We desperately need to reinvent the way we think and talk about problem-solving in America today

by Mike Gecan, retired IAF Co-Director, for New York Daily News

April 14, 2019


You don’t have to choose between Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren, or Jared Kushner and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or market capitalism and state socialism, or the far right and the far left, or Fox News and MSNBC.

While these are the dominant, incessant, compulsive polarities of modern public discourse, the demand and the tendency to choose are traps. You can take your hand off the nut (or nuts), loosen your grip, let them both drop. With a free hand, you can reach out and take hold of another way of doing things in the public arena: of thinking and acting and creating impact that rebuilds communities, saves and improves countless lives, and restores a sense of stability and forward motion in our country.

This other way of doing things is based on several important choices.

You can choose to acknowledge that you are mixed in your views — not a captive of one category or another — and that being mixed doesn’t disqualify you from a significant role in the public arena.

You can choose to be mobile and flexible — aligning with different sets of people on different issues at different times.

You can choose to be non-partisan or much less partisan — not a hamster on the wheel of the endless series of election cycles.

And you can choose to be institutional — not just a data source for the market or ideological harvesters of your personal preferences.

What does it mean to be mixed in this day and age?

I remember a dinner nearly 25 years ago in lower Manhattan. I was working as an organizer with our independent non-partisan citizens groups at the time. Our work in East Brooklyn — particularly the effort to build thousands of new affordable homes on the empty and then-worthless acres of Brownsville and East New York — had attracted the attention and praise of people connected with the Manhattan Institute, the city’s famous conservative think tank.

One of its key people had invited me to dinner, with him and another person who wrote for the institute’s publication, City Journal. We met at a nice restaurant, settled in, and ordered drinks. We began discussing our housing effort — which emphasized ownership and equity for the African-American and Hispanic buyers who were lining up by the thousands to purchase our homes.

Up to that moment, the conversation reflected the relationship — positive and balanced, as it proved to be again in recent years — but all that evaporated when I described our efforts to pass a living-wage bill in the New York City Council — patterned on the success of our Baltimore IAF affiliate, BUILD, in 1994. The mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, an avid supporter of our Nehemiah housing strategy, was an equally avid opponent of our living wage measure. So were my two incredulous dinner companions.

How could a group that showed so much common sense on the housing front propose such a ridiculous policy — $12 an hour for workers who provided janitorial, food service and security services as contract workers with the city — in another arena?

My dinner partners weren’t talking; they were shouting. I listened for a minute, then whispered, “Stop yelling.” They did not. So I said, “Look, if you keep this up, I’m out of here.” They just got louder. So I stood up and walked out of the place. The male half of the twosome followed me out to the street and kept shouting as I hailed a cab and headed home.

It wasn’t just our approach to a living wage that upset them. It was the mix of approaches that confounded them. I think I understand why. It’s easy to dismiss your ideological opponents, whom you consider totally benighted and utterly lost. But it’s quite another matter when you disagree with someone who, in part, is aligned with your views. They aren’t just opponents; they are heretics.

In part because both extremes react so violently to those with mixed views, in part because being mixed demands a decision not to join a single party or faction, in part because pollsters would have a difficult time measuring this stance, being mixed isn’t seen as desirable or popular these days. And yet, the people at Gallup continue to show that Americans are consistently varied in their views — 36% identifying as conservative; 35% independent; and 26% liberal

I would argue that the mixed category is far larger than just those who call themselves independent — including the more moderate segments of conservatives and liberals. Only the most ideologically fixed on the far right and far left are not, or claim not to be. The largest party in the U.S., in my view, is a shadow party, the mixed party.

How does this play out? For the past 40 years, I’ve worked in tough, often violence-ridden neighborhoods. The mostly African American and Hispanic leaders there always wanted peace and protection from the gangsters who often controlled their streets and housing developments. They wanted professional policing — not the over-policing that peaked in the useless application of wholesale stop and frisk tactics and not the under-policing that occurred when certain departments simply wrote off whole sections of our cities.

