Saturday, October 21, 2006

Going Public

As I write this, it’s been two days since President Bush signed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, nullifying habeus corpus, the Geneva Conventions and many cherished human rights protections. The blogosphere is full of outrage about the new law, the estimated 655,000 Iraqis killed, the imminent 3,000th American soldier to die, how Bush and his cohorts are completely out of touch with reality, how silently acquiescent Americans are in the face of such atrocities, and above all, how excruciatingly limited our power to change things really is, when two-party politicians care nothing for what citizens think, feel, need and want, and where voting has become a computerized gamble.

I’ve also been re-reading Michael Gecan’s book: Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action. I first read it a couple of years ago and I was profoundly inspired by the fact that Gecan, heir to community organizer Saul Alinsky, writes openly and honestly about power: who has it, who needs it, and how those who need it can create it. As Samuel Freedman describes it, the book “is about doing right and making social change not by playing the pitiable victim but by wielding power against power.”

Gecan’s main points are that there are two forms of power (organized money and organized people) and three public cultures: the market culture of the capitalist business world; the bureaucratic culture of institutions like schools, prisons, municipal governments and federal agencies; and the relational culture of voluntary organizations, like congregations, social clubs and citizen organizations – people of all ages, from teenagers and young parents to arthritic elders, who get together and get things done. For the corporations in the market culture, the bottom line is profit and loss. For the bureaucracies, it’s clients served. For organized community groups, Gecan writes, the bottom line is “expanding pools of reciprocity and trust among people who can act with purpose and power.”

His stories of successful campaigns over the last 25 years are riveting. The East Brooklyn Congregations coalition leaders who were scheduled to meet with housing and sanitation commissioners, scoped out the meeting room a day early, arrived early, and seated themselves on the high dais in “15 plush leather chairs,” leaving the commissioners to sit in “eight or so rickety wooden chairs,” normally the only seating available for the public.

A tense but respectful, and productive, meeting about race, policing and neighborhood security with Mayor Guiliani after the death of Patrick Dorismond in 2000.

Teams of citizens who, unable to get health inspectors to crack down on supermarkets selling them overpriced rotten food, created their own inspection teams, with clipboards, calculators and thermometers, and got the owners to shape up.

Thousands of affordable homes built and then owner-occupied, reviving dying urban neighborhoods.

Living wage laws passed.

Practical solutions to real problems.

Gecan writes: “Effective organization doesn’t begin with furniture, office complexes and snazzy logos. It begins with a team of talented leaders, clear on its mission, and willing to act to try to accomplish that mission. Great companies start this way. Great religious congregations, denominations, faiths originate this way. And a living democracy and vital society start and restart here.”


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