CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition
“The very difficulty of naming the fragments, scoria and splinters of the dualized market society that collect in the dispossessed zones of the metropolis attests to the fact that the ‘precariat’ […] has not yet even acceded to the status of ‘object class’ […] It remains in the state of a simple composite conglomerate, collectio personarium plurium, made up of heterogeneous individuals and categories negatively defined by social privation, material need and symbolic deficit. Only an immense, specifically political work of aggregation and re-presentation […] can hope to enable this conglomerate to accede to collective existence and thus to collective action.” [1]

1Political theory has paid renewed attention to the question of the representation of politically and socially marginalized groups since the end of the last century. As the labor movement was declining and no longer able to ensure the representation of subaltern groups, [2] several currents of thought – from poststructuralism to subaltern studies [3] – put forward the idea of plural forms of domination at the intersection of class, race and gender. Descriptive or group representation has been given particular attention from this perspective. This involves a series of institutional mechanisms (from quotas to random selection and electoral redistricting) that aim to compensate the historical underrepresentation of different segments of subaltern groups. [4] At the same time, political theory has explored the expansion of representative practices beyond electoral mandates, questioning the legitimacy of unelected actors (including NGOs and trade unions as well as companies and specialized agencies) in the governance of contemporary society. [5] Although representation has never been exclusively electoral in nature – as the history of the labor movement shows, the representation and shaping of workers as a social group has primarily included activity by trade unions and a series of collective organizations [6] – political theory offers new tools for considering group representation beyond pluralistic or neocorporatist perspectives alone, tackling the question of the democratic legitimacy of these practices. Although most authors who focus on such questions agree that the representation of historically marginalized strata requires the emergence of representatives from these groups, this does not resolve the question of the democratic nature of these practices or, more precisely, the question of usurpation inherent in delegation. [7] As Iris Marion Young asks, “How can one person possibly claim to speak in place of all those people, with their huge diversity of interests, experience, and needs?” [8] The answer to the “dilemma of representation” that she describes generally takes two distinct forms. On the one hand, some reject any form of representation or envisage a strong democracy based on active and direct citizen participation. [9] On the other, supporters of group representation back the idea that representation can be liberating for dominated groups, and they focus on the mechanisms that allow self-representation by subalterns to be possible and democratic. These two paths are not contradictory, and they may operate simultaneously via the collective participation of subaltern groups – and not individual participation, as is often the case in such bodies – in instances of direct or deliberative democracy. [10] I will focus here on this second path, namely the conditions for legitimate and democratic representation of subaltern groups’ interests by those groups themselves. This question remains little explored at an empirical level, but logically it arises prior to the assumption of responsibility for social groups’ interests by institutions. If these interests are not clearly defined at the outset – as many social science researchers consider to be the case, in line with the quotation that prefaces this article – it is unlikely that they will be taken into account by the political and institutional system, notwithstanding how inclusive it may be. The question of how to shape the interests and group boundaries of the lower and working classes is therefore particularly salient.

2This issue arises at two levels. First of all, how can social, civic, and political organizations speak on behalf of the lower and working classes without betraying their interests or substituting their own for those of the groups that they attempt to represent? [11] This issue is made all the more difficult to address owing to the fact that the working and lower classes are now – precisely because of the political decline of organizations intended to represent them – particularly fragmented and divided along class, race, gender, and spatial lines. Furthermore, who – bearing this fragmentation in mind – can claim to speak on their behalf? To paraphrase a recent American article, will any poor person, person of color, or resident of a working- class neighborhood do? [12] Here, I argue that the answer to these questions requires conceptualizing the representation of historically marginalized groups – and perhaps all representation, though such a focus would exceed the scope of this article – as a performance, on the part of both the representative and the represented. Far from being a simple matter of presence, representation must, to be truly democratic, constitute an interactive and mutual relationship between representatives and represented that shapes the contours of the group and its interests. [13]

3To explore these questions, I propose to study organizations that seek to represent the interests of the subaltern classes in the United States and claim to promote their self-representation in accordance with the motto “never do for people what they can do for themselves”. Community organizing (CO), the type of movement that will be considered here, can be defined as the process that allows “people to mobilize by themselves to obtain substantial gains and to the benefit of the most disadvantaged”. [14] It aims to provide a voice and a social and political existence to those that it considers to be underrepresented, whose interests have in its eyes historically been ignored or marginalized in the United States. The group that it seeks to represent has shifting contours. It may sometimes encompass “poor people”, “the have-nots”, “underprivileged communities”, “minorities”, or “the working class” or “working families” – descriptions that are often subsumed under the term “community”. Given this semantic heterogeneity – that is in itself an issue for these organizations, as I argue in the conclusion of this article – I decided to use the broad category of “subaltern groups” to qualify people located at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This category is a political rather than a social one, as what unites these very heterogeneous actors is their limited access to political power and representation.

