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11 Selecting and “Cutting” the Issue LEE STAPLES 187 Issue campaigns are both ends and means. Grassroots community organizations (GCOs) are formed as vehicles to address issues of concern. The process of taking collective action on those issues helps develop the group’s capacity to accomplish future goals and objectives. A GCO’s ability to deal successfully with any issue is a function of its level of organizational development. Organizations grow through experience and practice; issue campaigns are the very lifeblood of that process. Through them, new people are attracted, existing members remain active, and leadership abilities flourish. The importance of this interrelationship between organizational development and issue campaigns can’t be overemphasized (Staples 2004). Many years ago, Warren Haggstrom (1971) introduced the concept of “organizational mileage” as a means of assessing the degree of organizational development attained by a grassroots group. The best issue campaigns will develop organizational mileage while simultaneously appealing to the self-interests of community members. Therefore, when choosing an issue, a community organization must be concerned about not only whether it can be won but how the campaign will develop the group. Issues to organize around can be found by talking with community members and trying out various themes. This kind of exploration can be done through organizational meetings, actions, events, door knocking, and house meetings. For health educators and social workers, focus groups or community forums also are popular methods for finding and testing issues and community-perceived needs. The role of the organizer is one of listening actively, asking questions, agitating, and facilitating the issue-cutting process (Miller 2009). It may be tempting simply to discuss a possible issue among the top leadership , but this common mistake overlooks one key factor. These leaders may be so committed to the organization that they are no longer typical of rank-and-file members and, as such, may be very poor judges of which issue campaigns will appeal most widely and deeply to the membership. Within the organization, issues should be tested and selected with as much bottom-up participation as possible. There are two key dimensions—depth and breadth. Depth refers to how intensely community members feel about an issue, while breadth relates to how widespread that concern is. The strongest issues will be felt deeply by a broad cross section of the community (Bobo et al. 2010; Sen 2003; Staples 2004). For instance, a proposal to close a popular community health clinic in a low-income urban neighborhood might be strongly opposed by virtually everyone living in the area. This issue would have both depth and breadth, thereby helping to ensure that large numbers of the affected constituency would participate in collective action to resist the closure. In the same neighborhood, people living close to an abandoned house taken over by drug dealers would likely be deeply concerned. However, residents located ten blocks away might not even be aware of the existence of the problem. This potential issue would have depth but not a lot of breadth. A solid core of highly committed people could probably be recruited to take action, but the base from which to draw participants would be circumscribed. For GCOs, these are the second-best type of issue. In the same geographic area, beautification of parks might be widely supported yet not on many people’s top-ten list of concerns. Issues that have a broad, but also a bland, self-interest draw are the third most desirable. A lack of passion raises serious questions about community members’ degree of potential involvement . Finally, if the appeal of an issue is neither broad nor deep (for example, in this hypothetical low-income neighborhood, a proposal to limit offshore oil drilling), forget about it. While GCOs should embark on new campaigns only after considerable discussion and analysis, at times they have little choice but to respond to a particular issue. For instance, a neighborhood group would be expected to react quickly to a local industry accused of polluting a nearby river or the suspension of weekly trash pickup. Similarly, an immigrant-rights group hardly could overlook a legislative proposal to eliminate state health coverage for low-income, legally registered noncitizens. The positive aspect of such situations is that many people will be highly interested and ready to take action. The danger is that the organization may be forced to bite off more than it can chew. In instances such as these, the community group really can’t afford to walk away if...


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MARC Record
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