The Benefits (& Risks) Of Community Organizing

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The act of community organizing can come with many benefits as well as risks, which can vary greatly depending on the style of organizing and issue area. However, it can be helpful to have a general sense of what organizers have seen in the past.

Community organizing can bring about social change for disadvantaged groups, improve community decision-making, reduce crime, improve safety and public health, spur local economies, and more. Risks can range from burnout and feelings of powerlessness to harassment and legal or corporal punishment.

The concept of “community organizing” has been thoroughly examined over the last few centuries and it’s worth noting that there are several different styles of organizing. Some styles are orientated toward building community and collective problem-solving. Other styles are more orientated toward amassing power and confrontational negotiations.

Depending on the style of the organizer, the support from the community, and the current political conditions, acts of community organizing can achieve meaningful change for a community. However, it may also elicit an array of responses from those in power.

At times, organizers may be able to achieve great change at the local, national, or even international level. Conversely, some organizers can find that they are unable to effect much change for long periods. While skill plays an important role, the political environment can vary greatly on social issues and some things may only move incrementally until reaching a critical mass of public support much later.

The benefits of community organizing are often thought of in terms of making social, economic, or political change, but the act also has many secondary benefits. Bringing people together to work towards social change has powerful effects on a community’s overall health and wellbeing.

One may also be wondering about the benefits of not just the community but also the organizers and participants themselves. Organizers and participants gain a number of benefits to their individual physical and mental health. Crucially, research has shown that this type of civic engagement is something that is “passed on” from generation to generation and even low levels of activity (provided it is done consistently) can have ripple effects for generations to come.

However, community organizing also comes with some risks. Even in cases in which organizing can seem harmless, organizers and participants should always be cognizant that collective action can be perceived as a threat to those in power. Reactions can vary and, at times, policymakers may respond in confusing or disproportional ways.

Below is a closer look at the benefits and risks of community organizing for both communities as well as organizers.

Benefits For The Community

The purpose of community organizing is to advance the causes of those who are impacted by socio-economic or political circumstances. Whether that means cleaning up a local park or achieving equal rights for minorities, organizing is about harnessing collective action toward making real changes. The number one upside of community organizing, then, is achieving the sought-after social change.

As noted above, there are many different styles of community organizing and there is no shortage of good examples. While this post won’t get too into the mechanics of organizing, it’s worth looking at a quick example of a community achieving the change they sought.

One very powerful example took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia from December 1999 to April 2000. The episode is now called the “Cochabamba Water War” which refers to a period when the city’s water was privatized and the community organized a grassroots response.

The tipping point came when the company which had obtained the rights to the city’s water – Aguas del Tunari – hiked prices to an extreme and even attempted to charge city residents for collecting rainwater. The Coordinadora in Defense of Water and Life acted as the primary organizer to push back against the privatization; they managed to churn up tens of thousands of protestors who helped bring about a settlement that restored some access to affordable water supplies. (However, the issue carried on until about 2006.)

In many cases of organizing such a display of grassroots power as seen in Cochabamba isn’t necessary. Sometimes community organizing is really meant to foster greater social cohesion and better collective problem-solving. In these cases, organizers need to focus on creating stronger connections between individuals. A natural byproduct of this “network-building” strategy is that the community naturally becomes better at decision-making processes and inclusiveness.

Research has shown that when individuals get involved in their communities in this manner it can improve things like public health, environmental management, and safety. In one fascinating example from Nepal, community involvement led to a significant increase in local biodiversity and, as a result, increased opportunities for tourism.

Community organizing can have dramatic impacts on the lives of youth as well and, as a result, reduce crime rates. Organizing models that provide good role models to youth have been shown to correlate with better local grades and lower truancy rates. Lower truancy rates, in turn, are correlated with lower crime rates. In one telling example of these connections, the Chicago Tribune found in a 2013 survey of Illinois inmates that 74% of those surveyed had been labeled “chronic truants” at some point in their education.

The ripple effects don’t stop at crime rates either. Research has also demonstrated that when adults get involved in their communities, their children adopt these behaviors later in life – regardless of peer influence. That means that not only does participating in community organizing help change current circumstances, it also helps give critical skills to the next generation and lays the groundwork for a more cohesive future.

Risks To The Community

The Cochabamba Water War example is a favorite for organizers and professors (and, admittedly, one of my personal favorites). The arch of the issue is quite satisfying as it had a sudden conflict, a build-up of community support, and then a just (though incomplete) resolution.

Yet, while communities around the world have been able to achieve similar changes, in many cases, events turn out very differently. Sometimes events can play out over many years or decades or the issue may never truly enter the public discourse. In extreme cases, the issue may even be forcefully suppressed by state or non-state actors.

As such, collective burnout or issue fatigue can be a risk for organizers. If the issue goes nowhere, it can reduce trust between members of the community, organizers, and institutions. This decline in trust can tear at the local social fabric and can later reduce the effectiveness of communities to respond to new challenges. It can also compound existing feelings of insecurity and powerlessness.

Communities should also be on the lookout that their issue is not exploited for the benefit of those in power. At times, officials can take superficial steps or create a visible display of support while at the same time not moving policy or taking meaningful action. Officials may even coopt slogans or phrases to appear on the side of public demands all the while neglecting to put the slogans into practice.

On the other end of political responses, organizers should also be mindful that even the smallest acts of organizing can trigger insecurity on the part of community leaders. If a leader feels challenged and attempts to reassert power, the response to organizing efforts can become extraordinary or even strange. If the issue is serious and/or high-profile enough, there is always a risk of legal, political, or physical attacks on participants.

While these risks sound dramatic, they are not meant to deter anyone from organizing. Simply being aware of these risks can allow organizers to better prepare for challenges as well as inform plans and strategies.

Benefits For The Organizers And Participants

In addition to the overall community benefits, organizers and participants can improve their personal social skills and wellbeing through their involvement. Community organizing improves a sense of social contribution and, consequently, gives participants a greater feeling of purpose. Research has shown that cultivating feelings of purpose can have noticeable effects on physical health factors like sleeping patterns.

Organizing can have a positive impact on mental health as well. Studies have demonstrated, for example, that civic participation and volunteering can lower rates of depression and improve overall life satisfaction.

By engaging in constructive and intentional ways, organizers stand a lot to gain in their personal health and wellbeing. The social bonds established during these activities also provide another benefit, adding to the benefits of simply participating.

Risks To The Organizers And Participants

Of course, organizers face many of the risks outlined above for the community as a whole.
Participants should not fall into the trap of believing “that won’t happen to me” simply because they are part of a crowd and the burden is distributed. Every participant can be at risk.

As organizing can require consistent action over long periods, organizers should be wary of burnout. It’s not unusual for activists to become physically, emotionally, and intellectually drained during sustained campaigns. The consequences of burnout can be serious if it’s not handled correctly. For example, heavy personal investments in organizing can damage relationships and come with a heavy psychological toll.

Political, legal, or physical harassment and attacks are other serious risks that can come with little warning. Again, it’s imperative that participants don’t assume they will not be targeted simply because they are part of a crowd.

Final Word

A quick final is in order so as not to end on a glum note. The risks associated with community organizing can vary greatly and some of those outlined above are more worst-case scenarios. Nonetheless, understanding these risks is important. Every participant in community organizing activities should be keenly aware of what it is they are trying to achieve and what type of obstacles they might encounter on the way there. Coupled with the knowledge above, this type of planning greatly increases the chances of success.

For more on community organizing and activism, check out this posts:

Dan Jasper

Dan Jasper is the founder and primary author of Street Civics. He specializes in advocacy and international affairs.

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