Grass roots activism comes to MIT Sloan classroom

Cambridge, Mass., February 2003 — An MIT Sloan professor will add a very different kind of case study to the mix of corporate and business models generally used to teach MBA students about organizational success. Prof. Paul Osterman's new fall course — called Power and Negotiations — will bring to the Cambridge classroom lessons from decades of successful, grassroots political organizing by community groups in Texas, Arizona and other states affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF).

“These are organizations that have remained vital and effective for a decade or more,” said Osterman, author of Gathering Power: The Future of Progressive Politics in America (Beacon Press), a new book about the IAF model. “These groups teach people to assert themselves. They demonstrate how to build organizations that are self-renewing. They prove the importance of constant training and of moving people through the organization. By looking at these different kinds of organizations with different missions, I hope to introduce more diversity into what's ordinarily taught at MIT.”

Osterman, who has joint appointments at Sloan and MIT's department of urban studies and planning, first encountered Valley Interfaith, an IAF-affiliated group in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, when he evaluated one of its highly successful job training programs a decade ago. “I kept in touch over the years and got to know these people and what they did,” he said. “I began to think that they represented a fresh way of doing politics. Rather than protest movements, these are attempts to build political organizations from issue to issue. They work hard to build up links between people and with institutions such as unions, churches and schools.”

What struck Osterman wasn't just Valley Interfaith's particular successes, such as getting water lines built into the neighborhoods. Rather, he said, “the power of these organizations is their ability to fundamentally transform people. What's killing progressives in this country now is that their natural constituency votes at far lower rates than wealthier people do. And that's because they have little faith in politics or in their own capacity to make a difference. These organizations introduce the idea of accountability and build up personal capacity at the local level. How they do that is a lesson that is applicable to all kinds of organizations.”

In his book, Osterman writes that “the IAF's emphasis on leadership development, broad-based organizing, and incorporation of values offers key insights about how to move ahead. Other progressive elements in American politics should be challenged to take what they can from this model.” Starting this fall, MIT Sloan students will be able to do so as well.

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