Blessed Are the Organized

Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America

Jeffrey Stout
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Blessed Are the Organized
    Book Description:

    In an America where the rich and fortunate have free rein to do as they please, can the ideal of liberty and justice for all be anything but an empty slogan? Many Americans are doubtful, and have withdrawn into apathy and cynicism. But thousands of others are not ready to give up on democracy just yet. Working outside the notice of the national media, ordinary citizens across the nation are meeting in living rooms, church basements, synagogues, and schools to identify shared concerns, select and cultivate leaders, and take action. Their goal is to hold big government and big business accountable. In this important new book, Jeffrey Stout bears witness to the successes and failures of progressive grassroots organizing, and the daunting forces now arrayed against it.

    Stout tells vivid stories of people fighting entrenched economic and political interests around the country. From parents and teachers striving to overcome gang violence in South Central Los Angeles, to a Latino priest north of the Rio Grande who brings his parish into a citizens' organization, to the New Orleans residents who get out the vote by taking a jazz band through streets devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Stout describes how these ordinary people conceive of citizenship, how they acquire and exercise power, and how religious ideas and institutions contribute to their successes.

    The most important book on organizing and grassroots democracy in a generation,Blessed Are the Organizedis a passionate and hopeful account of how our endangered democratic principles can be put into action.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3607-9
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xxii)
  5. CHAPTER ONE The Responsibilities of a Citizen
    (pp. 1-20)

    Late in the summer of 2005, somewhere in the Atlantic basin off the coast of Africa, an elongated trough of low pressure took shape and began moving west. Over the Bahamas, on August 23, it joined with the remains of Tropical Depression Ten to form the more powerful Tropical Depression Twelve. As it moved over the warm waters of the Atlantic, the system gathered energy from below. On August 24 meteorologists declared it a tropical storm and named it Katrina. By the time the storm reached Florida, it had become a hurricane. It weakened briefly while passing over land, but...

  6. CHAPTER TWO A Power Analysis
    (pp. 21-33)

    When the levees broke, Broderick Bagert Jr., a white native of New Orleans, was twenty-nine and for three years had been working as an apprentice organizer in Houston. At the time of my visit almost a year and a half after Katrina, he had been back in New Orleans, working for Jeremiah, for a month. The city was still in shambles, and there was much to be done. Ernie Cortés had urged Brod and his supervisor Jackie Jones to think big. Jeremiah could not serve its purpose well without encompassing the entire metropolitan area. The first step, with which Brod...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Organizing for the Common Good
    (pp. 34-44)

    Toward the end of my tour of New Orleans, I asked Brod how long it would take before one would know the fate of the new New Orleans. He originally expected to have an answer to that question fairly soon after the storm. He assumed that the $8 billion that had already been allocated by the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would “start to go into people’s pockets and knock around in the economy,” which would immediately begin to pump up the recovery effort. “As it happens none of that eight billion dollars is in people’s pockets....

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Rites of Solidarity, Commitment, and Mourning
    (pp. 45-52)

    With a modest, but encouraging victory behind them, the Jeremiah Group consulted with parents, teachers, and other members of the community about broader issues facing the school system. After the core team developed some proposals, the organization decided to hold an “accountability session” for local political candidates in the cafeteria at Wicker Elementary. About four hundred citizens attended, nearly a hundred of them standing.

    At any IAF accountability session, officials and candidates are invited into the community itself. The session is held on the turf of the citizens’ organization, not in a government building. The agenda is strictly controlled by...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Domination, Anger, and Grief
    (pp. 53-69)

    New Orleans is a place where the social stratification currently threatening American democracy is impossible to ignore. Hurricane Katrina only made the divisions more obvious. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, but hurricanes mainly devastate the already destitute. In this city, the phrase “lower class” is not a metaphor. Many poor people lived on lower ground. No governmental agency, be it local, state, or national, managed to evacuate them in timely fashion. Accountability for this failure was minimal. Developers, with help from politicians representing the interests of big business and the white middle class, had used the...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Public Address
    (pp. 70-84)

    Voting is only one way of holding elites accountable. It gives citizens a nonviolent means for deposing despots, and is therefore to be prized as one of the powers essential to democratic action. But when used in isolation from the exercise of other political rights, voting often provides too little accountability, too late. The electoral process, when not invigorated by a culture of accountability, often becomes a vehicle for domination, rather than a corrective for it.

