Like many social workers, community professionals, and social activists, I was thrilled and humbled by the history that was made when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, the first ever African American to be bestowed with that honor by the American citizenry. Reeling from the dark ages of social welfare policy of the past 30 years, many who serve, advocate for, or organize with low-income and marginalized populations are understandably hopeful. This hope is shared by many people affected by U.S. economic and social policies across the globe, including governments and civil society in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe ("Reactions from Around the World," 2008).
When the crisis in social welfare retrenchment reached its nadir in this country with the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-193), it seemed as though things could not get any worse. Now, faced with the realities of a costly war, a global economic recession, and a health care crisis, our situation has indeed deteriorated. Poor and low-income individuals and families are faced with social problems that arguably have been exacerbated by social policy decisions favoring the well-being of corporations over the well-being of people. There is evidence that vulnerable individuals, families, and communities are bearing the brunt of these policy decisions now more than ever, as they reach out for economic supports and social services at some of the highest rates in recent history. One traditional indicator of hardship is the number of food stamp participants; indeed, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) reported that food stamp participation in 2008 had reached record highs in the history of the program (FRAC, 2008).
Since Obama campaigned on a ticket of change and concern for working families, there is a tendency to breathe a sigh of relief and to sit back and wait for the transformation to happen. Programs and services will be restored, and even new, innovative approaches will be implemented, right? Unfortunately, history tells us that social reform does not work that way--at least, not exactly.
LESSONS FROM SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND COMMUNITY ORGANIZING
Social movement and community organizing scholars have recognized that change or reform does indeed happen when the political opportunity structures are present (Fisher, 2005; Piven & Cloward, 1979; Tarrow, 1994). Change happens in cycles, and it happens when power structures permit. Protest cycles refer to the ebb and flow of organizing that happens as a result of openings in political opportunity structures. When authorities, such as the government, are perceived as vulnerable to social change, collective action, which is always present, is heightened (Tarrow, 1994).
Social reform and change occur not just because of how community organizers do their work, hut also because the external political realities matter a lot. The politicians in office, disasters, scandals, and current events play a significant role in whether the efforts of organizers will be successful. In the end, these political opportunity structures may matter just as much to organizers' successes as do the internal strategies that organizers use. Some of the activists of the 1960s were successful not just because of their organizing tactics, but also because of the political opportunities that were present.
Much has been said about the fact that Obama was a professional community organizer, having worked on Chicago's South Side, engaging in the painstaking work that organizers do. About three weeks after the election, I conducted a community-organizing workshop with a social justice group that works in a poor, primarily African American neighborhood near my university's campus. This group usually engages in service and advocacy interventions, but participants told me that interest in community organizing in this neighborhood is proliferating. …