Advocacy, Community Organizing & Social Movements: Relevant to the Lives of People with Disabilities?

 On May 21st, 2012, Community Access Institute with the NJAAIDD hosted the “Advocacy, Community Organizing and Social Movements” workshop at 88 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ from 10 am to 4 pm. A panel of experts was featured with backgrounds in advocacy, social work, public policy, and community organizing; with approximately 100 attendees present.  The workshop began with an introduction of the topics and brief presentations from the selected panelists.  The purpose of this workshop was to address the question: “What is the relationship between income inequality and community organizing?” Furthermore, this question is pertinent to the national debate of our society’s inclination during the past 30 years to support individualism and the market based economy over renewing the social contract of our Constitution in regards to equal opportunity and providing adequate services for those in need.   

The first panelist featured Community Access Unlimited executive director, Sidney Blanchard, who briefed attendees on the background of CAU, future plans of expansion; and discussed the dire need to push CAU’s Board of Social Movement Policy  which is,  “…self sustaining base of collective knowledge and power that successfully leverages progressive change toward full social, political and economic equality.”  With that in mind, Mr. Blanchard introduced CAU’s effort of a social movement which is called, the New American Movement for People with Disabilities. A key voice in the efforts of CAU, Self-Advocate and Field Organizer, Sidney Katz, spoke about the definition and importance of self-advocacy through an engaging power point presentation. 

The next set of panelists was comprised of close affiliates of CAU. One of the panelists, Alison Lozano, the executive director of the NJ Council on Developmental Disabilities, spoke about her organization and the sister programs that it supports such as Partners in Policymaking and Monday Morning.  She addressed the question, “where do we go from here?” and discussed the reasons as to why we need to work with disadvantaged groups and why people with disabilities are valuable constituents to politicians. Walter Kalman, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers- NJ Chapter, spoke about the power of local organizing and how social workers were the first to engage in community mobilizing. Denbigh Shelton, Director of Public Policy and Family Advocacy of The ARC-NJ, discussed the importance of taking action in the disability movement and her involvement with family advocates.  Tom Baffuto, the previous executive director of The ARC of New Jersey spoke on the program he spearheads, Project HIRE, which has helped more than 3,000 individuals with developmental disabilities find and keep jobs, while emphasizing the importance of employment for the disability community. 

 The main feature of the workshop was the authors of “Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing”, Robert Fisher and James DeFilippis.  The author’s presentation focused on why community organizing is a great tool for focusing on a multitude of issues.  Since the economic global crisis, people have begun to pursue degrees and jobs in community organizing; essentially community organizing is becoming “fashionable”.  They went on to define the difference between, social movements, community organizing and advocacy groups; mentioning that community organizing is essentially building power and redefining how we understand problems and the solutions needed. 

 In order to be an effective community organizer, one must understand where we have been to conceptualize where we are going.  Some of the models and movements mentioned in the book and the workshop were those of Saul Alinsky, who is coined the father of community organizing, the Settlement House movement and the civil rights movement.  Within this discussion, the authors stress that movements are not inherently liberal or progressive and that it depends on time, politics and organizations; the context shapes the model of organizing.  Moving forward, neoliberalism has created a plethora of challenges for community organizing. Due to the prevalence of hyper- individualism, beginning in New York City in the 1970s, social work has become undermined, which in turn, moderates community organizing. During the last 20 years in the United States, community organizing turns private issues into public issues which is characterized by the creation of NGOs (non-government organizations), asset based models, social capital and capacity building. 

 The authors suggest the need to mobilize our communities to understand our contemporary challenges and as a result, produce change.  Building strong communities takes the effort of consensus organizing, which is when the larger world recognizes all of its shared interests and comes together. However, it is important to keep in mind that these are rare moments in time because power does not typically work this way.  At the end of the presentation the author’s revisited the question, “where do go from here?” to the audience. In order to make strides in the present and future of transformative organizing, the authors stress that we should expand scale, maintain the level of conflict in organizations, and build connections with other efforts in social movements; and to avoid romanticizing potential or exaggerating limits of community organizing. The effects of neoliberalism in the past 30 years have caused community organizing models to become terribly fragmented and separated from each other. Ultimately, unless we create a united front, we cannot destroy the implications of neoliberalism in achieving a greater equality for all.

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