“We’ve got to get those junk cars out of people’s yards!”
This was the challenge raised by a roomful of community organizers in a course I recently taught. The majority worked in community-based organizations focused on improving low-income neighborhoods. My course was an advanced seminar on values conflicts in community organizing.
The junk car conflict was raised by one organizer on a Native American Indian reservation, and another from a big city. It rang true to most of the organizers in the room. The residents with the junk cars had similar responses when asked to get rid of the cars by their well-meaning neighbors: “No way, I’m getting it back on the road as soon as I get the money together.”
This is what class conflict looks like on the ground.
I asked the organizers to explore it more deeply. Is this a conflict over fundamental values? Or a collection of stubborn residents, one group who thinks they know what’s best for their neighborhood, and another who doesn’t appreciate being told what’s acceptable in their own front yard?
It might be about fundamental values, that is, what is most important to folks. A middle class homeowner may have invested their life savings and taken out a big loan to achieve the American dream of homeownership. They are now committed to boosting the financial worth of their home and neighborhood. Their working class neighbors may be more concerned with hanging on to whatever perceived assets they have, the old car being one. And their pride being another.
I write this, aware that my people did not hang on to old cars. While my family was at times marginally middle class economically, we were largely middle class in values and how we lived. When the family car neared death, my parents traded it in. It would be disingenuous of me to presume to know what is going through the minds of the working class people I am writing about here.
So, what’s an organizer to do?
The likely answer of a grassroots organizer would be, ask the people in question. My proposal is to start with relationship building. These two steps are by no means mutually exclusive. An organizer is in a unique position to create opportunities for folks to get to know each other, to learn about each other’s respective histories, challenges, hopes and dreams. When people begin to understand different lived experiences and perspectives, they can begin to see each other’s humanity. They can begin to suspend judgment, and find common ground.
There are many models for bringing people together and building relationships across class and other differences. Lawrence CommunityWorks in Massachusetts has created an approach called NeighborCircles, where staff work with residents to host their neighbors in their homes, over a meal. The host commits to holding three gatherings. At the first, they ask everybody to share the story of where they are from, and how they came to live in the neighborhood. At subsequent gatherings, they talk about how they feel about the community, and whether they are interested in working together on a shared project. It’s that simple, and it’s Lawrence CommunityWorks’ principle organizing strategy.
This is not rocket science. It is a first step in raising awareness about class and other biases and power differentials, and in creating conditions for the most disempowered people to be heard and respected within a diverse community.
Susan Naimark is an independent trainer and consultant who works with grassroots groups, nonprofit and public agencies to promote equity and build community; and author of The Education of a White Parent: Wrestling with Race and Opportunity in the Boston Public Schools (Levellers Press, 2012).