A New York city neighborhood once called “the beginning of the end of civilization” is where Michael Gecan starts. Hired by residents to help them save their community, he and local leaders spend more than a decade wrestling New York politicians in an impassioned effort against all odds that brings in five thousand new homes.
From bad behavior by Ed Koch to complicated negotiations with Rudy Giuliani, Gecan tells the inside story of how the city really works, and how any organized group of citizens can wield power in seemingly unmovable bureaucracies.
Gecan’s unwavering vision of the value of public action has roots in a rough childhood in Chicago, where he witnessed extortion by the mob and a tragic fire in his Catholic grade school that left ninety-two children and three nuns dead.
In his inspiring story of the will to claim the full benefits of citizenship, Gecan offers unforgettable lessons that every American should know: What is the best way to talk to politicians? What resources do all communities need to create change? What kinds of public actions really work?
Michael Gecan chronicles his basic strategies for community organizing in Going Public. I think for the uninitiated, the book introduces folks to the realities of community organizing. His storytelling is a little bland, so it was difficult to stay interested and finish the book.
Michael Gecan in his book Going Public works to provide a resource for normal citizens to promote positive change in their communities. He divides the book into four sections, each detailing a particular habit needed to organize power in fighting injustice and oppression. The habits are 1) relating, 2) action, 3) organizing, and 4) reflection, and each of these deserve some explanation.
Organizing begins first with building relationships, specifically public relationships of depth and quality. Organizations do not need expensive technology, graduate degrees, or business suits. They need to develop the art of knowing how to meet with individuals and to listen with empathy and sincerity. But this is not done without a context. The world is busy, raucous, confusing, and complicated. Gecan emphasized that rather than live in an idyllic non-reality, we must meet the world head-on and recognize how things actually are. It is calling corruption and injustice what it is that motivates everyday citizens to act together and make a difference for good.
Gecan’s longest section dealt with the habit of “action.” Public action for Gecan is what keeps democracy healthy. It is what has brought most of the major shifts in American history – the Revolutionary War, voting rights, civil rights, better schools, to name a few examples. Action is a public act that puts pressure on the powers-that-be. Gecan recognizes that in order for genuine change to occur, one power must push against another power, and he rallies to find that power in gathering people. Further he argues that “merit means (almost) nothing.” A group of people can work for the right thing for the right reasons and accomplish nothing. In some cases, simply knowing how the system works and therefore how one can use the system or find loopholes in the system are the only ways to actualize change. Actions, such a Rosa Parks’ decision to sit on a seat near the front of the bus, require planning, thoughtfulness, creativity, determination, and courage.
In his third section, Gecan questions the assumptions of what it means to be an organization. What are the essential elements? What can and often should be “reorganized” or “disorganized?” He is adamant that organizations routinely assess what they have built and tear it down, removing the brokenness that has gathered in the institution. Labor unions started as action organizations; churches began as a small group of people often in a home. We fit into roles that seem set in stone. First we must acknowledge this “magnetic pull of an organizational culture focused on buildings, procedures, and paper.” Then we must return again to our fundamental mission, “disorganizing” everything that falls outside this mission.
The final habit is that of reflection. Gecan outlines what was his most insightful chapter and describes the “three public cultures.” For a time he saw his role to posit “one part of the public section against another,” or to put different private sectors against each other. However, he learned that the world is made up of the three cultures that are seen in each sector, but dominate one in particular. He writes that the “market culture... thrives in the private sector..., a bureaucratic culture... finds its most accommodating home in the public sector, and a relational culture that should, and sometimes does, reside in the third or voluntary sector.... Each culture produces, transmits, and promotes a set of basic values (152-153).” Ironically, it is in the relational culture where many of the bureaucratic and market cultures began. Each culture has its strengths, weakness, limits, and abilities. It is through disorganizing that a relational group can navigate the tendency toward bureaucracy and opportunistic market forces.
Overall, Gecan works to make his points through story-telling. From this standpoint the book is engaging. However, after his story was told, I often wished for more explanation and less story. More practical direction would have strengthened his points and been more useful for understanding how to promote positive change.