    The right to assemble peaceably, the right to petition for the redress of grievances, and the right to speak freely are as essential to...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Ain’t It Awful?
    (pp. 85-92)

    In 1976 Sister Christine Stephens was part of a planning group that lured Ernie Cortés to Houston, to get grassroots organizing going in Texas. Two years later she joined him as a fulltime IAF organizer. She has served as the lead organizer in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and the Rio Grande Valley. Some of the Texas initiatives, she says, have been in place longer than any others currently affiliated with IAF. Christine now supervises IAF projects throughout Texas and in Louisiana and Mississippi. She is one of the four officers who alternate as director of the IAF at the national...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT The Authority to Lead
    (pp. 93-113)

    Democratic constitutions place power in the people’s hands. That power might rein in powerful elites if enough citizens made good use of it. But few citizens make much use of it at all, and many of those who do use it stumble so badly that they give up. Their potential power is never actualized.

    What kind of practice is it, then, to cultivate one’s power as a democratic citizen and use it well? It is apoliticalpractice because it attends to shared human arrangements in light of concerns and judgments that are not always in harmony. It is a...

  13. CHAPTER NINE On the Treatment of Opponents
    (pp. 114-124)

    Opposition to IAF is hardly limited to the private misgivings of husbands of female leaders. Every IAF group in Texas has had the moral authority of its leadership challenged vehemently in public. “We got labeled communist and every name in the book,” Elizabeth said. Leaders were often unprepared to hear such accusations being flung at them. Christine thought back to her early experiences organizing in Houston. Some opponents “sent letters to every parishioner in St. Jerome’s, attacking us.” To avoid early attacks of this sort, she would try to keep her organizing efforts relatively quiet until she had established enough...

  14. CHAPTER TEN Organize, Reflect, and Reorganize
    (pp. 125-133)

    One day during my tour of the Rio Grande Valley, Doug Greco, the lead organizer of Austin Interfaith, asked Elizabeth Valdez whether the breakdown of the social fabric that organizers in many communities have observed over the last thirty years had also occurred in the Texas borderlands. “It’s mixed,” she said, “but it’s getting to be that way,” especially in cities like McAllen and Harlingen. “The infrastructure can’t keep up, and the institutions can’t keep up.” Social fragmentation was now reaching the point where Elizabeth would have to rethink her strategy. No longer could she trade quite so readily on...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN The Compelling Force of the Ideal
    (pp. 134-147)

    At the end of my tour of the Rio Grande Valley, while Ernie Cortés and I were waiting in the airport before boarding our planes, I asked him what is least well understood about the network of citizens’ groups he has helped found throughout the Southwest. “Three things,” he said. “The first is the way we connect the experience of people with big ideas. The second is the way we function as a learning organization. The third is the fact that we don’t depend on a single strong individual.”

    Charisma often counts heavily in social settings where individuals are grouped...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE Face-to-Face Meetings
    (pp. 148-164)

    The great democratic reform movements have all exhibited commitment to the basic roles, ideals, and institutional formations of a democratic republic. There is also a good deal of continuity in this tradition at the level of organizational practice. We distort the ideals when we disconnect them from the practices in which they are embodied. Many of the activities and structures that can be found today in groups like Jeremiah and Valley Interfaith have antecedents in a tradition of reform that reaches back into the middle of the nineteenth century.

    Lincoln couldn’t have emancipated the slaves had there not been a...

  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN The Passion of St. Rose
    (pp. 165-180)

    Ernie Cortés appointed a number of new organizers during the reorganization of IAF in California. One of them was Daniel May, who had been on the job for about three years when he took me on a tour of the area in the summer of 2006. Daniel worked in the part of L.A. County known as the Southeast, which includes a collection of small cities that used to be white and working class in makeup but have recently become largely Latino, poor, and undocumented. The most densely populated of the cities there is Maywood, where at least thirty thousand people...

