In an era where conservative lobby groups can muster dozens of misinformed citizens to disrupt congressional town halls and claim they are engaging in “grass roots” campaigns, we all need a reminder of what real community organizing is about.
Community activism is an important part of American culture. The ability to raise awareness and bring people together to right an injustice, or to have their voices heard by the rich and powerful is a right cherished by few countries. Community organizers provide a vehicle for real change.
Unlike the current lobby-supported “astroturf” organizing, most community activists and organizers don’t stand to win millions of dollars, or stop legislation that would hurt an industry paying their salaries. Most are simply trying to give a voice to the voiceless.
One example is a little known non-partisan group made up of various local community groups and activists in the South Bronx, NY, where I grew up.
They call themselves the “4DSBx Coalition.” The name sounds complicated (it stands for “For the South Bronx,”), but their mission is simple – to make sure the Yankees organization live up to promises they made while getting community support to build their new stadium in the Bronx.
- Award 25% of construction contracts to local Bronx based business for the building of the new stadium and demolition of the old stadium
- Demolish the old stadium by 2010
- Construct a new public park to replace the one they took over to build the new stadium by 2010
- Hire Bronx residents (at least 25%) to work in the construction and in the finished stadium.
- Contribute $800,000.00 a year to local community organizations from the start date of construction.
Now that the stadium is up, the Coalition states very few of these promises have been kept.
The local political elite has been very quiet, mostly because many of them came out in early support of the stadium, or are tied themselves to Yankee management. The borough is also in a state of flux as the past borough president was called to D.C. by the Obama administration and his replacement was elected in a recent special election which drew less than 35,000 votes.
With a lack of political help, and having to go against a goliath of a corporate organization like the New York Yankees, the coalition has gone to the streets for support. They’ve gotten residents to attend city council meetings and have organized protests in front of Yankee stadium, which has gotten some media attention. They are forcing the Yankees to answer questions and defend their current position. They keep concerned people abreast of the situation via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and have gotten a modest online following, especially among college students and grads who currently live or come from the area.
To be fair, The Yankees participate in a whole host of community programs and no one is against the players themselves. The Coalition states they are loyal Yankee fans. But whether the Yankees organization will make good on their promises regarding the new stadium is yet to be seen. Under the Coalition, the community is holding the Yankees accountable. They are informed, and perhaps more importantly, they are an example of civil community empowerment. The protests, while small, are organized and professional, the meetings they attend are passionate but respectful, and those who speak for the organization are talking from factual points and concrete proposals for resolution. They have a long way to go, but are headed in the right direction toward real change.
So when we see red-faced zealots screaming at their representatives, or media types giving credence to rumor and speculation intended to muddy the debate, let's remember that real community organizing is a civilized, noble calling. Often the work is local, and rarely makes the main story of the major news networks. The purpose is ultimately to serve as the last check on power of corporate interests and a weak or compromised political elite. It is not about stopping progress, or spreading lies and misinformation for political gain.
We should continue to support legitimate community organizing as an important American tradition, and say no to "astroturfing." Good luck to the 4DSBx Coalition.