4Although its boundaries are blurred, CO activity attempts to bring this group into existence. Without explicit mandate or formal authorization, community organizations purport to give a voice to and to mobilize subaltern groups – and not to speak on their behalf, as they seek to be an embodiment of this group. The question of the representation of subaltern groups beyond mandates arises even more acutely in the US context, as there has never been a mass political party that has claimed to represent working-class interests specifically. This task has historically fallen to unions. And since organizations representing workers did not speak for all subaltern groups – and especially not for the unemployed, blacks, or immigrants – other collective organizations then emerged, structured at the neighborhood level and particularly taking the form of community organizing of the kind begun by Saul Alinsky in Chicago in the late 1930s. [15] CO defines itself in opposition to social movements or NGOs, which in CO’s view embody advocacy movements, in which activists and professionals speak on behalf of those primarily concerned. [16] CO, in contrast, seeks to make the latter actors of social change, which will otherwise not be sustainable. CO therefore promotes a descriptive concept of representation: the interests of marginalized groups can only be defended by representatives from these groups. CO is nevertheless characterized by a certain level of professionalization – popular mobilization is overseen by employees, who are referred to as “organizers” – as well as the desire to encourage leadership from members of working- and lower-class environments.

5As we will see, the answer to these theoretical and practical dilemmas lies in the relationship of representation, both between the organizations and the members whom they claim to represent and between the spokespeople and their base. The representation relationship will more specifically be described as a performance – that is, as the contingent encounter with a series of tests of legitimacy, the outcome of which affects the organization’s ability to speak in the name of others. [17] Analyzing the representative performance requires identifying to what extent the “representative claims” (to use Michael Saward’s term) made by community organizations – that is, their claim to give a voice to subaltern groups – appear valid and legitimate in the eyes of those for whom they are stated. [18] Saward’s approach allows relations of representation to be grasped not as a unilateral usurpation – with the representative substituting his or her interests for those of the group in speaking for it – but rather as an interaction: the represented are not the passive receptacles of these claims, and they can also influence the representative. The claim to speak on behalf of a subject is never self-evident; it must be validated by the audience of these speech acts, namely the represented at whom it is aimed. More than an aesthetic conception of representation, the perspective put forward by Saward encourages a dramaturgical approach to representation, prompting a study of self-presentation strategies and the assumption of roles by representatives as well as their reception by their targeted audiences. [19] Speaking on behalf of a group is no guarantee that one will be listened to or acclaimed. A representative’s ability to be perceived as a legitimate spokesperson following a series of tests (electoral or otherwise) is what I am concerned with here. [20] I will thus analyze the instituting effects of these representative practices in order to understand how they contribute to the definition and (trans)formation of representatives and represented, and how, in so doing, they also contribute to the construction of social groups. [21] The notion of performance allows us simultaneously to grasp the relational, interactive, and contingent dimensions of representation as well as its performative aspect; the representative performance “performing” the group, making it exist, and shaping it. The instituting dimension of representation is here made more complex still by the fragmentation and heterogeneity of the groups that CO seeks to bring into existence as it brings together different segments of the working classes and several minority groups. The study of representative practices within these organizations therefore allows a more in-depth examination of the question of the representation of intersection, [22] and even more so of its unlikely embodiment. How can a descriptive conception of representation be implemented when the group to be represented comprises a multiplicity of identities and interests, and the challenge is to bring them together?

6In response to these tensions, the organizations under study first of all attempt to mobilize subaltern neighborhoods en masse and in all their diversity. The legitimacy to speak on behalf of subaltern groups is thus highly dependent on the mass mobilization of those primarily concerned. The participation of the target audience at organized events is therefore a first representation test. I then examine how these organizations attempt to unify these very heterogeneous groups. Bringing together different segments of the working and lower classes and minority groups, which are sometimes in competition, the organizations undertake important symbolic work unifying the group in order to build a tightly knit political subject. While the sociology of social movements has emphasized the role of collective identity in the dynamics of mobilization, [23] social and racial diversity appears as a second test for community organizations, who seek to create a group which shares a common identity. [24] As we shall see, they bring to the fore leaders who best embody the image of themselves that they want to put across. These leaders, who are co-opted unelected representatives, must appear as “good members” of the organization in order be able to play their role properly. The legitimacy of leaders with regard to speaking on behalf of the group depends on their ability to pass a number of public tests, including their mastery of the organization’s discursive standards. Representation thus appears as a cultural performance, with the good representative being the person who best expresses the group’s plural identity in practice.

