Adapting Community Organizing to Rural/Suburban America

Community organizing is typically associated with large urban areas.  Since the beginning of modern community organizing, the most disenfranchised low-income communities of color have been concentrated in urban America, so most social justice organizations grew within urban spaces.

However, today more black, Latino and Asian people live in the suburbs than in the urban core.  For about two decades, young white urban professionals have been migrating back into inner cities to be closer to job opportunities and escape the long commutes of suburbia, finding them more appealing as planners and businesses have reinvested in downtowns and crime rates have fallen.  The skyrocketing rents and evictions from urban gentrification have pushed low-income communities of color out to older suburbs, moves which were aided by subprime mortgages, the housing bubble and local openness to booming sprawl development.  At the same time, new immigrants to the US are increasingly moving directly to suburbs and rural areas in search of jobs rather than entering in traditional gateway cities.

In this sense, California is a glimpse into the future of the rest of the country.  The tech boom in the Bay Area drove working-class families out of San Francisco and Oakland and into Pittsburg, Antioch and Stockton.  The housing bubble pulled black, Asian and Latino families from LA into cities on the outskirts like Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario in search of cheap housing and job opportunities.  The vast agricultural regions of the Central Valley and the Central Coast have boomed in population with Latino immigrants.  The result is that not only is California as a whole majority-minority, but every significantly populated region of the state is too.

I believe community organizers should be accountable to our people, wherever they live.  The fact that the vast majority of social justice organizations are still in urban areas, while most low-income people of color are not, is a serious failure of the social justice movement as a whole.  We need to build our capacity to organize in many of the places where our communities live and are suffering from regressive social policies, lack of public services, vicious attacks on immigrants, etc. due to the void of progressive political influence.

Half a year ago I made a conscious choice to move to a rural/suburban area to organize.  Now as my organization goes through strategic planning, I’m thinking a lot about the challenges, but also the opportunities.  I think that as more social justice organizations appear in rural and suburban America, we’ll learn to better adapt our organizing models to the unique conditions here.

I know it will take much smarter and more experienced people than me to figure all of this out, and I know I’m not the first person to delve into this subject.  But here are some of my thoughts so far:

Challenges:

1.  Scarcity of progressive organizations means groups can’t specialize.  There are often only a handful of relatively small organizations willing to collaborate on campaigns, they are often more service or cultural oriented, and unions, churches and neighborhood associations are much more conservative than their urban counterparts.  In urban areas like Oakland, SF or LA, there is a vibrant ecosystem of organizations, all of whom have their own niches and strengths– this means some groups can focus on policy research while others focus on grassroots basebuilding while others focus on developing coalitions, messaging and strategy while others focus on electoral campaigns.  Here an organization like mine has to spread itself between all of the above on multiple political issues.

2.  Conservative elected officials.  In most of these areas, city councils, commissions and school boards, the key decision-makers, do not yet reflect the recent demographic change.  These towns have been run by “good ol’ boy” networks for a long time, and the elected officials are mostly old white men who are much more conservative than the people they now represent.  They are skeptical of progressive policies and feel unaccountable to the majority of their constituents.

3. Low population density means organizing wide geographic regions.  There is a pure logistical difficulty of having staff spread out over a wide rural area.   My organization recently expanded to cover a region of over 100 miles.  Since it takes two hours to drive from one end to the other, this means paying rent for multiple offices.  Multiple offices also makes coordinating and supervising staff a huge challenge.  And we have almost no ability to organize major actions where all of our neighborhood groups gather together for one rally, etc.

4.  There are real Republicans here.  And they’re angry.  Although whites are now minorities in rural/suburban California due to younger migrants, the older generation that lives in many of these communities is especially conservative.  Many openly express deep visceral anger about the demographic changes that have happened and still see the neighborhoods they live in as their homes that outsiders have invaded.  Urban organizations are simply not used to encountering this type of opposition within their own base areas.

5.  Local governments not prepared to provide services for low-income populations.  The suburbanization of poverty has dumbfounded suburban governments who have never had significant numbers of poor residents who rely on buses to get to work, neighborhood parks for exercise, or community colleges for their children.   Some services like public transit are simply more difficult to provide in suburban/rural communities, where low density makes it difficult to cost-efficiently run frequent bus routes.

Opportunities:

1.  Grabbing low-hanging policy fruit.  Organizations in progressive coastal cities often try to develop new innovative policies to address issues like unemployment, environmental hazards, education achievement gaps, youth violence, etc.  Many of the more basic victories have already been won years ago.  In more conservative smaller cities, some of the best tried and true policies that make big impacts have never been passed.  Rather than doing extensive research and convincing a local government to experiment with something new, organizations here can push for policies that have already been adopted in other areas and often have rigorous academic studies proving their success.

2. Filling electoral voids.  As mentioned earlier, suburban and rural California is now majority people of color, but most local elected officials are still conservative old white men.  Often these new diverse communities vote for the “good ol’ boy” candidates that don’t represent them because they’re the only ones on the ballot, or simply don’t vote for local offices at all due to a lack of worthwhile candidates.  These elected officials aren’t used to competing hard for their seats and have yet to feel the heat of how the communities they represent have changed politically.  Progressive, young, diverse candidates running for office fill a void and are relatively easy to elect.

3.  Getting coverage in easy media markets.  Although these areas have experienced rapid population growth, local news outlets have a small town mentality.  They receive a fraction of the press releases, op-eds, or letters to the editor they would in urban areas and often have a sleepy civic life so actions organized by social justice organizations are shocking and newsworthy.  Easy access to front page articles or the opinion page opens great opportunities to re-frame debates on local political issues.

4.  Access to swing state and federal representatives.  California’s most closely divided seats in Congress and the state legislature are in rural or suburban areas with changing demographics like the Central Valley, Central Coast and Inland Empire.  Elected officials from either party have to compete hard for their jobs (now thanks to redistricting) and are often politically moderate, making them important targets on state or federal legislation.  In comparison, organizations in urban areas with staunch progressive representatives have little ability to help pass state or national laws.

5.  The community has a hunger for it.  Places like West Oakland are a bit saturated with organizing.  People are used to “the community man” from one organization or another coming and knocking on their door talking to them about some campaign, and are sometimes skeptical or have been burnt out by their previous involvement in a different organization.  Not that any place can ever have too much organizing.  But in rural and suburban communities, there’s a lack of engagement and action and people have a hunger for it.

So the bottom line:  I don’t know what the ideal model for organizing outside the urban core is.  But it needs to be done and an increasing number of organizations are doing it.  I think there’s obviously a need for a stronger emphasis on electoral work.  To some extent organizations may have to become jacks of all trades and not specialize in particular issues or strategies.  Besides that I don’t know.  Have any thoughts?  Leave them in the comments.

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