Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Paul Lichterman's "How Civic Action Works"

Paul Lichterman is professor of sociology and religion at the University of Southern California. He is author of the award-winning books Elusive Togetherness and The Search for Political Community, and the coeditor of The Civic Life of American Religion.

Lichterman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, How Civic Action Works: Fighting for Housing in Los Angeles, and reported the following:
The reader who opens How Civic Action Works to page 99 gets a remarkably suggestive glimpse of an important theme in the book and hears a good sample of how different voices come into the book’s narrative. The page pictures a meeting of a new coalition of housing advocates (pseudonymous acronym: ISLA) that was fighting gentrification and displacement. Participants are talking about how to get residents of a South Los Angeles neighborhood to join the coalition’s fight on behalf of “the community”:
Marina said that “a lot of the community is not as aware as we are … of the past, the history.” Being fully “aware” meant recognizing dangerous agents of unwanted neighborhood change. Among these, Marina and others included commercial developers and a local college with building plans that members thought would lead to more displacement. Members pointed out that some low-income tenants did not want to criticize the local college, though, because they liked the college-sponsored programs for local kids. To Marina, college-sponsored youth programming was a sugarcoated pill for the neighborhood: “They say ‘here’s a candy’—then they kick your ass!” Ethan did not disagree, but cautioned that when it comes to the possibility of displacement by people, especially students, who could pay higher rents, “a homeowner doesn’t feel the same as someone else.” Marina agreed that homeowners might appreciate the boost in property values that could accompany higher rents. Ethan added, however, that “there are homeowners who don’t want the whole block taken over,” and coalition leader Victor finished the thought: “We have to find them.”

It is exactly that enticing opportunity as well as tension lurking in the gap between ISLA participants’ vision of the community and the diversity of views held by the local population that would generate crucial tests for ISLA.
Many U.S. social activists fighting for affordable housing, cleaner water or better schools, say they are working on behalf of “the community.” The phrase can mean vastly different things. For activists in ISLA, like counterparts throughout the country, it is an imagination of a locale whose residents identify closely with each other, often on the basis of being socially and culturally marginalized, and proudly defend themselves against outsiders, especially powerful ones who don’t identify with the community. Yet not all residents of a locale necessarily fit the vision of the community that activists project.

The book explores the resulting trade-offs, some of which are implicit on page 99. This version of community-based activism elicits an emotionally compelling, powerful solidarity. On the other hand, it sets high boundaries between “aware,” angry and empowered members of the community, and others who don’t have the same image of the community. Outsiders may not all be exploitative; some have resources and expertise that activists could use to achieve their goals and enlarge their circle of supporters.

Page 99 also displays something about the book as a piece of writing: Intentionally it toggles between voices of housing advocates and a scholarly if friendly voice that points out the patterns in how activists work together. Recognizing those patterns may help activists reduce the crosstalk and the sometimes over-moralized understandings that limit some social change coalitions, potentially even leading them to break apart, as we see elsewhere in the book.
Learn more about How Civic Action Works at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue