This course and this project have substantially shifted the way that I think about effecting social change on a local level. Most substantially, I gained a new respect for the intelligence of a community. While I think I understood the idea that the people affected by a problem are those best equipped to solve it, to design lasting fixes, I generally subscribed to the view that I now identify as Alinskyite: that people need a leader, an organizer, to give them instruction and direction. I felt (and a part of me still does!) that to some extent the problems facing urban communities are generalizable, that their systematic oppression stemmed from the same sources and so could be fixed with the same solutions. While it might be true that communities suffer from common problems, and so some solutions will share DNA, I have come to appreciate the idea that reforms must be tailored to the communities onto which they are being applied. The best way to achieve this kind of local applicability of reform, I think, is for the reform to come from within.
This also seems like the surest way to make the impacts of organizing long-lasting. Changes to the educational system, to the city government, to the function of a community are most likely to be enduring, I think, when community members feel a sense of ownership over them. When people feel they have agency, as I think has been demonstrated in the case studies we have examined in class, they feel more satisfied with the outcome of the decision-making process. Everyone wants to feel heard, to feel that their opinion matters, and I think that’s part of what makes the process of events like school closures so painful. They imply an external calculus, that those “in charge” have decided what is best, and in the case of school closures, what is best is to rend the community, to try to solve a crisis of disinvestment with even more targeted disinvestment.
This project and the course as a whole have also emphasized to me the importance of relationship building in organizing and in the growth of healthy communities. There must be trust between members of a grassroots organization in order to achieve the kind of critical reflection and solidarity building that provide the foundation for tangible change. People have to know that they are supported in order to share their vulnerability and and recognize the common problems that affect them. Similarly, there must be trust between parents, teachers, and administrators, and students in order to create healthier cultures of school discipline. When administrators outsource disciplinary responsibility to school resource officers, they forgo the part of their job that entails building a trusting relationship between them and their students. For discipline to be effective, students and parents need to believe that their teachers and administrators believe in them and want them to succeed. Otherwise, I think the suspicion on both sides will stymie efforts to keep students in school and on a path to success.
I have also, especially from this project, gained an appreciation for the intersectionality of issues in urban communities and school systems. The school-to-prison pipeline is manifested in myriad ways. Suspension policies and school resource officers might be the most salient parts of the problem, but so many other factors contribute to the increased contact between students and the criminal justice system. Without adequate school funding, for example, students with special needs are unlikely to receive the resources that will help them navigate the school system successfully, and their behavior might be more likely to be dealt with as a discipline problem. When full-time jobs pay below the living wage, parents are less able to be at home or present to supervise their child if they get suspended. When police officers target and surveil people of color in ‘broken windows’ policing, students who are out of school are more likely to be stopped, interrogated, and arrested for minor or invented offenses.
All of this speaks to the need for a holistic approach to urban reform, an idea that brings me back around to the merits of a community organization. Grassroots organizing allows people to examine how the different problems they experience intersect, and thus it enables communities to formulate more sophisticated and durable solutions to those problems. It creates a system where locals have the capacity to decide what problems are in most dire need of action and to formulate thoughtful responses, instead of relying on external organizations to direct them in solving problems that might or might not acutely affect them. Communities are strongest, I have gleaned from this course and this research, when they grow from within.