Community Organizing and the Scientific Community: A Challenge.

Sep 08 2008 Published by under Do Something, Public Perception of Science

Last week, right around the time that Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin were mocking community organizers at the Republican Convention, I found myself talking about how community organizing can help us become more effective when it comes to dealing with issues where science and politics intersect.

I think this is something that we really need to do. The political groups that are opposed to science are typically very well organized. This is true for the anti-evolutionists, it's true for the global warming denialists, it's true for the anti-vaccinationists, and it's true for the anti-reproductive rights lobby. All of these groups have been extraordinarily effective when it comes to bringing people together around a common cause.

The members of the scientific community, on the other hand, typically belong to many organizations. Sadly, this is not the same as being well-organized.

During my childhood, I had many opportunities to see what community organizing can do. My mother is a professional organizer, and I started going to meetings with her when I was about two. This was in the Bronx, somewhere around thirty years ago. It's really no exaggeration to say that without the community groups, the Bronx would not have managed to do anywhere near as well as it has during that time.

That's because there is real power in numbers. When a single tenant in a slum building tries to do something about the conditions they're living in, progress is (at best) slow. The landlord is never in the office. The buildings department loses the complaints. Local legislators are friendly and courteous, but the matter isn't high on their list of priorities. The tenant who is trying to work on the problem is going to spend a lot of time and effort, and will be rewarded with a lot of frustration.

The same thing is probably going to happen to any other tenant who tries to do it alone - even if they're going through the same steps right around the same time as their neighbor.

When all the tenants in the building band together and refuse to pay rent until the landlord makes the building livable, things are different. The landlord is definitely going to take notice. The city inspectors find it much more difficult to avoid taking action. Elected officials take things very seriously when they know that the issue involves a number of constituents, not just one.

History shows that the organized approach works. It works when it's applied to slumlords and their unlivable buildings. It works when it comes to long-neglected public parks. It works when it comes to getting the local police precinct to pay more attention to neighborhood concerns. Similar approaches have also worked when it came to getting workplace safety and child labor legislation passed. It's also worked in places like Dover, Pennsylvania, when local citizens banded together, ran for office, and got rid of the nincompoops who got the school district into so much trouble.

I doubt that much of what I've said so far is controversial. I've had conversations about this sort of thing with some of before. Every time I've brought up the idea of trying to see if we can make community organizing work for us, the consensus has been that it's an idea worth trying. The problem is that so far, I've never made it past the "talk" point. And it's definitely going to take a lot more than talk for us to get organized.

As my mother has pointed out to me now and again (more or less weekly, over a period of at least a decade), there are professional organizers out there, they've been doing it for a long time, and they've gotten pretty good at it. They've had time to learn what techniques work, which ones don't, and how to modify the basic tools to handle different situations.

Fortunately for us, some of them have actually written some of this stuff down. And that's where my challenge to you comes in.

If there's one person who gets most of the credit for developing community organizing as a profession, it's Saul Alinski. Alinski started out organizing in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago in the 1930s. In the early 1970s, he published his second book, Rules for Radicals. Alinski was mostly interested in bringing about social and political change, but that doesn't mean that the strategies and tactics he outlines are necessarily going to be inapplicable in our own lives and interests. At the least, I think its worth looking at.

Starting on October 1st, I'm going to begin reading and blogging about "Rules for Radicals" at a pace of one chapter per week. I'm willing to do this by myself, but I think we'll all get a lot more out of it if I'm not the only one reading it. Which brings us to the challenge.

If you think that we (however you define we) need to do a better job when it comes to making the case for the role of good science in any aspect of public policy, read this book with me - especially if you're skeptical that tools developed to help deal with social problems can be used in the field of science communications. It's not a thick book, we're not going to be going through it quickly, and you've got plenty of time to get your hands on a copy.

I'll post on the first chapter four weeks from today - on October 6th. Is anyone else going to read it with me?

2 responses so far