7This article is the result of an ethnographic investigation conducted within two community organizations in Los Angeles in 2012 and 2013. It is based on 40 life-story interviews with participants and employees, as well as on observation of hundreds of interactions, public and internal meetings, demonstrations, door-to-door canvassing, and everyday moments of activist sociability. I will focus in particular here on the forms of public representation and presentation of these organizations, and on their relations with elected representatives in the context of the 2013 Los Angeles’ local elections, which I followed closely.

Two organizing styles in Los Angeles

Los Angeles has around fifteen non-profits that refer to and implement the principles of community organizing. They frequently cooperate within specific campaigns, but they also compete to attract both people and funding. This organizational field reveals a form of division of labor and territory. The organizations are spread over the whole of Los Angeles County, though they are overrepresented to its south and east – that is, in its poor neighborhoods. On the fringes of this field, there are also unions and immigrant associations. They occasionally collaborate with these organizations and also implement certain community organizing practices. [25] My inquiry was conducted with two of the most locally powerful organizations, namely Community Coalition and LA Voice. Although they share the main precepts of CO, they embody two styles or two models of organizing. [26] A comparison of these allows for a better identification of the dilemmas of representative performance.
LA Voice embodies the tradition of faith-based or broad-based organizing, introduced by Saul Alinsky in the 1930s and which has since undergone significant development. Hereafter, I will refer to it as “collective organizing”. It aims to bring together collectives (churches, schools, unions, associations, and so forth) present in a given area in order to carry out campaigns on specific issues (housing, health, education, transport, and so forth). LA Voice was created in 2004 and currently has 26 member churches, which encompass – in theory – 30,000 families. It is a member of a national federation called People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO), and in 2013 it had five paid employees and a budget of approximately 800,000 dollars (which came principally from philanthropic foundations).
Community Coalition (CoCo) embodies the tradition of individual organizing, which aims to mobilize “unorganized” ghetto residents who are not members of any intermediary collective or church and who generally speaking are the group with the most precarious existence. Community Coalition was founded in 1991 to combat the crack epidemic that was ravaging the South Central ghetto of Los Angeles at the time. It aims to mobilize residents of poor neighborhoods to improve their living conditions and seeks in particular to encourage the alliance of “Blacks and Browns” – that is, African Americans and Latinos, who notably clashed during the riots that occurred in the city in 1992. Although engagement takes place at the neighborhood level, the organization’s objectives go beyond and include, for example, combating gang violence, working for the re-entry of ex-convicts (a large group in California, especially among racial minorities), and fighting against “the school to prison pipeline”. Its budget for 2013 was 3.3 million dollars, which allowed it to employ around 40 people on a full-time basis (including around fifteen organizers whose work focused on mobilization and recruitment). CoCo is mainly financed by foundations. Federal or Californian state grants account for 20% of its funding, and its members make a marginal contribution.

Participation tests: showcasing a large and diverse audience

8Community organizing embodies both a philosophy of action – the will to strengthen the power of the working and lower classes by collectively organizing into local countervailing powers – and a method of mobilization. To promote their members’ interests, community organizations try to mobilize on a mass scale through the use of highly rationalized techniques. One constantly repeated expression is: “We don’t have money, but we have strength in numbers”. However, this mobilization imperative is not simply strategic. It is essential for community organizations’ very legitimacy. Participation in numbers is a form of informal authorization. Laura Montanaro describes it as the “organizational authorization” of self-appointed representatives. [27] Participation allows representatives to speak on behalf of the group and claim to authentically represent it – a claim that would appear ridiculous in front of an empty room.

