Action For Change

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

by Larry B. McNeil,

Director, West Coast Industrial Areas Foundation

From Parks as Community Places: San Francisco 1998, a publication on an Urban Parks Institute conference.

A veteran of 26 years of organizing, Larry B. McNeil is the West Coast Director for the Industrial Areas Foundation. He began his organizing career in 1972 when the United Methodist Church hired Mr. McNeil to organize in North Nashville. Mr. McNeil has served as a member of the national Industrial Areas Foundation staff since 1977, organizing in Chicago, New York, and California. He has trained thousands of institutional leaders and organizers throughout the United States and United Kingdom.

Frankly, I was a little reluctant to talk to all of you, because I've heard that a good number of you are somewhat crazy. The very fact that you favor public spaces puts you on the ideological fringe of society. Market ideology has so triumphed in the way we think about cities, about public spaces, about government, about schools, about our mediating institutions, that the whole concept of what is public has been somewhat warped.

However, you are in a fine tradition. Teddy Roosevelt was crazy. Having ridden his horse through the majestic hills and valleys of Yellowstone, he made it a national park. California congressman Phil Burton was crazy. In four years he preserved more national park and wilderness land than all presidents and congresses before him combined, creating parks in almost every state in the union. His legislation preserved nearly 5% of the landmass of California and nearly 10% of the entire land mass in the United States.

The mothers who moved their baby carriages onto the construction sites in Central Park were crazy. They were up against the most powerful man in New York, Robert Moses. Even though he sent his crews into the park at night, and put a fence around the site so that the mothers couldn't get in, the mothers eventually beat him, and the southern part of Central Park was saved from commercial destruction.

"Crazy" is when you look at the world through two sets of eyes. The eyes of the world as it is, and the eyes of the world as it should be or could be. Most people get stuck in the world as it is. They become so mired in the present that they forget to imagine. Utopians make the opposite mistake. They become so enthralled in their vision of the future that they fail to do the dirty day-to-day work to make their vision real.

That was why my colleagues and I in the Industrial Areas Foundation look for leaders who are integrated schizophrenics. These are leaders with double vision. They can actually see what is not there, and they can see the practical organizing and political steps that make that vision a reality. They join a long line of practical visionaries whom the world often views as crazy.

Many of you are doubly crazy. Because you say that place is important. Management guru Peter Drucker says that place is irrelevant. Most multi-national CEO's say place is irrelevant. Our global economy has divorced investment, work, product, and market. We talk to global strangers on the Internet.

And yet in the midst of these massive, fragmenting changes, many of you consistently pursue a philosophy of the human race that places us humans in families and communities; that has nurtured us through the mediating institutions of church and synagogue and mosque and union, school, neighborhood and civic institutions; that places us in a sustainable environment as caring custodians of the earth. You must be nuts.

Because we are running against the stream of the dominant culture, we must be very good at creating change. And if you want change, you have to organize, and you've got to mobilize. Amateurs and do-gooders almost always want to skip the organizing and go to the mobilizing. That is why they often fail and why the changes they win often don't last. So, let's start where you have to start, with organizing.


There is no such thing as an un-organized community. It doesn't exist. Every community is organized. But most communities are organized for failure. A large part of that failure is that the majority of people have no voice in the decisions that affect them. They are spectators and consumers. They exercise some control over the remote control, and can choose between offerings on the Home Shopping Network, but they have little voice on public decisions about schools, land use, transportation, health care, and economic development.

Without a voice and without connection to others, people tend to become bitter, removed and cynical. They become "factoid opinionated" - fair game for radio and TV talk shows, where intensity and certainty take the place of argument and debate, and where private opinion always wins out over public judgment.

In the face of this very common condition, leaders and organizers have to make a fundamental decision: do I look at these under-involved people as assets, or do I look at them as liabilities? Do I seek to tap into their abilities or do I try to avoid them as problem-causing distractions? My bias is clear: the most under-utilized resource in America is the brain power of the average citizen. People who live and work in a place already know a lot. If asked to think, they will. Given a respectful opportunity, they can be part of a listening, collaborating collective that is productive and wise.

