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         Sider Endorsement - On Power - Wheaton Professor - Rev. Youngblood - Community Organizing 
         Community Development - Democracy - Linthicum


What precisely is community organizing?
 How does it differ from community development?
by Robert Linthicum


Community organizing is the discipline of enabling people and their institutions to engage in public life in ways that enable profound change to occur both in those public and corporate institutions that most impact the people and in the quality of their lives. It provides the means by which ordinary people can learn the skills of engagement in public life, and thus assume responsibility for their own situation. The "Iron Rule" of organizing is "Never do for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves." And I would add a second rule: "Those who lack economic, legislative or bureaucratic power can generate power only by acting collectively."

Now, how does organizing differ from community development? In seeking to differentiate between the two disciplines, the first point I would want to make is that the two disciplines are not mutually exclusive, but depend a great deal upon each other. That is, good organizing will do community and economic development. And good community development will use the strategies of community organizing. What, then, is the difference? It is the difference of focus.

What does community development focus upon?

It focuses upon equipping and enabling the poor or the powerless to take charge of their own situation and change it. So, for example, if the peopleís problem is inadequate or nonexistent housing, community development will work with them in many ways so that they can build their own homes. The best community development is focused on people helping themselves.

What does community organizing focus upon?

Good community organizing will agree with these principles of development, but our focus will be different. We ask the question, "Why are there homeless people? What is our government and industry not doing that forces people to live in horrible conditions?" Organizing seeks to solve the systemic causes of issues, while community development seeks to address the results of those causes. Thus, using our housing example again, organizing will recognize that the very policies of governments and business are resulting in the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the people least able to compete. So they will seek to get the government to change its laws to benefit the poor and will seek to get business to divert funds for housing construction.

An example: When I was directing World Visionís urban work outside the United States, we had the situation in Madras, India where the city government rounded up all the untouchables living on the streets of Madras and moved them to a government-owned flood plain outside Madras that was uninhabitable because of flooding twice a year by monsoons. World Vision went in and provided immediate relief. But I also sent my best Indian organizers into the situation. There, they got the people together into groups to work on solving the complex and multiple problems of building a new community upon that flood plain. Now if World Vision had only been doing community development at that time, it would have decided it needed to mobilize the people to build homes for themselves Ė and it would likely have cost World Vision around $1,500,000 to complete that project. Instead, we were committed to doing community organizing. Our organizers motivated the people to declare to each other, "The government created the problem by forcing us to move here. Let them now solve the problem they created!" And those untouchables organized themselves to confront the government at every turn of the road regarding this injustice. Eventually, they ended up making their case, face-to-face, before the governor of the state of Tamil Nadu (in which Madras is located and to whom the city government is accountable). The result is that not only did the government build houses for every family, but it sold the land and homes to the people at an extremely low price, and the government built the infrastructure of a floodwall (to keep the monsoon floods out), paved the streets, brought in electricity and plumbing, and even built a school, library and community center. The cost to the government was $1,500,000, and the cost to World Vision for three years of organizing and the salaries of five full-time organizers was a total of $35,000!

Now, the final point I want to make as we differentiate between community organizing and community development is that the focus is different but the ultimate objective is the same. Organizing focuses on building the power of the people so that they can bring about change in the systems; development focuses on building the power of the people so that they can change their community. Both are needed. If you donít work to better your neighborhood, it will keep going downhill. But if you donít work to change the rules of the game that got your people in that mess in the first place, youíll keep on losing Ė no matter how nice you try to make your neighborhood!

What it comes down to is this: we need each other! You who are involved in community development need us who are involved in community organizing to work with you to build power among the people so that they and we can get the rules of the game changed so that we have a chance to win a few! And we in community organizing need you who work in community development to help us in our projects after weíve "won a few" to be effective in taking the steps necessary to actually rebuild our communities. So, going back to our housing example, you need us to get zoning laws and local government policy changed so that housing can be built cheaply. And we in organizing who see it as a dayís work to get government policy changed need you who can build housing cheaply to show us how to do it! We need to learn to work together. Because, if we donít, it will not be the people but those greedy and power-hungry guys who will keep on winning!


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