Getting subaltern groups involved

9Mobilizing people emerges as the first test of representation for community organizations, which explains the resources (particularly human resources) that they allocate to this task. There are few figures regarding their social composition. The most systematic national-level research indicates that collective organizing involved nearly 1.2 million people at the start of the 1990s, compared with 175,000 for individual organizing. [28] The most recent data, which focus on collective organizing alone, show that close to five million individuals belong to an institution that is a member of a community organization. [29] However, these figures are misleading insofar as the organizations report the whole memberships of the affiliated institutions (churches, schools, unions, and so forth), when in reality it is far from the case that all take part in the umbrella organization’s activities. Accordingly, it is estimated that in 2010 in the United States, 200,000 people took part at least once in an event organized by a faith-based community organization. If the focus is narrowed even further, collective organizing claimed around 20,000 active campaigners in 2010, with figures increasing over the last decade. [30] A study on the scope of community organizing in Los Angeles indicates that the thirteen groups surveyed, including the two groups studied here, declared that between 2004 and 2008 they attracted 54,800 people to their activities and 39,800 new members, and that they trained 2,787 leaders (whom we can consider to be regular participants). [31] Among the organizations studied, LA Voice is capable of mobilizing people on a slightly larger scale than can Community Coalition. LA Voice’s biggest event in 2012-2013, a meeting in support of regularizing the status of undocumented migrants, brought together 1,200 people, compared with 500 people for Community Coalition’s biggest event (a forum that will be described later).

10These organizations mostly mobilize low-income individuals who often live below the poverty line. Although it is necessary to distinguish membership from active participation, it is clear that these non-profits primarily work with working- and lower-class sectors. This atypical sociology can be found in the representative bodies too. In general, the higher up the hierarchy of organizations one goes, the less one finds working- and lower-class people. [32] Community organizing bucks this trend: the poor are overrepresented within the boards of individual organizing groups (and are only slightly underrepresented in the case of collective organizing). In 2011, 23% of their board members did not have a university degree, and their annual income was less than 25,000 dollars per year; 35% had an annual income of between 25,000 and 50,000 dollars. Furthermore, 32% were African Americans, and 14% were Hispanics. [33] This runs contrary to the systematic exclusion of the most deprived in terms of educational and cultural resources from participation in the political process observed by many researchers. [34] Although other forms of domination exist, community organizing appears to be particularly effective in mobilizing people whose conditions of existence might otherwise predispose them to apathy.

11LA Voice’s audience is essentially made up of members of the 26 congregations that it encompasses. The majority of them are Catholic churches located in poor Latino neighborhoods. There are also middle-class congregations, and in particular the Ikar synagogue, known as one of the most progressive religious institutions of the city. An African American mosque is also part of LA Voice, though it is not particularly active. Finally, more recently, the association has hired a black organizer, Pastor Everett Bell, with the goal of diversifying its audience by including more African Americans. In terms of social composition, the majority of individuals involved in the organization are of working- and lower-class origins and all members of a church. For the most part, they have jobs and are among the disadvantaged segments of the working class. Nevertheless, the middle classes also participate. Community Coalition does not rely on religious networks and seeks rather to involve those who are not churchgoers. Its audience is therefore even more predominantly working and lower class than that of LA Voice, and the middle classes are virtually absent from the organization. Members are mainly black or Latinos, with very few whites involved.

12Intensive and rationalized effort to mobilize people is the condition for reaching subaltern groups on such a large scale. Community organizations put significant energy into door-to-door canvassing, house meetings, phone calls, and one-on-ones, with the goal of creating “relations” with residents and thereby mobilizing them on a long-term basis. At Community Coalition, this mobilizing work is systematically carried out by racially mixed pairs of employees (an African American and a Latino). The organizations implicitly take the view that racial identification can facilitate engagement. Participation is therefore the result of significant pressure on the part of the organizers. In the Alinskyan tradition that LA Voice draws on, this mobilization work is based on the relational network of churches. In this case, the mobilization work is facilitated by the internal organization of the church. The presence of an imam, rabbi, or priest serves to support mobilization, which pervades all of the day-to-day spaces of religious participation (Bible, Koran, or Torah reading groups, choirs, social activities, schools, and so forth). Here, the organizers’ role is to build relationships with the leaders from congregations. For example, to prepare the forum described below, each congregation was asked about the number of participants that it thought it would be able to attract to this event. These estimates are not to be taken lightly: at the end of the event, an evaluation meeting is scheduled in order to measure whether the objectives have been met, resulting in rebukes or rewards for members. Each public event or activity is a representation test for the organization: the legitimacy of its discourse and the demands that it makes – and therefore its political future – depend on its ability to widely mobilize a diverse audience.

