A new tool for community organizers

C. Matthew Hawkins

On November 14th, 2007 then Senator Barack Obama met with Google employees to explain his vision of how to make government more accountable to ordinary people. In re-framing a question from one of Google’s employees Obama said, “It’s the classic question of how you get insiders to fix the system that they benefit from – and that’s hard.” Then the former community organizer and future president identified one of the most important elements of community organizing, “The key to any reform,” he said, “is to get the … people to pay attention.” He continued, “That’s why transparency is so important in this entire process. The more the … people know, the more the government [can] be held accountable.”

He added that the public generally has “generosity of spirit” and common sense, but that these assets have gone untapped because the public is too busy to get accurate information. “If you give [the public] good information,” he said, “their instincts are good and they’ll make good decisions.” The president’s recent announcement of the new rules from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will require cities and towns across the United States to analyze racial bias in their housing patterns and publicly report the results every three to five years. Cities will also be required to set goals, which will be tracked over time, for how they will reduce patterns of segregation. After 45 years this is an attempt to finally put some muscle behind the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

In announcing these changes, the president gave an example of how the program will work. His example sounded a lot like his description of the workings of grassroots empowerment seven and a half years earlier. The president said, “We’re using data on housing and neighborhood conditions to help cities identify the areas that need the most help”… adding that data would be open to the general public so that “everyone in a community — not just elected officials –— can weigh in. If you want a bus stop added near your home, or more affordable housing nearby, now you’ll have the data you need to make your case.”

As community-oriented stakeholders, such as faith-based institutions and community-based organizations, attempt to stabilize city neighborhoods with a mixed racial and ethnic demographic and socio-economic diversity the new rules from HUD could prove to be a powerful tool in the hands of skilled community organizers. Too often creative visions for the future of the city’s neighborhoods either never ripen or die on the vine due to lack of access to good, actionable information for neighborhood planning and lack of local government incentive to live up to the promise of the Fair Housing Act. In a subtle but meaningful way, these new rules from HUD could be a game-changer.

Matthew Hawkins was the Associate Director for Homewood Brushton Revitalization and Development Corporation and taught in the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. He is currently a seminarian studying theology for the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese.


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