When the U.S. Presidential election of November 2016 was won by a real estate mogul-turned-reality TV star who promised to “make America great again,” there was shock, confusion, fear, and anger among many people. Despite these strong feelings, or perhaps because of them, activists came together to resist the messages of the campaign and to attenuate the forthcoming policies that the country inevitably would be facing. Concerns included xenophobia, racism, and hostile immigration and policing policies; misogynistic rhetoric, gender-based violence, and regressive policies for women; tax reform that would continue to favor the rich and abandon the middle class, working class, and poor; and environmental policies that would roll back existing protections and quicken climate change. These concerns set off a resistance movement (#Resist) that included various forms of direct action and organizing. One of the first momentous occasions of the resistance came in the form of the January 2017 Women's March. It was one of the largest marches in U.S. history, bringing together over 200,000 people in Washington, D.C. and somewhere between 3 and 5 million people in other locations across the United States (2017 Women's March, Wikipedia, 2017
Some 10 days later, the President issued Executive Order 13769, titled Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, known commonly as the Muslim Ban. This resulted in detainments and the revocation of visas, especially from those people from traditionally Muslim countries; legal residents found themselves detained at airports for indefinite periods of time. One response from organizers and activists was to hold direct actions in airports. Holding signs that said, “all are welcome here,” “nation of immigrants,” and “child of refugee,” protestors sought to push back on this form of anti-immigration policy. Legal advocates pursued court action and the courts ruled that the executive orders (including later iterations of the original ban) were unconstitutional and an abuse of Presidential power, though one iteration still remains in place pending further legal action (National Immigration Law Center, 2019
Around the same period of time (June 2016), the British people voted to leave the European Union. Known as Brexit, the referendum can be explained by pointing to two key trends. One was the increased use of U.S.-style austerity measures implemented by Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May, which slashed social welfare supports creating a sense of scarcity and diminished material conditions and well-being for the British people (Penny, 2019
). The second was a rise in anti-immigration sentiment that had been sweeping across Europe in the face of a refugee crisis and austerity. Such anti-immigration rhetoric often takes the form of: “they're taking our resources!” “they're taking our jobs!” barely masking underlying sentiments of racism and xenophobia. As of this writing, the future of Brexit is unknown, but what is clear is that it is part of a global trend that has been building for decades.
Scholars and journalists have argued that there is a resurgence of nationalism, right-wing populism, and fascism sweeping the globe today (Giroux, 2017
). According to Cornell and Seely (2016)
: “Trump's entire movement is rooted in an ethnic, racial, and linguistic nationalism that sanctions and glorifies violence against designated enemies and outsiders, is animated by a myth of decline and nostalgic renewal, and centered on a masculine cult of personality.” Populism, which can be left-wing or right-wing, has been defined as “a strategic approach that frames politics as a battle between the virtuous, “ordinary” masses and nefarious or corrupt elite” (Rice-Oxley & Kalia, 2018
). In recent years, such trends have been taking place in France, Hungary, Poland, Italy, and Turkey, to name a few. At the same time, progressive activists have continued to push for the needs of poor, low-income, and working class people as in the case of the Poor People's Campaign in the U.S., the safety and rights of women as expressed in the global #MeToo movement, and the well-being and dignity of African Americans in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The current mobilization around climate change activism that started in the U.K., known as the Extinction Rebellion, seeks to mobilize immediate policy change and action with the basic goal of preserving the human race. If viewed with a critical mind, nationalist, fascist, and neoimperialist trends can help community organizers bring the intersections of economic, gender, racial, and earth (in)justice into clearer focus.
Regardless of the time period or circumstances, community organizing, community building, and activism require some combination of the following activities: gathering information, identifying grievances, bringing aggrieved people and their allies together, reframing issues, building on community strengths, developing leadership, disrupting the status quo, confronting those in power who have the ability to make decisions, and creatively building and healing communities through mutual aid and resilience building.
Scholars have noted that in order to address injustice and engage in community organizing, citizens must feel that their way of life is being threatened (Kieffer, 1984
) it is often a galvanizing event that serves to marshal together diverse individuals and groups. In 2016, in the U.S., the election was one such galvanizing event. The shootings of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in New York electrified the movement for Black lives. After the shootings of George Floyd and Breona Taylor, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, #BlackLivesMatter was regalvanized. When construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline was approved and set to be built under the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and part of Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, tribe members, who viewed the construction as a threat to clean water and burial grounds, set up a camp in protest, triggering the #NODAPL Standing Rock protests.