Now, you've got to do three things before you start mobilizing. Number one, you must build a base. Number two, you must do both empirical and experiential research. Number three, you must do a power analysis.

Building a base

Power is the currency of public life. You can't effectively play in the public arena without power. Maybe you can cite a few examples in which power was not determinable, but the smart use of power will decide most issues.

The first step of organizing therefore is to disorganize the already organized community and to re-organize it into an inclusive form of power. Now, we do that through conversation. Throw away your surveys - throw away your polls. They can only tell you people's opinions. The only way I know to bring different kinds of people together is through face-to-face conversation. And our tools for that are the individual face-to-face meeting and the small group or house meeting.

We are attempting to break up the old ways of doing things - to create new and different kinds of conversation that open people and institutions to new alignments and new arrangements. The purpose of these conversations is to get past stereotype and the differences of race, religion, region, position and philosophy. Their center is the exchanging of story - the story that points to one's uniqueness and particularity. Often these stories contain pain, humor, and perseverance. But as these conversations occur by the hundreds, with people engaging the people they hadn't known or only perfunctorily, the old patterns of relating begin to appear narrow and past-oriented.

The circles of people in the discussion expand so that new perspectives are added. Slowly, as these conversations continue, what we might be able to do together begins to expand. We have created significantly more capacity for future action because the people are in relationship with one another. Institutions used to doing things their own way and by themselves are now in relationship, creating an institutional power base for change.

All too often, people skip this step. They skip the systematic disorganization and reorganization. Being task or issue-oriented, they end up skimming off people from various institutions who are already activists or issue-oriented. Usually that's a very small group. The all too familiar pattern is that these small bands of activists work themselves to death while verbally abusing the uncommitted. The uninvolved go along with their lives, cut off from the opportunity to act for themselves or to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Someone once said, "No man on his deathbed ever regretted the time he spent with his children." No leader or organizer will ever regret the organizational time devoted to disorganizing and reorganizing their base.

What we must remember is that we are organizing for sustainable change. We can't take short cuts, rally people around an issue, and be equally effective. Many people are fearful to go into action unless they know their allies, since the very nature of action is open-ended and unpredictable (you never know what reaction you're going to cause). However, trust created ahead of time allows maximum flexibility inside an action. Deeply connected leaders can risk more. They can have setbacks and still hold together. Thinly connected leaders will act more cautiously, not unlike thinly connected couples who have to dance around hard issues for fear of separation. Deeply connected leaders focus more on results. Thinly connected leaders worry about tactics and who gets the credit.

Our job then is to find established leaders and connect them to potential leaders. Let me be clear on my definition of the leader: a leader is someone with a following who can deliver that following. Don't get seduced by people with titles, degrees, loud voices and eloquent words. Definitely don't get seduced by 30-day wonders who talk a good game but don't follow through, nor by entrenched critics who inflate themselves by always being against. It is easy to mobilize against things. It is harder and more demanding to organize for something.

Also, please - please - realize ahead of time there is no such thing as a community person. Start instead with the assumption that people are complicated, multi-layered, multi-generational, capable of notable acts and dastardly deeds. They are shaped, but not deterministically limited, by their childhood and adult experiences. Each is unique, each is constructing a life consciously or unconsciously out of the stuff they have been given. They have a spirit, they have gifts, and they have abilities. Never underestimate their wisdom and sophistication.


Part of building a base for change is forging partnerships, particularly between private and public sectors. Each side has probably had either bad or mixed experience with such partnerships. Let me make a few suggestions about what could possibly make them real and productive.

There have to be real relationships built so that each side knows the real interest of the other. Partnerships blow up without that understanding. Secondly, there has to be a clear understanding of what each party brings to the partnership. Why would you even form a partnership if it does not add up to more power?

Non-profits tend to bring idealism, vision, experiential expertise, and most importantly, pressure for change. All the smart politicians understand the importance of that pressure. After meeting with the group and agreeing with the group in the Oval Office one day, FDR said, "Now, go out and pressure me so I have to do it."

