By John Hamerlinck
A few years ago Aaron Schutz, who teaches community organizing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, wrote an interesting blog post on “cutting an issue.” Schutz wrote, “The world is full of what organizers call “problems,” aspects of the world we don’t like—e.g., world hunger, or educational achievement. Problems, however, are too big and vague to grapple with in any coherent manner. In fact, just thinking about them can be disempowering.”
Academics love the 20,000 foot view of the problem. It compliments an “expert” model of community engagement as opposed to the crucial, but messier work of organizing. The trouble is that both knowledge and organizing are necessary to create change in communities.
Expertise-driven “programs” too often focus on addressing temporary solutions to issues one person at a time. Community organizing seeks to engage large numbers of people to find collective solutions. It changes the balance of power by creating previously undiscovered power bases.
Partnerships between institutions (like a college and a social service agency) can only produce goods or services. That is what institutions do. Institutions are not so good at mobilizing people who are passionate about an issue to come to a consensus to actively change something. Individuals associated with institutions might be part of organizing efforts. More often than not, however, they are participating on their own time.
If higher education institutions cannot commit to organizing for community change, perhaps we might figure out ways that campuses could support community organizers with the same gusto that they add capacity to other types of traditional client-serving, program-driven nonprofit organizations. This might mean embracing radical notions like a campus-community partnership where the community partner is not a nonprofit organization, but rather, an informal group of passionate and motivated citizens.
If your campus has any effective partnerships with informal associations please share them. If you have ideas on how colleges and universities can support community organizing in general please share those as well.