Wednesday, November 9, 2011

V515x6 Housing and Community Development

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Speak Now, Or Forever Hold Your Peace

Community development requires interpersonal engagement and quality engagement blends authentic introspection with concomitant communication.  Speaking with authenticity is neither an easy nor a safe undertaking.  This is especially true, when such speech centers on controversial topics, noted by the ubiquitous “they” as being: (1) finance, (2) politics, (3) and religion.  Truth be told, this only scratches the surface: I would certainly add the ethno-racial and gender issues raised by Bullard (1990) and Hayden (1984).  However, safe or not, I’ve always been guided by another quote from the good reverend:

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. ~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Thankfully, too, for my part, the first three are rarely far from thought or tongue; so, respectful and sensitive discursive practice has been a core component of my academic and facilitative training.  However, regarding the latter two, I feel woefully underinformed and untrained; so, with this caveat in mind, I will tread lightly ‘round the details and discuss these through their common ground: systematic oppression. 

If you think this sounds dangerous, please put on your tolerance cap because it’s about to be hazardous: I’ll claim, further, that our predominant modes of material exchange – and the rule-systems that govern them – share this common ground, being equally and, by my estimate, more heinously oppressive.  This is what I, personally, have distilled from over a decade of political economic research; though I’m fully aware of the fact that such an interpretation is rarely spoken of [there’s plenty on the politics of science at work, here] and, more often than not, carefully disembled. 

If this makes your adrenal gland go pitter-patter, I mean no offense to the American way of life or cherished values; it seems worth noting, too, that I don’t believe in simplistic alternatives. This is not an anti-capitalist stance; this is not an anti-government stance; this is not against markets; this is not against rules. This is “Beyond Markets andStates (Ostrom, 2009): it is neither –ology nor –ism.  To quote Ferris Bueller:

"Isms" in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an "ism", he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon: "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me." Good point there. After all, he was the Walrus. I could be the Walrus. I'd still have to bum rides off of people.

At least he’s carpooling.

To clarify my point, with respect to this week’s readings: cultivating community development cannot be sustained in the face of oppression, especially when such is systematic.

And this applies to housing and the social-psychological effects of physical spaces. People can be systematically oppressed by the built environment: if the concrete jungle is a crippling cage, and the sprawling suburb is a mesmerizing maze, it seems we’ve been both drugged and imprisoned. 

 So what is to be done?  Many options are available and, as usual, Roseland provides a helpful litany of working prototypes.  Yet the housing solutions he proposes are not, yet, feasible for many working Americans; and, as the unemployment rate remains dismal – with a growing portion of our citizenry facing foreclosures and the experience of houselessness – our nation has come to face an moment of social discontent, the generality and diversity of which is unsettling . 

To capture all of these issues in a relevant, local, and speecy-spicy controversy, I’ll show what I know of how the transformation of a space can help develop community, so long as oppression is consciously abhorred.

Occupying the Commons?

On  October 9th, 2011, over 200 Bloomington residents (town and gown, alike) gathered to express solidarity with an international movement that began, on Wall Street, as an expression of discontent with radically increasing income inequality, irresponsible financial gamesmanship, rising unemployment, corporate dominance of vital markets (water, agriculture, media), environmental injustice, corporate exceptionalism, egregious fiscal imbalance in government, over-monetized politics, and general socio-economic disenfranchisement. 

The encampment remains and this partial list has only grown.  In fact, no definitive list has, to date, been made; rather, it is a general practice among Occupiers to acknowledge that the diversity of rationales doesn’t lend itself to “we statements,” leaving each to list her own logic for speaking-up or camping-out.

Occupy Bloomington is not only directly related to Sustainable Communities, in general, but especially so to a section on housing and community development.  It was instructive to me that one tweet expressed doubt about the possibility of sustaining real, community development: “I'm not convinced Roseland's idea of "social sustainability" is feasible in the near future. Sounds too utopian from pt. 5 on.”

For the non-Roseland reader, I’ll clarify the concept and criteria: “Social sustainability is another way of discussing social capital…It requires social equity and responsible citizenship. Socially sustainable community members are able to:

[1.] Achieve and maintain personal health: physical, mental, and psychological;
[2.] Feed themselves adequately;
[3.] Provide adequate and appropriate shelter for themselves;
[4.] Have opportunities for gainful and meaningful employment;
[5.] Improve their knowledge and understanding of the world around them;
[6.] Find opportunities to express creativity and enjoy recreation in ways that satisfy spiritual and psychological needs;
[7.] Express a sense of identity through heritage, art and culture;
[8.] Enjoy a sense of belonging;
[9.] Be assured of mutual social support from their community;
[10.] Enjoy freedom from discrimination and, for those who are physically challenged, more about a barrier-free community;
[11]. Enjoy freedom from fear, and security of person; and,
[12.] Participate actively in civic affairs (BCRTEE, 1993)” [Roseland, 155].

