What Barack, Barbara (deWilde), Joe (Varga) and I Sort Of Have In Common: The Surprising Joy of Community Organizing

When it comes to community activism, I am mostly a fellow traveler with Marx  (Groucho) and Lennon (John).   Groucho, because he would never join a club that would have him as a member; and John, because, when it came to revolution, don’t you know that you could count him out?

Just to be clear:  There is plenty for us to be angry about. A perceptive banker, vacationing in the Hamptons this past summer, was heard to lament that if the rich succeed in redistributing another ten percent of wealth away from the middle class, there will be revolution.  And I do understand that community activism can be, as Saul Alinsky (who wrote the book on community organizing), put it, “an abrasive agent to rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; to fan latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expressions,” and then to take action “once such hostilities were whipped up to a fighting pitch.”

But, the day to day of community organizing has always made me agree with David Bowie (via Mott the Hoople ): “What a drag. So many snags!”

It’s always been those snags that have made activism seem tedious and unlikely to me.

First, there’s the rousing of neighbors to donate time, money, or at least empathy, which means the unpleasant calling-in of favors.  Second, there’s the enormous disproportion between effort and reward: So many leaflets, so many social-networking posts, so many bake sales – that is, so much constant dripping just to wear away even the first layer of stones.

I’ll also admit that my blood is usually not stirred by Quixotically fuzzy calls to action.  In my mudgeonly way, I’ve referred to these generic jeremiads as “Power To The People!” causes (almost getting a faceful of Hungarian stew from my labor activist son-in-law Joe for my wit).  Community-organizing messages so often come out as frustratingly blunt-edged and diffuse, like “Respect Our Teachers!” or “War Is Bad For Children And Other Living Things!”  Heck, when Barack Obama was asked by his Chicago friends what exactly he did as a community organizer, all he could summon up was, “I told them it was the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.”

All of which is to say, I have recently been (as always) humbled and enlightened by my brilliant and big-hearted wife, Barbara, who has become a community organizer the same way she does everything else:  Confidently, open-heartedly, and with a touch as light as a bird’s wing.

For a few months now, Barbara has despaired of the run-down condition of our local park, the Watchung Plaza Park. This one-block-square bit of green is set in between a busy commercial district and a train station. The result is a neglected park covered with a blizzard of trash and graffiti, which would be difficult for the business owners and township crews to fight even if they were committed to doing so.

Earlier in the summer, Barbara began to organize. She gathered like-minded neighbors. She wrote to township officials. She took on a catchy name, “Neighbors of Watchung” (“NOW”).

And, that’s when the miracle happened. The town councilor immediately came to visit, along with the parks superintendent. They promised mulch, leaf bags, manpower, and supplies. The town newspaper and hyperlocal blogs ran stories. Another neighborhood committee offered funding. And, this past weekend, a gorgeous mob of local homeowners put on their overalls and spent a long afternoon weeding, planting, scrubbing, and thinking about the future of Watchung Plaza Park.

(Missing from this photo: The deliciously-named Wah-Chung chinese restaurant)

During the cleanup, passersby stopped to ask how they could be involved. The business owners offered thanks and promised future help. Some passersby dismissed the work, with some variant on “we pay taxes. You shouldn’t be doing the township’s work.” But, I interpret that to mean that they recognized the value of the work and just wanted to feel justified in not joining in.

And, wouldn’t you know it:  I found myself feeling invested in our community group: visiting the park repeatedly since then to scrub off graffiti and pick up litter.  As we say here in Jersey, I was ready to “have a little talk” with the next guy who dropped a fast-food container on the grass in “my” park.  I’d been organized!  And, I’ll bet that some of the business owners around the park are feeling the same way.

So, I’ve learned a lesson about community activism.  It’s about harnessing something that is all around us:  Responsibility, generosity, righteous anger, pride, and a desire to set wrong things to right.  I am proud of the community organizer under my roof, of our Professor Varga, who militates public employees who are under budget-cutting attack, private employees who earn (as he told a group of Whirlpool workers in one incite-ful speech) “shit wages in hell,” and all whose dignity and livelihood are taken from them.  Even my own trivial bit of community organizing, putting together a community of music lovers and volunteers to present a couple dozen concerts every season, has a lesson in it.  As Pete Seeger might say (if he were from Jersey): if I had a hammer, I’d hammer all over the next idiot who lifts a can of spray-paint anywhere near my freakin’ park.

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