Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Divide and Conquer

The first schism occurred in Salemtown Neighbors (the neighborhood association here in Salemtown) a couple of weeks ago when one person left the group. At this point the more astute readers (which are pretty much all Enclave readers as best I can tell) are saying to themselves, "S-townMike has overstated the case. One dissatisfied member leaving an organization is not the same as when an association divides into separate factions (a.k.a., schism)." By all outward appearance, you would be correct. The departure of a single member does not constitute a schism.

From my vantage point within Salemtown Neighbors (without speaking for other members of Salemtown Neighbors), I can tell you that the departing individual's words and deeds may have more far-reaching schismatic affects in the neighborhood itself.

He started attending the association meetings about six weeks ago. He arrived saying that his intention was to form an association and that the Mayor's Office told him that he was president of the Salemtown association. I thought it strange that the Mayor's Office would appoint a president of an association rather than relying on the democratic process to provide one, but our leadership team enthusiastically included him in the planning process, without guaranteeing that he was president, yet.

While he only attended 2 or 3 meetings, he did single-handedly plan a meeting with the police on forming a neighborhood watch. However, he also single-handedly chose not to communicate his plans with the leadership team, which resulted in a near double-booking and a lack of coordination of the meeting agenda. He brought two or three individuals with him to that meeting, and he spoke of how he could "bring many more" with him if he were elected an officer.

So, when Salemtown Neighbors held its first election last month, he ran for president and lost. A week later, he sent me an e-mail saying that he was leaving Salemtown Neighbors to form his own Salemtown association. One of the reasons that he gave for leaving was that our meetings were being held on Wednesday night (which conflicted with his church attendance), even though the group had resolved to change their meeting nights to Thursdays in order to accommodate church-going members. Moot point.

His other stated reason for leaving was that Salemtown Neighbors was "only concerned with the area surrounding their homes, and not the entire neighborhood." If he had actually been involved in our organization for the few months of its existence rather than for the handful of meetings he attended, he would have seen that his judgment of us was untrue. The group had expressed commitments to and taken actions toward the whole neighborhood, but building an organization from the ground up (by all accounts, Salemtown has never had a neighborhood association) takes time. Successful growth accumulates like a snowball rather than popping up like a dandelion. We dealt with problems as members identified them, and while those problems were concentrated along a couple of blocks, I was always of a mind that problems anywhere that remained unsolved would fester and have a negative domino effect on the entire neighborhood. So, best to deal with what you can with what you have.

But the charge that neighbors are concerned with what immediately happens around their homes is not much of an indictment. Indeed, a primary reason that people join associations is to address problems that they face around their homes. Likewise, neighborhood associations exist to deal with problems in a particular neighborhood; not one across town. That does not mean that neighbors do not care about people across town; it means that they can most effectively deal with the problems they can identify in their vicinity.

Ironically, by leaving the group to form a second Salemtown association, the individual in question is doing exactly what he charges Salemtown Neighbors of doing: forming a group that is only concerned with what is happening on their blocks. Salemtown Neighbors resolved to accept the historical boundaries of the whole neighborhood from Morgan Park to Metro Center, on the north and south, and from 3rd Ave. to 8th Ave., on the east and west. The individual in question arbitrarily split the neighborhood in half declaring that he would organize the northern half and leave the southern half to Salemtown Neighbors. If he can really "deliver high numbers of people" as he says, we may be approaching a schism. Thus, his charge of extreme self-interest is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But in the end, he is merely extending Salemtown's history of disorganization and marginalized political power. Strong neighborhood organizations are combinations of mobilized people and concentrated money (nod to Ed Chambers and Alinskyite organizers). If Salemtown is going to overcome a legacy of marginalization it has got to find a way to consolidate its people and money the same way that other successful and effective neighborhood associations in Nashville have. If it does that, it will be one of the most culturally and economically diverse success stories in Nashville. If it does not, the people who broker power in this town will continue to pass over its plate when the prerogative pie gets cut.

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