Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Reservation about Neighborhood Networks

Organizers of the Neighborhood Networks Conference declared the first conference a success because of the big turnout. There is also optimism about the potential of NN to make a difference in philly politics. I agree on both counts, and the organizers deserve huge thanks for their work in pulling it all together.

Here's my reservation: NN has decided to focus on local micro-politics. Ok fine, you have to start somewhere, might as well start locally. But how will NN help in organizing progressives for action at the state and national level? I would like NN to be a facilitator organization that brings together like-minded progressives in the same neighborhood. Then, these people meet, share ideas, and do stuff. Issues would be whatever the people in the neigborhoods bring up--local, state, or national. NN would be like Move-On in that it would be organizing an opposition party by facilitating people getting together in their neighborhoods. My fear is that NN will remain an organization about local politics, when our most pressing need is organizing to win at the state and national levels. Patience, you may say, patience. But there's a difference between organizing locally to win locally and organizing locally to build the base to win nationally. NN is for now focused on strategy 1. Why not pursue 1 and 2 simultaneously?

Also, I don't get the focus on the minimum wage issue. Supposedly most of the people who showed up for the conference were from center city and mount airy. Are you telling me the minimum wage is going to energize and sustain these people as an issue? We considered this in our break-out and rejected it. I think the issue to start with is ethics/corruption. It's important locally and you can take the same issue to a national level. There was much hand-wringing about how NN needed to "reach-out" to diverse groups. Yeah this is true and important, but difficult. You have to start from where you are and who shows up.

A Smoke-Filled Room: Neighborhood Networks conference wrap-up


At June 08, 2005, Blogger The Impenetrable One said...

I know this is not really my issue, but I would expect that a grassroots organization would start with three or four major issues and begin the process of analyzing how far they can be moved. If you take minimum wage as an issue, you immediately move to a PAC mentality because it hinges on legislation. My sense is the ethics issues could be worked into a charter or agreement that you could have local politicians sign and agree to support, then publicize.

But more important still would be the issues of development and maintenence of a coherent community. Much of what has been done in standout communities hinges upon simple common goals across a neighborhood, and I am wondering if you are all looking forward 5 years or so to envision what you want out of the group, what long term results you want to actually see and the levers you need to pull to get those results.

BTW, five years is a good number because it cuts across two terms of office and forces people to think in terms of the work and not the party in power's agenda. Did you think that far in advance?

At June 08, 2005, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

There was much, very heated discussion as to whether to orient NN towards local issues or national issues. Many arguments were made that were not dissimilar to yours. Some questions for you:

What could NN do to actually affect national politics in anywhere near the short term, particularly given that there are already many, many organizations, such as MoveOn, who are much better funded, much more well-known, etc.

Let's say we took a national issue as a primary, or even secondary focus. The Iraq war, for example. Don't you think that everyone at that conference already votes in a unified fashion on that sort of issue? How are we going to reach out to dissaffected voters and bring them into the tent? Many issues were discussed as potential initial foci -- but a lot of issues would be somewhat more controversial than the minimum wage issue, and while we don't want to be another Republica-lite, perhaps the very beginning is not the time to alienate potential members.

The organizers were very reluctant to pre-select issues. Opinions ran the gamut from believing we should only make a statement of values, to listing specific positions on specific issues. In the end, we decided to recommend an issue as a first focus and put it to a vote with the attendees. If they approved, we had literature available for them on that issue (I think you missed the vote, Victor). The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of taking that as the issue, I'd say 95%. The moderator asked those who didn't want to have that be the first focus to speak up -- many of those in opposition didn't voice their arguments.

More than anything else, the feeling on the part of at least some of the organizers was that people leaving the conference should have something to do upon leaving. There was concern that if they didn't have a sense of how to focus their energy coming out, we might lose connection and momentum. Picking the minimum issue was clearly a compromise on many fronts: national vs. local, preselecting issues vs allowing issues to be developed from the ground up, etc. But in balance, we reached a very tenuous consensus to accept that compromise

At June 08, 2005, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

A few more comments.

The recommendation of the miniumum wage issue is mostly intended to fill a very specific purpose, keep people connected, give them something to do until the structures are put together so that the issues can be generated more organically, at the ward/division level, and organization-wide via the Steering Committee.

Don't take it to be more than that. It is not a statement of position, and it is not a statement of policy about how issues will be determined in the future. I know very specifically, that your concerns about wards and divisions determining their own foci was clearly expressed to the Steering Committee, and anyway, have been a theme throughout the foundational discussions. The question related to that that is a real thorn, is how to balance that bottom-up, grassroots orientation with the ability to throw the critical mass of organization-wide numbers. I think that is an issue that is going to be very, very, very difficult to solve.

At June 08, 2005, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

And while I'm at it (it doesn't appear that I'm being defensive on this issue, does it?)...

