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May 23, 2006

the power of community organizing

Yesterday, I showed the correlation between economic development and political participation. I also pointed to some cases--South Africa, India, Tanzania--in which there was more participation than one would expect given the level of development. All three countries are famous for democratic political leaders and grassroots democratic organizations. It seems that people like Gandhi and Mandela and the movements they represent can make a big difference.

Closer to home, the West Side of Chicago shows the same pattern. According to this fascinating paper by Gregory B. Markus, there is broad and deep democratic participation in the West Side despite its entrenched poverty and unresponsive government. The West Side was home to Jane Addams, Saul Alinsky, and many grassroots organizations that last to this day. They have had a clear impact.

Markus and colleagues surveyed 5,626 residents in a diverse set of 14 American cities. Overall, they found powerful correlations between the amount of civic participation, on one hand, and residents' approval of local government, education, crime, and community, on the other. Markus' scatter-plots look just like mine from yesterday, only with US cities instead of nations.

But the West Side of Chicago stands out on the graph. This is a poor area: 40% of households had less than $15,000 in income in 1996; 86 percent were people of color; only a third had education beyond high school. According to Markus' survey, they tend to distrust "other people" and the local government. Indeed, Chicago's government has been untrustworthy in its treatment of West Siders. With a few bright spots, City Hall has been notably corrupt, unjust, even brutal. Residents are very unlikely to believe that they can understand government or that officials care about people like them. The schools are some of the worst in America.

Yet levels of civic and political participation on Chicago's West Side are extraordinarily high. Once you control for demographic factors, the West Side is first among the fourteen communities in both electoral and civic participation. What's more, residents of a particularly poor district within the West Side are more engaged than those in a more middle-class enclave. The most highly engaged group of all are African American residents of the particularly poor Southwest part of the West side.

The explanation is fairly evident: deliberate community organizing. Chicago has been an extraordinary laboratory for such work since the days of Addams and Alinsky. It is the national headquarters of the Gamaliel Foundation, the Industrial Areas Foundation, and National People's Action. There are famous community development corporations like Bethel New Life; powerful religious congregations; neighborhood associations; and engaged colleges and universities. There are countless links among these groups; activists in IAF, for example, spend their time launching other associations and persuading institutions to be more engaged.

One quarter of all West Siders (and more in the poorest district) are members of a block club or neighborhood association. Almost one fifth have served on a nonprofit board. Those who participate explain their reasons as: making the community a better place to live (71%), influencing policy (51%), being with people I enjoy (43%), and meeting new people (40%). Especially in the poorest district, a substantial group claims that participation is "exciting." These statistics reveal a neighborhood in which people are used to political group-membership, which they see as both powerful and enjoyable.

Thanks to Robert Putnam and others, we know that in general people who trust one another and trust the government are more likely to participate in their communities and in politics. Those relationships are real and important. But in the West Side of Chicago, we see a place where membership and participation has not produced a high level of trust in other people, confidence in the government, or even political "efficacy." Yet West Siders participate.

Two questions arise for me. First, is all that participation effective at addressing the problems that people care about? In general, rates of engagement correlate with social outcomes, as least as rated by citizens. But Chicago's West Side is an outlier in the survey because residents are highly dissatisfied with schools, the government, and crime, yet they participate. Does this mean that raising participation does not improve social outcomes, despite the general correlation between the two? Or are education and crime in the West Side substantially better than they would be absent the participation? (Chicago has fared better than some of its peers--St. Louis, Detroit, and Cleveland--and the difference could be attributed to strong neighborhood-level politics.)

Second, how long does it take and how hard is it to raise civic engagement through community organizing? The Chicago case shows what is possible, but that process can be traced back 120 years. What does that history mean for a city like Santa Ana, CA, which rates very poorly on civic engagement in the Markus survey? Are there any shortcuts?

May 23, 2006 7:43 AM | category: populism | Comments


Are the community schools and policing as active or successful in West Chicago as in other parts? I guess I should assume not. I can't remember if Fung looks specifically at the West side in 'Empowered Participation'...

How about the idea that 'social capital' or 'civic participation' only improves relevant outcomes to the extent that they alter the political incentives for politicians to aid, encourage and participate in progressive change. I can't imagine that the participation in West Chicago is apolitical since 51% of those surveyed wants to influence policy but there does seem to be a disconnect if as you say "City Hall has been notable corrupt, unjust and even brutal."

So politics is the proximate cause and civic participation is a more distant one. Maybe the combination of particular kinds of civic participation coupled with other factors combust to change the politics and thus the outcomes.

Or maybe there's a threshold income value of where civic participation is less effective...

May 23, 2006 8:48 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Joseph Sinatra

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