Guest Blog: Andy Oram, editor of the Art Of Community

Friends, today I am proud to throw over the microphone to a guest blogger who is a member of the Art Of Community family: Andy Oram.

Andy is one of the editors of the book and has written a fascinating piece called Lobbyists’ tricks: the difference between coalition-building and community-building. Enjoy!

It seems strange that I would think about communities while reading So Damn Much Money, a new book by Robert G. Kaiser that traces the rise of high-stakes lobbying and cash-driven political campaigning over the past thirty-five years.

Everybody in Kaiser’s book is engaged in the pursuit of either money or a narrow ideological cause. There seems to be nothing about respect for ordinary people, tolerance for diverse opinions, the pursuit of common goals, or any of the things we talk about on this site and others when we discuss communities.

But would you believe it? When lobbyists do their job, there are things that make me think, “Hey, we do that too.” I’m involved in many online communities and am part of Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, the Boston arm of the community organizing movement. And superficially, some of these lobbyist activities did seem similar.

Eventually I realized that coalition-building–which is what the lobbyists and the campaign donors who seek favors do–is fundamentally different from community-building. But I think those of us who seek to build communities may fall into the trap of coalition-building. So the lessons in this blog may be valuable to you.

A major corporation or university looking for an earmark, a tax break, or relief from pesky regulations like those preventing pollution needsto build a coalition. This involves such tasks as:

  • Taking a hard look at your company to assess its strengths and weaknesses. You want to ask for money that builds on your strengths or corrects your weaknesses.

  • Finding leaders in your geographic area to plead your cause. It’s great to have a major company’s CEO call for the same law as the president of a major university. Or a major newspaper columnist, or a leading religious figure, or a state senator, or someone else with control over money and other resources.

  • Coordinating a campaign. Figure out who the thought leaders are, and who they’re likely to listen to. The local media may pay attention to your mayor, whereas your Senator may ignore him because he’s in a different political party–but if the head of a local pharmaceutical company calls up the Senator’s office, that might be a different story.

Like community-building, coalition-building is all about relationships. To pass a bill you want the favors of the head of the relevant Senate or House committee. If your kids go to the same school as his chief aide, you have the nose of the camel in the tent. If the person who was his chief aide two years ago works for you now, the nose is more of a hump. None of this means anything without money, but the relationships are crucial.

If you do any community work, you’ll recognize here many of the central elements of community organizing. Play on your strengths, bring the right people together, etc.

But the similarities are superficial. The differences arise from one enormous gulf between coalition-building and community-building: the reason for being together.

Communities respect the needs of their members and allow ideas to bubble up from the grass roots. Furthermore, the work they do strengthens their relationships. Sometimes, the improvements in relationships outweigh any actions the communities undertake.

In contrast, coalitions are lash-ups driven by rich companies or individuals, where one person pushes a goal for his own benefit, and other hangers-on sign up to further their own personal goals. It’s “I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine.” The coalition disbands when the earmark is awarded, each member taking his little stash back to his hole in the ground to gnaw on.

Most of the people reading this blog don’t have a few hundred thousand dollars to slip into a Congressional campaign. But you’re still at risk of falling into some of anti-community traps. Some of the distinctions were taught to me years ago by an organizer for Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, and some were suggested by Kaiser’s book.

If we try to persuade others to support our goals instead of asking what everyone’s goals are and finding common ground, we’ve flirted with the temptation of coalition-building.

If we put the “win” above the goal of improving our relationships with our community members, we’re sliding from community-building to coalition-building.

If we value the endorsement of some industry leader or other “big name” over the efforts of dozens or thousands of everyday folks volunteering their time, we’ve abandoned the community for a coalition.

Certainly, members of coalitions form friendships along the way. I’m willing to grant these are real, heart-felt relationships. But they don’t add up in any way to a community; at best they can enrich the lives of the rich guys who form them, and at worst they’re cynical covers for future mutual back-scratching.

I recommend So Damn Much Money. Anyone who has followed American politics for a while knows the outlines of the story, but the twists and turns have a lot to teach us. Their are many villains in the book, but no one who had the power to turn around the problem. Kaiser hands out blame to all sides (Democrats and Republican, pollsters and campaign organizers, lobbyists and aides) as even-handedly as the donors hand out money.

I don’t buy every assertion Kaiser makes (for instance, did the turning point in American politics really come in June 1976 with an idea hatched by renowned chemist Jean Mayer?) but I respect his research. Luckily, we have an opportunity to fix politics that hasn’t come since Watergate, or maybe since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

A lot of it will come from communities. Let’s build them.

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