The Multinational Monitor


B O O K   R E V I E W

Activist Primers

Bridging the Global Gap: A Handbook to Linking
Citizens of the First and Third Worlds

By Medea Benjamin and Andrea Freedman.
Washington, DC: Seven Locks Press, 1989.
338 pages, $11.95

Commonwealth: A Return to Citizen Politics
By Harry C. Boyte.
New York: The Free Press, 1989.
221 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by William Jackson

Both Bridging the Global Gap by Medea Benjamin and Andrea Freedman and Commonwealth by Harry C. Boyte are about citizen movements. Bridging the Global Gap shows the extraordinary range and diversity of citizen organizations in the United States, while Commonwealth focuses on the experiences of a specific set of U.S. community-based groups which share a common philosophy.

Bridging the Global Gap is a much needed overview of the wide array of solidarity groups working with communities in the Third World. Benjamin and Freedman report on alternative tourism, citizen exchanges, consumer action, human rights, fair trade and the cooperative movement, activities which they point to as a modern-day incarnation of the international spirit which sparked efforts like the solidarity brigades of U.S. citizens who fought in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

The authors stress the value of people-to-people ties as a means to express and solidify relations with citizens throughout the world. Many U.S. cities and towns have established "sister city" relationships with cities and towns in Latin America and Africa. Such a relationship exists between Decatur, Georgia and the city of Ouahigouya in Burkina Faso in West Africa, for example. Visiting delegations have gone back and forth between Georgia and Burkina Faso, and the Georgians have helped to support the Burkina efforts to combat hunger and poverty. Often these relationships are based on humanitarian ideals rather than overt political action, but despite the initial humanitarian impulse, residents of Decatur learned that their activities had political implications, since the U.S. government was engaged in a conflict with Burkina over its support of liberation struggles.

Decatur residents especially praise the two-way nature of the sister city program. While U.S. cities are providing money and supplies to their sister communities, the sister city relationship subverts the historical charitable relationship between industrial and developing nations; each of the sister cities has something to offer the other.

The U.S. participants in the Decatur-Burkina exchange, once they discarded their presuppositions about Africans, gained political insight from their African partners. "Americans hold onto the myth that we're the ones who get things done," the authors quote Gary Gunderson of Decatur as saying. "Africans, we say, are very nice and sincere people, but they can't organize. Well, our Burkinabe partners are highly organized, committed .... [O]ne thing we've learned from them is the need to organize ourselves and to be clear about our goals."

Some U.S. activists have found that their mere physical presence can protect Third World progressives from repression. The Marin Interfaith Task Force on Central America, for example, sends volunteers to San Salvador in support of the Independent Human Rights Commission of El Salvador. The church group was activated when it learned about the torture and imprisonment of members of the Commission. Church group members act as escorts for Salvadoran commissioners in danger of assassination by right wing death squads and take testimony about the killings and disappearances.

While valuing the work of groups like the Marin Interfaith Task Force, Benjamin and Freedman find problems with the "relatively narrow focuses" of many U.S. progressive activists. The single- issue approach fails, they say, because it must confront a more broadly encompassing vision. While there is "a network of activists, poised to respond to the needs of individual countries," the U.S. government is "carrying out similar policies all over the world." In part, the authors argue, single-issue groups fail to recognize that their issue is not necessarily "the" issue but one part of a larger problem. The single-issue focus also exacerbates an often crippling dependence on fickle media coverage.

Ensuring the continuity of progressive organizations is a formidable challenge. Benjamin and Freedman believe the international spirit can provide a common bond between single- issue activists and help meet the challenge. But if progressive groups are to grow, the authors argue, they must establish democratic structures to match their democratic goals.

One issue the authors do not adequately explore is the distinction between solidarity work (people-to-people programs) and efforts to influence actors in the First World who affect the Third World. While both are fuelled by the spirit of internationalism and the two approaches are complementary, both individuals and organizations must make choices about how to allocate their limited resources. People-to-people programs may be uniquely valuable to activists in the United States who benefit from their interaction with Third World people, but it is worth considering whether Third World people derive greater benefits from efforts to change the U.S. government's foreign policy or to curb abuses by multinational corporations. The focus of Bridging the Global Gap is on solidarity actions, though it does contain a chapter on consumer and corporate accountability and one on efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy.

In contrast to Benjamin and Freedman's book, Commonwealth: A Return to Citizen Politics emphasizes domestic, community-based organizations. Boyte describes and analyzes attempts to create a democratic citizen politics around the idea of commonwealth, "citizen authority over 'the commons,' .. . an alternative to technocratic, top-down politics." Through an analysis of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the work of its founder, Saul Alinsky, and his followers such as Arnie Graf of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) and Ernesto Cortes of Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), the author traces the evolution of commonwealth principles and the growth of citizen power.

Like Benjamin and Freedman, Boyte is concerned with organizational structures and decision-making processes as well as the goals or results of individual organizations. His ideal conception of a community group is one which is able to reconcile the process of gaining power, in which Alinsky broke new ground, and the goals of that process.

The examples of the IAF, BUILD and COPS show clearly the advantage of tapping the cultural and religious roots of a community both in forming a group and determining its objectives. The organizations portrayed in Commonwealth are established by groups of people within communities in accord with their needs and beliefs.

Each case seems to define a particular vision of the commonwealth idea. But Boyte makes clear that the vision is not static. The selection of a particular tactic may reflect a re- definition of the group's original philosophy and goal. When BUILD leaders approached Baltimore Superintendent of Schools Alice Pinderhughes, for instance, they found that they had a common interest in remedying the problem of supply shortages within the school system and they then agreed to announce and discuss the problem publicly and together. Rather than forcing a confrontation, BUILD was able to work in coalition with groups in the city which had overlapping interests. The BUILD organizers found that it was not only parents and educators who had a stake in improving the schools, Boyte writes. "From the point of view of a few key business leaders as well, schools provided a perfect "neutral issue" around which to repair a badly fractured city."

Along with the principles of working in concert with beliefs and values which exist in the community and of creating power, IAF organizers stress what they call the "relational" aspect of wielding power. Boyte describes this view, writing that by acting to change another person or thing, the actors are also effecting change in themselves. "A relational view of power changes the dynamics of one-way operations. It recognizes the constant transformation of self as well as "other" in any power exchange...."

For this reason, Boyte argues, it is important that change take place within the framework of self-evaluation and community participation. In this context, Boyte is critical of Alinsky's emphasis on tactics and the pursuit of power disconnected from the community values and larger social vision which he considers integral to the idea of commonwealth. Boyte believes that the loss of commitment to commonwealth stunted the development of the progressive left and enabled the reactionary right to grow by laying claim to the community values abandoned by progressives:

Thus a generation of new, progressive citizen organizations developed with an arsenal of effective techniques and methods for day-to-day grass-roots mobilization, yet with goals devoid of larger vision and purpose. In contrast a right-wing version of populism ... proved far more effective in expressing older civic themes in the 1970s and eighties.

The examples of current IAF projects, however, leave Boyte hopeful. In his estimation, they represent a renewal of the commonwealth tradition, educating citizens for public life while remaining grounded in community values.

Yet it is fair to ask if Boyte is too optimistic. He focuses on the dynamics of community activism at the expense of the dominant institutions of society, not dealing sufficiently with how community organizations can function effectively as countervailing forces to corporate and government power.

Even more than Benjamin and Freedman's emphasis on solidarity, Boyte's emphasis on commonwealth values may limit his analysis by skirting the issue of how to significantly affect the actions of society's dominant political and economic institutions. Still, both Bridging the Global Gap and Commonwealth are useful resources for activists working for a just social order.

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