Community organizing scholarship is replete with accounts of grassroots movements working towards social justice. Increasingly diverse socioeconomic and cultural urban profiles can complicate feelings of belonging and community that are crucial to organizing. This study explored how a racially, socioeconomically and culturally diverse grassroots coalition organized for housing equity. Research questions elicited community organizers’ perspective on how they: (1) collaborated across diverse communities; (2) made decisions about agenda-setting and tactics; (3) manage intra-group and inter-group relationships.
This qualitative study is based on observations, interviews, and review of printed materials produced by community organizations. We employed purposive sampling for meaning; interview respondents included twenty activists and ten organizers involved in Baltimore housing equity initiatives from diverse racial/ ethnic, gender and socioeconomic backgrounds. Observations were conducted at relevant public venues and events such as town hall meetings and community forums. Data were analyzed using thematic analysis methods. In coding we used an interpretive, phenomenological lens that privileged participants’ perspectives.
Findings confirm that even in communities burdened by a contentious and violent history, organizing to address inequality is possible. This study identified a number of elements that contributed to such possibility. Organizing and coalition building focused on basic needs such as housing and health that were stated in broad terms that had wide resonance. Organizational mechanisms relied upon structured practices that allowed participants to know what to expect but were sufficiently flexible to promote free exchange of diverse opinions. Decisions were made using these mechanisms to arrive at mutual understanding and achieve legitimacy. Egalitarian decision-making was the most common process to agree on tactics regarding specific action items. Fundamental decisions regarding the coalition’s wider agenda were influenced by individual differences such as rhetorical skills and charisma. Relationship management is a vital part of organizing across diversity. Participants who joined these efforts already believed in the strength of solidarity and perceived social change as a personal calling, often spurred by personal or professional experiences. Their participation in organizing efforts, enhanced by organizational practices, reinforced the importance human connection and strengthened personal relationships.
Conclusions and Implications
A key question for scholars and practitioners is whether diversity improves the potential of mobilization by capitalizing on heterogeneous sources of talent, information, and networks to obtain synergistic outcomes or whether it impedes the formation of a collective identity needed for activists to take action. Our findings suggest that diversity is helpful in evoking creative ideas for community action, influencing power relations and achieving public legitimacy. However, it demands creating and sustaining personal relationships which requires an investment of energy, time and resources from all stakeholders. This underscores the importance of attending to relationships as a key component of organizing rather than an incidental benefit. Such relationships must explicitly acknowledge power relations, intersecting identities, and diverse subject positions from the onset. Organizational mechanisms that reinforce connections and shared commitments, such as transparent and egalitarian decision-making processes, can help to sustain diverse coalitions in their social justice work.