Community Organizing

Where the Sidewalk Ends

courtesy of ARSE and LUPE

courtesy of ARSE and LUPE

SIRI CANNOT TAKE you to the South Tower Estates in the southernmost Texas border community of Little Mexico. Among the more than 1,200 recognized colonias in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, South Tower is one of the more established: Streets are paved and lots have curbs, if not sidewalks—amenities that were required for colonias only after the adoption of model subdivision rules in 1989. A few solar-powered light fixtures even dot the streets at night.

But the neighborhood still is without city council representation. All residents are connected to the main thoroughfare between their homes and jobs by a single intersection. A dead dog in the middle of the road bakes in the hot summer sun.

Colonias began around the 1950s as semi-permanent camps in southwestern border states—Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California—developed by private landowners to house the farm workers they employed. Once the land was paid off, an owner was relieved of any responsibility to further maintain, much less improve, their property; many landowners didn’t fix or change a thing for decades. Today, amenities in colonias vary dramatically from one to the next, and many lack wastewater management, trash collection, and street lights.

Eva Carranza lives in South Tower Estates with her 15-year-old daughter. Like many families in their neighborhood, they have mixed documentation status. Eva’s daughter is starting to think about college, but it’s tough to get information about different schools’ standardized test and GPA requirements, applications and deadlines, or available scholarships and loans. Though some families in their neighborhood have cell phone and internet access, few have a computer. Libraries offer web access—but there aren’t any libraries in the colonias.

So Carranza turned to ARISE (“A Resource in Serving Equality”), a grassroots organization that helps youth and women who live in colonias through leadership development and education programs. Inspired by Luke 4:18—“God has chosen me to bring good news to the poor”—Catholic Sister of Mercy Gerrie Naughton founded ARISE in 1987. Since then, ARISE, which is co-sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, the Daughters of Charity, and the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, has supported preschool education and summer reading programs for children in colonias. ARISE has also organized parent-teacher associations that give parents confidence to engage with their children’s teachers and help area students matriculate and graduate.

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This Land is Our Land

RURAL COMMUNITIES in the U.S. wrestle with many of the same problems facing the rest of the country—persistent unemployment, access to quality health care, air and water degradation, a broken immigration policy. Other issues—such as supporting sustainable farming practices and drawing young people into agriculture, lack of broadband access, and the challenges of small-town economic development—are more unique to rural life.

Even though the 46.2 million people living in rural U.S. counties constitute only 15 percent of the country’s total population (spread across 72 percent of the nation’s land area), we are all connected—urban, suburban, and rural—by foodways, waterways, wilderness areas, and our national politics. As one Midwest-based organizer put it, “many progressives fundamentally don’t understand rural America—they don’t even know why they should care about it. You can’t understand the power of the tea party without understanding rural America. It is the key to the House of Representatives, and progressives will be hamstrung until they can make inroads in a few key congressional districts.”

But that organizer and others also draw power and hope from the deep history of populism in the rural Midwest and parts of the South, and the endurance of community-oriented values that aren’t just “heartland” clichés.

While many young people are itching to leave rural areas and small towns—anxious to find better jobs, educational opportunities, or city culture—others have always stayed put or returned after time away. And some “city cousins” move to rural America, enjoying the opportunity to work on issues they care about (with the bonus of a brilliant night sky). Here are four stories of young people investing in rural communities in the Midwest.  —The Editors

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Won't Get Fooled Again

In an attempt to discredit the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a young conservative activist created a fake Facebook page and website for a non-existent environmental group. Then, posing as someone interested in organizing a union, tried to get a local organizer to give him tips on shaking down politicians. The New York Times reports:

At this point, Rhea Byer-Ettinger, an organizer for Manhattan Together, felt her internal baloney detector go on red alert. “Beep, beep, beep,” she said. “I said to him: ‘Well, that’s not how we work. Tell me, why are you asking me about that?’ ”  

As a former employee of an IAF affiliate in Chicago, I’m really not sure what this young guy was hoping to find. I’m sure in any large organization you could find someone to secretly record who might say something that could sound unflattering. But, was he really expecting a nationwide crime syndicate that uses collective bargaining as a tool to extort money or favors from politicians?

Passionate and sincere disagreement about politics is a good and healthy thing but tactics of this young activist and others like James O’Keefe show something dangerous. It’s the assumption that those who disagree with you politically aren’t just wrong, but evil.

On the other end, this means progressive activists should ask themselves if folks like the Koch brothers are “evil” or just some really rich dudes with politics they don’t like. 

For Gulf Coast Residents, the Oil Spill Nightmare Continues

For three months last year the Gulf Coast oil spill was the major topic of news reports all over the world. From the explosion on April 20, 2010, until the capping of the gushing well on July 15, 2010, the headlines were consumed with images and dialogue about the tragedy unfolding before our very eyes. Shortly after the news of the capping, the government reported that “most” of the oil was gone, and that things were getting back to normal. The camera crews packed up. The reporters turned in their hotel room keys and gathered their deductible tax receipts. And they all left. Kumbaya, the oil was gone, and the world was normal again. The world could move on to other, more pressing interests. That is … the rest of the world could move on to other, more pressing interests.