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Neighborhood Associations – A Personal Experience

category north america / mexico | community struggles | opinion / analysis author Saturday December 19, 2009 05:55author by Larry Gambone Report this post to the editors

The neighborhood association is an important area for anarchist involvement. Of the popular organizations, such as trade unions or cooperatives, these associations are the easiest ones to implant oneself in. The reason is the lack of bureaucracy or controlling bureaucratic caste with which one must struggle in the other institutions. The neighborhood association is a natural place of involvement for militants who are retired, students, self-employed, or on social assistance. [Italiano]

Neighborhood Associations – A Personal Experience

by Larry Gambone

I have been involved in our association for three years. In that time, I have helped in neighborhood clean up, fund raisers, meetings of up to 400 residents, public art and the location of colourfully painted garbage bins. We had a successful campaign to stop noise pollution from a local industry. Our Miner's Heritage Picnic saw a thousand people participating last year. We are presently engaged in creating a neighborhood plan which is an attept to preserve the working class nature of the neighborhood and rebuild much of the community that has been lost through businesses moving to shopping malls in the city perifery. Much of what we do takes the form of direct action. We don't ask for permission, we just do it.

Two years ago I was elected to the executive of the association. Where I speak out or take some sort of a leadership role, is where I have the applicable skills. I work to maintain a common ground approach within the organization. I helped develop a very successful neighborhood blog/newsletter. With my knowledge of labour history, I was able to put together the Miner's Heritage Photo Exhibit and to re-print the BC Federation of Labour's 1913 pamphlet on the Great Coal Strike of 1912. My next goal is to set up a "literature department" to research and publish infomation of interest to the neighborhood.

The neighborhood association is an important area for anarchist involvement. Of the popular organizations, such as trade unions or cooperatives, these associations are the easiest ones to implant oneself in. The reason is the lack of bureaucracy or controlling bureaucratic caste with which one must struggle in the other institutions. The neighborhood association is a natural place of involvement for militants who are retired, students, self-employed, or on social assistance.

The association gives a concerted voice to a neighborhood, creates dialogue and in doing so, helps re-build community. Where these associations do not exist, fear or prejudice-driven elements can stir up the populace, encourage hostility toward minorities or prevent positive developments within the community. Where a neighborhood association is already on the ground, it can preempt such hostility and steer the neighborhood in a constructive direction.

I have experience with such a situation. The neighborhood adjoining us has no association. An attempt to create a soup kitchen for the poor was crushed by a minority who whipped up fears about drug addicts and homeless people. In our neighborhood an old hotel has been converted into a controlled living space for people with drug and mental health issues. Some people tried to stop this chiefly due to fear, but our assocation was able to have a calming or moderating effect on the neighborhood.

My reason for joining our neighborhood association is no different from anyone else. I want to preserve the community that still exists in my neighborhood and to re-build what has been lost. I am a member for a real reason, a reason that relates to my personal existence. I am not there for any ideological purpose, much less to convert people to an ideology. And if you do have an alterior motive for being there, eventually people will know it. Ultimately, there is no difference between what I am seeking, what our association seeks, and my personal beliefs. Community is also one of the foundation stones of libertarian socialism.

My approach to working in the association could be applied to any popular or grass roots organization. First and foremost, I listen to what people have to say, probably the most important thing you can do. When you listen, you will find what a truly amazing amount of talent and experience exists in the group. In most cases, it will be far more than you possess, and you will learn more from them, than they will learn from you. Those few occasions where I do stand out are those areas where I possess abilities needed by the group.

Flexibility is important. Perhaps not everything done or said by the group is to your liking – though I cannot think of an instance when this has been so. (I must point out that not all neighborhood assocations are as advanced as ours.) It is important to keep your mind on the main issues such as community building, inclusiveness, direct action and democratic process, rather than getting hung up on secondary issues.

Doing is a necessity. No one likes a person who talks but does not act. Within the confines of your time limits and capability, get involved and do things. Not just the "cool" stuff either. I put up the tables and chairs, take tickets, and try to be there when I am needed.

Speaking to the essence. You can refer to the core elements of anarchism, such as direct democracy, direct action, self-management, and encourage such tendencies, without ever bringing up the "A -word." The overtly ideological will only divide people, but actual anarchist practice will unite them. Furthermore, since you are not the only one in the group possessing many of the ideas you espouse, pull these ideas out of people, rather than trying to put them in when they are already there. (Nothing loses people quicker than appearing arrogant or a know-it-all.) People will, in time, figure out where you are coming from. But since you are respected, you will not be reduced to a media caricature.

One thing you will discover when belonging to a functioning neighborhood association, is that all progressives have far more in common with each other than xenophobic or reactive elements. Whether social democrat, socialist, Green or anarchist, at the neighborhood level, it does not seem to matter a great deal. All want people to have more control over their lives, to build community and to be inclusive.