A school superintendent approached me last year, and he said, "You should form an IAF organization in the area of this school district." I told him we were fiercely independent, that we would never organize for a public entity, and that, in fact, if we had an organization in this area, the leaders would probably pressure him to improve the schools. And he said, "That's what I need. I need the pressure from outside the district to force us to make the changes we need to make. It may occasionally make my life more miserable, but it is essential for me so that I can do my job."

Public sector leaders tend to bring structure and resources. They bring pragmatism, they bring potential expertise, and some ability to maintain and sustain what has been created. The down side is that non-profit leaders have a tendency toward impulsiveness and excessive earnestness, while public sector leaders have a tendency toward routine and arrogance. And both sets of tendencies can be overcome if each side realizes it needs the other for the success of the partnership. And neither side needs to like the other. That's not important. They only have to understand one another, each being open enough to listen and learn. But they're free from the burden of liking each other.

Judge Learned Hand once said; "Truth is most likely to arise from a multitude of tongues." He recognized that we only have our truth filtered through our experiences and passions and prejudices. One of the reasons we take time to build a base - in addition to building more power for change - is that through those hundreds of conversations we begin to see a clear picture of what is and what could be. My vision begins to merge into our vision. And as it does, it almost always will be deeper, broader, and better.

In East Brooklyn, New York, my counterpart, Mike Gecan, began hundreds of individual meetings with people, asking them what they were going to do about their community. Sociologists looking at that area could have made an issue list a mile long. But what emerged from those conversations - often emerging between the lines - was a deep desire to own their home, to be rooted in a community with something at stake. So, conversations were held with denominational leaders, bankers, politicians, so-called housing experts, and clergy.

What emerged was a project called Nehemiah Housing, built from the rubble and vacant lots and dilapidated buildings. Now 5,000 families live in their homes. Most of them were former renters or living in public housing. Now they live in a new community.


Few would disagree that we shouldn't go into action until we have done careful research. For me, however, that research has to be done on two levels: the empirical and the experiential. We have to know the facts, but we also have to see the picture. The two are not the same.

In order to know the picture, we have to be eternally vigilant about the so-called "experts." Experts are those who talk in symbolic, abstract language about their subject matter and have a vested interest in maintaining arcane exclusivity.

On the power pattern they are often fronts for powerful special interests, who hide behind a supposedly objective expertise. Robert McNamara was an expert - a whiz kid who had a new scientific analysis to the conduct of war. According to McNamara's system, the United States was still winning the war the day our last troops left Vietnam - because our body count on that day was lower than their body count. His system didn't account for the grit, will, imagination, and tenacity of the indigenous Vietnamese people.

Experts told us where to put the freeways that destroyed communities and added to urban sprawl. Susan Estridge is a regular political expert on TV. Her claim to fame was running the Dukakis campaign. Housing experts gave us Cabrini Green and Imperial Courts. In downtown Los Angeles, the experts gave us pedestrian malls on the second and third floors of buildings, and wonder why LA is dead after five p.m.

All too often the credentialed experts never talk to un-credentialed experts who live in the community. Average people all over America could have told Ms. Estridge: "Don't put Dukakis in the tank with that silly hat on his head."

In South Central LA the official food inspection experts never seemed to get around to inspecting the grocery stores - where they would have spotted rotten meat, wilted vegetables, and rodents and roaches. So 300 leaders from the South Central Organizing Committee put on food inspector badges. And with clipboards in hand they inspected all the grocery stores in their community. When they got to one store the employees looked tired and haggard. They complained that their bosses learned of the inspection the night before and made them stay there all night to clean the store. And as a result of that kind of research the organization entered into negotiation with all the food store chains and the stores were cleaned up.

When IAF Latino leaders from San Antonio told story after story of how their streets were flooded during the rain while the white parts of town were not, they were assaulted with statistics and studies showing an equitable distribution of public dollars for all areas. That's bunk. Over the next several years, those leaders won several hundreds of millions of dollars of public work construction on their side of town. Now when it rains, they can send their kids to school.

Watch out that the facts don't distort the picture.

Ivan Illich tells the story of experts in Mexico who decided that it would be a boon to individual families and communities if women were given sewing machines: they could sew for their families and start little cottage industries and make it in their spare time. So the government bought all the women in that village sewing machines. Within a few weeks almost all the sewing machines were back in the pawnshop. No one bothered to ask the women if they wanted to sew. If they had asked, they would have seen a different picture.

