Community Organization in the United States of America

Community Organization in the United States of America

The movements in England also impacted the turn of events in the United States. In 1880,  he Charities Organisation was set up to put rational order in the realm of charity and relief. The development of community organization within American communities since 1865 was concerned both with community activities in which professionals were engaged  and also with indigenous community efforts, especially within oppressed groups.

For the purpose of analysis American history can be divided into five phases (Gavin and Cox, 2001). These are as follows:

1865 to 1914

During this period between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, a number of social issues emerged in the US and these had a strong impact on the welfare practices. These included the rapid industrialization of the country, the urbanization of its population, problems emerging out of immigration and changes in oppressed populations.

These issues highlighted the need for the emergence of community organization practice. Immediately after the Civil War there were organizations that sought to support and sustain the newly won civil rights. The black  community, the Chicanos*, the Native American community and the Asian American Community were all confronted with problems related to poverty, race relations, cultural conflicts and marginalization.

Community organization activities during this period can be divided into two categories: the first being those which were carried out by institutions related to present day social welfare activities and the second category of activities were those conducted by those with no direct connection to contemporary community organization programmes, but which nevertheless have been of interest for community practitioners. The latter include the organization of political, racial and other action groups.

A number of factors had contributed to the development of the Charity Organization Societies in England in 1869 and by 1873 in the United States. These Societies initially came into existence to coordinate the work of the private agencies which provided for the needs of the poor. Soon they began to offer direct relief and other services. A number of social factors contributed to this development. These included the movement of large populations into cities like those defended from Mexicans, large scale immigration to meet the manpower needs of growing industries and the emergence of many social problems associated in the wake of these, like poverty, inadequate housing, declining health status and exploitation. This led to the development of agencies directed to ameliorating these
conditions. Separate efforts were also made by groups associated with different neighbourhoods, as also ethnic and religious groups.

The main functions of the Charity Organization Societies(COS): were (a) cooperative planning among charitable institutions for the amelioration of various social problems and the creation of new social agencies and the reform of old ones. They were actively engaged in securing reforms in tenement housing codes, developing anti-tubercular associations, obtaining legislation in support of juvenile court and probation work, establishing programmes for care of dependent children, beggars and vagrants. Some of the most significant contributions of the COS to community organization included the development of community welfare planning organizations and social survey techniques.

Social Settlements emerged fifteen years after Charity Organization Societies with Toynbee Hall being one of the first settlements in the slums of East London in 1884. Stanton Coit who visited Toynbee Hall in 1886 established the University Settlement in New York later
that year.

Unlike the COS, settlements had no predetermined scheme for solving the problems of society. Their leaders saw environmental rather than individual factors as responsible for the prevailing conditions. Services like kindergartens and clubs for children, recreational programmes, evening schools for adults etc. were the major thrust of their programme and social reform was the most basic focus point of settlements. Settlement workers fought for laws to protect employed women and abolish child labour. One important component of social settlements was stress on participation and democracy. Residents involved themselves in the life of the community and helping neighbours to develop their potentialities to deal with their problems more effectively. The settlement idea spread very rapidly and by 1910 there were over four hundred settlements in the U.S.

During this era, a number of associations were created in many ethnic groups. In 1890, the Afro-American League of the United States was created to procure funds, legal and voting rights for the black Americans coping with their shifting status in American life. The
Committee on Urban Conditions among Negroes in New York city later become the National Urban League, and in this many social workers were employed. From the 1880s many organisations came into existence to preserve a Mexican-American way of life. Organisations for the benefits of women also emerged. They showed a concern with the poor working conditions for women and equal rights. The women’s suffrage movement and
the movement for the abolition of slavery became important.

As far as social work education was concerned, community organization as a specialization had not yet emerged as a separate entity. There were individuals concerned with coordinating charity, organizing neighbourhood settlements, or mobilizing protest in
racial matters, but they had little professional identity. Some training activities began to emerge in 1898 when the New York COS initiated a summer training course, expanded to a one year programme later. By the end of World War I, seventeen schools of social work came into existence. The Association of Training Schools for Professional Social Work was also formed. The emphasis however was more on case work than on community organisation.

1915 to 1929

After World War I, several new conditions emerged that had a significant impact on community organisation practice. The development of community organisation institutions like the Community Chest and United Fund was one such condition. This period saw an increase in the number of welfare institutions, which generated demands for coordination, and better fund raising methods. While the philanthropists established the Community Chests or United Funds to supply aid, the professionals supported the community welfare council to dispense this aid. Community Chests were initiated by large contributors and most of the work was handled by volunteers. World War I gave great impetus to the development of chests like war chests.

The Council of Social Agencies and the Community Welfare Council developed as a result of the increasing professionalism among those who helped the poor. The friendly visitor was replaced by the paid agent. The COSs founded schools of philanthropy, which became graduate schools of social work. A growing cadre of welfare professionals with the support of many volunteers were interested in organising a rational, systematic approach to the welfare needs of communities. They formed councils which were often assigned the responsibility of distributing the money raised by community chests.

The Social Unit Plan became a very important development in community organisation. It was launched in 1915 and led to the development of block councils, block workers and federations referred to as Citizens Councils.

By 1920 Joseph K. Hart had written a text entitled “Community Organisation” and between then and 1930 at least five books were written on the subject. Case work emphasis had hitherto existed in view of the prevalent ideologies and emphasis on individual conformity to the “System”.

In fact community organisation practice during this period was largely aimed at enhancing agencies orientated towards personal adjustment. Except for workers in settlement houses, and the Social Unit Plan, little thought was given to changing social institutions. Nevertheless some different ideas began to emerge Linderman spoke of the value of “an attempt on the part of people who live in small compact local group to assume their own
responsibilities and guide their own destinies” (Linderman, 1921).

