across the United States and around the globe. Advances in smartphones, other mobile devices, and software applications provide instant wireless connections that no longer require the use of hardware sitting on a desk in an office. According to Schoech (2013), “This is important for community practitioners, who for years have moved around in their communities, often literally working out of their cars or briefcases. With today’s ICT, a car or a smartphone becomes a virtual office” (p. 811). This mobility and connectivity make it easier to locate and engage community leaders, as well as to tap into their online social networks to spread ideas and generate interest in community issues (Satariano & Wong, 2012). “Interoperability” (Schoech, 2013), which refers to the ability of organizations to link data and then to use this information for linked decision making, further enhances the coordination capacity of coalitions, as well as statewide, regional, and national organizations with multiple chapters.
Nevertheless, the beginning of the early 21st century also has witnessed how ICT can be used to undermine community organizing, with the demise of ACORN being a prime example. In 2009, after 40 years of social justice organizing, ACORN had organized 1,200 neighborhood chapters with more than half a million low- and moderate-income members in 100 cities across the United States. However, a 20-minute video, deceptively recorded and selectively edited to distort the content, was featured prominently by Fox News and then went viral on YouTube and various conservative Internet sites. ACORN staff members were falsely accused of criminal activities, and the negative publicity that spread rapid-fire through the Internet resulted in the loss of all public and most private funding. Although subsequent independent investigations by four different Attorneys General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office cleared the organization of any criminal wrongdoing, the damage was done and ACORN was all but defunct by April 2010. The role of ICT was central to the organization’s dissolution.
To maximize ICT benefits, it is essential that community organizations develop an online strategy, consistent with both their mission and their basic organizing principles. Satariano and Wong (2012) have offered detailed steps for such strategic development, including “identifying objectives, assessing your audience and environment, identifying your message, and evaluating your online activities” (p. 273). These authors emphasize that online methods to listen and engage with community members can and should be aligned with the classic community organizing approaches developed by Alinsky (1969, 1971) and Freire (1970, 1973). They also underscore that online technology ideally should be combined with face-to-face interactions, although accessibility to technology for lower income people has increased because of cost reductions and expanded availability in public institutions, such as libraries and schools, thereby narrowing the “Digital Divide” (Golombek, 2002; Hargittai, 2002). The new technology has had a democratizing effect by opening up access to information and knowledge that previously was limited to the privileged.
Nevertheless, many challenges remain, including the lack of technology literacy, information literacy, and language literacy (Steyaert, 2002); and Internet content is still disproportionately in English, thereby limiting utilization for members of many ethnic groups. The potential misuse of “e-democracy” by corporate interests also has been flagged (Spector, 1994; Stoecker, 2002). Differential access to technology remains a significant barrier for many groups, including many immigrants (especially those who are undocumented), migrant laborers, the elderly poor, homeless people, deinstitutionalized mental-health consumers, and large numbers of low-income people. Community organizing continues to rest on the strength of interpersonal relationships and active physical engagement in civic life (McNutt, 2000; Roberts-DeGennaro, 2004; Satariano & Wong, 2012). Technology offers exciting new possibilities for researching issues, community mapping, recruiting activists, facilitating member communication, developing strategies, coordinating tactics to pressure reluctant institutional decision makers, and evaluating the results of collective action; however, in most circumstances, it should be regarded as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, face-to-face community organizing.
Engagement in a variety of different types of electoral organizing is another relatively recent phenomenon for most community organizations. Since their inception, community organizations have interacted with and “targeted” a wide array of local, state, regional, and federal elected officials. However, historically, many, if not most, such organizations were not involved in the electoral process. ACORN was the first national community organizing network to develop electoral strategies; increasing numbers of groups have followed suit, and a range of options now are available.
