Monday, June 06, 2005

Rage against the machine

As Dan has already noted, about 200 people from across the city gathered on Saturday to form Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks. Two writers for Young Philly Politics participated. I agree with Dan’s overall assessment about the organization. I felt pretty positive about the entire gathering.

In brief, the idea is to develop a progressive alterative to the division and ward structure. It would be configured in the same way with activists in neighborhoods across the city, but candidates would be endorsed based on their positions, not if they gave some ward leader a few thousand dollars. A simple idea that is potentially very powerful. Like any new organization, there are a variety issues related to ideology, structure, diversity and strategy that will need to be addressed to realize that potential.

Before the conference, organizers made no concrete decisions about what specific issues would be the focus of Neighborhood Networks. This is good and bad. Good, because it helped conference participants feel a sense of ownership over the process. Bad, because at this point, Neighborhood Networks doesn’t stand for anything. The challenge over the next few months will be developing a coherent progressive platform for the city that has wide appeal. I imagine this group will take a strong stand on ethics reform, but that’s relatively easy. Where will it stand on the cuts to libraries, firehouses and other municipal services? On the smoking ban? Where will it stand on the proposed tax cuts? On gun control and related issues? There are a ton of hot-button issues on which people may have wide-ranging opinions. To be effective, this group will have to find points of unity which serve as a litmus test for endorsed candidates.

And how do those candidates get endorsed? While I understand that Neighborhood Networks wants to be as democratic as possible, there needs to be some planning and strategizing. That means people will need to carefully consider and weigh all the options when it comes to endorsements. In addition to the proposed ward and division structure, I think there need to be at least one or two city-wide committees that deal with three central strategic tasks: organizing, outreach, and endorsements. These committees shouldn’t have a ton of power, but they should be able to make thoughtful recommendations to the general membership. Ultimately, I think a city-wide convention every year (or two years, or whatever) will have to ratify the platform and endorse candidates for major offices. That seems like a decent balance between centralization and democracy.

As Dan already mentioned, the gathering was overwhelmingly white and older. It was a pretty good mix of men and women, but it has some serious outreach to do in communities of color. However, I expected that. In fact, the group was more diverse then I thought it would be and had broad representation from people across the city. It is very impressive that they had people from half the wards. So how can they reach out to a more diverse audience? Well, why not ask? I think the biggest mistake would be picking an issue or issues that are perceived to have a lot of importance in minority communities.

What do I mean? Well, for example, I heard a number of people saying that gun violence is an important issue in the black community and this should become an issue for Neighborhood Networks. I think gun violence is important, but what the hell do I know? I’m a half-Quaker, half-Jewish guy who lives in a white neighborhood and works in Center City. Most of my friends look like me. So what do I know? The best way to find out what issues people in North Philly are interested in is to ask them.

I would like nothing more than a team of Neighborhood Networks volunteers, hopefully carefully chosen to include at least a few black activists, to go into some neighborhoods that were underrepresented at the conference and talk with people about what concerns them. This wouldn’t mean a bunch of white people going into the ‘hood and talking about saving the spotted owl. They would be going in as listeners. I suspect the results would be very valuable and help build relationships that could grow the organization. I also think a similar process should be used to reach out to community organizations and labor unions. Why not ask groups like ACORN, the Philadelphia Affordable Housing Coalition, Asian Americans United, and other groups with a base in communities of color what issues they are concerned with? The same thing is true of unions like TWU Local 234 and SEIU Local 36/32BJ.

The key is asking respectfully and not deciding beforehand what people are concerned about. Some of the answers might surprise you.

Of course, a survey process isn’t just useful for communities of color. I think one of the main things Neighborhood Networks should do is a citywide survey in areas across the city. Thankfully, many of the small groups that met at the conference made the same suggestion and hopefully the group will move in that direction. They can easily combine this approach with a grassroots campaign. Pick one issue that the group has a lot of unity on, like ethics reform or raising the minimum wage. I suspect there is a lot of support for these two issues across the city and a fair amount of unity with the current membership of Neighborhood Networks. Generate a petition and then use that petition as an excuse to get into neighborhoods to start asking people what issues they are concerned with.

Ok, I think that is a pretty good start. Obviously I made a bunch of suggestions about strategy and how the group should move forward. Mostly, I think good planning and a little hard work could develop this group into an effective and powerful organization capable of making serious change.

2 Comments:

At 12:58 PM, Blogger ACM said...

I would like nothing more than a team of Neighborhood Networks volunteers, hopefully carefully chosen to include at least a few black activists, to go into some neighborhoods that were underrepresented at the conference and talk with people about what concerns them. This wouldn’t mean a bunch of white people going into the ‘hood and talking about saving the spotted owl. They would be going in as listeners. I suspect the results would be very valuable and help build relationships that could grow the organization. I also think a similar process should be used to reach out to community organizations and labor unions. Why not ask groups like ACORN, the Philadelphia Affordable Housing Coalition, Asian Americans United, and other groups with a base in communities of color what issues they are concerned with? The same thing is true of unions like TWU Local 234 and SEIU Local 36/32BJ.

well, luckily SEIU and Acorn were both represented at the meeting, so that's a start, and Stan and Angel have made some overtures to organizations and individuals. I think you hit a key point when you say we don't just want to be the latest in a line of white liberal organizations that take a brief interest in black neighborhoods but make promises they can't keep and then move on. we need those folks fully integrated into the process -- the geographical basis should serve as some reassurance that they will have clout as soon as they show up.

there are also some tricky aspects to forging alliances with organizations rather than folks -- if they are small/weak, then you don't gain much, and if they are large/strong, then you can't offer much that they can't do for themselves, and thus they may hesitate to do any recruiting for you. additionally, there are plenty of power struggles and rivalries within the black communities, as any other, and it can be difficult to convince anybody that you're really interested in working with all of them (esp. if it looks like you've picked a player early on).

anyway, the main barrier to date has been lack of points of entry (meaning people who can navigate the neighborhoods and powerlines under discussion; who can show up in the backs of black churches without looking opportunistic; etc.). but I think that will change, especially as NN proves its worth and its principles.

thanks to everybody who came, and for all the great ideas!

 
At 1:39 PM, Blogger Ben Waxman said...

I didn't know ACORN and SEIU were there. Who was there from SEIU? KC Ellis?

Anyway, diversity is always a challenge in organizing. I think NN does have some serious potential to make inroads. I suspect as it grows in power and becomes more well-known, the number of people interested will also grow.

 

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