Power Analysis

In addition to building a base and doing your research, you have to do a power analysis before you go into action. You have to answer the question: "whose interests are at stake if we take the following action?" I've learned this the hard way. In my first job as an organizer, I was working for the United Methodist Church, a neighborhood center in Nashville, Tennessee. I had organized the central city housing projects, and I had organized farmers in the surrounding communities in Davidson County. Then I had the bright idea of bringing them both together to campaign against the Nashville Gas Company.

This was at the height of the oil crisis in the early '70s. Gas prices were racing up, and the Gas Company was asking the city for a 25-year extension on their exclusive right to supply gas to the city. Our plot was to hold up the extension until we could negotiate something on the gas rates. What I didn't bother to find out was that First American National Bank was the largest stockholder in the Gas Company. And that the chairman of the board of that bank, Andrew Bennedict, was the largest contributor to the United Methodist conference and a personal friend of the United Methodist bishop. And that the wife of the bishop, Mrs. Finger, sat on the board of the agency that employed me.

Right after the fight with the Gas Company, Mrs. Finger made the motion to fire me, and I was gone. Ever since then I have become a firm believer in doing a thorough power analysis. What the power analysis will tell you is who are going to be your probable enemies, and who are going to be your potential allies. It also helps you assess your chances of winning.

Two thousand leaders throughout Southern California came together for house meetings about ten years ago. In conversations with seven or eight other people, they talked about dreams for their families and their struggles. Over and over again people talked about the difficulties of making ends meet, of working two or three jobs. One woman told of the decision she had to make the previous Friday about whether to buy her kids shoes or whether they ate that night. Not a single person said a word about raising the minimum wage.

But when the research showed was that there was a five member commission in California, appointed by the governor, that set the minimum wage, the question was brought back to those leaders. Do we now campaign to raise the minimum wage? Who would we have to fight? Who could be our allies? Do we have any chance at all of winning? Just as an aside, it's very important that you have a chance of winning. People have enough experience with losing in their lives - we don't need to be leading them into campaigns they have no chance to win.

The initial analysis looked pretty bleak. Every major business group in the state of California was on record against any increase in the minimum wage. And though the minimum wage hadn't been raised in eight years, The Chamber Of Commerce, The Business Roundtable, The Retailers Association, The Wholesalers Association, and The Merchants and Manufacturers Associations were all against the raise. On our side we had Catholic bishops, organized labor and our own organizations.

Long discussions followed in which people argued and debated. Gradually most of the leaders came to a conclusion. The only way we could win was if we could split the business community, and dropped all other issues and focused exclusively on raising the minimum wage. This would be very hard to accomplish.

Now, let me summarize a little bit before I go on. We've built a strong base in community institutions. We've had thousands of people in conversation, hearing and connecting their stories. We've done our research. We know the facts, and we know how deeply the issue connected to their own individual stories, and we've done a power analysis. Now - and only now - is it time to mobilize.


You organize around people's interest. You mobilize around issues. Therefore, we have to take complex, multi-sided problems and turn them into specific, concrete, immediate issues. You can't mobilize about eliminating poverty. You can mobilize about raising the minimum wage to $5.01 an hour. You can't mobilize around the need for more public spaces. You can mobilize around the need to create a particular park on a particular 20-acre parcel that costs $20 million to build and another $5 million to have it fully programmed.

President Clinton did not understand this on the issue of health care. Underestimating the special interests, he never cut the issue in simple polarizing terms. Instead, Ira Magaziner produced a thousand-plus page document that was so complicated it was almost impossible to comprehend or explain. Its complexity made it easy to sabotage, as the special interests did with glee.

Clinton also did not understand another important dimension of the issue: you need to personalize it. Amorphous forces don't make decisions - men and women do. If you want to get change, you have to name the names. Clinton should have cut the issue as a decision between Mr. Smith, CEO of a major hospital chain, who makes $20 million a year, and Mrs. Taylor - a woman who worked all her life but can't get the operation she needs to save her life.

