REFLECTIONS OF A COMMUNITY ORGANIZER

Here are thoughts of Frank Brodhead, coordinator of Concerned Families of Westchester, a group in the Hudson River towns of Hastings on Hudson and Dobbs Ferry that focuses on environmental and anti-war action, delivered on April 28, 2016 when he received an award for his work from the WESPAC Foundation. https://wespac.org/category/s11-myblog/

What I’ve Learned in 15 Years with
Concerned Families of Westchester
Frank Brodhead
April 28, 2016

I’m not talking about learning the geography of Iraq or the physics of climate change. I’m talking about being a member of community-based, issue-focused organization. I think we do or have done four things that might be of interest to others.

#1 – Cast Down Your Bucket Where You We Are.

This is a phrase from a Herman Melville story, later popularized by Booker T. Washington. In Melville’s story, sailors, dying of thirst, came across another ship and begged for fresh water. “Cast down your bucket where you are,” they were told. They couldn’t believe this bad idea, and begged again for water. They were told the same thing, “Cast down your bucket.” So they gave it a try, and found it was true. They were at the mouth of the Amazon River, and the water was fresh and pure. They had only to cast down their bucket to save themselves.

In the days and weeks after 9/11, we in the Rivertowns of Westchester were also in crisis. As people do, dozens residents of Dobbs Ferry and Hastings began meeting frequently to talk about the twin towers attack, what it meant for us and the world, and what to do about it. Casting down our bucket where we were, we found dozens of people who agreed with our concerns and what to do about them. So over the years CFOW’s ship has remained in place as a community-based organization, agitating and educating among our neighbors.

Of course we are not permanently anchored. We also participate in protests and other political action in faraway places like White Plains or NYC, or Indian Point. But for us the point is not just to protest, but also to inform our neighbors about what’s going on, invite them to join us, and report back to our anchorage when we’re finished. We try to embody the idea of thinking globally and acting locally.

#2 – The Medium Shapes the Message

As a community-based organization, we naturally rub shoulders with neighbors who have differences with us, or agree with us but are too busy to get involved themselves. To address this gap between “us” and “them,” we use weekly antiwar protests, leafleting at the farmers market, a weekly newsletter, and writing letters for the local newspaper. We also do fun things such as our fundraising concerts at Susan Rutman’s house on the Hudson River. We are the sand in the gears of complacent business as usual.

This face-to-face style of work is in contrast with several other styles of political work commonly used today. In Westchester, a lot of political work involves holding events that reach the awareness other people because the event appears on television or is read about in the newspaper. I question whether this media-focused political work is worth the effort that must go into it, and I think we should give more consideration to community-based, face-to-face education.

#3 – We’re a Jazz Ensemble, Not a Political Party

Today many political activists have moved beyond the hierarchical form of traditional political parties to something more “horizontal” or “collective.” “Occupy” was one example of this. The new political movements in Europe – in Greece, Spain, and Portugal especially – are examples of how such movements can be important on a national scale. Something new is happening, and this virus has now come to the United States.

I like to think of CFOW’s organization as something like a jazz ensemble. We work with melody, variations, solos, and improvisation to present our music to the public. CFOW has a melody – fighting war and global warming, working for democracy and social justice. When new issues come up, we work out variations to this melody. When we are working together well, several people take a solo turn, rather than having the same people be the leaders in everything. And when accidents happen, which is pretty often, our jazz ensemble has to improvise. We are like a Montessori school, learning by doing.

#4 – We Are a Caring Community

This is the most important point. CFOW has established a sense of community or solidarity that is rare in political organizations. It sometimes feels like we are a therapeutic community. The world landscape of many wars and the imminence of catastrophic climate change make this an extremely depressing moment. Being part of a community that is trying to understand and do something about our world helps us as individuals to do what needs to be done without plunging into total despair.

Conclusion

Despite many difficulties inherent in any kind of political work, and with any kind of political organization, I think community-based, issue-directed organizing is the way to go. I think that my experience in CFOW has nurtured that idea and filled it out, often in unexpected ways. It is my hope that, before too long, we can establish a network or federation of similar-minded groups in Westchester that will support each other and make our work more effective.

Thank you very much for listening.