The diversity test

13In addition to numbers, the legitimacy of community organizations in representing subaltern groups depends on the diversity of the audience that they manage to bring together. Diversity is understood here in social and spatial terms, but above all in racial ones. Because of the strong interweaving of social and racial issues in the United States, the targeted working and lower classes are mostly ethnic minorities. Successfully bringing together African Americans and Latinos – Los Angeles’ two main minorities – embodies a resource for these organizations, but it is also a test for them. Because the group that they seek to represent is heterogeneous, they always risk allocating too much space to any one segment of the population thereby ceasing to represent “the subaltern classes” and rather only representing blacks, Latinos, or the working poor. Community organizations are therefore beset by tensions. To overcome these, highly reflexive strategies of self-presentation and public performance are required. The emphasis on diversity is never more visible than in the public events that they organize in the presence of elected officials. Community organizing, which has become highly formalized since Alinsky, has theorized its relationship to decision makers in the form of accountability sessions, at which organizations express their demands to elected officials, with the latter being held accountable with regard to their past commitments.

14I had the opportunity to attend several accountability sessions that were part of the Los Angeles local elections campaign of early 2013. After two consecutive terms, Democratic mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had to step down, which gave rise to a particularly open election. Mayoral elections in Los Angeles are based on the principle of open primaries: any candidate can put himself or herself forward, with political parties not carrying out any prior selection process. [35] In 2013, four of the five candidates were Democrats. The local campaign is structured according to three main forms of political communication: TV commercials (which make fund-raising activities a key issue for candidates), door-to-door and telephone groundwork by activists, and public forums that bring all the candidates together. Each interest group (community, organization, union, lobby, employers’ association, and so forth) must organize its own “candidates’ forum”. Large-scale campaign meetings are absent here; their place is taken by these adversarial public meetings. [36] Each candidate therefore participated in several dozen of these in the spring of 2013. Community Coalition’s and LA Voice’s forums took the form of accountability sessions. Whereas the session organized by Community Coalition took place before the first round and so brought together the four main candidates, LA Voice chose to organize its session before the run off so that it only involved the two final candidates, the Democrats Eric Garcetti and Wendy Gruel. A comparison of these forums demonstrates how they both foreground diversity, though this took different forms in the two meetings.

15The LA Voice forum was held in the poor neighborhood of Watts in the Macedonia Baptist Church. The audience, which amounted to almost 600 people, was extremely diverse, with African Americans, Latinos, and whites spread equally over the room. “Diversity” was also particularly celebrated. From the beginning, one of the hosts of the evening – a leader, as is customary for LA Voice, since employees are not to be put into the foreground – enthusiastically stated:


“Rabbis, pastors, priests, and imams are all together this evening in this beautiful house!”

17He was joined at the podium by two teenage Latina girls, who recited the “credential” of the organization, as is customary at this type of occasion. They called out:


“Who are we?”

19The audience responded in unison:


“LA Voice!”

21Electrifying the crowd, they repeated this three times, before reading their text:


“LA Voice brings together thirty thousand families from Los Angeles and 26 churches of all faiths. We recently put our efforts behind the passing of Proposition 30, convincing 5,307 voters to go and vote. We have also worked on the passing of the responsible banking ordinance by city council and on special order no. 7 on undocumented individuals. We are part of the PICO National Network, which brings together 1.5 million families who are fighting for social and racial justice.” [37]

23The objective here was to flex the organization’s muscles before the candidates and to demonstrate its strength to them. This was achieved both through numbers – in terms of PICO and LA Voice’s representation at national and local levels – and through what the speakers, mainly individuals from working- and lower-class backgrounds and minority groups, embody. Questions for the candidates then followed, alternately asked by Latinos and African Americans who delivered poignant personal stories in the process. Although, as we shall see later, the gathering of these different segments of the working and lower classes does not always go smoothly and requires significant political and symbolic work, diversity is a resource for the organization and is deliberately brought to the fore. At a preparation meeting a few weeks earlier, the participants had been asked to list the ingredients for the forum’s success. They all underscored the importance of favorable media coverage, a “full house”, and “representation of a cross-intersection of ethnicities and churches”. [38] The organization’s representation and self-presentation practices are therefore consciously set by certain members.