Is this position — demanding a police force that responds promptly to an urgent call, knows the community well enough to distinguish the small minority of violent criminals from the overwhelming majority of peace-seeking citizens, and is held accountable if officers abuse their power — a liberal or conservative view? It’s a sophisticated combination of both. It’s mixed.

In Baltimore, where the level of violence continues to plague the poorest residents, our organization for decades has tried to get the police department to stop the whipsaw of under-policing and over-policing. Recently, our leaders concluded that the department was so inept and thoroughly corrupt that it was beyond reform. So they have looked to Johns Hopkins University — the anchor institution left in the city — to expand its police and security force into neighborhoods literally dying for professional policing.

Now, generally, our organization fights hard for public services and public institutions: schools, transport, and housing. But, in this case, no public solution is possible. Painfully, our leaders have opted for this partial privatization of the public safety function in the city. In other words, they have decided to be mixed, not fixed.

I’ve spent a bit of time in recent years in more conservative rural areas ravaged by the opioid epidemic for the past 20 years and job losses for the past 40 or more. Although I’m a big city organizer and the co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation founded by Saul Alinsky — yes, that Saul Alinsky, the guy who wrote “Rules for Radicals,” who got branded something close to a communist by conservative pundits — no one there seems to care.

What do they care about? They care about addressing the 20-year opioid scourge and the 50-year loss of gainful work. Would they prefer to work for a private company? Perhaps. Would they reject a job generated by a government strategy that rebuilt the locks and dams along the Ohio River? No way.

So they are like so many other pragmatic Americans: products of a particular context at a specific moment in history, with daunting challenges that require flexible and creative solutions.

Being mixed implies a kind of political mobility and flexibility. A few weeks ago, I went to Washington to meet with members of Congress and their staffs regarding criminal justice and mental-health matters. I was part of a very mixed team, which included a talented young organizer from suburban Chicago and a set of Republican and Democratic state’s attorneys.

The fact that we were aligned, across all kinds of lines — city and suburb, political parties, civic and governmental — made the reception more promising, and our message about Crisis Intervention Team training for police and diversion centers for those struggling with mental illness all the more compelling. Our approach is based on the pioneering work of a judge in purple Miami Dade County, Steven Leifman, and a mental health innovator in the up-to-now red state of Texas, Leon Evans.

While the news is filled with concerns about how polarized people are right now, I would argue that only the extremes are more polarized. It’s more accurate to say that people are over-mobilized. This mobilization comes in many forms — primary election cycles, responses to real and exaggerated crises, fundraising campaigns, petition drives, email and text blitzes, and more.

If you find yourself caught in these cycles, you have no time for the long-range work required to address complex and challenging social issues. The pressure of these mobilizations engages some, exhausts many and drives even more to the sidelines. More importantly, it saps the energy and focus needed to tackle intractable challenges that always take time to address.

For instance, it has taken one of our organizations, East Brooklyn Congregations, more than 30 years to turn the formerly devastated acres of East Brooklyn into an area of decent affordable homes, improved parks, more and better schools, and remarkably safer streets. The leaders of that organization have tangled and negotiated with five mayors and five governors. They have anchored and maintained a kind of extended action that accomplished what no one on either extreme thought possible and that many on both extremes opposed.

The key was that these leaders remained undistracted by the many attempts by candidates and causes to recruit them to their campaigns — every one of which was advertised as the most important and transformational of the moment.

What this adds up to is the need to choose to be institutional. A colleague recounted the experience of trying to explain to a hedge-fund investor how homelessness could be reduced. The process included the kind of on-the-ground work, sophisticated collection and use of data, and sensitive and mature interactions between outreach workers and homeless individuals.

After listening to this explanation, he finally said to her, “But isn’t there an app for that?”

There’s no app for any of the profound challenges of this period. But there must be new, or radically improved, institutions and women and men with the patience and passion to build them. Whatever you might think of Google and Amazon, they are new institutions that act with power and precision, that generate both reactions and impact. We need the political and civic, social and political, equivalents — institutions capable of growing and thriving, driving and sustaining the long arc of constructive social change.

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