The most basic level of electoral organizing is voter registration. Between July and the end of November 2003, ACORN registered 73,684 voters in low- and moderate-income African American and Latino neighborhoods across the United States. Voter education may entail “candidates’ nights,” written materials, e-mails, websites, or print and electronic media publication of the positions of office seekers on particular issues, policies, or pieces of legislation and may be combined with a “Get out the Vote” (GOTV) effort designed to mobilize informed organizational supporters (Staples, 2004a). At the national level, America Votes, whose founding members included ACORN, AFL-CIO, AFSCME, the League of Conservation Voters, MoveOn.org, NAACP, the National Voter Fund, Partnership for America’s Families, People for the American Way, SEIU, and the Sierra Club, was formed to register, educate, and mobilize voters for the 2004 elections.
There also may be certain circumstances under which a community organization makes a formal endorsement of a candidate (Pillsbury, 2004). The National Association of Social Workers has a large operation known as PACE to raise money for candidates who support their values and policies and always mobilizes social workers to get out the vote. Last, but not least, community organizations may put forward, support, or oppose voter initiatives—proposed laws, policies, or regulatory processes that have been placed on the ballot via petitions signed by registered voters. Examples include statewide referenda to raise minimum wages or local ordinances to establish housing trust funds or to increase expenditures for school improvements. Indeed, there has been an explosion of electoral activity by community organizations across the country in recent years, and this trend is likely to continue, if not expand, in the foreseeable future.
Community organizing also has witnessed dramatic increases in issues related to environmental justice. The environmental movement that emerged during the 1970s initially tended to mobilize a predominantly middle-class base. More recently, there has been a rapidly growing recognition of the twin phenomena of “environmental racism” and “environmental classism.” Namely, the dumping and storage of toxic wastes and pollutants can be found disproportionately in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. As residents of despoiled areas have developed critical awareness about both the origins and the consequences of environmental problems, there has been an accompanying sense of outrage and injustice. They have been quick to organize and have moved NIMBY issues beyond the realm of traditional parochial defensive and reactive struggles into the arena of progressive organizing to confront corporate abuse of power and frequent governmental complicity that raises deeper societal problems stemming from race and class relations in the United States.
The role of youth in the history of community organizing in the United States usually has been ignored or barely mentioned in most mainstream “adult-centric” accounts. Certainly, youth played an important role in the civil rights movement and antiracist organizing such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Black Panthers, Young Lords, and Brown Berets. And college students were at the forefront of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam era. But youth-led community organizing involving teens (often under the age of 17) in local issues related to school reform, health promotion, antiviolence, transportation, health promotion, police relations, the courts, employment, recreation, and gender and racial equality has grown exponentially since the mid-1990s (Delgado, 2006).
A youth-led paradigm has changed the status of youth from being “included” in community organizing to varying degrees to being “in charge” (Delgado & Staples, 2008, 2013; Weiss, 2003). This new model of organizing is youth driven, including the mission-defined goals and priorities chosen, issue agendas selected, recruitment methodology employed, leadership developed, organizational culture established, decision-making processes utilized, strategies and tactics selected, and actions undertaken. Youth leadership is at the center of this organizing, which is of, by, for, and about youth, their culture, and concerns.
Implications for Social Work
Certainly, it is impossible to predict all the trends that may drive community organizing through 2018. Changing economic conditions, shifting political alignments, new cultural phenomena, and technological advances will continue to shape the social problems and issues that emerge, motivating and mobilizing additional constituency groups to engage in collective action on their own behalf to change the circumstances of their lives. Although community organization is increasingly taught in other venues and practiced by other disciplines (public health, public administration, urban affairs, and even architecture), it seems likely that social work will continue to claim it as a core methodology. Innovation and creativity are the norm in this dynamic field of practice, which goes to the heart of social-work values such as justice, empowerment, participatory democracy, self-determination, and overcoming all forms of oppression. Driven by the realities of need and funding (Johnson, 1998, 2000), increasingly community practice theory and skills are integrated into required curriculum (Hendricks & Rudich, 2000; Pippard & Bjorklund, 2003) rather than taught as a separate method (Fisher, Weedman, Alex, & Stout, 2001). Educating all social workers to utilize the community as a context for service and competently engage in community building attempts may help to prepare them for all that may lie ahead.
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