Organizing Upgrade: Communities of Possibilities

By Yvonne Yen Liu Oct 01, 2009

The concept of community is an ever-shifting one. It first becomes applied to movements for social change after World War II, when a dissatisfied social worker Saul Alinksy shifted his efforts into organizing urban communities, based on geographic proximity. He was the first recognizable community organizer that developed a model beyond just delivering goods or providing services, like the settlement houses that serviced the poor in the late 19th century. Community to Alinsky was based on physical proximity to your neighbors and the goal of community organizing was to build neighborhood, place-based, mega-organization that united various service providers, such as labor unions and churches. But, the focus was short-sighted, trained on winning a metaphorical stop sign on your block, with campaigns guided by non-ideological and pragmatic goals, divorced of any critique of racism or sexism. This shaped the role of the organizer as an apolitical technocrat, an outside specialist, distinct from the community. Often, the leadership and staff of these bureaucratic organizations were white men, who were capable of working endless hours to get that stop sign installed. Enter the 1960s and the global struggles of the Third World to shrug off its colonial masters. Radical movements within the U.S., who sought to eradicate poverty and institutional racism domestically, identified common interests with liberation movements abroad. This was the third world within. The same axes of oppression—racism, sexism, and capitalism—operated within communities of color at home. This new sense of community, what the Applied Research Center‘s founder Gary Delgado terms as “communities of interest”, led to multiracial formations that tackled a wide variety of issues, beyond a single campaign, and prioritized indigenous leadership by community members so there isn’t a bureaucratic apparatus that mediates political activity between decision-makers and the community. Community leaders are not just members, but also teachers, analysts, as well as actors. Most importantly, multiracial formations placed race as primary in their political framework for identifying their vision and strategy. Race is historically and socially constructed, but with ongoing material ramifications for people of color. Structural racism is the primary form of oppression in this country that intersects with sexism and capitalist exploitation. The history of racism is embedded in the racist institutions that create conditions of poverty, lack of opportunity, and labor exploitation for communities of color. Now, post-Obama, a new generation is defining community and its relation to social change. Organizing Upgrade, a collaboration by young organizers involved in multiracial formations, launched today. They define communities of interest based not just on shared oppression, but also on a shared, liberatory vision of what could be. This seems apt, given that we have a Black president in the White House, a former community organizer himself, and for the first time, our desires for our communities are possible. Join the community of possibilities at