With neighborhood associations that are dominated by fearful or NIMBY ( Not In My Back Yard) people, the role of the anarchist is obvious – countering this negativity and encouraging an inclusive community-building approach. However, if the association usually acts in an anarchistic way already, what point is there in belonging to it as an anarchist? What then is the point of having your theories and ideologies?

Everyone's insight and experiences are valuable – including your own. An experienced, well-read anarchist brings with her the knowledge of the sociology of power, a rich background in mutual aid, direct action and a general history of social movements. You will, of course, not be alone in possessing such knowledge, but the difference is, that as an anarchist, you have specialized in these areas. You have the tools to strengthen the libertarian tendencies that already exist within the group.

Furthermore, you have a vision beyond the progress of the neighborhood association, the city, or even community restoration as a whole. Once again, you will not be unique in this, but anarchism envisages a form of organization completely different from that which exists at present. As the corporate state breaks down, socially, economically and environmentally, the old, centralized, top-down form of organization will become increasingly untenable. Neighborhood associations, as direct democratic, decentralized institutions, could form the neuclei of a new form of governance – one of federated neighborhood councils. When the breakdown commences, anarchists ought to be there to promote this new organizational concept.

author by Akai - ZSPpublication date Sun Dec 20, 2009 22:29author address author phone Report this post to the editors

It's quite interesting. Some of us had quite a long discussion about community organizing yesterday, assessing the situation, looking for ways to include more people, get through certain barriers (between working class and more marginal, lumpen elements) etc. We also assessed recent attempts to get concrete demands met by the city and how to be more effective with our political demands.

When I read this, I wondered if your association also has had occasion to make political demands, even to the local government, and, if so, was it easy to integrate people into this activity? Also, we are very careful to avoid being social partners or lobbyists begging for favours, or to go into cooperation with the parties.

Some of the demands in our case have included removing politicians from housing committees and having civic control, no legal repression for squatters, stop reprivatization and compensate people who lost their homes during this process, changing the income criteria to qualify for public housing, stopping investment on gentrification projects, allocating more money for housing and health care, changing requirements to commercialize hospitals, demerging hospitals forced to merge during budget cuts, stopping the expansion of roads and the cutting of pedestrian areas and demands against fencing off and closing public spaces such as parks. All of these demands are widely supported by neighbourhood residents, although there is not consensus on how to force politicians to meet these demands. We prefer radical direct action but we recently saw that not enough people in the neighbourhood are always willing to participate in this and instead think that a better solution may be voting for new politicians. We have been discussing ways to radicalize things without scaring too many people off. There has already been radicalization, but not on the scale needed to win some of these demands.

Any thoughts / experiences to share?

author by scott - Miami Autonomy & Solidaritypublication date Mon Dec 21, 2009 20:23author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I'm not sure how it is in the great frozen north, but in the US these associations are only open to landowners, not renters. Most neighborhoods are around half renters anyway, so this sets up a problematic distinction. Is that true in Canada too?

author by Larry Gambonepublication date Tue Dec 22, 2009 00:53author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I think we would all agree with the list of political changes. Problem is most of them are beyond the scope of a neighborhood association. There is a federation of neighborhood associations – none too active – which could, and sometimes does raise some of these issues. As for the municipal elections we did not take a stand. Instead we set up an election blog, came up with 10 key questions and asked the contenders for office if they would answer. The answers they gave, then indicated what they thought about our neighborhood and people would vote accordingly. I won't claim our efforts made the difference, but the new city council is more progressive than the last one.

Scott, a “neighborhood association” that does not include neighbors, is not a neighborhood association, but a clique. Our group includes everyone – homeless too – who reside within the boundaries of the neighborhood. That is the norm up here.

author by Mollymewpublication date Tue Dec 22, 2009 02:05author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Like Larry I have yet to see a neighbourhood association restricted only to land owners (ie those who own 10% of their house and the bank the other 90%). Maybe I've just never lived in such a neighbourhood. I suppose they do exist ie in newer neighbourhoods where single family dwellings are universal. In such places the cost of the house would be so much that the landlord would have to charge such a high rate that nobody would agree to rent at such a price. There are some associations here in Winnipeg where renters would form the majority of the participants.

author by José Antonio Gutiérrez D.publication date Tue Dec 22, 2009 05:38author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Nice article. I really enjoyed it and I think the exchange of actual experience such as this it is important. Maybe it is not an adrenaline fueled revolutionary experience, but solid revolutionary work is built on foundations laid with patience, persistence and with dedication. Certainly three attributes that should be cultivated by anarchists. It is often the case that anarchists reject "petty" tasks they consider irrelevant, and actually, in the long term, those tasks are crucial to give our political approach a living experience. Also, this work helps you to mature and learn to work with others (sometimes when you hear some of our ultra-radical and ultra-anarchist comrades you just imagine them trying to build a union or a social organisation of any kind!).

