Issue #131, September/October 2003


The World As It Should Be


Books discussed in this essay:

The Emerging Democratic Majority, by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira. Scribner. 2002. 214 pp. $24.

Going Public: An Inside Story of Disrupting Politics as Usual, by Michael Gecan. Beacon Press. 2002. 240 pp. $25.

Gathering Power: The Future of Progressive Politics in America, by Paul Osterman. Beacon Press. 2003. 256 pp. $28.50.

This is a time of anxiety over national security, tax cuts for the rich and high unemployment. National policy starves the federal government of funds for housing and other programs for the poor. Money dominates politics, and rightwing talk shows rule the airwaves. What are the prospects for a political movement steeped in the values of self-government, opportunity and equality?

First of all, things are not as bleak as they might appear.

In The Emerging Democratic Majority, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira present a compelling case, based on demographic evidence, for an emerging progressive majority that favors the free market and fiscal discipline but also supports government regulation, the right to abortion, civil rights and a strong social safety net. According to the authors, these positions are eroding traditional Republican areas of support, making the Democrats the party of choice for professionals, working women and Asian-Americans, as well as African-Americans and Hispanics.

Also, in June, hundreds of grassroots activists attended the “Take Back America” conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Campaign For America’s Future. Leaders and members of such groups as U.S. Action, MoveON.org, the AFL-CIO and other unions were in attendance. The concerns of middle class professionals and women were well represented. But except for one panel, there was an absence of any discussion of community building, community organizing, empowerment, housing, an urban agenda and the progressive way to deliver services to the poor.

A coalition sympathetic to reducing poverty, revitalizing cities and promoting fair housing will emerge only if minorities and the poor get organized. The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) has had remarkable success revitalizing low-income communities. Ironically, IAF’s success also exposes some of the real barriers between those who organize the poor and the liberal professionals who Judis and Teixeira say will make up the emerging progressive coalition.

The New Professionals

For several decades, the old industrial economy has been giving way to an economy centered on producing ideas and services rather than goods. In this “New Economy,” according to Judis and Teixeira, there is a growing group of “professionals,” including academics, architects, engineers, scientists, computer analysts, lawyers, physicians, registered nurses, teachers, social workers, therapists, fashion designers, interior decorators, graphic artists, writers, editors and actors.

This group is highly educated, diverse and – most importantly – moving from conservative to more liberal. Their ranks have swelled by almost one-third in the 1990s, and they now comprise 15 percent of the workforce and 21 percent of the voting electorate. Unlike corporate managers in business who are trained to measure their success through profit and loss, these professionals see their work linked to the quality of the service or ideas they produce. As the authors point out, “Writers want their work to win literary prizes; teachers want kids to learn; doctors and nurses want their patients healed.”

Look at the increasing number of doctors hostile to HMOs, and you understand how professionals may no longer feel loyal to the party of unfettered capitalism. The civil rights, environmental and consumer-rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s influenced many of these professionals.

But as Paul Osterman observes in his book Gathering Power: The Future of Progressive Politics in America, “Politics is increasingly biased toward the better off. What is missing are opportunities for poor and working people to participate and learn first hand about politics and to become connected in an ongoing way to a political organization.” Unless the poor increase their low rates of voting and political participation their concerns will not reach the public agenda.

This is where the IAF comes in. Osterman, as well as Mike Gecan in his book Going Public, tells the remarkable story of the Industrial Areas Foundation.

Power Organizing

IAF is a national network of community organizations that engages the poor in politics. In San Antonio, IAF members shifted power from the wealthy, blue-blooded Anglos who controlled the city to poor and working Mexican-American families. They helped to elect Henry Cisneros, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, and got the city to channel more than $1 billion worth of sewers, sidewalks, parks, clinics, streetlights and other improvements to low-income neighborhoods. In Baltimore, the IAF chapter forced the city to pass the first living wage law that boosted pay and health care benefits for employees of private companies with city contracts. In Brooklyn the IAF built more than 3,000 low-priced homes as part of the Nehemiah Housing Program.

IAF’s blunt emphasis on power – how to get it and use it in service of the community’s goals – is unique. Gecan recalls his own experiences growing up in the tough streets on the west side of Chicago where he learned early about the nature of power – the power of the mob to close down his parents’ tavern.

“I sensed,” Gecan writes, “that you couldn’t just ‘reform’ the abuses of power, legislate against them, sue them into submission or sway them with the merits of your case. I sensed that you had to battle them – power against power, institution against institution – to check them and counter them and ensure that your vision of society and community, rooted in the best blend of democratic and religious traditions, had a chance to grow and survive.”

