By Akin Taiwo, MSW, RSW, MPhil, MS
School of Social Work, University of Windsor
Recognizing that community practice takes place in a dynamic landscape, Lee provides a practical narrative of community work in his book, Pragmatics of Community Organization. He conceptualizes community as a dynamic network of interpersonal relations based on overlapping elements of geography, functions, attributes, and interests; all having specific boundaries and, to some extent, a definite consciousness. Lee sees community practice not only as planning or coordinating services to be more efficient, or correcting power imbalances in society; but, more so as a means of addressing the goals of empowerment and social justice. Lee’s passion and enthusiasm are revealed through this work. Compared to the first three editions, the fourth addresses the threat of human environmental degradation, the world financial upheaval, the importance of the Internet, and how social media affects community practice. It highlights the political character of the community and social workers’ role in it; and has sections on strategies and tactics of organizing, as well as diagrams to illustrate different concepts. It is also updated with a bibliography.
This book is divided into three sections of unequal length. The first section introduces readers to community organizing, highlighting its history and current context of practice. Of credit to the author, the history was not merely traced to well-known Euro-American personalities, but also included First Nations and Canadian activists like Chief Tecumseh in the 1700s and Mary “Mother Jones” Harris in the late 1800s, and others like George Manuel, Moses Coady, Michel Blondin, George Hislop and John Clarke in more contemporary times. This section also highlights the role of the Internet in community organizing, and it defines various concepts that form the language of practice. The author also grounds the practice of community organizing in the economic substructure of the state and the neoliberal ideology of the ruling class which works against equality, equity, and citizenship. This theme is further developed in the second section.
Conceptualizing and Situating Community Organizing Practice is the title of the second section which has three chapters. They are Social Structural Context of Practice, Objectives of a Pragmatic Community Practice, and Roles and Skills in Pragmatic Community Practice. Admitting that community organizing is not a neutral process but a site of power, social divisions, structural inequality and conflict, Lee utilizes the anti-oppressive perspective, touting an emancipatory focus. As he puts it, “The end of social action is the readjustment of power within society, such that the community is on a significantly more equal footing with major institutions of power” (p.76). As a result, community organizing must take the side of the oppressed and marginalized. He outlines six elements of power that are not mutually exclusive. They are: money, information, numbers, status, legislation, and hope; regarding hope as a part of a strong belief system or conviction. He also relates power to privilege, as community workers- by virtue of their position- could reinforce relations of dominance in the society. He highlights the dilemma inherent in being an insider or outsider to the community, and points out the potential for co-optation or selling out. Furthermore, he discusses general skills and strategies that are applicable in a variety of settings, and counsels students and practitioners against one-dimensional thinking as they practice within a complex set of dynamics within the community. Lee reiterates that conflict and consensus form the dialectics of community development, and that while social action may lead to conflict with the oppressor, locality development may utilize consensus among members to attain specific goals. The pragmatic approach is to understand this complexity and work towards change, transformation, and equality in the community.
Section Three presents the overlapping phases of community organization. It has seven chapters that examine personal and political dynamics and how to engage with the community in efficient and effective ways. Paradoxically, the chapter titled The End is not really the end because community work is “an unfinished practice,” as the author admits in his Afterword. However, this is the section that deals with internal and external political situations; funding and accountability issues, values, objectives, interests, and visions of a community. It also deals with community workers’ motives and motivation for involvement. In addition, it illustrates the complexity and perplexity of community-based participatory action research and the need for perseverance on the part of the researcher. Furthermore, it discusses the need for, and the nitty-gritty of, organizing meetings to mobilize citizens for action. Its chapter on Popular Action highlights issues in organizing campaigns, and regards community development as an act of hope. I particularly like the strategies outlined for dealing with opponents and oppositions because they sensitize beginning community workers to the need to deftly work through the possibility and reality of resistance, distrust between and among groups and manipulation by certain vested interests within the community. This section also discusses how organizations can work together and the types of relationships or coalitions they can forge. There is also a piece on how to skilfully use the media to promote and advance community change.
This book is very well executed. The language is crystal clear and comprehensible. The book has no unwarranted generalizations or any idyllic, romantic notion of community service as preparation for higher office. Rather, it presents community work as a messy, arduous, and long-term process that often produces incremental instead of dramatic societal change. To the author’s credit, the book is replete with Canadian and international examples, based on the lived experiences of the author and diverse practitioners from places like Uganda, Nigeria, El Salvador, Canada, and the USA. They illustrate different concepts and solidify different lessons, adding value to the practicality of the text. I found myself looking forward to reading the examples. This book also makes good use of diagrams and figures; and its “Reflections” have little tidbits of wise sayings and conclusions to round up most of the chapters.
In its fourth edition, Pragmatics remains an excellent introduction to community practice in Canada. It is realistic, user-friendly, and culturally sensitive. It is even printed on environmentally-friendly and “responsible” paper, which is credited for reducing ecological footprints on our planet. As noted by Mac Saulis in the Foreword, this book “speaks.” It is not only sensitive to issues and perspectives within First Nations communities; it is also national and transnational in its application. I wholeheartedly recommend it to social work students, beginning and seasoned community practitioners, and social work educators. This book is appropriate for use as a course text in social work macro practice.