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The Organization of Progressive Planning

Progressive Planning Magazine

Visions of Hope for People of Color: A Framework for Communication and Collective Action

March 12, 1999 by Administrator in March/April 1999

By Mel King

Where there are
no limits to growth
visions of plenty abound;
where visions of plenty abound
growth is unlimited;
mind set is critical
the 8 straight up sets limits,
lazy * on its side
is infinite
See.

The political climate of this nation is exemplified by the politics of scarcity, which pits groups of people against one another, persuading our communities to buy into the notion that our well-being can be gained only at the expense of other people. The same rhetoric that blames immigrants, people without resources, people without housing, and people receiving welfare for the country’s ills begins at the national level and permeates local politics. Manifestoes like the Republican Contract with America buttressed by theories exemplified by the innate intelligence paradigm, the basis of the “Bell Curve,” have created the climate that allows the advocacy of positions that deny access to resources of the society to some members of our human family. These policies have encouraged measures such as Proposition 187 in California, the various anti-bilingual initiatives in many parts of the country, and fueled the violence within and among communities of color. (Several thinkers have argued that the tensions between communities of color are a result of mimicking white racism, where our people emulate their oppressor’s actions.)

The politics of scarcity can only be countered by the politics of hope. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their lives, dignity, equality and freedom for their spirit. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down other-centered people can build up.” We should be outraged at the misallocation of resources at the expense of the most vulnerable members of our society. At the same time, we have to believe that this country – the richest country in the world – has the resources and the technological capacity to meet the basic needs, provide a viable economic development program that will create full employment, and a decent standard of living for all our people.

Practicing the politics of hope is a struggle for the mind of our communities and at some level it becomes a struggle for the heart. We have to think about acquiring power not for its own sake but for creating change. Most people view power as a fixed resource. On the other hand, if we think about power as a construct in which every individual and every social unit has the opportunity to play a significant role in the community, then we can begin to think about power differently – where the power of one is increased along with their contribution to the increase of the power of others. Martin Luther King Jr. was very aware of the significance of power. He strived to get people to understand the disadvantages of placing the cart (programs) before the horse (power). Once we believe and know that we can work to build what others have destroyed and create a reallocation of resources to meet human needs, I believe that we can come together to work for what we believe in. The benefits, be they economic development, better housing, or affordable health care, will follow automatically.

Divisions in Communities of Color

Divisions among communities of color will not yield power to create systemic change. Instead, these divisions nurture feelings of helplessness. We tend to move away from addressing the perpetrators of oppression and continue to struggle among ourselves, which in turn creates more feelings of powerlessness. The struggle of Asians, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans to come together as a unified community of color centers around communication.

In Boston, the Third World Jobs Clearinghouse was an example of the benefits that can result when different communities of color work together to create a common agenda that serves all communities of color and moves away from the politics of scarcity. The Clearinghouse was the result of a long and relentless struggle waged by construction workers in Boston against the construction industry in an effort to persuade the industry to provide apprenticeships and jobs in the construction trades for people of color. When the city of Boston and the construction industry used the scepter of block grant support to induce competition among the different communities, these communities came together to create the clearinghouse on the principle of providing two votes for each constituency. The number of people in that constituency did not become the issue and through mutual trust an arrangement that would benefit the African-American, Latino, Asian, and Native American communities was established. The communities did not have to use a majority rule approach and people who were a numerical majority had trust that they would not lose out and that the relationship would benefit all groups involved.

Chuck Turner, one of the architects of the Third World Jobs Clearinghouse, says that the organization was “built up in a way that there was a sense of safety” among the different communities. Members felt that they could discuss the hard issues and there was no attempt to gloss over or ignore real differences between the groups. The honesty allowed the dialogue to continue and people could identify barriers and obstacles to working together.

Complementary Holism

Complementary Holism is a theoretical approach that can be used to enhance positive communication among different communities of color. This approach provides a framework for the disparate concerns of diverse social groups, without making presumptions about the relative hierarchy of importance of each group’s concerns. This model allows for different movements to come together and work for systemic change. A practical demonstration of Complemen-tary Holism was the development of the Rainbow Coalition, which allowed progressive groups and different communities of color to come together to shape the political agenda of the nation.

There are several elements which are integral to the success of positive and constructive communication among people of color. First, trust is the cornerstone of any positive communication. During the development of the Third World Jobs Clearinghouse, for example, African-Americans had to trust that their numerical superiority would not be undermined by sharing power with other groups. Second, the problem has to be framed while overcoming the different perceptions that groups have about each other. Finally, a plan for action has to be developed in which all the groups understand the positive benefits of collective action.


This article is excerpted from an article that appeared in the magazine Colors. Mel King is MIT Professor Emeritus and has been a leader in Boston’s African American community – and all of Boston – for four decades.

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