Two months ago, I wouldn’t have just labeled the last 8 points as idealistically utopian…I would’ve said the whole dang thing was out of reach: for it is just the (1) physically, mentally, and psychologically ill; and, (4) those lacking “opportunities for gainful and meaningful employment” that often find it impossible to (2) “feed themselves adequately;” or, (3) “provide adequate and appropriate shelter for themselves.”

And it was with this frustration that I observed the Occupy movement.  Developing as a social scientist has equipped me with theoretical frameworks and jargonesque vocabularies with which to slice and dice all elements of the social world.  A cynicism crept over me, as friends would ask my opinion on the source, state, and ultimate fate of the movement.  I didn’t even want to call it a movement, given criteria supplied by the oft-cited McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly works on social movements.

In one of my many complaints about the Occupiers, I was saying to a friend that I had doubts that most occupiers were very well familiar with the details and complexities of the various systems they were protesting.  “Maybe they’d be open to teach-ins; like from faculty and grad students,” she said.  I felt this to be promising, and suggested such to a friend, who I knew had been active in the Bloomington Occupation. “Why don’t you come down to GA [general assembly] and propose something like that?”  Of course, I wouldn’t dare: this was not my occupation and I neither had the time nor faith in their activities, to really warrant this kind of effort.

But then a light turned on and hope, again, came to my heart.  It sure took its dandy time; but, I’d say better late than never.  What was emerging, at least in the Bloomington Occupation, was a living example of all Lin Ostrom’s major works: (1) institution building was an active and ongoing process, as the young group devised consensus processes and role-rotation; (2) the scarce resources of their food, medical, and spatial supplies had become commons; (3) and the loosely networked and expanding global movement had features characteristic of polycentric, complex-adaptive systems.  Nerdparty!

And, so, it yet remains to be seen the depth and breadth of parallels that can be drawn between the Ostrom toolkit and the Occupation.  But, if you’re curious, I’m preparing a teach-in on the matter and hope to present it next weekend. [I’ll post details]  What’s more, those last 8 Social Sustainability criteria are rapidly developing in People’s Park; but, I’ll get to that in a few moments.

Meeting Market Demands: Co-ops and Community Democracy

So, what does this have to do with “housing and community development?”  Creating common living space and a minor tent-village is certainly a start, in addressing the housing part; but co-ops have an odd connection here, which seems to complement the commons conversion.

Two of the core principles of co-op living and management models are clearly seen in the Occupy movement: (1) voluntary membership; and, (2) democratic decisionmaking among the membership. These parallels had been brewing in my mind for a number of days, and were really percolating as I drove up to Indianapolis for the Indiana Cooperative Summit.  The social discontent I saw in Occupation seemed based, to me, in various forms of interpersonal separation and social dislocation…things I’ve found to be consciously and intentionally addressed in the co-op subculture.  And, to my surprise, I wasn’t the only co-op enthusiast to have these thoughts in mind.

One of the panels at the ICS conference – “A Conversation on Building Communities through Cooperative Development” – had presenters in their 20s, one from right here at IU, and two other from around the Midwest.   What struck a deep chord in my mind, were that the first two talk related co-ops to the Occupy movement and to Ostrom’s common-pool resource-management design principles, respectively.  Now, here was an odd moment; but as that’s hard to capture, I’ll post what I have of the talks:

And this, indeed, is an interesting though.  Sure, it might be stretching the metaphor, to speak of a market of “democratic desire,” but Jake Schlachter has a point: much social discontent is born from feelings of disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and marginalization; many people just want a voice.

What’s more, Sydney Tarrow [one of the prolific social movement theorists] wrote an article in ForeignAffairs, making the point that the Occupy movement is novel, largely in that the sole, obvious – though, perhaps, unspoken – demand is for recognition.  In a moment I’ll explain why I think that many folks in the Occupy movement want something deeper than the feeling of voice or recognition; but first I’ll draw a final parallel, where Ostrom’s work, another ICS presentation, and the academic work of a local co-opper all have a common thread.

 Of Co-ops and Commons

The second ICS presentor that struck me was Keith Taylor: he went about drawing parallels between Ostrom’s work – from polycentricity, through institutions, and design principles – and the fundamental principles of cooperative business and housing models. What was really interesting to me was the fact that a good friend of mine and co-founder of Bloomington Cooperative Living had just delivered a speech on his ideas about how Ostrom’s 8 commons-management Design Principles are roughly correlated with the Rochdale Principles – foundational principles of co-op participation and governance.
Seth is responsible for bringing me into the wonderful world of co-ops, so I won’t try to outline his presentation here [though he gave a version of this as a seminar at NASCO [this past weekend]; however, I’ll post-up the Ostrom Design Principles and the Rochdale Principles, just to give you an idea.