The failure to name names allows controlling interests to hide behind studies and experts. Henry Waxman understood this. That is why he made the seven CEO's of America's largest tobacco companies testify in person so that all of America could see them lie in concert.

Neither the five-member commission who decided the minimum wage, nor the minimum wage workers had ever met each other. At the beginning of the campaign, none of them knew each other's name. By the end of it, thousands of people knew each other's name. We demanded a hearing by the commission to be held in Los Angeles, the city with the heaviest concentration of minimum wage workers. This was to be the first time the workers had ever met the people who set their wages. It was the first time the commissioners had met the people whose salaries they set.

We had quotas to bring 2,000 people to city hall on Saturday morning. Then it rained. And it rained. Some of you may know it never rains in Los Angeles. All the banners for the outdoor rally were washed away. We were sitting around wondering if anybody was going to show up. But then they started coming. Buses started unloading and cars started unloading. Whole delegations, large blocks, through the rain. All 2,000 showed up - soaked to the bone.

The city council chamber only holds 330 people. So, the commissioners had to move to several venues to seat all of them. The building was so packed we had to put several big men in front of the commissioners to make way for them to get from place to place. The 2,000 leaders were disciplined and knowledgeable. When the first two commissioners were introduced - who had made earlier commitments to raise the minimum wage to $5.01 - they were greeted with thunderous applause. When the two who were introduced who had voted consistently against any increase, they were greeted with resounding boos.

When Mrs. Morse, the as-then uncommitted undecided voted was introduced, she received polite applause. She knew that we knew that her vote would determine the quality of life for over 600,000 Californians. Except now they were real people to her.

Once you start mobilizing, you must be constantly and relentlessly in action. Every week we would have two or three actions. Business leader after business leader began to switch to our side. Former enemies became allies, whom we welcomed with open arms. We accomplished our goal of splitting the business community into those who were responsible, and those low-wage employers who were locked into their position.

We took Mrs. Morse to a garment manufacturer who was paying less than the minimum wage. He threw us all out. We took Mrs. Morse into the homes of minimum wage families and had her listen to the stories of 70 workers in the basement of a church. But now we had a problem. Among our own people and the press, our demand for $5.01 an hour was beginning to get a real life of its own. People who once thought they had no hope were now feeling like they had a chance of winning, and yet we knew we would have no chance of winning $5.01.

We knew we had to practice the great democratic art of compromise. We went to the Los Angeles Times editorial board and asked them to write an editorial suggesting a compromise between no raise and $5.01 an hour. They did, and all our remaining actions tried to get people to buy into that compromise. Mrs. Morse remained uncommitted.

It came time for the vote in San Francisco. In Los Angeles 500 leaders boarded buses for the all-night trip to San Francisco. Most of them carried their change of clothes in a little plastic bag. When they got off the buses at the state office building, they were groggy and tired. Then they walked through the hallways toward the hearing room. The lobbyists for all the groups who had opposed us lined the walls. They looked like Gucci Gulch: a sea of $2,000 Rolex watches and Italian shoes.

Inside, the formerly inscrutable Mrs. Morse made the motion to raise the minimum wage to $4.25 an hour. The people stood and cheered Mrs. Morse. And they cheered for themselves: they had just given the poor people in California $2.3 billion raise - the largest increase in the history of this country.

I have seen those kinds of victories all over the country. They are possible if we organize and mobilize. If we organize and mobilize, we can save parks. We can create parks. We can reclaim neighborhoods and cities. We can move thousands of people into public life. We can create places in which we would like to live. But we have to remember the key steps:

One, you must organize before you mobilize. That means building a base, doing both empirical and experiential research and conducting a careful power analysis on the city in which you work.

Two, don't underestimate the capacity within individuals and communities. Neither disparage nor romanticize a community. Engage with its leaders - listen to them - build relationships and partnerships. Go into action together for what you want.

Three, don't give over your authority to the experts. Trust the collective imagination and vision.

Four, power is good - particularly when it is widely shared. Argument is good - fighting is good - polarizing and personalizing are good. Action is good. Compromise is good! They are all part of the democratic process.

And lastly, make sure that your vision of what could be never succumbs to the limits of what is.

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