How Power Dynamics Influence the Role of Social Work Community Practice in Sacrifice Zones
This paper analyzes the efforts of residents living within a Southwest Detroit “sacrifice zone” to secure a community benefits agreement in exchange for hosting a new international border crossing. It begins by describing the global and national political, economic, and social factors that create sacrifice zones by incentivizing the placement of hazardous facilities in our nation's most marginalized communities. It then asks: Despite structural constraints, are there opportunities for community-based practitioners and residents to organize to mitigate harm? What is the appropriate role for Social Work community practitioners within sacrifice zones?
To answer these questions, I present findings from more than three years of in-depth ethnographic research about the power dynamics within a community benefits agreement negotiation process. I argue that, in addition to studying policy-making processes after a CBA is “on the negotiation table”, one must also assess the processes and power dynamics that influence host communities’ ability to get a CBA on the political agenda in the first place. For example, if other political actors are able to keep an issue out of the political process, then they effectively block that policy from coming to fruition. Thus, my analytical approach compliments calls to re-conceptualize the study of power beyond simply “decision-making” so as to include “setting the agenda” (Bachrach & Baratz, 1962; Gaventa, 1982; Lukes, 1974, 2007).
By conceptualizing policy-making as a two-step process (first, the issue must be on the policy agenda and second it needs to be negotiated), I present a new conceptual framework to explain the power dynamics involved when a low-income community group organizes to secure a CBA. I introduce three categories of actors whose political interests complicate host communities’ efforts to get a benefits agreement on the table – even if they do not oppose the CBA itself. These categories include: (1) Groups that unconditionally oppose the proposed development; (2) Groups that unconditionally support the proposed development; and (3) Groups that support the idea of tangible benefits associated with new development, but view the host community as a “competitor” in efforts to secure their own concessions.
My findings help reveal mechanisms through which political and economic inequality are linked at the local level and they suggest important power dynamics that other low-income urban neighborhood stakeholders and community practitioners should consider before embarking on a CBA negotiation process. I conclude by discussing the potential and limitations of community practice to promote social change in an increasingly globalized and privatized world (DeFilippis, Fisher, & Shragge, 2010).