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November 13, 2009

why community organizing is essential

(On a flight to Atlanta) For my class on social networking, I have put together a series of readings that make the following argument. I believe this argument is important and broadly applicable.

1. Uncoordinated human behavior can produce tragic results

The most famous example is the Tragedy of the Commons. If anyone can take fish from the ocean, we'll keep harvesting until the there are no more fish. Whoever takes the last fish will understand the dire consequences, but will still do it. If he doesn't, someone else will.

I wanted to use an example of uncoordinated human behavior that was closer to our class's focus on the Boston area. So I moved away from environmental issues and "commons" problems and instead looked at demographic changes in neighborhoods. Boston is infamous for "white flight," although there have been other rapid and painful population shifts here as well--for instance, gentrification. In at least one example (documented in Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar, Streets of Hope), African Americans rapidly left a South End neighborhood out of fear that it would "tip" into a Hispanic area. So the generic problem is the tendency for individuals to move under pressure, causing others like them to move as well.

There are many explanations for such demographic shifts, including racism, economics, and policy. But my former colleague Tom Schelling famously showed that segregation will occur even if political and economic causes are neutralized. If individuals are free to move, and if they do not want to be a minority in their immediate vicinity, they will self-segregate even if they are equal and actually have a preference for diversity. You can see Schelling's model play out in a computer simulation.

2. Social capital, institutions, and rules help

I assigned an essay by Robert Putnam to show that when people trust one another and belong to voluntary groups, they are able to overcome such problems of uncoordinated behavior. For instance, Americans support the common good of public education more effectively (not only with tax dollars, but also by participating constructively) when social trust is high. Social trust at the state level is a better predictor of educational outcomes than are student demographics, school spending, or average class size. That would suggest that a neighborhood with strong trust will be less likely to fall apart under demographic pressure.

I then assigned Gerald Gamm's Urban Exodus to complicate Putnam's theory. Gamm starts with two communities: an Irish Catholic parish and a Synagogue in South Boston. When African Americans began to move into their neighborhood, the Jews left for the suburbs and their synagogue went with them. The Catholic parish remained in place, along with much of its original congregation, although it gradually became multiracial. Gamm argues that the two communities had the same social capital (and wealth), so social capital cannot be an adequate explanation. Instead, he emphasizes rules and institutions. A synagogue is a voluntary, self-governing membership organization. Schelling's model predicts what happens when such an organization faces demographic pressure: individual choices determine the collective outcome. In contrast, a Catholic parish answers to a hierarchy that can require the church and clergy to stay in place. If the hierarchy makes a serious commitment to maintaining the parish, individual members can be confident that it will stay and can thereby overcome the Schelling model. Rules either substitute for trust or create trust, or both.

3. We are not prisoners of the past.

Putnam believes that social capital can be created, but his theory has somewhat fatalistic implications. Some communities have social capital, some do not; and often they cannot escape from their history. In his great book on Italy, the high-trust North does well, and the low-trust South fails, because of traditions of membership and trust established as much as 700 years ago.

Likewise, Gamm emphasizes that the institutional structure of parish churches versus synagogues is "exogenous." Neither Catholics nor Jews choose or create their institutions' rules; they inherit them. One can understand why Jews would have originally created mobile and flexible congregations, and why Catholics would have preferred stability and hierarchy. But those decisions were made long ago and now determine outcomes even when alternative structures might work better.

To prevent fatalism, I assign Streets of Hope as the story of a deliberate community organizing effort in Boston's South End. Faced with middle-class flight, urban decay, ethnic divisions, and the threat of gentrification, people come together and created an organization (Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative) that provides direct services, lobbies for better city services and planning, develops new generations of leaders, and builds social capital even across lines of race, religion, and language.

That successful community organizing effort required a lot of resources, including large grants from the Riley Foundation. The question that we are considering is whether the right technological tools could make such organizing easier.

November 13, 2009 10:56 AM | category: none



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