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Eco-systemic Politics of Barrio Organizing

by Julio Guerrero

In my experience as organizer, I have found that due to our unique history, culture and politics, community organizing models or interventions are most effective when they have their genesis within the affected community. Another key determinant in grassroots community organizing is the clear distinction between advocacy and service as types of community organizing strategies. Although some communities chose either approach in developing local agendas, in many communities we find a combination of the two with a variable degree of consensus or hegemony among the local organizations.

The issue in choosing between one of the two is the type of response that is drawn from the power structures. Advocates in many cases serve the function of a catalyst that puts the system in check, whereas service providers lean more towards imitating the system as opposed to challenging it. Consequently, seldom will we find an organization that does both advocacy and services. The norm is to find organizations that do one or the other.

Overall, they both serve a purpose; advocacy on one hand, is more conducive to empowerment and offers long range results through structural change while the service approach serves to mediate the dynamics between the community and the power structure and offers more immediate results through welfare type of programs.

At the core of these two approaches is the notion that one organization that confronts the system can not expect to be the direct receiver of the benefits they advocate for. This "arrangement" creates a classic hegemony in many communities whereby we might have activist organizations to the left that advocate for structural changes, and service organizations to the right that tend to comply with the system and either become part of it or are transformed into a welfare subsystem.

The interesting part of this paradigm is that despite the ideological dichotomy on the two approaches, many times the presence of an activist front means bigger dividends for the service organizations. En México esto se conoce como, "uno pone el columpio y otro se mece."

The present situation in Latina/o communities mostly originates from the programs implemented during the Johnson administration derived from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many programs funded by the then Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) for protected population groups were implemented with the purpose of leveling out the field of opportunities in employment, education and housing.

The development of these programs converged with the activism of the Civil Rights movement and were thought of at the beginning by many as remedial programs and part of a transition toward self-sustainment or independence from an Anglo-American dominated system. The large majority of the original OEO service programs were staffed by activists from the Civil Rights movement, thus they incorporated empowerment components in many cases.

The problem developed, I think, when the programs got institutionalized and in time the community-based organizations developed a dependency on government or public funds. Eventually, the organizing and empowerment components faded away and an industry of Barrio human and social services emerged. I suppose many people envisioned a design incorporating the two approaches. Said design or system consisted in maintaining the community based organizations providing services locally, while the mother organization, the National Council of La Raza would take care of the advocacy piece at the national level in order to shake-down federal monies for its member organizations. One of the problems with this design or model is that NCLR, instead of being an advocate, became at best a lobbyist organization and at worst an ally of the power structure. Hence the present split on community organizing and development thought. While the community of social and human service organizations addresses genuine economic needs, a strong case can be made for the claim that Latina/o needs have not decreased since the implementation of the Great Society programs.

One unique case of an organization that has been able to keep a profile that allows the two approaches is El Centro de la Raza in Seattle. While El Centro has been characterized for its advocacy and civil disobedience tactics, it also affords a comprehensive list of services for the community from child-care to career counseling and job development and other supportive services funded by public monies. One key factor is that Seattle and Washington State can be considered a liberal environment, which allows room for El Centro's politics. A similar situation with different results would be the Crusade for Justice in Denver, where the confrontational tactics of its leader Rodolfo Corky Gonzalez were not as tolerated, bringing the Crusade to its demise by the mid-seventies.

In communities where we do not have organizations with two fronts, it is common to find separate organizations pushing their own agenda, one of compliance and another one of contestation. Such was the case in Lansing, Michigan, where there were primarily two Latina/o organizations: Cristo Rey on the service side and EL Sol de Aztlan on the advocacy side. El Sol de Aztlan used activist tactics to push for changes in government, the university, the school system, the local media institutions, the police department, etc. advocating for programs and services for Latina/os. Cristo Rey, on the other hand, focused solely on bread and butter issues, such as food banks, housing, employment, used clothing drives, food stamps, etc.

El Sol de Aztlan had a short life as it happens with many catalyst organizations, while Cristo Rey is still in operation after forty five years. However, it has been proven that EL Sol de Aztlan is responsible for many of the programs still existing in Lansing that benefit Latina/os. Ironically the political climate created from the years of activism of El Sol de Aztlan opened many doors for Cristo Rey and other agencies alike.

