Thursday, May 10, 2012

Social Change and Community Organizing

Social change is, borrowing from James Joyce, a chaosmos, a tenuous order hinged on the contingency of flux. We can predict and prepare for it, we can leaven society to precipitate it, but ultimately social change belongs to the indeterminate future. For this reason, activists must be skilled readers of the unveiled signs of the time. Like knowing when to pluck ripe fruit gifted by the tree. And so social change requires a wild sort of patience and an urgent energy. Schutt’s chapter emphasizes similar themes like the longevity of such work (Schutt, 2001, p. 73) through long-term change (ibid, p. 62; Lederach, 1997, p. 78), which implies committed time in a place, which implies community. Associations should come and go, but communities are meant to last.

Schutt declares that we need a clear vision of a good society toward which we are moving (Schutt, 2001, pp. 67-68), with which Lederach agrees (ibid. pp. 76-7). However, prefigurative politics figure little in Lederach’s analysis. While I am partial to grassroots and middle-range change (ibid, p. 39), I also recognize that policies must be altered to limit the current damage. But I do think most policy reforms resulted from community organizing and social movements by the most disenfranchised, whether it be civil rights, unemployment benefits, health and safety standards, food and drug regulations, and fair housing statutes (Myers, 1994, p. 218). I don’t think the top-level Metonyms voluntarily change, and cooptation through overwhelming centripetal force is a clear and present danger. Proximity matters: where we live, who we live there with, and how we live there define our relationship to the world.

Because of this, I think Schutt is absolutely right: activists need supportive community in order to live simply, animate social change for the long haul (Schutt, 2001, pp. 72-3), and imagine what the alternative future looks like right now. I deeply resonate with the (unacknowledged) anarchist values of revolution and organizing undergirding Inciting Democracy, such as ending oppression rather than individual oppressors, direct nonviolence, alternative institutions, and the commensurability of ends and means (ibid, pp. 64-68). Regime change usually chops the head off the Hydra monster only so another biting head can grow in its place (ibid, pp. 59-60). Instead, the point of anarchism is radical and direct democracy by building a new society in the shell of the old.

As such, I think collaborative modes of organizing that emphasize community strengths, desires (Minkler & Wallerstein, 2004, p. 35), and conscientization (ibid, p. 41; Walter, 2004, p. 71) are critical. However, social change necessitates the creative disturbance of conflict: structural violence must be confronted through direct action that balances power (ibid, p. 32). I think confrontational tactics belong within a larger constructive program that welcomes the possible conversion of oppressors. In this way, an aspirational vision is embodied that simultaneously exposes and challenges root causes.

Sometimes peacebuilders want to address root causes but don’t want to put down roots. Transience breeds abstraction, around which global thinking revolves. Those with grand abstract schemes to “save the world” don’t always think that differently from those with grand abstract schemes to “take over the world.” Both operate on reductionist assumptions and the myth of the White Man’s Burden. Indeed, the most successful global thinkers have been imperial governments and multinational corporations (Berry, 1993, p. 19). I’m not proposing isolation, because justice necessitates imaginative respect for the plurality of the world’s places (ibid, p. 50). No place is wholly free while another is enslaved, no place wholly healed while another is diseased. However, I doubt whether global solutions will be any less destructive than the problems which they seek to solve. Contrary to popular belief, I think size does matter.

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee, where my father was a family doctor with a non-profit healthcare center, community hospital, and rural clinics. I worked as a journalist and with nonviolent direct action campaigns in occupied Palestine, as well as a center for developmentally disabled youth and a reconciliation organization, for which I wrote a book about encounters with the other. I also worked with a community resource center and organic farm in Mozambique. And I am increasingly convicted by the gifts and needs of my own homeland. I am convicted by the praxis of community, which is vital to restorative justice and conflict transformation. I am currently exploring the intersections of restorative justice with permaculture and bioregionalism; the concepts and tools of community organizing hold tremendous potential for such work. My wife is studying in James Madison University’s Physician Assistant program and we, with a close group of friends as an intentional community, hope to engage in radical healthcare (, urban and rural permaculture farming, and an education center around restorative justice, ecological renewal, and local economies. Intentional community should represent a healthy microcosm of the larger community in which it is situated and be defined by its relatedness to that broader community. It therefore intentionally enacts on a smaller and intimate scale what it aids its context in transitioning to on a broader regional scale.

Community is inevitable if we understand humans as social creatures dependent for better and worse on lives beyond ourselves. However, community is often without a livable definition by being reduced to “conversations of shared interest.” Shared interests and ideas are valuable, but they are fleeting and can divide neighbor from neighbor based solely on cognitive affiliations. Different ideas ensure critical thought and even reinforce one another, especially since we always live and work with people with whom we vehemently disagree and yet consider them friends, lovers, and colleagues (Graeber, 2004, pp. 8-9).

Because of this, I respectfully quibble with Cheryl Walter, to whom community is “an inclusive, complex, and dynamic system, of which we are a part” (Walter, 2004, p. 69). To clarify, I agree with this, as well as her community building principles (ibid, p. 82) and her admission that community happens in context (ibid, p. 72). However, her existing definition too easily leads to expressions like the “online community” or the “global community,” which may appreciate interconnectedness but also dilute, or delude, community of any bioregional emphasis, local mutuality, and ultimately interdependence. And so community ironically remains individualistic: we are connected so long as nothing is required of us.

Walter suggests that community has no structure (ibid, p. 74) and unnecessarily dichotomizes social/demographic community from multidimensional/dynamic community (ibid, p. 70). A process-structure concept, which is an adaptable dynamic process that maintains form without rigidity over time (Lederach, 1997, p. 84), accommodates both. Community is a multidimensional system, but I think Walter’s attempt to encompass all forms of relationship as community makes places vulnerable to extractive market forces and therefore homogenization. She short shrift the notion of the commons, as well as to the crucial role of trust and partnership in community (Walter, 2004, pp. 80-1). And her definition, like many others, is anthropocentric. We cannot, as some assume, divorce ecological and social systems (Minkler & Wallerstein, 2004, p. 33). Community must be narrowed to emphasize places and expanded to include nature. Therefore, I think it would be better, and more realistic, to say community is like, and part of, an ecosystem, which is mutable and stable, inclusive, and has permeable borders (Walter, 2005, p. 72). This conception knows the always changing nature of community and place. Similarly, community is like cells in the body and the body itself, which has limits but is always receiving and giving. I don’t think Schutt’s vision of a radical democratic public is possible without community-as-ecosystem. Daniel Kemmis asserts that “public life can only be reclaimed by understanding, and then practicing, its connection to real, identifiable places” in which citizens participate (Kemmis, 1990, p. 6). This is why I think we should make a distinction between communities and networks.


Berry, W. (1993). Sex, economy, freedom, and community: Eight essays. New York City: Pantheon Books.

Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Kemmis, D. (1990). Community and the politics of place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Lederach, J. (1997). Building peace: Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace.

Minkler, M. and Wallerstein, N. (2004). Community Organization and Community Building: A Health Education Perspective. In M. Minkler (ed.), Community organizing and community building for health (pp. 30-52). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Myers. C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world christians. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Schutt, R. (2001). Inciting democracy: A practical proposal for creating a good society. Cleveland: Spring Forward Press.

Walter, C. L. (2004). Community building practice: A conceptual framework. In M. Minkler
(ed.), Community organizing and community building for health (pp. 68-83). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.