In contemporary urban settings, often characterized by ethnic divide, intergroup tensions and deep class-based conflicts, community organizers serve their communities while navigating a fraught political environment. However, despite their critical impact in promoting social changes and manage turbulent urban conflicts, the study of community organizers as street-level bureaucrats is still scarce.
This qualitative study addresses this gap, examining community organizers' patterns of discretion and coping-strategies within the complex context of Israeli Jewish-Arab mixed cities. These cities are a unique case-study since they are characterized by social inequalities and ethnocultural diversity, shaped also by the broader context of the violent ongoing Israeli-Palestinian national conflict.
Grounded in social constructivist perspective, the study is based on a purposive sample of 32 public community organizers in four mixed cities in Israel (Haifa, Acre, Ramla and Lod). The sample represents both Jews and Arabs that are involved in diverse community initiatives such as urban renewal projects and mediations between cultural groups. Participants were recruited via the municipal social services. Data were gathered through in-depth semi-structured interviews. The interviews elicited participants’ perceptions, challenges and coping-strategies that characterize their work in Israeli mixed cities. Interviews were transcribed verbatim, and coded thematically using 'MAXQDA', a qualitative software program, guided by the constructivist grounded theory approach. Data was analysed across cities as well as across Jews and Arabs.
We found that ambiguous formal national and municipal policy, allows public community organizers ample room to shape, interpret, translate, and implement policies in diverse ways. Participants’ views of the urban community shaped their use of discretion when implementing policy and building the community’s identity and character. The analysis uncovered three main images of the urban community: community as an encounter of cultures; community as unequal power relations and institutional discrimination; and community as nationally conflicted relations. We identified six main patterns of discretion, that sought to affect, reinforce, or change these representations of community, including: promoting cultural and linguistic accessibility, promoting community activities of ‘knowing the other’, developing public services for the Arab population, redistributing public resources, and mitigating tensions between the Jewish and Arab populations. Additionally, we found that initiatives that directly engage with the national conflict are perceived as out of bounds.
Conclusions and implications
The study shows that community organizers in mixed cities are de facto unformal policy decision makers. Moreover, it reveals that participants' images of community actively shape their discretion and coping-strategies. Based on our study, we offer a conceptualization to understand community street level bureaucrats’ use of discretion and discuss the ability of public community organizers to challenge hegemony political discourse in political conflict-ridden environments. The study highlights the importance of developing formal policies for engaging with communities in contested cities. Such policies might advance the ability of public community services to address social and ethnic inequalities, within the broader context of violent-political conflict.