Latina/os in Arizona had a different twist to the Sol de Aztlan/ Cristo Rey paradigm. They formed a coalition of organizations called Chicanos Unidos de Aztlan that was effective during the sixties, seventies and eighties. CUA covered all aspects of community organizing. The coalition made up of organizations from the south-central region, included advocacy, lobbying, popular education, human services and conventional (electoral) politics. It was not surprising to see members of Chicanos Unidos in voter education drives, demonstrations against INS, providing services for migrant workers, or involved in student activities in campuses. As you may know, a primary factor in coalition building is that collective strategies can work although member organizations may have conflicting agendas.

One model that comes to mind that breaks away from the classic barrio dichotomy is what the Spanish Speaking Information Center (SSIC) in Flint, Michigan, tried in the seventies. The founders' strategy was different in that they recognized that the power structure should be accountable and had an obligation to serve Latina/os just as much as any other population group. SSIC did not see the community as a separate power; instead, they took the approach of penetrating the system. As such, their strategy was to train Latina/os that would occupy key positions within the system so that whenever anyone from the barrio needed assistance from any public office, there would be someone sensitive to their needs within that establishment ready to help out. SSIC did not engage in confrontational politics, but aggressively pushed for positions for Latina/os in public offices, while at the same time its founders did not embrace the idea of becoming a service organization. They knew that if they were to do that separate from the power structure they were destined to a subsistent life on soft monies.

The political environment should always be factored in measuring the effectiveness of barrio initiatives. Something community activists should be conscious of is that generally speaking, the most successful community organization and development projects have taken place during liberal times when democrats are in power. As a response to an adverse political environment in conservative times, Latina/os have opted to coalesce with other minority or oppressed groups in united-front type of movements.

ERMAC, a grassroots community organization in rural south-central Colorado, seemed to understand this and worked during the eighties ---the infamous Reagan years--- to influence the public agenda by developing a community-controlled radio station. This group effectively stayed away from the service and advocacy areas and focused on the long-range goal of developing KRZA (Radio Raza). They figured this radio station could be used as a tool that could support progressive initiatives and also neutralize conservative agendas. ERMAC'S strategy went beyond SSIC's in that their goal was not necessarily to be part of the system but to build a system or, at least, an institution of their own.

A current trend of Latina/o empowerment is their participation in the system institutions traditionally used by Anglo-Americans to influence and access power. In the last fifteen years Latina/os have joined by the hundreds of thousands the files of Labor Unions, organized religion, professional associations and partisan politics. It seems like the social osmosis has finally been consummated. In the last one hundred years, Latina/os have gone from having independent organizations outside the system, to subsisting in the periphery of the system, to presently having organizations and sharing of the power structures within the system.

In a general analysis, the history of Latina/os' effectiveness in asserting themselves in their relationship with mainstream society, is based on their ability to mediate or negotiate their place on a continuum of power. From the Mutualistas and Ligas Civicas of the last part of the 19th century that functioned in a cooperative principle and were pretty autonomous and independent, to the GI Forum and LULAC type of organizations of the mid 1900's which fought for Latina/os' right to be acknowledged and recognized by the system, from the organizations of the late 1900's which embraced the system by participating in electoral politics and tried to influence public policy, and now to the present Latinas and Latinos who have sought to integrate all public and private institutions in society.


Julio Cesar Guerrero, MSW, MA has an extensive background on Community organization and development, student services and classroom teaching, human and social services, diversity training, nonprofit administration, community and media relations, outreach and recruitment. He was a pioneer in community controlled bilingual radio; co-founder of three community-based radio stations including KUFW Radio Campesina for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union.

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Gracias Julio for your thoughts. I have some to share with you - The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) funding of Community Action Agencies was dismantled by the Reagan administration. Only a few programs, such as the Head Start Program, were kept but transferred to what was then called the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (DHEW) now called Health and Human Services (HHS). Many of the community activist were white and did advocate for change, but they also took over many of the Community Action Agencies as Executive Directors. It was rare to see a Black or Chicano in these positions at that time. Later, many of the Chicano Activist started their own organizations and in some cases…

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