  18. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Blood and Harmony
    (pp. 181-185)

    A few blocks away from St. Rose is a section of the City of Los Angeles that has become so emblematic of gang violence and ethnic strife that officials have formally changed its name: what used to be called “South Central,” and thus shared its name with a 1992 movie about the Crips, is now officially known as “South Los Angeles.” Locals still refer to the area by the old name, and I will follow their lead here. South Central has approximately 1 million residents. The population density is half that of Maywood, but almost 6 times that of Los...

  19. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Fathers and Sisters for Life
    (pp. 186-195)

    As a Roman Catholic, the Opus Dei priest mentioned at the end of the previous chapter must be mindful of Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical letterThe Gospel of Life, which calls for “the establishment of a new culture of life.”⁹⁶ The encyclical contrasts the culture of life with its opposite, a “culture of death.” The latter is said to be “a veritablestructure of sin” in which abortion and euthanasia are tolerated rather than strictly prohibited under law (22, italics in original).

    Many Roman Catholics associated with IAF accept the Vatican’s position on the sanctity of life, but...

  20. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Pastors and Flocks
    (pp. 196-209)

    One of the most common charges against IAF groups is that they blur the line between religion and politics. Political opponents like Othal Brand use the charge to undermine the legitimacy of citizens’ organizations. But the charge also arises within parishes and congregations debating whether participating in a citizens’ group is appropriate. It is a charge that pastors, in particular, cannot ignore. How, then, do they answer it?

    We have seen that organizations like Jeremiah and Valley Interfaith rigorously avoid endorsing candidates, affiliating themselves with political parties, and donating money to campaigns. Their political goal, the participants say, is not...

  21. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN The Contested Sacred
    (pp. 210-234)

    Votes express preferences. When I cast my vote, I am saying that I prefer one candidate to the others in the running. I might have a strong preference, but still have misgivings about the roster of choices and how it was determined. Perhaps I find all of the candidates mediocre or worse. If I play little role in determining the roster of choices, the candidates are apt to be serving powerful interests more than they are serving mine. So my role in the process becomes perfunctory. The candidates want me to prefer them to their rivals and to express that...

  22. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Across Great Scars of Wrong
    (pp. 235-259)

    The delegates’ assembly of the Bay Area IAF organizations is a good example of how broad-based citizens’ organizations go about building coalitions. They neither exclude conceptions of sacred value from the discussion, nor require everyone to convert to a single conception of sacred value. Instead, they encourage citizens to speak openly about what matters most to them and to do so in the language most familiar to them, which is often the language of a religious tradition. Equally important, they go into each other’s sacred spaces and listen, while people say who they are. And then they break into small...

  23. CHAPTER NINETEEN The Organizer President
    (pp. 260-277)

    While I was completing the research for this book and beginning the process of writing it, Barack Obama emerged as a major figure in national politics. I couldn’t help noticing how often he made reference, in his speeches and books, to the need for a revival of grassroots politics. His campaign aimed to give hope to people who had grown alienated from party politics and the culture wars—in particular, to young people like my son, who suspected that the political system was simply beyond repair.

    The future president had entered public life as an organizer on the South Side...

  24. CHAPTER TWENTY Walking in Our Sleep
    (pp. 278-290)

    None of us knows what the future holds, of course, and I have no predictions to offer on the fate of grassroots democracy. The great reforms of the past were accomplished against what then seemed to be great odds. If there are still great reforms to come and if ordinary citizens are going to compensate for the emergence of new classes of masters, these things will be accomplished in the teeth of what will often appear to be insurmountable opposition.

    Of some things, however, we can be certain. To maintain a position of dominance, even the most powerful people in...

  25. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 291-294)
  26. Notes
    (pp. 295-328)
  27. Index
    (pp. 329-346)