Impenetrable (how does one make a nickname out of that?), I think that the PAC point is a good one, but in some ways I'm not sure that NN isn't a modified form of a PAC. And again, this was only the initial issue, hopefully the focus will grow -- the idea of having a "statement of ethics (positions?)" that candidates would endorse/sign has been suggested, and it may likely take form.

There hasn't really been any kind of a 5-year plan. No-one really thought long term like that, but it really should happen. I like the idea of formulating one (although, realistically speaking, I think that chances that it could be a coherent focus at this point, given the overwhelming amount of unanticipated needs coming out of the conference, are slim). But I will advocate for it.

At June 08, 2005, Blogger The Impenetrable One said...

Imp springs to mind. Kinda like that.

I understand exactly where you are. The grassroots stuff that I have worked on has generally taken one of two paths, either it dies within the first 6 months or it segments and expands into smaller more focused and occassionally organized projects. Where it has really worked well is through co-opting the opposition forces and becoming something very new and frustratingly compromised. Get what I am saying?

When it worked for me, we actually took the really vocal critics and brought them in to listen to our views. Mostly, it made both sides consider how much we shared. Could you get behind that or could you find a way to test it in a small way? What is the opposite of your group? Who would be the likely critics? What can you learn from them, steal from them, do better than them and are you willing to risk opening up to them. Easy for me to throw these things out and remember my stuff has always been professional not personal, but I have learned that the exchange there is what made it worthwhile to me. Just some thoughts.

At June 08, 2005, Blogger Victor Laszlo said...

I thought the difference between NN and MoveOn was that people felt MoveOn didn't listen to people at the local level. I guess I wasn't involved enough in MoveOn during the election, because folks said there was a lot of MoveOn activity in my neighborhood, but I never heard about it. I guess another question is how does MoveOn and NN relate to what Howard Dean is trying to do with the Democratic Party.

I hear you, it does sound very difficult trying to work these things out. Fair enough on minimum wage. Did city hall ethics/corruption come up as a possible issue?

At one point in the conference, an older guy looked around the room and started talking about the people he recognized from various struggles over the years, including civil rights and the Vietnam war. I didn't think much of it at the time, but wow that's pretty amazing. These folks need to be connected to newbies young and old to serve as mentors.

Another good sign I thought was the NN-suburbs division. Now we just have to get NN-South Jersey!

Thanks again to NN for doing all the hard work that goes into starting an organization from scratch.

At June 08, 2005, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

I was thinking maybe Impy,

Yes, pay-to-play, political corruption definitely came up, and I'm sure will show up on the radar soon. Personally, I'd like to see voter registration and election reform on the front burner, as I see them as being the most effective way to make a difference at both the local and national level.

Don't understand your comment on MoveOn vs. NN. MoveOn has no real structure to work from the bottom up, and has no real intent to ever work that way. NN, at least theoretically, is very focused on creating a structure to have the grassroots drive the organization. But first we need to put the mechanisms in place to make that happen. Chill.

Beleive me, there have been a lot of vocal critics along the road -- Dumplingeater is no wallflower, and it's tough to be one of those "I'd never want to be a member of an organization that would have me as a member" kind of people, and still work with a group to accomplish a goal. Please, please, get angry and let us know. I read an article in the NY times a while back that talked about how good sports teams, as well as effective community organizations, are usually those where there is a lot of dissent, not where there is a lot of unanimity of opinion.

At June 08, 2005, Blogger Metaphysical Detective said...

OK - I've been following the discussion and although I wasn't able to attend the conference I'd like to add the following. My feeling is that there are already enough national issue oriented and broad based progressive groups. I was looking forward to a group that would be organized locally (ward level seems as good as any) and provide a city/regional forum for progressives to address local issues and by extension national/global issues. On the direct action side I think addressing the local component of a national issue like campaign/election reform makes sense. There are real goals that can be realized, it has its roots in the progressive tradition going back to the 1920's and yet can be aapeal to a broad base of citizens. Minimum wage is a bit more complicated but again it's a way of getting at, in this case a global issue - the economy, through local action. And it has the benfit of being a class/race wedge issue (in the positive sense of a wedge issue). Did anyone read about the happenings in San Fran where frustrated Mayors decided to start addressing global warming at the municipal level since Washington refuses to confront the issue. I hope to get more involved with NN now that I have fulfilled my bourgeois social obligations (marriage).

At June 08, 2005, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

Just realized that I referred to myself in the third person. Does the fact that I used a nickname give me an excuse?

At June 08, 2005, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

I'm waiting for a student to show up (he's late), so thought I'd add another response of two. First of all, as for Dean's organization, trying to link with them was one of the reasons for having a speaker from his organization as the keynote. Hopefully, if we can get bigger, we can attract more attention from groups like his.