On Laure Akai's questions I agree with Larry that a lot of stuff is often beyond the scope of a social organisation, but we want the organisations to deal with everything we see as important; in my opinion, it is important to have a clear idea of both the limitations and the potentials of any political work you do. I wrote something on this a while ago, on the political sphere of different types of organisations . There is a recent article written by some Chilean comrades from a more political perspective, on the importance of neighbourhood associations, that may shed some light on some of the issues that maybe Laure Akai is interested in: Unfortunately, the article is only available in Spanish for the moment. This article, although very different to Larry (it is highly impersonal and does not deal with any concrete experience) it is a reflection on many years of work of hundreds of Chilean libertarians in the housing struggle in the Capital of the country, a work which put anarchists at the head of a movement of many thousand people.

author by akai - zsppublication date Tue Dec 22, 2009 07:23author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Actually, our tenants group decided to run anti-campaigns against politicians instead of endorsing anybody. There is only a minority of people who are anarchists, but the experience of everybody is that all politicians, regardless of their political option, truly suck. There are members of other groups like ours that want to get into politics, but we think it is right, instead of encouraging them as "more progressive', to discourage them from this. That is because A) most politicians, even if they start out halfway decently, get involved with corruption and turn crap very quickly B) we are trying to encourage horizontal organization and direct action and we don't want people to go from this type of activist work to political one where they will be less efficient.

We prefer to be a pressure group on politicians - we don't have to support them.

It is an ambitious plan, at this stage, to accomplish things this way. But we want to radicalize things if possible and it is very, very important for us to cultivate a certain attitude of no illusions towards politicians at any level. We of course know the few politicians who are truly interested in the social welfare of people, and probably they will be saved from our anti-campaign. :-)) But some politicians are giving something just to get votes, or to try to calm protests.

This happened a bit with us. We had a very strong protest against the budget. But we didn't win exactly what we wanted, Politicians wanted to control the situation, not to look weak, lke they give in to social protests. Then they tried to look very generous when "giving" stuff to our neighbourhood. Now the local borough hall politicians invite us to parties and thank us for fighting for money for our neighbourhood - even though just last week they were running away from the residents. My colleague, not an anarchist, replied that it is supposed to be their job to fight in the interests of citizens. But I commented that actually, they won't do it, because they are fighting to maintain their positions in the status quo, and that means bowing down to whoever has the power.

Anyway, although we don't want to force anarchist politics on non-anarchists, the people who tended to join had a mistrust of politicians and we try to talk about how this is a structural problem of representative democracy, on all levels. So one of our demands, in relation to public housing, is about the Commission that makes decisions on it, consisting of politicians and with absolutely no accountability or transparency. We don't want to change the politicians there to "better ones", nor just say "we demand annual reports", but rather we say that these people should be replaced by a council made up of residents, who will be accountable and recallable and who will work on the mandates of the smaller units they represent - for example, a representative of a street, or other defined area, with meetings also in those areas. Also we demand autonomy of the budget - in other words, the housing budget should not be managed by politicians, but residents, in its entirety.

Mind you, we don't expect to achieve these demands right now, or maybe ever, but since we have other, more concrete individual demands, it's not as if people will feel discouraged that they don't achieve this. It is rather a basis for discussion about alternative methods of "self-governing" which encourage more direct control and involvement and less passivity and government. In any case, in the neighbour I might be interested in issues like if there is a pedestrian crossing or not, but from my view as an activist, I am even more interested in promoting things that lead people nearer towards our direction. This is what you were talking about in your article, about doing things in an anarchistic way, even if you don't call it that, The question is if we can somehow increase the scale and bring a vision which goes beyond the smallest units of society.

Hope you understand what I meant. :-))

This is some info about the budget and our results - not a victory, but today we found out that local people now consider it amazing that we managed anything. So they became motivated to join in, and those who were scared of the idea of the action regret they didn't support it. (There's more background about the whole story somewhere on that page or perhaps on libcom.)

author by Larry Gambonepublication date Tue Dec 22, 2009 12:18author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Akai, what you are doing is really wonderful! Nonetheless, our situation is somewhat different than in Poland. I think how we work really depends upon the situation we find ourselves in. Here in Canada, while parties are largely discredited, individual honest politicians are not. We also live in a small city, so you have personal relationships with both the politicians and officials. This is also one of the most left-wing areas in the country and while the leadership of the left parties may have pandered to neo-liberalism, the people here have not. As such, we get strong support from both our provincial member and the progressives on City Council. No, we don't, and cannot, support politicians as a group. This would be against our organizational principle which is to unite the neighborhood around crucial, common issues, rather than divide it by party or ideology.

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