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Building Powerful Community Organizations

Title: Building Powerful Community Organizations
Author : Michael Jacoby Brown

Reviewed by Bill Berkowitz, PhD

Building Powerful Community Organizations, by Michael Jacoby Brown (Long Haul Press: Arlington, Massachusetts, 2006). [Available from Long Haul Press, at 10 Brattle Terrace, Arlington, MA 02474, USA.]

For those involved with community practice, a key issue that often arises is doing organizational work in one's community. This doesn’t necessarily mean being a “Community Organizer,” (capital-C, capital-O), or being a “community activist,” with all the connotations that carries; but it does mean bringing people together around an issue or cause to achieve a desired goal.

Many people, and some practitioners included, do this kind of organizational
work by feel or intuition, or by the seat of their pants, and sometimes they are successful. But some premises of community practice are that we can get better with instruction and training; that there is a body of skills and techniques that can be tapped to improve results; and that these skills and techniques are learnable. The question then becomes where to learn them.

A practitioner seeking formal (rather than on-the-job) knowledge might turn to standard community organization textbooks, or print or online articles, all of which may have value. In Building Powerful Community Organizations, Michael Jacoby Brown, who is a professional community organizer and trainer of more than 30 years standing, provides a different and distinctive approach.

His is not a scholarly book, and makes no pretensions in that direction, though it has a good-sized annotated bibliography and web-based resource list. It’s rather a practical, step-by-step guide, a blend of workbook and text. And it’s in many ways a personal book, drawing extensively on personal experiences, and written quite colloquially; but at the same time it’s very specific, rigorous, and well-tested in actual practice.

Some details: the book contains 13 chapters, on the nature of community organizing, starting an organization, goals and objectives, structure, power, recruiting, leadership, meetings, raising money, organizing techniques, taking action, building community, and “where do we go from here?”

It’s accompanied by an attractive layout and graphics, plus multiple supplements, a distinctive feature: more than two dozen exercises (e.g., “Putting Your Vision into Words,” How to Plan a Visit”); a similar number of Quick Tips (e.g., “Humor Helps,” “Membership Cards for New Recruits”); 15 case studies (e.g., “From Advocacy to Organizing,” “Dividing up Tasks…”), and more than 75 personal stories with useful morals, (e.g., “Follow the Money,” Ask Before You Act,” “Respect People’s Time”). All of these are well dispersed and well integrated within the text so that each chapter flows smoothly. Building Powerful Community Organizations is a very attractive book to read and to follow.

Who is the book written for? In this case, a broad audience, certainly including anyone who wants to learn more about the nuts and bolts of organizing – but also anyone involved in a community project, whether they are themselves an organizer or not. Seasoned organizers will profit from it too, as will students in a wide variety of courses in the helping professions. I’ve used Brown’s book myself with graduate students, who rated it highly, though undergraduates should benefit from it as well.

Michael Jacoby Brown is an American, as is this reviewer. So will this book be helpful for those doing community practice elsewhere? I can't be entirely sure, but my guess is that it will. For there are constants in doing good community work: joining people together, setting goals, establishing group norms and structure, planning, increasing one’s power, getting the word out, making decisions, taking action. These
activities I believe are largely culture-independent, though specific applications of course will depend upon the particular cultural setting.

As someone who both teaches about, writes about, and practices community
organizing, I’ve seen dozens of books on this topic. Overall, Building Powerful Community Organizations is one of the very best I’ve reviewed; any community practitioner will benefit considerably from reading and using it.

 

Reviewer

Bill Berkowitz, PhD

Bill Berkowitz is an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Lowell, MA, USA.


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