“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).
Wait! Where’s part 3? I want to know how the gatherings went. How’d they feel about their community, and were they are interested in working together on a shared project and what was the project? Did they get the cars moved? Did they stay?
I used to sweat with a bunch of Lakota ex-pats and whenever one of the elder guys who were coming in from Pine Ridge was late (well, lodge time nothing is ever actually “late”), one of the younger guys would start to nod, seeing a car belching up the access road and say, “that’s him. Total rez-car.” I thought our junks were bad… nothing beats a total rez-car.
In our city we can’t have a junked car or an inoperable one for more than 30 days on the property. We get fined and law enforcement complicates it all to heck from there. Nobody much cares that it takes money to move the beast that died. Or internet access. That’s what saved me when the Ford finally died for the last time. Apparently some junk company was willing to pay me $50 for a worthless pre-Clinton era relic. I beat the 30 day deadline by a couple hours. Still ended up with a citation and then fighting it only to pay it because there’s magic involved when a city official puts pen to paper. With my $50 the junk guy paid me I got to pay a third of the fine out of my pocket. Guess I got a “discount.”
Organizing can be tough. People in my ‘hood only get together when someone wipes out in the intersection we all keep complaining to the city about (one street as a shortcut between long lights and the other with the stop sign as a.. well, non-stop sign, I can just go whenever I wanna go street). Unfortunately everyone hooks up with names because we all overhear them when the police pretend to take them down on the paper nothing gets actually written on, ‘Oh that’s right, she’s Jackie and that’s her father, Cruz…’ then we don’t see each other until the next screech-blam meeting gets called to order. We tried a BBQ once but only two people showed. they weren’t the regulars at the intersection-collision meetings though. I’m scratching my head trying to remember their names.
Looking forward to part 3.
Please excuse me if I come off as rude, I really can’t speak for either of the two parties involved. Nit picking over a ratty looking car in a lawn counts as “community” these days? Really?
I mean no disrespect towards your cause and understand the goal of trying to mediate between two groups,but class divides over a car that is unsightly? I can’t help but remember local politicians complaining about broken down porches in a downtown city area and how they need to be fixed, when there were much more caustic social ills going on in the area leading to serious crime…but we need to be banning together over broken porches or cars now?
I know people have serious investments in their houses, but I’m pretty sure a lack of opportunity in an area is going to lower property value a lot more than an unsightly car. There are other serious investments too, like the kind people put into their future that involve health, education and a stable community to raise children. Are unsightly cars really going to bring people together in any meaningful way when there are much more important things to work towards accomplishing? There are some of us out there that are pretty serious about life too who might not have the luxury of reducing community down to a beautification brigade, we’re not all bums that just bum’n around with no purpose in life just because we didn’t wantonly pour money into a house we can’t afford. Listen, maybe I’m just ignorant about the area you’re referring to, but my question is based in a broader perspective than the specific location. You guys know what I’m talking about? Sorry if it’s a bit murky, I just don’t know how to express my frustration about “community” being a superficial, detached, impersonal ‘spruce up the place’ gathering.
There is something called the “broken windows theory.” If a community has broken windows (or broken porches…or “ratty looking cars”), it implies that the residents that live there do not take pride in their neighborhood’s appearance, and often encourages vandalism, crime, and other negative activity. If, instead, lawns and streetscapes are tidy and well-maintained, residents and visitors are often more likely to respect the neighborhood.
You mention “health, education and a stable community to raise children.” Efforts to promote communities that are well-maintained and “beautified” are not superficial, detached, or impersonal. Instead, they are feeding the positive assets of an existing community, which drive property value up, encourage local businesses, stabilize economies, and YES: drive positive health and education outcomes.