For my final project for 504, I choose to spend time volunteering with an organization I used to work with, Detroit Action Commonwealth (the other DAC, not the Detroit Athletic Club). I had already started “volunteering” when I moved back from Boston, and I thought that spending time writing journals and reflecting each week would be a great project for this course….and a good habit for an organizer that I never really utilized before as well as I should have. Below is my analysis (?) of DAC, the work they have done, the work they are currently doing, their power-building structure, and how I reflect on my role.
Detroit Action Commonwealth is a community-based organization of low-income, homeless and indigent residents of Detroit who organize around civic engagement and policy reform efforts. Read more on their mission, model and accomplishments on their website. The entire membership and leadership of DAC is of homeless folks, with the exception of a former Professor who is acting Executive Director (unpaid), and one paid organizer. (And me…but I don’t think I do very much to help besides advise leaders and help them make agendas for meetings…they honestly don’t need my help…)
It is clear that DAC has two equally important goals that balance and reinforce each other: Community Organizing and Human Development
DAC organizes around issues, people’s self-interest. The first part, is for organizers, leaders and members to form relationships through one on one conversations. In organizing, we talk about POWER as “being able to” accomplish your goals, interests, needs, etc. In our society, folks gain power from two main sources: money and people. Well, folks in DAC don’t have a lot of money…so the only other way to leverage POWER is to bring lots of people together. You do this by forming relationships and getting to know people’s VALUES and SELF-INTEREST. By bringing together people based on their values, you can form powerful organizations to make change.
Second, they develop practical strategies, winnable strategies and campaigns around the issues identified by their community. Modeled after various organizing sources, such as Saul Alinsky, Industrial Areas Foundation and Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.
The other goal is to develop members and leaders to reach their full human capacity. This includes the public part of themselves which is involved in their community…in politics and society. It involves individual development of confidence, various organizing and leadership skills, the ability to advance their own goals and aspirations.
Much of this work is extremely difficult and a high priority, because of the internalized oppression throughout the homeless and indigent community. As we read in Mullaly, impacts of oppression include “loss of identity, powerlessness, fear, suppression of anger, isolation, ambivalence and sense of inferiority“…all important and necessary skills in organizing and building power. Organizers have to work actively and thoughtfully when planning small, winnable actions, skill-building workshops, and community meetings to reverse these impacts.
These two goals (organizing and human development) work hand-in-hand. The more people FEEL and EXPERIENCE power and confidence, the more they are developed as human beings, the more effective they will be when organizing and winning issues.
LADDER OF CITIZENSHIP PARTICIPATION
DAC, like a lot of community organizations, operate under the system presented by Sherry Arnstein that strive for decision making power in policy to be controlled by citizens.
Most DAC members when first coming to a community meeting or having a 1-1 conversation with a leader, are in the Nonparticipation (Manipulation & Therapy) steps of the ladder. It is DAC’s goal and mission to climb the ladder, build power, to reach Citizen Control, where citizens “handle the entire job of planning, policy making and managing a programme e.g. neighbourhood corporation with no intermediaries between it and the source of funds.”
December 2017 Update
In the last few months, this is what I watched DAC work on…and some of the strategies they used to make change happen.
- Homeless Bill of Rights
- Illegal Tax Foreclosures
- Leadership Development
- fundraising (planning, developing, advertising)
- negotiation skills
- Weekly Community Meetings
- 4 chapters, each chapter has an elected Board that also meets once a week
What is the biggest success of DAC?
The organization. DAC started form 6 people sitting around a table at a soup kitchen, talking about trash piling up on Connor Ave. Now DAC has 4 chapters with just under 5000 members. More than 8000 people have participated in DAC activities. A lot of development of humans, leaders, who continue to work with DAC or have gone on to do other great work and organizing in their neighborhoods.
POPULAR EDUCATION – DAC has succeeded in raising the understanding of social justice as opposed to charity, amongst folks in various social services, by demanding a seat at the decision-making table. DAC educates folks of the value of organizing marginalized and oppressed people for POWER.
DAC is NOT advocacy. It’s easy for organizations to fall on the advocacy track, because to funders it is a lot more efficient in terms of time and money…but if you do that you’re going to lose the purpose of why you started organizing in the first place.
What I am most proud of, is that while DAC does get a lot of support from Professor Markus and various volunteers (like myself), DAC is developed into such a powerful organization that it can stand on it’s own. If Professor Markus decides to move away, DAC will still function. Members have been developed into Leaders, and then many Leaders have been developed into Organizers. DAC no longer needs to look externally for hiring staff. This is why I love coming back and visiting and working with DAC…it’s proof that organizing works, and you don’t have to give in or sell out or water it down.
This older but extremely relevant interview with Grace Lee Boggs sums up the important of DAC to me. When asked where she sees hope, she says:
“I see the signs in the various, small groups that are emerging all over the place, to try and regain our humanity in very practical ways.”
As Social Workers, we can participate in organizing communities we live in. We can create Co-ops. Organize locally. Start small. Connect with each other. Create our own systems, organizations, leverage power. Listen to Grace Lee Boggs, learn about why DAC, DSNI, BLM…
Academic Source from UM Professor Emeritus Greg Markus Organizing in Detroit Soup Kitchens for Power and Justice