Robert Fisher, PhD in Urban History from NYU, is Professor of Community Organization at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work. His specialties are community organizing, urban policy, social movements, social theory, and social welfare history.
Fisher proposes three types of community organizing that have existed in the U.S. since the 1880s: (1) the social work approach, which delivers services to neighborhoods; (2) the political activist approach, which considers power relations and opposition to be paramount; and (3) the neighborhood maintenance approach, which Fisher contends is best described as NIMBYism. Looking at these three types and specific examples, Fisher states: community organizing’s history is relevant. It can articulate all political ideologies and community organizing efforts are fully linked to the prevailing political economic context. The increasingly pro-market, pro-privatization national political economic context has been brought to bear such that it’s directed community development practices the last fifty years.
How? The attenuating welfare state / war on poverty of the 60s was followed by the proliferation of community development corporations (CDCs) in the 70s. By the 80s, these organizations were professionalized/privatized such that now CDCs must “accommodate themselves to [private interests] rather than redirect the course of the free market” (Marquez, 1993, as cited on 190). Contemporary community organizing is both fueled by grassroots efforts and marked by its moderate strategies, which Fisher regards as being “fraught with traps” (192). The organizer often drifts away from on-the-ground activism to negotiating with executives/politicians, becoming more of a broker herself, perhaps leading to the undermining of the cause’s efforts. Fisher predicts community organizing in the future will be more of the same: grassroots efforts with emphases on community economic development and pro-business strategies.