What most impressed me about the conference is that there were a lot of veteran activists there who, despite their longtime experience, were newly excited by the potential for NN to be a vehicle/mechanism for "reaching out" (man, I'm gettting to really hate that term, I'm hearing it used in business contexts more and more, as in: We need to "reach out" to him and set up a meeeting), to disaffected voters and unify already active folks.

To me, the biggest shortcoming, although not unexpected, was on top of the discrepancy between the collective hue of the group that showed and that of the larger Philly community, there was also a pretty limited demographic in terms of social/economic class. My question is whether dealng with those discrepancies will be sufficiently prioritized to really create a more diverse group which includes more dissaffected voters. THAT, seems to me like the killer issue; it is very perplexing to address, and will require buy-in from groups lke ACORN, real sacrifice (for example, perhaps compromise on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage,) and a constant reshifting to make sure that issue always rises back to the top. If it ever falls below the top level, I think it will sink.

At June 08, 2005, Blogger Victor Laszlo said...

Meta said: "My feeling is that there are already enough national issue oriented and broad based progressive groups."

Ok maybe so, but let's face it, we're losing. These groups are not working, we've got to do better.

Dumple said: "First of all, as for Dean's organization, trying to link with them was one of the reasons for having a speaker from his organization as the keynote. Hopefully, if we can get bigger, we can attract more attention from groups like his."

Yeah, good!

The diversity/class issue seems so difficult and complicated as to be overwhelming to me.

At June 08, 2005, Blogger ACM said...

Two quick (!) thoughts:
1) part of the reason for the minimum wage choice was strategic rather than philosophical -- there are things happening right now that we could plug into even before the organization had enough shape to make its own plans (the June 22 Harrisburg rally, legislation already proposed, heck, fliers even available). many choices will inevitably be strategic, as popular attention rises and falls, providing narrow windows of opportunity for leveraged action. given the range of issues that the group is interested in (judging by the long lists generated by the break-out groups), opportunism in timing is something to keep in mind.

2) the distinction between local and national efforts is dissolving in many ways. certainly the candidates differ, but a local issue can prod its citizens to take action on national issues in a heartbeat -- take the pressure on individual Senators over the nuclear option as an example. similarly, helping to educate voters -- about issues, about the values of the left, perhaps even to begin to self-identify as "progressives" -- also helps build a base that will be tapped by elections and efforts at every level...

another penny for the pond

At June 09, 2005, Blogger Victor Laszlo said...

More random thoughts. Cheri Honkala emphatically said she felt Republicans and Democrats have done NOTHING for the poor. Woah, strong statement. What does this say for hopes or potential for organizing among lower income/poor people?

I liked Tom Hughes' goal of taking PA off the map for Republicans.

I thought Joe Hoeffel's suggested strategy was somewhat tame - balance the budget, investing in people, keep the country safe. He sounds like a moderat republican.

At June 09, 2005, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

I didn't get a chance to hear Cheri's speech, but I don't understand your question. Why does saying that Democrats have done NOTHING for the poor have negative implications for organizing lower/income people? Cheri spends her life organizing lower income people. I'm confused.

I mean, OK, Democrats did do some things for the poor, in years past. So are you saying that denying that is a self-defeating stategy? Maybe, but our buddy Bill abandoned the economic reform track to try to swing moderate Republicans. Why? Because, (Nadar is right), Democratic politicians are beholden to corporate interests and lobbyists, and as such, can't run on a real economic reform platform. That's were we need to apply pressure on them on economic issues, and perhaps find some middle-ground on social wedge-issue.

At June 09, 2005, Blogger Victor Laszlo said...

I thought the remark reflected a level of cynicism on the part of the poor (no doubt justified) with the entire poltical process in general, making organizing that much more difficult. Yeah, I think what Cheri is doing is incredible.

So you agree with Thomas Frank that the Dems were betrayed by Clinton and need to go back to working-class economic issues? Do you think this strategy could work as early as 2008? I'm inclined to think it would take much longer to bear fruit. You have to change people's entire mindset. It's hard work, as someone says.

At June 09, 2005, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

Absolutely, I agree. And I think such a tack will bear fruit MORE quickly than other strategies. I don't think that you need to change the mindset of disaffected voters to convince them that politicians (including Democrats) aren't interested in their economic welfare. I don't think you need to change the mindset of people who currently vote Democratic to vote Democratic (duh), and I don't think many would abandon the Democratic party if it stood for real economic reform, for a change.

Here's what I see as tricky. (1) finding a way to get people to really believe that Democrats really stand for economic reform. But the way to start doing that is to actually advocate for policies that make that statement (like...hmmmm, THE MINIMUM WAGE!!!), (2) finding common ground with non self-identified "liberals" on "social values" issues without becoming Republican-lite. Has anyone been able to decipher Frank's position on that -- or if he has one?


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