Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Organizing Youngstown

By now, I imagine, everyone knows that the Youngstown 2010 plan calls for ongoing neighborhood-based planning and organizing. About 18 months ago, the Raymond John Wean Foundation revised its mission to include a focus on neighborhood-level projects and organizing. To help both of those visions become reality, the Mahoning Valley Organizers Collaborative has hired a group of professional community organizers to work with local groups and individuals who want to make things happen in their neighborhoods and in the city at large. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with one of those organizers, DaMareo Cooper, who’s working primarily in my neighborhood, the North Side.

Community organizing got a lot of attention in the recent election. ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, sponsored voter registration drives that were criticized as fraudulent by conservatives. Barack Obama worked as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, trying to help a neighborhood recover from the loss of steel mill jobs. Sound familiar?

Community organizing is a model for bringing people together and helping them claim power and create change. Its roots lie in the Industrial Areas Foundation created by Saul Alinsky in the 1940s, but it has been practiced in cities around the country. Community groups have organized for better housing, expanded transportation, raising the minimum wage, improving schools, and much more. At the heart of the community organizing process are conversations, called “one-on-ones,” in which organizers listen to ordinary people talk about what they care most about. From there, it’s all about networking, facilitating, and supporting local people as they become their own leaders. As DaMareo explains, community organizers don’t push their own agendas. They bring people together to pursue their own concerns.

Youngstown has no shortage of community groups and individuals who want to make things better. We also have a reputation as a community in which it’s hard to create change. Groups hold tight to their power, positions, and connections, and some are unwilling to share credit or ideas. Distrust and a sense that groups must compete for scarce resources create barriers that keep us all working separately. For the MVOC, the challenge will be to create coalitions that can break down those historic boundaries and reach across long-standing divisions. DaMareo Cooper brings a positive attitude to that effort, as well as a deep understanding of the organizing model. I hope they will serve him and his colleagues well. We need them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Race and Politics in Youngstown

Last week’s election was important on many levels, but this week on Lincoln Avenue, we’re focusing on the local. My guest, Mike Morley, has been active in Mahoning Valley politics for more than two decades. In our conversation, he reflects on what the presidential and local elections tell us about the issues and changes in our community.

Race was a central topic of conversation leading up to the election, and as Morley explains, it almost certainly played a role in the local area. As Morley notes, Tom Letson and Bob Hagan were almost certainly on target when they pointed out that racism might well keep some whites from voting for Barack Obama. On the other hand, a higher percentage of whites voted for Obama in this election than voted for Kerry in 2004. More African-Americans voted, period, probably more than have voted in any prior election. So did more younger voters and more first-time voters. Indeed, while voter turnout in Ohio was less than predicted, it was still incredibly high. 70% of registered voters went to the polls in Mahoning County. It’s likely that the increased turn out, including the presence of more black voters, helped pass the WRTA and Youngstown City Schools levies.

At the same time, as Morley points out, racial divisions continue to shape local politics and impede our efforts to create change in this community. We may not be able to change that by challenging racism. Too often, as the Letson and Hagan story suggests, that just generates resistance and self-righteousness. Instead, we may need to focus on building leadership from within groups that have been left out of local politics. That means helping African-Americans to prepare to run for local offices, but it also means helping younger people do the same.

Indeed, what I appreciated most in Morley’s comments in our interview was his closing call to action, reminding us that anyone can get involved. Influencing local politics begins by just showing up, as so many voters did last week.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Workers Matter

As exit polls from yesterday’s election show, the economy is a big issue these days. But while much of our focus has been on the financial markets, ordinary people have been struggling economically for a long time. That’s the focus of New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse’s recent book, The Big Squeeze. This week on Lincoln Avenue, Alyssa Lenhoff, director of the Journalism Program and an affiliate of the Center for Working-Class Studies here at YSU, talks with Greenhouse about the book.

John Russo, the co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies and Coordinator of YSU’s Labor Studies program, reviewed Greenhouse’s book for the journal New Labor Forum. Here’s how Russo describes the book:

The Big Squeeze chronicles what has happened to American workers and workplaces in the last half century. Greenhouse begins by outlining the capital/labor accord, which has more recently become known as the postwar social contract. The basic tenets involved the corporate and government recognition of labor unions, sharing of productivity gains, and labor’s acceptance of two party politics. For a quarter century ending in 1974, the social contract resulted in regular improvements in wages, working conditions, and healthcare and retirement benefits. While unionized workers benefited the most, the rising tide lifted the boats of non-union workers, especially a large cohort of minority and female workers that began entering the workforce in the 1960s. But the social contract was broken by corporations and the government starting in the 1970s, and for the last thirty years, workers and unions have been under attack under the guise of neoliberal economic policy. The results include a decline of real earnings, benefits, and working conditions; a shift in power relations between labor and management; and growing inequality and insecurity for the working class.

Specifically, Greenhouse describes how outsourcing, immigration, globalization, shifting power relations, overwork, and disruptions in family life have together undermined the American Dream for working families. While this analysis will not be news to the readers of New Labor Forum, Greenhouse tells the story in an especially powerful manner. His rage and indignation are measured not in ideology but in the marshalling of facts, the accessible use of various metrics, and through individual stories and case studies. As such, Greenhouse marries the statistical rigor of the Economic Policy Institute with the sensitivity and passion of Studs Terkel. The result is a compelling narrative of the degradation of workplaces and the struggles involved in working-class life today.

So what does Greenhouse think can be done? Most importantly, he argues that the public conversation about the economy must include workers and not simply focus on takeovers, trade deals, and other business concerns. We’ve seen some of this already in recent public discourse about the mortgage crisis and its impact on poor and working families. But Greenhouse argues that political and economic debates about many more issues -- universal healthcare, stagflation, wage theft, retirement security, labor law and trade reform -- have to be more worker-centered.

While this year’s political speeches talked a lot about “Joe the Plumber,” and health care and the economy were central concerns, we still didn’t hear much about most of these issues. Let’s hope that a new administration and more Democratic Congress are listening to Steve Greenhouse.