Organizing the organizers

Professor Marshall Ganz teaches social activists to become community organizers.

ganz 88 (photo credit: )
ganz 88
(photo credit: )
Gently but persistently, Prof. Marshall Ganz prods and pushes the group of activists who convened in Jerusalem earlier this month for a three-day seminar to learn about community organizing. "Who is your community? What are their resources?" he asks, simultaneously provocative and encouraging. Ganz, professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University, was in Jerusalem to lead the Israeli Community Organizing Training Workshop, held at the Beter House Science Youth Hostel on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University. Nearly 25 activists from varied Jewish and Arab social change organizations participated in the workshop. The intensive three-day program was part of an on-going, year-long course designed to teach and develop community organization in Israel. The course is sponsored by Shatil, the New Israel Fund's Empowerment and Training Center for Social Change Organizations in Israel, funded by grants from the Dorot and Rita and Stanley Kaplan Foundations, and conducted in conjunction with the Hebrew University's Minerva Center for Human Rights. "Community organizing," Ganz explains, "is engaging with people to get the power they need. It is a capacity-building approach, enabling a community to act on its own behalf. "Most communities have some resources, even if power isn't one of those resources," says Ganz. "Community organizers help them to turn those resources into power." He provides an example, referring to the 1955 bus boycott in Alabama, widely viewed as the beginning of the American civil rights movement. "The black community was poor and had no power. But they had a resource - bus fare. And they turned that bus fare into power." Through his experiences in the field and more recently, in academia (see box), Ganz has developed broad views of social change, radical approaches to community organization and effective strategies for building community power. This is the second year that Ganz is working with Shatil. Rachel Liel, director of Shatil, contracted with Ganz because, she says, his approach is crucial to the work done by the social change organizations in Israel. "In Hebrew, we don't even have a proper term for 'community organization,'" Liel observes. Ganz believes that professional community organizing, like other professional praxes, is a skill that can, and must, be taught. In his introduction to the workshop, he notes, "We learn the practice of organizing - like any practice - by doing it. Like learning to ride a bike, learning to organize requires risking failure, too. The challenge is turning failures into opportunities for learning." With a bibliography spanning from the Bible to Alexis de Tocqueville to Tich Nhat Hanh and including some of his own published articles, Ganz pulls together theories and insights from sociology, psychology and political science and encourages critical reflection through writing and discussion. He believes in hands-on experiences. At home at Harvard, his students work on community projects as part of their coursework. In the workshop, participants were divided up into heterogenous groups and each group had to agree upon, design and implement a mini-organizing project. The projects they came up with included campaigns to convince Jerusalem's museums and the municipality to present information in Arabic as well as Hebrew; to encourage teens to plan to go to college, and to raise awareness of housing evictions and the need for public housing. To come up with these campaign projects, the members of the groups had to explore their common values and needs, to mobilize themselves and others, and to achieve clear, specific and measurable outcomes. As each group reported on their progress, Ganz taught them the "workers' applause," a rhythmic, exhilarating form of applause - which, he said, the participants "really deserve." Ganz is generous with his praise for the participants and the team from Shatil who, under his supervision, acted as facilitators and instructors. "This is a great group, and we can learn from each other. The teaching team is really talented, and the mix of Arabs and Jews, veteran Israelis and new immigrants, different ages and different levels of experience is very enriching. Some of this year's instructors were students last year - so they really are wonderful role models." Yet he is critical, too. "The weakness of constituency-based organizations in Israel is the greatest challenge facing social change here. That's paradoxical, because this country really was founded on organizational and social change. But here organizations seem to think that the way to bring about change is to get a grant and provide services to the clients. In contrast to this social-work oriented model, Ganz pushes the participants to think about they can encourage community members to articulate and then promote their own self-interests. "And when they do," he promises, "they will feel that they belong to the organization, rather than receiving a service from the organization." He attaches particular importance to the mix of Arabs and Jews. "When whites and blacks in the US work together, they see things differently than when a group of white liberals tries to solve the problems 'for the blacks," he observes. "And the views that Palestinians bring to social problems here help the Jews understand more about themselves as well. "In every country," he adds, "the vulnerable people reveal what's wrong with the system, like the miners' canary." As conflicts arise between the group members, especially between Jews' and Palestinians' different priorities, Ganz says, "This is a much stronger and more powerful group because they are not pretending that there isn't an elephant in the room. On the other hand, this isn't a dialogue session, either. "Little Mary Sunshine isn't here," he says with a smile. "These people are learning to work together, not necessarily to love each other. They're learning about what they have in common as activists who will be organizing within their communities." Says Buthayna Dabit, who directs Shatil's program for mixed cities, "This course has been tremendously powerful. It has been an intellectual, emotional and professional experience all at once. Marshall has helped me to understand what a public campaign is, how to work on mutual interests, how to develop my own and my community's resources." Says Jenny Oser, who is part of the teaching staff of the Shatil-sponsored course and also works for Yedid, a social rights organization, "Most of the participants devote full-time to promoting social justice. They work with small, or no, staff and no support. Often, they feel that no one cares about them or their work. Marshall has helped them to network with each other, and to see their own creative resources."