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Community-based activism

December 1, 2007
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Many of the problems that we face are global issues that perhaps appear to demand global solutions. Government action is needed to address global warming. So how useful is the slogan, “Think globally, act locally”? How much real progress can we achieve through community-based activism?

The answer is, quite a bit. There is great power in community-based activism, in many areas of contemporary concern. For example, community organizations can have substantial effects on racial justice, environmental sustainability, watershed preservation, fair trade, and new ideas about the role of consuming in a decent human life. Community-based organizations (CBOs) can mobilize the talents and energies of a great many people to be more engaged in directly addressing the problems a community faces. And the beginnings of successful mobilization and collaboration often stimulate more participation, more buy-in from other organizations, and sometimes even the belated recognition by governments that these issues demand action.

One reason for the power of CBOs is the fact that so many of the social problems we face demand a change of culture — changes in the way we look at and value various elements of modern life. Take third-world poverty: most Americans are usually willing to ignore the problems of working conditions, poverty, and health that are associated with farming and production in many poor countries. This is a cultural fact; we practice myopia when it comes to the global economy. But when a community organization highlights coffee production in Chiapas, draws out the connection between conditions of labor on coffee plantations and the coffee provided by the neighborhood coffee bar, and makes the emotional connection for the consumer that “fair trade” coffee can actually lead to material changes in the conditions of life for coffee farmers — then the typical consumer is that much closer to being an ethical consumer. Community-based activism can help to change the ways we understand and experience the world — and then the ways in which we act in the world. So activism around the foods we eat can make a global difference in the distribution of health and poverty.

Another source of success is the fact that many communities often have lots of resources that can be mobilized for change — organizations, foundations, sympathetic officials. But it is often the case that these resources are uncoordinated and under-utilized. Wide community mobilization around a shared priority can bring forth collaboration among these organizations, leaders, and community members, with startling power.

And actions like these can have consequences that go far beyond the local. A community organization that focuses on the quality of water in the watershed can have immediate consequences for cleaning up this particular river. But it can also point the way to a broader effort in many communities to improve the quality of groundwater — and in this way, contributing to a more sustainable quality of life with respect to this crucial resource.

What this comes down to is the realization that many of the social problems we face are issues where the choices and actions of specific individuals throughout the country either intensify or alleviate the problem. So mobilizing people around some core issues and values, and affecting their behavior in a way that spreads by example to other communities, is a way of having a significant impact on many important social problems. “Raising consciousness” changes behavior — and in turn it begins to give the example of successful mobilization that can inspire even more focused efforts at reform and improvement. There is a virtuous circle of activism, mobilization, success, and more activism and mobilization that can occur.

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