April 16, 2018

Community Building and Women’s Activism

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, affordable housing in urban areas, particularly places like New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and increasingly Chicago, is scarce and oftentimes inaccessible. Movements for access to housing have mobilized around expanding or implementing rent controls (for instance, in Chicago through the Lift the Ban coalition), while others have focused on training people how to advocate for policies that support equitable access to housing (such as the Resident Access Project or RAP in Washington State). As is the case with RAP, many housing activists aim to increasing residents’ knowledge and skills through leadership development and empowerment.

As scholars of both social movements and organizational studies have noted, some of the most effective leaders provide skill building, work to build self-confidence among followers, create opportunities for personal development, and understand when to move from a leadership to follower position.

I was reminded of this understanding of leadership by videos on the Moviemento por Justicia en el Barrio (Movement for Justice in El Barrio, or MJB) in New York City. MJB is similar in many ways to other women-centered movements that aim to redress social injustices to various marginalized populations (from Los Angeles to Chicago, from the Combahee River Collective to #Black Lives Matter).

Formed in 2004, MJB initially fought against gentrification and displacement of immigrant communities in Spanish Harlem. Over time, the movement evolved to focus on other issues affecting area residents. It is mainly comprised of immigrant and low-income women who use a participatory democracy model. There is no organizational president or board of directors; MJB believes in collective decision making. As central to their movement, members focus on developing self-determination, autonomy, and dignity.

Through their work on these campaigns, the women are increasing their leadership skills and expanding their knowledge of relevant policies.

Sociologists who study gendered approaches to social movements have found that low-income women and women of color tend to approach community organizing, leadership development, and resident empowerment. Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker describe such a model as women-centered, collaborative, focuses on community building and self-transformation, and recognizes structural barriers to equality, while striving for equitable access to power for everyone.

Within this model, women work to empower themselves and those around them to bring about social change at the local neighborhood level. Feminist scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins and Nancy Naples articulate how women may draw on their roles as mothers to improve local conditions for everyone in the neighborhood. Drawing on the work of Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Collins describes the roles of othermothers as central to the maintenance, growth, and survival of Black communities. Building upon Collins’ work, Naples extends this idea with her concept of activist mothers. This framework, Naples argues, signifies the ways that Black and Latina activists both understand their work in community and strive to improve neighborhood conditions.

As Collins, Naples, and others who study women of color activists, have noted that women in these kinds of movements share their knowledge with the rest of the community in order to more equitably improve the conditions for everyone. This short documentary on MJB that was presented at the 2015 Women’s Freedom Conference demonstrates how women, both as community members and as mothers, become empowered and empower others through their activism.

As Denise Segura and Elisa Facio and Karen Brodkin show in their research on Latinx activism, Latinas, in particular, use their transnational networks to expand their focus on the local neighborhood to a more global movement for social equity. While the MJB employs a similar model, it also draws heavily on the work of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (the Zapatista Army of National Liberation or EZLN) in Chiapas, Mexico.

For instance, using tactics learned from the EZLN, the MJB employs a democratic, decentralized, collective decision making process. Members struggle both for access to affordable housing and to create a global society where people are more important than profits. Members regularly meet to increase their understandings of the root-causes of inequality, survey residents (via listening tours) regarding on-going and pressing issues, and they collaborate with other activists who are also mobilizing around issues of oppression.

The ethos of the Zapatistas and, as an extension, MJB is one of hope and solidarity.

In thinking about women’s movements as a whole, the work of MJB demonstrates how women, in particular, reconceptualize the neighborhood (from a hyper-local to a global sphere) and work to build unity across multiple borders.

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