Political institutions often do not respond adequately to the social and economic difficulties people struggle with, and many who are concerned with these issues have instead worked within communities more directly to improve things. Barack Obama has spoken about the importance of community organizing, or “grassroots activism,” in his development as a political person, and in this class we will try to develop a feeling and understanding for this work and the people who do it. We’ll see some terrific movies, fiction and documentary, and have several discussions with long-time activists who have thought and written well about their experiences. We’ll spend days all over the city – downtown (Skid Row), south central, east LA, etc. — talking with community groups and accompanying them in their work, a different issue each day: high schools, gangs, slum housing, sweatshops, restaurant and hotel workers, AIDS, homelessness. These talks will be fairly personal and intense – for example, ex-gangbangers and ex-homeless people will speak with us about their lives on the street, how things changed for them, what these changes have meant.
Community organizers themselves will describe for us what brought them to this sort of work, how it’s done, what its frustrations and satisfactions have been. We’ll reflect together about these experiences at lunch, in some amazing community restaurants, and also write about our responses to them.