Sunday, June 09, 2013

Review: Community Organizing

[Joan Kuyek. Community Organizing: A Holistic Approach. Halifax NS and Winnipeg MB: Fernwood Publishing, 2011.]

When it comes to working to change the world, I think there is absolutely nothing inconsistent about combining the feeling that you really have no idea how to go about it, with having lots of strong opinions on related issues big and small. This might not sound like it makes much sense, but I think it does. In fact, I think it flows directly, and perhaps even inescapably, from the nature of the problem. Even if you believe that there is a One True Way to change the world -- which I emphatically don't -- then the only meaningful way to evaluate different approaches is through the success of their implementation. Last time I checked, no political line, no organizational form, no radical tradition had managed to change social relations such that all axes of domination and subordination were transformed in just, liberatory, and lasting ways. All are partial, incomplete, works-in-progress. At the same time, we need to be able to act, and we need to be able to think critically and engage in critical dialogue and debate about our choices and the choices of others. If we can't do that, there can be no cycle of action, reflection, and further action. So it seems to me to be perfectly reasonable to be both clueless (or, more accurately, fundamentally uncertain) and opinionated. Certainly that is my own experience. (And, I would add, I think we're much better off when we admit to both of those things than when we pretend otherwise on one count or the other.)

How books about social change relate to this seeming contradiction varies a great deal. As with so much about social change work, I don't think there is any one perfect approach. That said, I do have a certain affinity for the approach enacted in Community Organizing -- it is, in my reading, an instance of a broader class of books about diverse sorts of doing that I have, over the years, become rather fond of and have dubbed in my own mind "practice books." Most books that I have read that I would classify in this way have been not about social change at all but about writing, and I never tire of those; I have also read some that are about self-care, meditation, relationships, and various other things. What unites them across these many different sorts of activities is that they are not filled with rules and do not try to present an overarching and final vision for the activity in question. Rather, they tend to be a collection of tools and practical insights and stories and lessons from experience that you are explicitly meant to take up and adapt and experiment with, to suit your own needs. They are books that you can read from front to back as you prepare for your next big choices, books that you can dip into at random for insight and inspiration, books that you can turn to when you are wrestling with a specific problem, and books that you get more and/or different things out of when you return to them at different stages of your own work and journey.

Community Organizing is a short book of many chapters that distils lessons, stories, and wisdom from the author's decades of involvement in working for social transformation, from her activism in some of the core moments of the New Left in Canada in the late 1960s, through many different manifestations of community organizing and grassroots struggle up to the present day. Its topic range from the nature of power, to running good meetings, to the food system, to tactics. It integrates accessible analysis of the social world and practical, movement-grounded tips on things as divergent as managing group dynamics and what to think about when deciding whether to call a boycott. The social analysis generally does a good job of being useful and grounded in its own right while providing pointers to and hooks into possible paths for those who wish to explore the many and diverse topics in much more depth. The generous use of stories and examples, some as short as a paragraph and others an entire chapter, is very well suited to a pedagogy premised on learning by example, active uptake, and adaptation. The book is, of course, guided by one vision -- the author's -- but it is more than that as well. I think its knowledge of the world and of how to change it is meaningfully dialogical, not only because it is presented in a way that invites active engagement and reflection but because of the picture it conveys of how it was generated -- its plentiful use of stories of collective change work and the evidence it provides that the author's organizing praxis is grounded heavily in listening and adapting. The result, despite being the product of one person's vision, is not closed and proscriptive but open and suggestive. This, in my reading of it, is central to what makes it a "practice book."

Though many readers will not find this important, I was particularly struck by how many of the examples were about Sudbury, Ontario, the city I now call home. Though she moved away before I arrived, Kuyek was a long-time Sudburian -- I first met her in passing several years ago when she was back in the city for a conference about community organizing in response to the mining industry, an issue in which she has been very involved over the years. Though I do not know her well, she was kind enough to give me a copy of this book when she came to the launch event I held for my own books in Ottawa, where she now lives. I knew fragments and echoes of the community history-from-below that she draws on so effectively in this book, but in many cases I knew little more than that. As I noted in my last review, so much of the cultural material we have access to is about a limited range of places, such that even those of us who live in more geographically peripheral corners of globally core nations are likely to recognize places we have never been to, and to have little experience of seeing the places we live in film or text. So it was very satisfying, and even in some cases moving, to have those fragments and echoes put into more fully-fleshed stories, and to have names of people and organizations that I know from living and doing political work here attached in print to past struggles that are now often forgotten.

One of the strengths of the "practice book" is that, unlike more rule-based or thesis-based works, it can not only survive as useful in the face of the reader having a complicated mixture of reactions to its specifics, but it positively calls for such a mixture. It expects its value to come from exactly the sort of active engagement that is needed to produce such a mosaic response. In the case of this book, many of the specifics I like a great deal. For instance, I like its (very accessible) commitment to thinking about the world in non-reifying ways that foreground human activity. I like its forthright critical discussion -- too rare, in Canada -- of the pros and cons of grassroots groups seeking funding. I like its deftness at combining an overall tone and approach that even a newly politicized community group would be able to relate to with a refusal to romanticize the power structure that we face and the horrific violence of which it is capable. I could name lots of other things, too.

But, as well, there are specifics in the book that I feel need much more in-depth treatment. In a way, this is true of everything in the book, and is so by design. It covers a lot of ground and is meant to be accessible for someone new to these issues, so of course there is much more that could be said about pretty much every topic it covers. And as I've already indicated, its organization seems to invite people to take those next steps themselves -- to go further in thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and acting. But there are also a few specific areas that I might have wished to receive more attention within the book in its present form. The example that springs most readily to mind is that it points out the importance of working towards large, strong, democratic, membership-based organizations that fund themselves through their members, but unlike in most of the book it does not accompany that insight (which I think is a good one) with concrete tips for getting there, or successful examples. That may be because there aren't very many such groups in the Canadian context, but if so, then I think it would have been useful to temporarily hop across the border and draw on some of the exciting work done in working-class communities of colour in the United States along such lines in the last decade or two. As well, I would have liked to have seen a more in-depth treatment of the ways in which differences in power organized around race, gender, ability, sexuality, and other factors gets inside our groups and messes them up, and how to navigate that. And, of course, there are specifics as well where my analysis would simply differ from that presented in the book. For instance, there is one part where there seemed to be less analytical clarity than I think our movements need around "race," "culture," how they differ, and how they intersect. And though the book has no hesitation about acknowledging at least some of the dreadful things of which the liberal state is capable, it has perhaps less skepticism than I think is warranted about the possibility of adapting the state form to our own ends in the long run.

There are, of course, a wide range of positions from which to engage with this book, but I would argue that people beginning from a great many of them would be able to derive benefit from it, even those based in rather different conceptions of how to organize for change. This is the case, I think, because of another of the key characteristics of the "practice book" -- it won't solve your problems for you, but what it will do is provide you with grist for the action-reflection-action mill that might.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

No comments: