• Podsoc #75
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Grass roots organisations:

In conversation with Joel Izlar

[Transcript for this podcast is found in the References tab below]

Grass roots community work, a challenging and rewarding field, is not always given the attention it deserves. Joel Izlar talks to Podsocs about his work as a social worker, activist and researcher with grassroots organisations.

Joel Izlar is an American community social worker, social activist, and PhD student at the University of Georgia. Within the south-eastern United States, Joel has been notably active in working to reduce electronic and food waste, the digital divide, food insecurity, inequalities in resource allocation and distribution, homelessness, labour rights violations, and structural deficits in community organisations. Joel has served in various administrative roles in grassroots and non-profit organizations. He is currently researching the intersection between grassroots organisations, technology, and environmental justice.

****Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2015, March 16). Grass roots organisations: In conversation with Joel Izlar [Episode 75]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/grassroots-organisations/.

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  1. Comments
  2. References

Links

Some grassroots organisations:
• RISE Conference (hasn't been that active)(US): http://riseconference.org/
• Social Welfare Action Alliance (US):http://socialwelfareactionalliance.org/
• Social Work Action Network (UK): http://www.socialworkfuture.org/
• The Rank-and-Filer: Radical Analysis for Radical Social Service Workers (US/UK):http://www.rankandfiler.net/
• The Radical Social Work Group, New York (US):
https://sites.google.com/site/radicalswg/
• Anarchists in Social Work (PDF/UK): http://www.rankandfiler.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Anarchists-in-Social-Work-Known-to-the-Authorities-2nd-Edition.pdf
• Food Not Bombs (US): http://www.foodnotbombs.net/
• Free I.T. Athens (the organization Joel is involved with) (US):http://www.freeitathens.org/about_us/

Transcript Podsocs 75: Grassroots Organisations: In Conversation with Joel Izlar

Thank you to the Social Work Programme at Open Polytechnic of New Zealand for this transcription

[musical intro to 00.10]

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
Trish: This morning on Podsocs we have Joel Izlar from Georgia in the USA and Joel’s gonna be talking to us about grassroots organisations. Welcome to Podsocs, Joel.

Joel: Hello. Thank you for having me.

Trish: Now, Joel, I might get you to tell us a bit about yourself first.

Joel: Sure. I'm actually a PhD student at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. It's in the south eastern portion of the United States, about 70 miles outside of Atlanta. Most of my experience as a social worker and as an activist has been with organisations that are considered to be at the grassroots level. What grassroots means is kind of ambiguous: a lot of people throw around that term now and again, along with the word ‘empowerment’ - we hear the word ‘empowerment’ used a lot. So it being thrown around so much has lost, I think, some of its meaning but not necessarily its sustenance.
At the very least, I think the word ‘grassroots’ connotes some sort of effort that comes from some sort of deficit.

Trish: And it's built from the bottom up, isn’t it?

Joel: That's correct. Yeah, that's one of the key components of a grassroots, either, organisation or a movement – that it has to come from the grassroots, right from the ground up. Yeah, exactly.

Trish: So a community would see a need, would they, and then feel so strongly about it that they start some sort of action? Is that correct, or not?

Joel: That's correct, yeah. Usually, grassroots movements are organisations - they can even be non-profits; we call them non-profits here in the US - or non-governmental associations, as some others call them, can also be grassroots. They require a mutually-perceived and mutually-defined issue. What that means is the group of people that starts the movement or organisation, they have to agree upon, that it’s actually an issue. It can't be someone telling someone else that it's a problem.

Trish: How easy is it to get consensus in a community?

Joel: It’s very difficult to get consensus in a community. That is where a lot of community development comes in. So in the US, from my perspective we would call it community social work or mezzo social work. So that's working within a little bit lower than the local government level, so neighbourhoods, workplaces, places like that, to get people mobilised. It's extremely challenging. There are a lot of variables that are against those that try to get something started.

Trish: Joel, can you give us an example of a grassroots movement?

Joel: Yeah I can give you a couple of them - two of which I've actually been involved with. There's a grassroots movement here in the US and I think worldwide, as well, of an organisation called Food Not Bombs. You might be familiar with them. The basic idea is to take discarded food - food that’s still okay to eat, but stores have to throw it out because of expiration dates, things like that. And people will go around and collect it and they cook it in a vegetarian way, so that they have a philosophy behind it of cooking vegetarian food and they feed it to people and the public - people in need. So anyone that needs food can come and get it. It’s a way of diverting food waste to promote social good.

That's actually an example of what's considered to be franchise activism or franchise grassroots, meaning you can take this framework that Food Not Bombs has, which is, there’s a central location in New Mexico where this group sends out information on how to get one started; what does it take to do a Food Not Bombs thing and to get it going. I've been involved with a Food Not Bombs organisation and I've been involved with another movement which hasn't really been studied.

That's what I'm going to be working on with my doctorate. It doesn't really have a name. It's very similar to Food Not Bombs, but it's with technology. A lot of people throw away computers that are perfectly good and that creates what's called electronic waste, which ends up getting shipped to places like Ghana in Africa, China as well, and India and it's very hazardous to people that live there. The idea is to divert that and pull that back into the communities and reuse the equipment, and also in that process create knowledge through rebuilding computers. People can come and volunteer and exchange equipment for computers.

Lastly, I can give an example of the historic movement within the United States. I like to draw from this example quite a lot. The Black Panthers in the 70s developed a Breakfast for Children programme where they basically got together through what some people call mutual aid and decided we need to get kids food in their stomachs so they can do better at school. Some say this actually inspired US national policy for free and reduced lunch for kids.
Again, all of these particular examples that I've given are examples of groups of individuals getting together, recognising a problem and doing something about it.

Trish: Where does social work fit into this, Joel?

Joel: It’s a really good question, because these organisations, they exist outside of professional social work, right? But there actually have been quite a lot of social workers involved in these grassroots organisations. Often times you might consider these social workers to be radical social workers. They're individuals that do their day job, but then they go outside of that day job and do organising work around associations that are maybe a little bit more political in nature. But I think that social workers can also play a larger role in grassroots organisations, in that they can get involved with these organisations and be paid for it too. There are organisations that are non-profits as well, that actually have paid staff. So I think that there are a lot of social workers involved - we just don't hear about them because they're too busy doing the work.

Trish: Yes.

Joel: As you probably know, that's one of the biggest issues we have, I think, in writing about what we do. We’re so exhausted or we don't have the time or we're too active with other things.

Trish: Because self-care, I imagine, would be a big thing in this field.

Joel: Yes, absolutely.

Trish: Burnout through overload, basically, because the need would be endless in some ways, I imagine.

Joel: Right.

Trish: Or the demands on your time anyway.

Joel: It is. It’s very demanding and that's actually why a lot of grassroots organisations do fail. It's because the people that start it get burnt out and they don't have a transition plan. They aren’t ready to hand it off to someone else and they aren't aware of burnout. They don't think that it can happen - and it's unfortunate.

Trish: I have never been involved in such work, but I imagine that that there would be very passionate, strong individuals that help create these activities and it's very easy sometimes for a lot of the load to be left to those people. So the inevitable does happen.

Joel: Yes. The load does get placed on usually the founders of a particular organisation or association. Those are the individuals with which a lot of pressure is placed. They often set the culture of the organisation. They often set, in a way, how it's going to end. I hate to say it, but grassroots organisations, when they first start, they're very loose, they're highly autonomous within their own organisation, but not highly autonomous within the micro or mezzo system, because they're such a small group.

Trish: I was just gonna say: I imagine that it would be very important, as you say, to have a plan of succession…

Joel: Mm.

Trish: …but also in the groups’ origins, recognising that it's important to probably share responsibility, and that the organisation is going to be organic and change, depending upon who was leading certain issues, I suppose.

Joel: I think that's really true. We could see that with the whole Occupy thing that happened, at least here in the United States. A lot of people went down to Zuccotti Park in New York and some other people did some copycat kind of things and they did these encampments, but they didn't necessarily have a long-term vision. It was extremely democratic. If you actually went to one of these camps… I didn't see them myself but I saw videos of them and they had small little microcosms of communities. They had libraries and all these kinds of things in these little camps. But the biggest issue was that yeah they didn't have a vision, a strategic plan. They didn't have a mission, like a traditional non-profit would.

But there are examples of grassroots associations that are volunteer- based, like Food Not Bombs. A lot of credit agencies, like microcredits, through South Asia and Africa, are particularly self-sustaining. Self-help groups are a very good example of grassroots associations that last for quite a while. I think a lot of that has to do with, it is passed on. Paramilitary groups, unfortunately, can be recognised also as a grassroots association, that can last depending on the political situations and things like that.

Trish: So sharing information between organisations and sharing experiences and wisdom or knowledge gained from those experiences is obviously very important, rather than necessarily operating entirely in isolation.

Joel: Yeah, absolutely. As I mentioned, Food Not Bombs and other what I call franchise activist groups, because they have a franchise; they have all these ideas, but they don't make it proprietary. The information is not locked up somewhere. The intention is to spread the knowledge and spread the model and you can adapt it to your local culture and your local community, because we know not all communities are the same.
So I think the growth of maybe franchise activist groups in the future might be the potential model for success for grassroots associations and non-profit organisations.

Trish: Joel, what sort of role do social workers have, say, convincing local governments or other government bodies that these organisations can be a good idea and help improve communities or solve social problems locally? Does that come into it?

Joel: I think it does. I think social workers are often beguiled, but they're often respected as well. Grassroots organisations and grassroots associations are actually one of the best examples of anti-oppressive social work - working at a participatory level with people to solve particular problems that they perceive to be issues - instead of waltzing into a community and saying ‘you have this problem; I'm going to solve it for you.’ That's oppressive social work and none of us should be doing that.

I think in order to get these organisations respected or recognised within a government framework would be for social workers to get involved with some of these grassroots associations and help them move towards an organisational lifecycle to survive. What I mean by organisational lifecycle is, some grassroots associations start very loose. As I mentioned to you, they often fail, but if they had someone there in the beginning that were providing guidance in terms of non-profit expertise and things like that to get them down a road to maybe being a more established non-profit, but also still within the grassroots, it could be very successful and respected by the institutional frameworks with which they're operating.

Trish: Joel, how easy is it to help people believe that things can change for them? If life is dire, you're living on the streets or whatever it is, how easy is it to get communities going?

Joel: It’s not easy at all. It's extremely difficult and sometimes it takes generations of people to live in a community. This is another thing that I think social workers don't do anymore, which is the settlement house movement. Jane Addams and a lot of these individuals originated in the UK. They went and lived in the areas which had issues and they never left, most of them. I think that staying there ensured that lasting change. I think one of the ways to do that is to essentially dedicate yourself to sticking with a particular issue or a problem.

But at the same time, we need to be cognisant of self-care, obviously, and we don't wanna be messianic in that either. We don't want to burn ourselves out to the point where we can't help people at all anymore. So how easy is it? I I'm not really sure. It's very difficult. A lot of it is contingent upon the culture of the community with which you're working, the people with which you're working, how disenfranchised they feel, what standpoint you're coming from.
For me, being a white American male, if I went to work on an Indian reservation in the United States, I would have particular challenges based on the historical constructs. It would be hard to empower somebody.

Trish: So when one thinks about the skills that social workers need, cultural factors - even if it's the culture of a neighbourhood I assume…

Joel: Mm-hm.

Trish: …is really important, to learn how to deal with that.

Joel: That's true. Yeah. I'm only speaking again from my American standpoint and excuse me for that. In my education as a social worker - and I was a community social worker, that's what I studied for my Master’s - was that they taught us how to do community assessments and things like that. That's a particular skill that’s very valuable. Actually, one of the first things in community organising that you want to do is just to see if the community is with you. As I mentioned, if you take the participatory method, [it] means you just go into the community, say who you are, say what skills you have and see what problems they have or you go into the community and you observe particular problems that you perceive there to be. Then you bring those forth. Generally the participatory method seems to be the most…

Trish: Most effective.

Joel: Effective and anti-oppressive. Because you're hearing exactly what they want to say.

Trish: I was actually going to ask you about observing, because I imagine that what you’ve got to do before you do anything is actually be there, observe, identity – are there any informal leaders, what resources are there, what are the positives – all those sort of issues. Is that important?

Joel: Yeah, it's definitely very important. Identifying what some people call gatekeepers. For example, working with the homeless is quite difficult, because they’re so disparate, spread out. But if you find maybe a tent city or something like that - that's what we call them here in the US - but you want entry into the tent city… you don't just walk in. You need to find a gatekeeper, which means you need to find someone that will allow you to go into that community. Then, research sampling, we would call that snowball sampling, right? You find one person that knows another person and you start to build a network and then you start to build trust and then you can enter in the community and then you can start to work from there.

Trish: Joel, tell us a bit about your research and what you're doing.

Joel: I'm still pretty early in my programme. One of the franchise activist groups that I had mentioned to you before, that model, the computer, I'm calling it at this point - this might change later - Computer Reclamation Collectives, and there are several throughout the United States that have formed. I would like to study these organisations and see how these models can be maybe more easily applied in maybe a franchise activist model. So everyone could apply one, maybe, in their county, within the US, to hopefully hit issues of the digital divide. Economic justice is tied to that. Educational justice. It impacts homelessness, it impacts domestic violence, but also to impact environmental justice - which I mentioned earlier, about the electronic waste being sent throughout the globe from high income nations to low income nations - or as some people call it, the global north versus global south.

These are all so many different issues there, but I'd like to explore that and promote that to social workers to show that yeah, you can get involved with things that seem unconventional. Because it is social work: you're helping people, right? You’re solving community problems. You’re solving environmental issues, which is recent movement in the green social work movement, which I find it pretty interesting.

Trish: Joel, do you have to find donors? Do you have to find people who are going to contribute?

Joel: To the grassroots organisations or in general?

Trish: Yes.

Joel: Yeah, that's a very good question. Some of them are self-sustaining and some are not. Some grassroots organisations, they're easy to do. Like Food Not Bombs, for example, is very simple. The hardest part is keeping it going - handing it off. Whereas when you have a grassroots non-profit organisation, so that means maybe you have a few paid staff, maybe some part-time people, maybe some social workers are there, but they’re still at the grassroots, you have to look for grant money, fee for service. Maybe you offer some kind of service for a fee at a sliding scale. Maybe you have individual donations from the community. Maybe you have businesses sponsor your non-profit. There are different ways to raise funds.
Trish: It could be hard though, because some issues are sexy, if you like, and attractive to donors, and others aren’t.

Joel: You're exactly right. I call that ‘the pull at the heartstrings’ issue. People generally donate to the ‘pull the heartstrings’ issues: things like puppy dogs and things that they can relate to. Which is understandable, and it's very difficult to sell food insecurity to people. It's difficult to sell the digital divide. It’s difficult to sell environmental justice. You have to spin it a certain way. You have to say, ‘hey look, that phone that you have was made from slave labour in Africa and then it was manufactured in a sweatshop and then it was sent to you and now you're gonna send it back to China to be picked apart by a family.

When you put it like that, people might hopefully consider an alternative.

Trish: So you have to work around that belief of individualism, don’t you, that people - there’s some sort of blame on people, if they’re not making it in society.

Joel: Right.

Trish: So it's sort of guilting them out a little bit?

Joel: Right, it’s the classic – especially within the US - rugged individualist ideal, that I think a lot of people have, which is unfortunate. That's what I encounter a lot of resistance to, when I talk to people. But there’s also quite a lot of people that are very passionate about helping others. I think a lot of people now, especially my generation and younger, the people that are born in the 1980s and younger, are seeing the world as more global. They're seeing things as, yeah, what I do today does actually affect me in some way or someone else. We’re all on this planet together.

Trish: A lot of people actually want to help but they might not know how, perhaps.

Joel: I think that's correct, yeah. That goes back to what you mentioned earlier: spreading the word about these kinds of things.

Trish: What are the positives? What brings social workers to this sort of work? There has to be some really good stuff in there.

Joel: Yeah, I think it's ‘on the ground’ work that you're doing with people. It might not necessarily be for pay in some of these organisations, but you do see a way to fill a lot of gaps with some of these grassroots associations. Let's say that the food bank is not able to provide enough food for a family. You’re a case worker, but this Food Not Bombs group just so happened to get some additional food from a restaurant. And you’re able to get involved with Food Not Bombs and then provide a meal to a family. It could be something as simple as that. I think social workers should absolutely be involved.
In all honesty, a lot of the grassroots type of work is what social workers were originally doing within the settlement house in the cities. So I think the case should be pretty easy, but maybe not. Maybe I'm being naive.

Trish: No, I think it's really important. Certainly, I think Australia and perhaps other countries and other continents do have a community focus, but we might never be rich with it.

Joel: Right.

Trish: But then I don’t think there’s anywhere in social work where we will ever be rich.

Joel: Very true. We do kind of take, it’s not a vow of poverty, but it’s certainly…

Trish: A reality.

Joel: … I think it’s a reality, yeah, absolutely. For some it's a calling, like teaching for some.

Trish: So Joel, we’re just about out of time. Is there anything really important that we forgot to say?

Joel: I think we covered quite a bit. I think that one of the most important things I want to say is just that grassroots doesn't necessarily mean that you can't get paid to do it. There are plenty of grassroots NGOs and non-profit organisations out there that people can get involved with and that social workers can definitely get involved with. Grassroots, a lot of the time, is a very effective way to solve problems or at least provide some kind of temporary relief to all the ills that we see in our work.

Trish: Joel, I want to thank you very much. Thank you so much for speaking from your car.

Joel: [laughs]

Trish: I’ll just let everyone know that for the last half hour you’ve been sitting in your car because you didn’t want your dogs to bark.

Joel: That’s right, yeah.

Trish: So thank you so much.

Joel: Thank you for having me.

Trish: Thanks for being on Podsocs.

[musical outro 27.01 to END]
Interview ENDS: 27.23