Saturday, January 06, 2007

Sunflower, agitation, radicals, and Saul Alinsky

Randy Schofield of the Wichita Eagle's editorial board wrote an column in Friday's paper praising and criticizing Sunflower Community Action.

It took 15 years, but the city of Wichita finally emptied the trash at 10th and Volutsia. About time. It was beginning to smell all across the city.

The home had become an outrageous monument to neighborhood blight, with piles of junk in the yard and an owner unwilling to clean it up.

Neighbors complained for years, to no avail.

This week, city workers finally hauled off the trash.

The neighbors are thrilled.

And a large share of the credit goes to Sunflower Community Action, a nonprofit group that is everywhere these days, agitating on issues such as racial profiling, blight and payday loans.

The group is getting attention and getting things done. But not everyone is thrilled with its tactics.

And I wonder myself: Does it go too far?

Schofield agonizes over whether Sunflower's sometimes confrontational tactics might turn people off. He writes
I still think such in-your-face protests are ill-advised, because they turn off many citizens inclined to support the group's efforts. They could also make decision makers less willing to talk and partner in a constructive way.
But in the end, he concludes

I'm certain of one thing: The piles of trash would still be festering in the yard at 10th and Volutsia without the months of aggressive activism by the Sunflower group. It's helping low-income neighborhoods that lack political clout find their voice.

Whatever you think about its tactics, give this to Sunflower: It's committed to getting things done.

The same thing can't always be said of our public officials.

I'm glad Sunflower is here, making some noise and shaking things up.
There was one curious moment in Schofield's column. He cites Sunflower organizer J.J. Selmon as saying that the group are not "dangerous radicals." Unfortunately, the term radical has been degraded in American parlance to mean simply extremist of the right or left. Historically, the term has a far wider meaning laid out in a wikipedia article
The term Radical (latin radix meaning root) was used from the late 18th century for proponents of the Radical Movement and has since been used as a label in political science for those favouring or trying to produce thoroughgoing political reforms which can include changes to the social order to a greater or lesser extent.

Selmon's main point was that Sunflower tactics are carefully chosen and implemented with discipline and care and tactical.

That's an approach very similar to Saul Alinsky, one of America's great community organizers whose most famous books are Rules for Radicals (1971) and Reveille for Radicals.(1946). in RfR Alinsky described radicals in this manner

America's radicals are to be found wherever and whenever America moves close to the fulfillment of its democratic dream. Whenever America's hearts are breaking, there American radicals were and are. America was begun by its radicals. America was built by its radicals. The hope and future of America lies with its radicals.

What is the American radical? The radical is that unique person to whom the common good is the greatest personal value. He is that person who genuinely and completely believes in mankind. The radical is so completely identified with mankind that he personally shares the pain, the injustices, and the sufferings of all his fellow men.

David Sirotta argues for the contemporary relevance of Alinksy in a recent book review.

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