The world needs more community organizers – building back better (first in a series)

The phrase “build back better” is being used to capture the determination and desire of politicians and activists alike to come out of the pandemic with a more just, equitable, accessible and inclusive society. The phrase, adapted from a 2015 UN conference on disaster relief, has surfaced in the Task Force for a Resilient Recovery, the campaign for a green economy, Women in Global Health Canada, and the Biden-Harris team.

As important as these dreams of systems change and transformation are, it will take more than a transition strategy, proven innovations, vigorous advocacy, smart policy work and election victory. It will take all these plus coordinated grass roots community action.

Community organizers can help.

They specialize in rallying the collective power and talents of citizens to address societal challenges. They shine a light on everyday citizen ingenuity. They know from experience that so called ordinary people have the creative capacity to address poverty, reform of long term care, exclusion, the climate threat and other tough problems.

Community organizers help people to identify their shared interests and to define and resolve challenges on their terms. They are wary of advisory processes that isolate people from their constituencies. Instead they nurture community based decision making and sort out community consensus rather than rely on government to arbitrate.

They build solidarity stitching together disconnected efforts of innovators, artists, activists, movers, shakers, theoreticians and people affected by the issue(s). One of the things I admire about the new generation of community organizers is their ability to reconcile the intersection between racism, disability and affordable housing, good health, jobs and basic income.

A current example of the power of grass roots community organizers is the non-partisan #CripTheVote. It was created in advance of the 2016 US election to unite and amplify the voice of Americans with disabilities who, similar to Canada, represent 20% of the population. #CripTheVote played a major role in opposing Trump’s attempt to slash Medicaid coverage and has become a political force in this fall’s American election. Most Presidential candidates for the Democratic Party nomination assigned staff to monitor #CripTheVote. They workshopped their platforms with disability justice advocates. The result, Biden has a detailed disability platform, a separate plan to support disabled Americans during the pandemic and a national disability engagement director. His running mate Harris has a plan to provide Mental Health Care on Demand.

Community organizers help to:
• unify and strengthen movements
• shift the boundaries of what is socially acceptable
• broaden public understanding and support
• encourage political boldness.

In that sense community organizers are true democrats enabling citizens to make their governments more responsive and responsible.

In that sense “build back better” could use a bunch of community organizers on the team.

1) Speaking of the US election, I was just about to push publish on this post when I received this Forbes article by Jonathan Kaufman who cites my new book The Power of Disability to argue that it is the disability community who will help America to re-imagine its future.

2) Cormac Russsell is my colleague at the Asset Based Community Development network. His new book Rekindling Democracy is a guide for community organizers and other democrats.

3) I wrote the following newspaper articles with community organizers in mind: What kind of caring society do we want, and It’s time to unify the disability movement, co-written with Kathleen O’Grady.

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