Ostrom’s Common-Pool Resource Management Principles:
1.       Clearly defined boundaries
2.       Rules on the appropriation & provision of common resources, adapted to local conditions;
3.       Collective-choice arrangements that allow most users to participate in the decision-making process;
4.       Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the users;
5.       A scale of graduated sanctions for resource users who violate community rules;
6.       Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access;
7.       Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities;
8.       In the case of larger common-pool resources, organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.

1.       Open, voluntary membership.
2.       Democratic governance.
3.       Limited return on equity.
4.       Surplus belongs to members.
5.       Education of members and public in cooperative principles.
6.       Cooperation between cooperatives.
7.       Concern for community

What I’m Getting At

So, how are these related to housing and sustainable community development? Simple: the Occupation of space has turned the land area and all supplies shared among occupiers into commons; what’s more, the Occupations refuse to hold their members to specific rules, yet have designed “processes” that speak to many items on the Ostrom and the Rochdale lists.  This space has been transformed into something of a cooperative; and, like many cooperatives strive to be, it is a place that is conscious of and abhorrent to oppression. It’s become a home for people experiencing houselessness, the socio-politically discontent, students, professors, local business people, and more.  It is a housing project with a distinct, symbolic presence; and it is the – oft unspoken – ties that form a bond among its members, while freeing them to autonomously act, leave the space, or leave the movement at any time.  

Why I Occupy

To me, all these things are reason to respect the space and the people defending it.  But I guess the easiest way to explain is to answer the two questions I hear every day.

1.       Why are you even down here? What are you protesting?
2.       Do you even have goals? What do you think you’ll even accomplish?

As for (1), I’m down here for a lot of reasons, not least of which are the lessons learned from years of academic and personally-pursued research.  The details of that are the juicy stuff, so you might have to come down to the park to ask me.  The best answer, if one seeks generality, is that each person is here for their own reason; many of these individuals’ reasons overlap; many do not.  Here, there are conservatives and liberals, libertarians, socialists, anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists…but none of these are really fitting labels.  These are people.  Even those that claim –ism’s rarely fit the mold.  What drew me were stories of hard-working families facing hard times, the broken bones of the uninsured, cancelled Christmases, and a sense of separation in our contemporary culture that denies human redemption and blames the burdened.  It was grandma’s & grandpa’s, married couples, young families, single mom’s with kids in-tow, students, autoworkers, computer scientists, professors, the jobless, the foreclosed-upon.  And there were people of structural privilege, like me, thinking that the only way to live honestly with ourselves and in real solidarity with eachother is to live by the maxim: “to whom much is given, much is expected.”

As for (2), being in that park in every free moment I can carve out of my daily life…that’s the goal.  That’s what I want to accomplish. It’s not some list of demands from corporations or government.  It’s not some utopian world of peace, justice, and sustainable living.  The goal is to empower the disempowered, to make a space where all are welcome, to dialogue in a town-hall, to build personal relationships among people I have passed on the street for three years without ever stopping to wonder, or to ask, who they are and what they might need to thrive.  Whether it has passed through the minds of Occupiers everywhere, or just through my own and those close to me, the unspoken  goal (at least for me, making "I-statements") is the building-up of real community, with real diversity, with mutual respect, with common caring. 

Composting Castaway Communities

At the co-op conference -- NASCO Institute -- this past weekend, Adrienne Marie Brown gave a wonderful keynote speech that tied together the Occupy movement and the cooperative subculture, in ways so elegant I cannot wait to post for you to hear.  But she had one metaphor that struck a deep chord.  She said something like, "Detroit [only miles away] is a perfect example of a city thrown away by our society...but, what society forgot was that a city is as organic as its people, and the tossed-out Detroit is a compost, from which a new way of living and a new future will arise."

Adrienne Maree Brown

Having experienced a tour of Detroit [my very first time], just the day before, I realized that I saw signs of that already.  Street art takes on a new dimension in the Heidelberg art-neighborhood.  Long-time social activists like Grace Lee Boggs raise hopes for our generation.  And the Occupiers of Detroit put their lives on the line every day, to demonstrate their conviction and resolve.

 Scenes from the Heidelberg Art Neighborhood

 Sunset on Occupy Detroit

James & Grace Lee Boggs

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late. ~Dr. Martin Luther King Jr


  1. Ryan, thank you for sharing your thoughts, your research, your experiences. I always learn something from your blogs and thoroughly enjoy reading them. If you don't blog (more) publicly, you should. I think your thoughts should be heard by others.

  2. Ryan, I could see this manifesto become a thesis or a book about the Occupy Movement which you have been uniquely trained to interpret. At the very least, you should develop this for publication in a journal.

    The Gallop graphs in the Prezi presentation are stunning. You can see the fuse being lit in those numbers.

    Amazing piece. Well done. Keep writing.