Building Public Power

An Organizer's Guide to Citizen Action

There is a grim day of reckoning on the horizon next year for New York's city and state budgets. It is a subject about which the re-election-seeking Governor, George Pataki, dares not speak, and around which the businessman-turned-mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is still tiptoeing. The current bleak prognosis is that the city faces at least a $5 billion shortfall while the state's deficit will be at least double that figure. Already, the powers that be are pressing for that most regressive of tax hikes, a one-third increase in the cost of riding subways and buses. There are whispers about normally unthinkable remedies, such as closing firehouses. Those and other potential cuts are going to be the grit and substance of scores of as-yet-unplanned rallies and demonstrations, as New York's advocates and activists gird themselves for one more round of bitter protests.

All of which makes this a good time to consider the ways in which, in an age of corporate domination, everyday people successfully manage to get themselves heard and their agendas addressed.

That's the theme of a new book by Michael Gecan, a lead organizer for the Saul Alinsky-founded Industrial Areas Foundation, which helped launch the city's largest and most potent mass-member organizations. Going Public, released this month by Beacon Press, is a treatise on power for those whose goal is to make effective social change. It is a kind of manual of style for those who want to—at least once, just once—beat the bastards.

Industrial Areas Foundation's Michael Gecan
photo: Jay Muhlin
Industrial Areas Foundation's Michael Gecan

IAF is, as Gecan puts it, "a different type of organization." It rarely joins coalitions. It eschews single-issue causes. It generally avoids specific political campaigns (while at the same time advancing increased voter registration).

IAF's entry into New York neighborhoods in the late 1970s evoked suspicion and jealousy on the part of the city's veteran anti-poverty leadership. Its organizers were different: They wore business suits and earned decent salaries. They told church leaders, who were the first wave of recruits, that if they were serious they needed to forget about issues for the time being and begin raising money, from their own impoverished constituencies. Gecan and other IAF organizers spent months simply meeting and talking with people, from families coping with life in drug-torn housing projects to high-level officials like then lieutenant governor Mario Cuomo (who was uninterested at the time) and the late Brooklyn bishop Francis Mugavero, who became an ardent proponent of IAF's projects. These "public relationships," as Gecan calls them, are the crucial base for building a network of power.

It appears to have worked. Today, IAF-spawned groups in New York regularly turn out crowds of 5000 people—"leaders" as they're called by IAF—for their rallies and events. Hundreds of those members, overwhelmingly black and Latino and residents of the city's most blighted neighborhoods, have developed keen organizing skills that make them formidable figures in local and citywide battles. They have also forged a remarkable record of public-policy and brick-and-mortar achievements. IAF's most famous accomplishment is the Nehemiah housing program, the construction of 3000 low-cost single family homes on the scorched earth of East New York and Brownsville by its member group East Brooklyn Congregations. In the Bronx, South Bronx Churches constructed several hundred more homes and built two new schools. Another IAF organization, Lower Manhattan Together, won the reconstruction of East River Park. Along the way, the groups also won passage of the city's first living-wage bill.

IAF logged those achievements despite run-ins with official power at virtually every level. Early on, the East Brooklyn leaders stunned then Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden by resigning from local community boards, deeming them useless and ineffectual. In a stroke of unvarnished chutzpah, they demanded to meet with Golden's political boss, the late Meade Esposito. At one time or another, the organization has deeply infuriated three of the city's last four mayors (the organization has yet to seriously joust with Bloomberg). Ed Koch once became so incensed he stomped out of a mass meeting held by IAF's Queens Citizens Organization after group leaders insisted on setting the agenda.

The event so rankled Koch that, years later, at what was supposed to be a pleasant private dinner at Gracie Mansion to which Gecan was invited, he compared IAF's meetings to Moscow show trials and a Nuremberg rally. Gecan registered his anger by walking out himself, despite Koch's desperate entreaties to him to stay. Koch later sent a two-page letter of apology and a new dinner invitation, which Gecan declined. But despite the intensely personal run-in, the incident wasn't fatal to IAF's relationship with the administration, and it continued to work with Koch's commissioners where it could. Similar strains affected its dealings with Rudy Giuliani, who shut down the group's City Hall access after it pushed for the living-wage bill. But unlike other organizations that assumed a stance of permanent enmity with Giuliani, the IAF leaders viewed the strain as a temporary setback, and when Giuliani reached out to hear the organization's views after the fiasco of the police shooting death of Patrick Dorismond, IAF leaders held a remarkably frank meeting at City Hall with Giuliani, recounted by Gecan in his book.

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