Gecan and his IAF comrades across the country succeed by assuming that the cause of poverty is powerlessness and the solution is empowerment, a lesson yet to be learned by most groups and foundations that support the poor. Going Public brings the reader into a world that involves recruiting leaders at house meetings in run-down housing projects, building alliances with politicians and establishing goals that are difficult but achievable.

IAF uses a variety of tactics to win, including dramatic and public confrontation, a tactic that gained notoriety when used by IAF founder Saul Alinsky. “Public confrontation is at bottom an attempt to engage and relate,” explains Gecan. “Most activists fail to appreciate this. Bureaucrats seek to stifle it.” More important than confrontation is IAF’s reliance on what Gecan calls “the habits of relating.” Before IAF engages its members in action, they spend months getting to know each other as part of the process of building leadership. Community residents are recruited from PTAs and churches, and include women whose lives revolve around their children and parishes.

For example, Alice McCollum, a courageous and determined middle-aged African-American mother from Brooklyn, learned how to confront the city bureaucracy and win the long-delayed restoration of a local park. These leaders are not professional activists or ideologues. They have rich and full lives in their families, congregations, workplaces and communities. IAF provides a space for the McCollums of the world to learn the ways of leadership, from the mundane running of an efficient meeting to effective public speaking, and gives them a public life, public visibility and the tools to participate in the political process.

“We organize people not just around issues, but around their values,” says IAF organizer Ernesto Cortés Jr. “The issues fade and people lose interest in them. But what they really care about remains: family, dignity, justice and hope. We need power to protect what we value.”

The Limits of IAF’s Strategy

Clearly the IAF sees its work as the potential salvation for strengthening democracy and promoting equality in the U.S. Gecan recounts how IAF’s 14 East Coast organizations tried to take their message to a larger audience during the 2000 presidential primaries. Although Gecan doesn’t admit it, IAF’s national effort was a failure. No one paid much attention. IAF’s strength is local, engaging mayors and governors and business with demands generated from local organizing campaigns. IAF has not gained a media presence and its attempts to provoke a national debate on wages and income inequality failed.

IAF’s strategy depends on money and organizing, but it is not clear where the enormous amount of money needed to hire talented organizers and to nurture them will come from. And even if the money is there, where are the organizers like Gecan – the kind that will spend their lives encouraging, coaching and agitating citizens to take their rightful places in the public arena of our nation, pushing the political world as it is in the direction of the world as it should be? And while they have taken neighborhood organizing to a higher level, Gecan and his colleagues have not provided the vision vital to any political movement that seeks to challenge the basic national direction of our country. Nor does Gecan discuss how to build bridges across the class and racial divides…to attain the kind of political muscle that might threaten the status quo.

IAF’s religious base, which has been emphasized in Samuel Freedman’s Upon This Rock and Mark Warren’s Dry Bones Rattling, is a strength and a weakness. (See Shelterforce #115.) Organized religion gives IAF a strong base in the community, and helps it to form powerful networks rich in symbolism and meaning that feed motivation and solidarity. In an era characterized by weakened communal institutions, organizing the poor won’t happen without the involvement of the church.

But secular individuals and those who practice non-Western religions are unlikely to experience the same kind of commitment to this brand of community organizing. A large number of Americans, especially younger people, are not affiliated with religious institutions nor is religion their inspiration for their commitment to justice and civic engagement. In fact, although most Americans claim they are religious, over the last decade they have become less rather than more devout. And religious-based groups may have difficulty coalescing with the rest of the emerging progressive coalition. As Judis and Teixeira point out, the three-fifths of the voters who say they attend church a few times a month, a few times a year or never, preferred the liberal Gore over Bush, with support particularly strong among never-attenders, who gave Gore a 61-32 percent margin.

IAF is still a long way from the centers of power. House meetings take time, usually years, but established power does not wait for the disenfranchised to get organized. IAF’s story is inspirational. But a well-organized national network of ideological conservatives and business leaders are defining the issues in ways that weaken the power of the poor. Political events won’t wait for Gecan and IAF’s house calls. Federal deficits and huge tax cuts for the rich are already drying up financial resources for cities.

Nonetheless, larger schemes launched by Washington-based advocacy groups lack the organized support of the population they purport to represent. While our country struggles with the dilemmas of building a progressive movement, our support should go to groups like IAF and others who have the knack of building a power base with the poor.

John Atlas is president of the National Housing Institute board of directors and a Revson Fellow at Columbia University.