1929 to 1954

Social Work in this period was deeply affected by the depression and the World War II. There was a vast increase in unemployment, as also bank and stock market failures. The expansion of government programmes was a direct result of the depression. The government became the most significant planner and promoter of welfare prgrammes through the enactment of legislations and social security and minimum wages.

The Federal government through its agencies became the main impetus for social planning. While this was not really a period of innovation in community organisation, it was a time during which efforts were made to conceptualise the nature of community organisation practice. The relation between community organisation and social work was examined, the objectives of community organisation were reflected upon and the role of the community practitioner was deliberated upon.

The depression also stimulated a major upsurge of trade unionism. The passage of legislation showed that the government was facilitating the development of unions. Many minority communities and depressed classes got a major boost of strength due to this development.

However, in the period the community organization agencies found themselves unable to cope with the massive needs of the country. This period marked a shift of emphasis in operations from local and private to regional or national and public. The government became the main impetus for social planning.

As far as development of the profession was concerned, this was a time during which intensive efforts were made to conceptualise the nature of community organization practice. There were three overriding concerns. These were:

(i) the relation between community organization and social work. While one school of thought contended that community organization was not really a legitimate form of social work practice, the other school made efforts to establish community organizations affinity to the basic values and concerns of social work

(ii) an interest in the objectives of community organization, ranging from strengthening community cohesion to prevention/ amelioration of a wide ranging set of social problems, and

(iii) the appropriate role for the practitioner, which was envisaged to “strike a balance between giving help and fostering self determination of the community”.

1955 to 1968

The growth of the Civil Rights Movement, the end of legal school segregation and the rising dissatisfaction of the black Americans gave birth to a number of organisations which sought to end the inequality of opportunity for the black people. Martin Luther King, Jr emerged as a leader in this struggle.

As these organisations fought for black pride, they also demanded autonomy in black affairs including neighbourhoods. Subsequently, other minority groups also started  asserting themselves, claiming their rights and their special identity. Thus, there was a growing effort to create ethnic minority institutions, including  eighbourhood control of schools, business, professional societies, labour unions, interest groups and rights organisations.

Late in this period, other groups also asserted themselves. These included the elderly, the gay men and lesbians, the handicapped and women. Student activism also increased phenomenally. Many student activists turned to social work and particularly to community organisation in search of a career compatible with their personal commitments. Many were influenced by the community organisation projects carried out by the students for a  Democratic Society, and also by the dynamic organizing style of Saul Alinsky and the many
organisations he helped found.

The Federal government took increasing responsibility for dealing with a wide range of social problems, like mental health, alcoholism, physical disability etc. through grants-in-aid to state and local governments. Many programmes encouraged preventive measures in
the local communities, a process requiring community organisation skills. Programmes like VISTA, Neighbourhood Youth Corps, Adult Education, and other community action programmes offered opportunities for local initiatives. Programmes like Model Cities Programme were also established in 1966 to solve urgent urban problems.

This was the time when on the one hand, the American people supported the development of responsibilities of the government in solving the problems of welfare and on the other hand, there was a renewed emphasis upon participatory democracy and “maximum feasible participation”. Along side there was also a strong sense of disengagement from society on the one hand and of opposition to those who controlled society on the other.

These currents were also reflected in social work, with some students taking up government jobs, while others participating in anti-establishment grass-roots organisations. Moderation and social planning formed the dominant orientation of community organisation.

Training for community organisation grew substantially and by 1969 the number of schools of social work providing training programmes for community organizers increased to forty eight. Efforts were also made to clarify the nature of community organisation and give recognition to the development of community organisation as a specialized form of practice within social work.

In 1962, the Council on Social Work Education gave formal recognition to community organization as a method of social work comparable with casework and group work. An effort to develop curriculum for training community organizers was  initiated in 1963. One of the most important development during this period was the recognition that community
organization practitioners required professional training, different from that in other social work specializations.

1969 and After

The year 1969 marked the beginning of the Nixon administration, followed by the Carter and Reaganadministrations. The thrust of these administrations was on reducing the role of the government, particularly the national government in social welfare. Three main
developments during the period, specifically in the eighties and thereafter shaped the social conditions and the trends in social work practice at the community and societal levels. These were:

(i) The emergence of an information society, characterized by “high technology” in every sphere of life;

(ii) The growth of a world economy, leading to vast shifts in investment patterns and interorganisational relationships on a global scale; and

(iii) Decentralisation, leading to the increased role that state as opposed to national government started playing in the U.S., and the vast increase in neighbourhood organizations and the shift of population to rural areas and small towns (Naisbitt, 1982).

The most important development with the most impact on the current phase of community organizing is the belief in the value of self-help activities. Hundreds of organizations have arisen for mutual aid in the last many years and continue to be created on almost a daily basis in the U.S. The move towards participation has grown, together with a rise in initiatives, activism and a greater say of people in determining their own affairs. Another important trend which has emerged according to Naisbitt is “networking”, particularly that
enabled by computer utilization, in which people seek ways of locating that American society has moved towards becoming a society of even more diversity. This is reflected in the many forms that the family is taking.

The options available to women to work and to play any family role is accepted, and if not, is fought for. The traditional family has given way to blended families, one parent families, gay male and lesbian couples and “living together” families.

As far as development of community organization institutions is concerned, the major shift in community organization practice since the seventies has been the withdrawal of the federal funding and the termination of many community oriented federal programmes.

Nevertheless, the number of grassroots organizations has expanded substantially. These organizations have generated many alternative forms of support including state and local governments, voluntary donations, fund raising efforts, support from multiple constituencies like labour organizations, churches and businesses. Organizations have developed in all ethnic communities and among all socio-economic groups.

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