Subgenre: memoir, community organizing, activism
I did not find this book really engaging. It's mostly a memoir of Si Kahn's work as a civil rights activist and organizer, including work with SNCC. In part, I felt that I had seen or read much of this. Maybe this is because I read it shortly after my intensive study of the Civil Rights era during the tour, so I was not ready to read more on the topic. Maybe I wanted a bit more "how to" and less memoir. In addition, keeping in mind this is more memoir than guide, the resources page did feel skimpy: aside from promoting his other books, his grassroots organization's website, and his music, there is not much else. In the end, the book felt a bit too self-promotional. In spite of that, I still think the book is one some young people can read and find some inspiration. If you want the quick and short, just skip to the end of the book and read his "Creative Community Organizing's Top 20" list. It has the basic principles distilled to a list; in fact, I made a copy of the list and pasted it to my journal.
Overall, this just gets 2 out of 5 stars for me as it was mostly OK. I think Rules for Radicals (link to my booknote on that) was simpler and much more practical. You may want to read that instead.
Other reading notes, because I still got a few good ideas from the book I want to remember:
From Jim Hightower's foreword to the book:
"What community organizing does is bring people together so they can identify and common problems, looks for solutions, and craft strategies to reach, educate, and mobilize others, so we can all join together to make the changes we need and deserve" (x).
Si Kahn's previous books, which he suggests for readers who want something more practical (maybe I should have read one of these instead):
People have a common cause, say civil rights for blacks, but they will often and usually be divided, or let themselves be divided by other things such as gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, etc. From the book:
"But, in real life and campaigns for justice, the people are always partly united, partly divided. It's up to organizers working with them to understand that this will always be the case and to do whatever we can to reinforce the unity and compensate for the divisions among the people with whom we work. Our job as organizers is to divide the united-- the people and institutions who hold power over others-- and to united the divided-- the dispossessed, disempowered people with whom we work, who should command our deepest loyalty and fiercest commitment" (19).
Naturally, our enemies are very adept at exploiting and encouraging divisions among the vulnerable. The poor white woman on food stamps whose baby gets medical care via Medicaid who still votes Republican because President Obama is a "socialist" illustrates this extremely well. Organizers really have their work cut out for them in terms of educating and uniting such folks.
Kahn does not really believe the notion of history repeating itself or helping predict the future. I beg to disagree here. Reading historians like Howard Zinn on the American empire does show that Americans do tend to repeat their mistakes. For example, water boarding is not some new 20th century CIA idea. American officials used the technique on labor strikers and activists long before the technique was exported to Iraq. In the end, you can learn a lot from history, but you have to choose to heed the lessons. I'd add the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act, a historical regression showing that, again, Americans never really learn from their history, or anyone else's history for that matter. If nothing else, we need a new movement, something I reflected upon when I took the Civil Rights tour. However, I just don't see it. Is it too late? Do we really need a full-blown revolution? What will it honestly take?
Of local interest here in Berea, KY, the book has segments that go over the plight of miners in Harlan County, Kentucky and the rise and fall of the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America).
Organizers need to recognize that the locals still face the risks. Organizers may come and go, but the community members stay:
"As ethical organizers, we need to be absolutely certain the people we work with truly recognize the risks they're taking, the things that could go wrong, the losses they might suffer, before they make the decision to act, individually or together" (65).