Demystifying Community Organizing
I’m planning to tell just one specific story, my own, from a very specific angle (setting: Portland, Oregon), in hopes of shedding some light on what this sometimes nefarious notion of “community organizing” distills down to, what are the elements? To some of us, the fact that former US president Barack Obama had “community organizer” on his resume, was a feature, not a bug. To others, that was a red flag.
I became a man with a mission thanks to longer term interest in mass media, which I fed with MAD Magazine and the fashionable ads around Rome, where I matured as a teenager. The antidote to being completely brainwashed by media was to make it oneself. By learning the tricks of the trade, one likewise developed one’s immunity to easy manipulation by others, or such was my theory. I’m not saying I was wrong.
Fast forward and picture Portland, a Pacific Rim city, in the aftermath of an American war in Asia that may have started in a to the death struggle with the Japanese, but morphed into the Cold War of nationalist Chinese versus Mao’s communists (how Nixon would have seen it) and the resulting need to rush to Western civilization’s defense in the form of supplanting the French as chief colonialists in Indochina.
The Manifest Destiny crowd had already taken this approach in the war with Spain. The French resistance had been an ally against the NAZI government but this was a battle for future imperial gain and the financial world was reorganizing to back Washington DC as a world capital, host to such globalist organizations as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The major challenge to the New World Order, as perceived at that time, were the so-called Communists.
I sketch all that background to stress how Portland and other seaboard cities were to receive an influx of refugees, as those who had befriended Americans were now in danger or in any case had suffered their assets to have been wiped out by the terrible wartime trampling of their human rights.
The US government needed to show some respect for its friendships and various NGOs, such as the Center for Urban Education (CUE) helped it with the task of refugee settlement, of mostly Asians in the Pacific Northwest.
We already had a sizeable Japanese and Chinese population, also Korean and Filipino. Now would come a wave of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians.
A side-effect of all this immigration was rising racial tensions amongst the children of the different immigrant groups. In particular, the high school aged Latino kids, from Central and South America, were suspicious of the newcomer Asian kids and vice versa.
Actually both the Americans and the Asians could be considered newcomers, with many of the Americans streaming over from Europe, including recently.
The state had become populated from many corners of the world. Early on, before Oregon became a state, Russians had joined the other fur traders and pushed as far south as the Russian River and Sebastopol, where a California company I later worked for is headquartered.
My role, as a Quaker (Friend) was to keep the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in semi-compliance with Quaker principles, of non-violence, plain speech, egalitarian values, where community organizing was concerned.
In this case, that meant equipping self selected leaders from Asian and Latino camps to (A) collaborate on projects and (B) master media making in so doing.
My experience at CUE would play a role, as the funds used to help with refugee resettlement were helping the parent church and synagogue network (Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon) to pay for media making as well. I’d done some cable TV and watched seniors (my age now) produce a weekly show about what oldsters most cared about. Melinda, still a youngster then (like me) was the one to share TV camera and editing techniques.
AFSC recognized I had some experience and flew me to Boston for two purposes: (A) to find out what Daniel Ellsberg was up to with Manhattan Project 2 — nuclear cleanup in the wake of Manhattan Project 1 — and (B) interview the AFSC about its successful youth programs in the Boston area.
Further planning meetings followed in the Portland area, and pretty soon we had budget and staff, and Asian youths were working with Latino youths, plus both had their respective programs.
One of our principle discoveries was Asians needed their own program to overcome cultural barriers between Filipinos and Laotians, for example, whereas Latinos were not somehow carbon copies of one another either. That’s all painfully obvious to those behind the labels, just as “all white people” are not the same, nor “all Europeans”.
From a distance, we may condense and typecast into so-called stereotypes, but when doing actual programs, such summary views may turn out to be wrongheaded.
In other words, the bulk of our programming broke into two separate sets of activities, for Asians and Latinos respectively. The latter, for example, produced a cable TV show, in Spanish, called Voz Juvenile. The former developed a literary publication entitled United Voices.
We had two full time staff members, of different ethnicity, with some turnover in each role. Portland’s AFSC was running other programs besides LAAP (Latin America Asian Pacific Program). We had a program focused on guardian rights for non-nuclear families (e.g. grandparents are raising a school aged child), and an office devoted to peacemaking between church groups and LGBT groups.
All programs and offices were headquartered in the same building on East Burnside.
That about sums it up. I tend to pass as a Caucasian or “white person” myself, but having lived in the Philippines, and toured much of southeast Asia, I was helpful in selecting and supervising staff.
We had others on the staff selection team who understood the Latino side better.
My role as Program Clerk was unpaid, however I had worked as an editor of Asian-Pacific Issues News and did get a pay check now and then. Also, my trip to Boston, and later to Philadelphia as a Quaker rep, were all paid, in the latter case by NPYM (North Pacific Yearly Meeting).
I found it interesting to be so involved in a program addressing racism and culture clashes, wherein “white versus black” racial tensions were not a focus.
Our staffers also organized dances, and even a trip abroad to the Social Forum. Had the program stayed in operation, we might have managed a trip to the world youth events in Russia, but those came later.
AFSC has a habit of hatching such programs and then laying them down. The world keeps changing. The war in Indochina was fading in the rear view mirror and federal funding for refugee resettlement started drying up. CUE went out of business for the same reason, and EMO had to scale back.
Our emphasis shifted back to intrahemispheric migration and the politics around agriculture, trucking, field labor. Philadelphia had to eliminate Portland as a source of program and turned our remaining initiatives into regional ones.
I’m fortunate to have participated in what was perhaps an apex in the AFSC’s profile and power on the Portland scene.
Quakers have enjoyed dwindling political power since the 1790s. Their resistance to war taxes for the purpose of fighting the US Indian Wars made them unpopular, whereas their resistance to slavery as an institution set them beyond the pale.
Like many, they continued to push westward in search of religious freedom, founding meetings, schools and a few breweries along the way. A lot of pacifists, not all of them Quakers, wound up in Oregon territory and some set up profitable businesses, including in high tech.
The Silicon Forest is still remarkably non-militaristic in its outlook and economy, I like to think in part because of this minuscule Quaker influence.
I didn’t imagine president Obama would be able to reverse militarism in the very heart of the beast. He got a front row seat on what it’s like to be at the helm of an efficient killing machine.
However he did keep his promise to not pick a fight with Iran and that was my only request of his government. I returned the favor by voting for his party when it came to keeping the White House. I didn’t know what to think of the challenging maverick.
Senator McCain had run as a maverick and I didn’t support his sense of manifest destiny either.
The AFSC has been caught up in the Mesopotamian maelstrom, whereas here in Portland our focus is more westward, towards Lhasa. Our family lived in Thimphu. Ethnic tensions between Han and Tibetan, Nepali and Drukpa, have been more my focus, although I have toured in Mesopotamia. My parents lived in Africa for many years (both north and south).
I continue to advocate learning to make media and developing antibodies to others’ brainwashing, if deemed inimical. If I were to start a new youth program today, it might have much the same emphasis, with the added dimensions of Martian Math and VR goggles.