Community Projects as Social Activism: From Direct Action to Direct Services


Benjamin Shepard & Steve Burghardt

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    Books are not written as much as they are the product of years of collective experience, collaboration, stories, conversations, and in this case engagements between friends and colleagues, organizers, activists, teachers, students, mentors, and others connecting worlds and community projects. Much of this story began when I was assigned to teach community projects at Cal State Long Beach. There, John Oliver engaged me in countless conversations about teaching organizing. Between these chats, class preparations, and class time with students, the ideas and experiences grew into a book proposal written for Kassie Graves at SAGE. The project would not have happened if not for Graves's patient support over the seven years from initial proposal through completion and polishing of the manuscript. Others, such as Steve Burkhart, offered constructive feedback and encouragement along the way. Ian Landau helped me transcribe and edit many of the raw interviews used as the basis for this story. And Peter Labella helped edit and polish the prose. The Honorable Judith Kaye deserves great thanks for connecting me with the Red Hook Community Court. Steve Duncombe, James Tracy, and Ron Hayduk offered constructive advice on ways to move the project forward. And Brennan Cavanaugh, Peter Meitzler, Allan Clear, and other activists and photographers offered me permissions to use their wonderful photographs.

    Yet, there would not be a story of community projects as social activism if it were not for a generation of organizers who linked a theory of change with a model of practice. Countless activists sat for interviews before and during doctoral research. Their ideas form the basis for this research: Panama Alba, Mark Andersen, Greg Berman, Kate Barnhart, Jeane Bergman, Jay Blotcher, L. M. Bogad, Andrew Boyd, Brendon Cavanaugh, Arthur Brazier, David Crane, Bill DiPaula, Tim Doody, William Etundi, Donald Grove, Ron Hayduk, Jenny Heinz, Susan Howard, Keegan, Bob Kohler, Kate Crane, Bonfire Madigan, Steve Quester, Karen Ramspacher, Matthew Roth, Ginny Schubert, John Sellers, Eustacia Smith, David Solnit, Dean Spade, Starhawk, James Tracy, Andy Velez, Randy Wicker, L. J. Wood, Susan Wright. This book would not be possible without their support for these efforts. The research on AIDS, gardens, and public space activism would not have been possible without the support of community groups such as Time's Up!, Occupy, and ACT UP!

    I would like to thank all the activists involved with these communities, including two of the youngest garden supporters in New York City, Dodi and Scarlett Shepard, both of whom have spent years and years of weekend afternoons taking part in garden work days, playing and hanging out in this public commons of our own imagination and creation.

    The work was made possible by the generous support of a PSC-CUNY 38 University Committee on Research Award, as well as the support of research archives, including the ACT UP Oral History Project.

    And finally, early pieces of the story were presented at annual conferences of the Association of Humanist Sociology, the Mid Atlantic Consortium of Human Services, and the National Organization of Human Services. Related journals, including Humanity and Society, Working USA, Socialism and Democracy, Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping, Interface Journal, Social Justice in Context, as well as the T e a m Colors' book In the Middle of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States, and the Council for Standards in Human Services Education Monograph, Best Practices in Human Services, featured early excerpts. The author gratefully acknowledges the work of the editors and these books and journals and their permission to republish this material.

    Over the years, this book's framework has become the basis for my community organizing classes. Thanks to the City University of New York Human Services Department faculty and students for supporting this work, while furthering the links between campus and community projects.

    But most of all, thanks to Caroline for supporting me and the project through all the years and moves, ups and downs, ebbs and flows of history, time, coasts, social change, and date nights.

    About the Author

    Benjamin Shepard By day, Benjamin Shepard, PhD, LMSW, works as an Associate Professor of Human Services at City Tech/CUNY. By night, he battles to keep New York from becoming a giant shopping mall. To this end, he has done organizing work with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), SexPanic!, Reclaim the Streets, Time's UP Environmental Organization, the Clandestine Rebel Clown Army, Absurd Response, CitiWide Harm Reduction, Housing Works, More Gardens Coalition, Right of Way, Public Space Party, and Occupy Wall Street.

    He is also the author/editor of five other books: White Nights and Ascending Shadows: An Oral History of the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic (1997), From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (2002), Queer Political Performance and Protest (2009), The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York City's Public Spaces (with Gregory Smithsimon, 2011), and Play, Creativity, and Social Movements: If I Can't Dance, It's Not My Revolution (2011).

    In 2010, he was named to the Playboy Honor Role as one of 20 professors “who are reinventing the classroom.”

    A social worker, he has worked in AIDS services/activism for two decades, joining ACT UP Golden Gate in the early 1990s, opening two congregate facilities for people living with HIV/AIDS, serving as deputy director for a syringe exchange program, all while remaining active in efforts to bridge the gap between direct action and direct services. Today, he remains involved in organizing efforts around transportation, HIV/ AIDS, labor, public spaces, and environmental policy.

    Trained at the University of Chicago School of Social Services Administration, the City University of New York Graduate Center, and the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology as well as through collaboration with some of the most powerful organizers and movements of this era, Shepard combines these experiences to frame Community Projects as Social Activism.

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