Community-Based Strategies for Change

The current upsurge of grassroots activity
could well transform our society

One of the articles in We Can Do It! (IC#33)
Originally published in Fall 1992 on page 10
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

Rob Young is president of American Soils, Inc., a composting company based in Freehold, New Jersey. Rob has a masters degree in city and regional planning, with a minor in ecology and systematics from Cornell University. He is a co-founder of the Council of Sustainable Industries of New York and New Jersey.

Grant Power is a community-based economic development consultant who works with, among others, the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. Grant has what he describes as an MBA with a social purpose, from Eastern College, in Pennsylvania.

Community-based change is fast becoming the key to America’s future. More and more, local communities across the country are mobilizing their own resources in sustainable and creative ways to meet the needs of their members. From affordable housing and neighborhood enterprises to recreation and recycling, communities are finding that the best way to seek change is to organize.

These initially scattered efforts have grown into a nationwide movement that is fundamentally reshaping American society. What we are seeing is the early stage of a large-scale shift toward a society that is more authentically democratic, ecologically sound, and economically just.

The burgeoning preference in America for community-based approaches to change stems partly from the public’s disillusionment with the nation’s central institutions. There has also been a rediscovery of the virtues of a back-to-basics lifestyle centered on creating healthful communities.

This change in perspective is a clean departure from the American habit of looking to public policy, social services, and the market system for solutions to endemic problems like homelessness, unemployment, and pollution. Citizens all over are realizing that they must take the lead in addressing these problems instead of waiting for the country’s leaders to take the initiative.

COMMUNITY-BASED SOLUTIONS

This discovery has come not as a disappointment, but as a pleasant surprise. In mobilizing one community at a time, many people are astonished by the many new, creative possibilities for change they missed when they confronted large-scale institutions through, for example, shareholder resolutions or citizen referenda.

Some have struggled just to create a modest sense of community in transitory urban neighborhoods. Others have carved out bold alternative economic structures, such as worker-owned cooperatives and local barter systems.

Some communities have responded to the ecology movement by collectively abandoning the consumption sickness of advanced industrial society for a modest, more sustainable lifestyle. Some have etched whole eco-villages into large modern cities.

Whatever their particular pursuits, community-based change strategies have awakened many people to their own power to be self-supporting and self-managing. In many cases, communities have been more effective in meeting their own needs – at lower cost – than any government or private-sector service provider.

POPULIST ROOTS

A widespread movement for community-based change is not unique to the present. Today’s movement is similar to the populist uprisings of the 1890s, 1930s, and 1960s and, in some respects, is simply the latest expression of a populist impulse that has endured throughout American history.

Populist movements reach their peaks whenever the nation’s core institutions (large corporations as well as federal government) consolidate vast powers, but break down at their core due to corruption or collusion among policy and business elites. Real issues that affect the American people are either ignored or limply addressed through a series of political charades. Urgent, far-reaching reforms are needed, and, in an atmosphere of crisis, local communities find they must sprout their own solutions.

After gaining momentum and influence, these movements historically were co-opted through a mixture of legislated payoffs and empty reforms. In the end, the concentration of economic assets and decision-making power remained essentially unchanged.

A CRISIS IN CONFIDENCE

Conditions in America today are not unlike those that spawned popular uprisings in the past. We face a crisis of confidence in the nation’s leadership and in its ongoing capacity to provide just and credible governance or to respond adequately to the problems of the present. The stirrings of a crisis are also evident in the public’s loss of faith in our core institutions. Increasingly, the government is not enforcing laws, the medical establishment is not healing, the economy is not providing enough jobs or income, and banks are not protecting their depositors.

In the face of this diagnosis, the typical reaction of most government and business leaders to bold action programs is unyielding skepticism or feigned agreement. Candidates for elected office label their proposals as "bold" but have in mind only tinkering with the status quo. The public knows that these leaders have the most to lose from genuine systemic change and cannot be trusted to author or enforce such change. Our society has all the appearances of a major crisis in the making.

We do not know whether or when such a crisis will occur. If we are hit by a national crisis, such as a 1930s-style depression, some argue that populist elements will again be co-opted through a new round of federal and corporate payoffs, and history will repeat itself. This argument assumes that the present-day movement for community-based change is essentially the same as its forebears.

WHAT’S DIFFERENT NOW

That argument falls flat in view of today’s facts. While quite similar in its historical context to earlier populist movements, today’s movement shows signs of resilience and unbreakability that are unique in our history.

First, the movement is broader, deeper, older, and more sophisticated. Sloganeering and mass rallies have given way to complex strategizing and technical savvy. Experimentation in social and ecological change, such as community land trusts and loan funds, biointensive organic agriculture, communal forestry, renewable energy, tenant and worker buyouts, community self-insurance, and local exchange currencies, have been tested and proven across a range of socioeconomic contexts.

Second, movement leaders show greater maturity and ability to discern and fend off co-optation. They cannot be bought off so easily. They have sacrificed a great deal for their causes and are in the movement for the long haul.

Third, an entire infrastructure has developed over the last 15 years to support community-based change, such as community development corporations and neighborhood anti-drug coalitions. These have given the movement the capacity to carry forward its missions year after year.

Neighborhood organizations have begun networking with community groups in other locations, creating a larger and deeper layer of support and education. In some cases, these networks – formed along sectoral lines, such as housing, ecology, or demilitarization – have converged to form broader people’s movements with enough information, technology, and leadership to accomplish multiple objectives across the country while resisting federal policies that undermine community autonomy.

This movement has ongoing contact with sister movements in other countries. The collective experience of international movements is an important source of instruction and inspiration to community activists in the US.

Fourth, core institutions in the US do not just suffer from a poverty of confidence, but from a shortage of resources that have traditionally been used to co-opt social movements. Ironically, the growing deficits of federal and state governments, the declining profits of large corporations, and the shrinking ability of banks to lend money (over the last 50 years) have actually served to protect the growth of grassroots alternatives.

The growth and proliferation of self-directed communities signal that the democratic impulse is still very much alive in America, even though most citizens may have given up on democracy in Washington, DC. But in the 1990s, the explosive growth of community-based change may shift the powers of governance away from both state and federal governments.

As a political force, this movement goes virtually unnoticed by business and government elites and receives only fleeting and sporadic attention from the media. But its behind-the-scenes character does not diminish its potency on the American political landscape. Indeed, its invisibility is its strength. Movements that become highly visible often are quickly squelched or co-opted by an uneasy power elite.

WHO YOU GONNA’ CALL …

We are convinced that community-based change strategies will proliferate quietly while the corruption and breakdown at the core of American society continue.

Some parts of the financial and business community (as well as government agencies) may form partnerships with community-based institutions and promote the movement. Others will probably attempt to block its progress, and the affected communities will have to call on their colleagues for assistance, at times, to avoid being shut down. Some participants will aim for community autonomy from the core and interdependence across the movement, while in other cases, core institutions will be transformed, and become part of the solution. Both types of change will be part of creating a new society for the next century.

We anticipate that, just as people of the former Soviet Union are experiencing convulsive political change, one day we may reach the point of an economic mega-crisis in which our core economic and political institutions collapse. If this does happen, communities that have built strong community-based organizations will stand out as leading examples of a hopeful alternative. Even if no collapse occurs, the on-going example of these communities will continue to provide a way out of the growing chaos and tribulation that plague our society.

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