And yet, community organizing does not always happen in the context of an event as highly publicized as an election or environmental disaster or pandemic. Most injustices happen without media coverage; they are not in full view for the world to see on television or social media, even though we are seeing more injustice in full view today than we have ever been able to in human history due to the power and scope of digital technology. Most organizing is happening at the institutional, neighborhood, and community levels in response to everyday realities of gentrification, environmental racism, mass incarceration, and school violence. Or, at the state level, as organizers and advocates work to address issues, such as minimum wage, health care, and election reform.
Moreover, most injustice is masked by a narrative that describes it otherwise. Consider the welfare discourse in the early years following the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), known as welfare reform, which reduced the amount of
time a person could receive public benefits and emphasized a “work first” philosophy (Kilty & Segal, 2003
). Many politicians and media stated that welfare reform had been a success. The welfare rolls had been reduced by half, but many people knew another side to the story, particularly the people who were in need of public benefits and were living the reality of poverty in the United States. Some scholars and activists understood that many of the individuals receiving public benefits had no choice but to work minimum wage jobs and had little prospects for increasing their chances of making more money (Cancian, 2001
). If the goal of welfare reform had been to reduce the rolls, then indeed maybe it was a success, but one had to ask whether it was even the right goal in the first place: What about living-wage employment opportunities? What about adequate food, health care, child care, education, and housing? (Jones–DeWeever, 2006
; Taliaferro, 2005
). Who were the real beneficiaries of welfare reform? It is in the asking of such questions that the work of progressive community organizers really begins.
As noted, the rise of public welfare retrenchment, nationalism, and regressive policymaking has not just been happening in the United States. It is part of a larger global trend transpiring in the context of neoliberal capitalism1
, in the backdraft of the 2008 recession, and amidst increasing levels of austerity measures across the globe, and now in the context of a pandemic and another economic recession. For many people, including some who support the idea of “making America great again,” global capitalism has failed the majority as jobs are outsourced and disparity grows. According to Joseph Stiglitz, “Since 1978, CEO pay has grown by 937 percent and the pay of an average worker grew by just 11.2 percent” (Goodman, Gonzalez, & Stiglitz, 2019
The mid-1970s in the United States denote the beginning of neoliberalism and the retrenchment of social welfare services, laying the foundation for comprehensive welfare reform (Mink, 1999
; Quadagno, 1996
). This new federalism was marked by an emphasis on devolution and privatization (Karger & Stoesz, 2017
). Responsibility for social welfare provision was placed in the hands of states and local entities and, ultimately, in the hands of private contractors. Faith-based service providers, social service organizations, and informal citizen networks, i.e. civil society, have attempted to pick up the pieces and coordinate the human welfare needs of citizens with minimal assistance from the government. The idea of “cradle to grave” support for citizens, if it were ever achieved, has become more elusive than ever.
These policies evolved from a neoliberal philosophy of the political economy that emphasizes trickle-down economics, free-market capitalism, and social Darwinism (Karger & Stoesz, 2017
). This philosophy is based on a “liberal” approach to the flows of capital, unrestricted by governmental interventions. According to Giroux (2005)
, this neoliberalism
“wages an incessant attack on democracy, public goods, and noncommodified values” (p. 2). During the 1980s and 1990s, these neoliberal free markets were ever-expanding into global venues. This globalization has been referred to as the most significant restructuring of political and economic arrangements since the Industrial Revolution (Mander, 2001
). The term globalization
is a complex and loaded term, and for some, it may refer to the increasing degrees of interconnectedness across the world in terms of transportation, communication, and culture. For others, it is a distinctively economic term referring to crossnational economic transactions between corporations and governments (Streeten, 2001
), which has been marked by tremendous economic growth benefitting the few.
Multinational and other corporations from the global North, that is, “developed countries,” have for some time been expanding into new territories, or markets, in the “developing” global South. Unfortunately, as these corporations open factories in places, such as Mexico, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Turkey, it often happens without attention to living wages, quality of life of vulnerable citizens and families, or the well-being of the planet. Disparity grows in these countries reinforcing the status of the elite minority as poverty accelerates for the majority. Free-trade policies and structural adjustment programs have continued to defy attempts to protect workers' wages and conditions worldwide. Studies have shown that such policies have had deleterious consequences for the environment and the quality of life of workers, mothers, children, and poor people throughout the world (Kentikelenis, Stubbs, & Thomson, 2017
; Lechner & Boli, 2004). Incessant growth means extractivism of natural resources from the environment and the reporting of increasing profits resulting in jobless ...