24Community Coalition organized its forum a few months earlier, before the first round of the elections. It brought together the four Democratic candidates; the Republican candidate was not invited. Although the forum came about under CoCo’s initiative, in reality it brought together several “sister” organizations, unions and community organizations with which there is frequent cooperation. The meeting took place in a Baptist church, just as LA Voice’s had. Although CoCo is not a religious organization, places of worship continue to be central spaces in American civic life. Around 500 people attended the event in this little church, which was reminiscent of a boiling cauldron. The church was covered in the organizations’ colors, with flags hung in various places. Members of the different organizations clustered together, all wearing their distinctive gleaming t-shirts. The forum was called “South LA Candidate Forum”, and although the representation was thus territorial, it was also social and racial, as South Los Angeles is largely made up of poor people and members of minority groups (and it is represented in the collective imagination as such). Although racial diversity was given pride of place – speaking turns were divided equally among blacks and Latinos – the diversity of the organizations and their solidarity was what was noticeable above all. The forum was opened by Maria-Elena Durazo, the president of the regional branch of the AFL-CIO, the largest US Union:


“Thank you sisters and brothers. Hermanos y hermanas, look around you! This is South LA! [People cheer her] South LA is beautiful, South LA is vibrant, South LA is diverse. South LA is full of talent. You know, all the community organizations, non-profits, and unions that act in response to the chronic injustices affecting our neighborhoods… today are united. We must be united because we have to deal with powerful opponents.”

26In seeking to reverse the stigma of the ghetto and build a positive and valued image, this type of representation shapes the contours of the group. Rallying behind the banner of South LA, these organizations embody a coalition of civil society that future public servants cannot ignore. Each of these public meetings was therefore a test of representation for these organizations that demonstrated on whose behalf they speak and act.

Unification tests: representation as symbolic work

27The representation tests that community organizations are faced with contribute to shaping the contours of the group that they seek to mobilize, whether the focus is the ghetto (South LA) or the “most vulnerable”. Although these public performances serve an instituting function, the organizations go further in the symbolic work of unifying the group that they seek to represent. Significant divisions cut through the American working classes, from both social and racial perspectives. Several theorists have pointed out that representing subaltern groups raises the difficulty of embodying a heterogeneous group whose interests and values may be contradictory. Iris Marion Young in particular warned against an exclusive politics of presence, which would reduce representation to identity between principal and agents. [39] To respond to this difficulty, the organizations under study highlight the experience of oppression shared by all sectors of the working classes. [40] This unification work aims to bring groups that might oppose one another together around shared interests (education, housing, health, and so forth). Unification comes about through action, but also through significant work focused on the group’s symbolic representation. This work entails both certain discursive practices, which seek to avoid setting sections of the working classes against others while highlighting their shared experiences, and the use of rituals that aim to construct the organization’s common culture.

War between the poor? Unifying the underclass and the integrated working classes

28The category of “poor” masks significant divides among working- and lower-class Americans. By the 1990s, a dispute related to this divide, centered on the concept of “underclass”, had beset American and then French urban sociology. The term was in particular popularized by William Julius Wilson in a book published in 1987 about the inhabitants of the black ghettos of major US cities. [41] The “social isolation” (to use Wilson’s term) in which people who live in ghettos find themselves in relation to both the labor market and the rest of American society places them in a fundamentally different situation to that of the integrated working class, which participates, at least to some extent, in the world of work and in American societal norms. The citizens with the most precarious existence, in contrast, are cut off and cast into total social isolation. The fracture between the two groups precludes unifying them under the same category. The radical inferiority that the ghetto population finds itself in relative to all other social groups, including the integrated working class, requires it to be thought of as an “underclass”. “Under these conditions”, Olivier Schwartz suggests, “even the idea of unity between dominated groups, however it might be conceived, is fundamentally called into question”. [42] Although Loïc Wacquant rejects the term, [43] his work emphasizes the polarization between two blocks of dominated groups that seemingly have conflicting interests. Alongside these class tensions is the racial distance between minority groups, which rarely mix and maintain enduring stereotypes of one another. Wacquant underscores the interracial tensions within the “hyperghetto”, with community organizations becoming weapons in the hands of the integrated working class against the groups with the most precarious existence. However, with regard to the battlefield that he describes, he forgets about politicized community organizations that attempt this “immense, specifically political work of aggregation and re-presentation’ that he calls for in order “to enable this conglomerate to accede to collective existence and thus to collective action”. [44] Above all, he overlooks the fact that social groups and their interests do not exist on an objective level but are the product of symbolic and political constructions connected to a specific labor of representation.

29Integrated members of the working class are the principal group found in community organizations. Although members of the working poor sometimes take aim at the groups from which they wish to be distinguished – dealers, gang members, and more broadly individuals who are the most socially marginalized and unemployed – the organizations under study here look upward rather than downward. Adversaries are not found within. They are identified among the public authorities, big businesses, and real estate developers. As a consequence, community organizations’ employees carry out important symbolic work – which includes educational activities, [45] but also operates more deeply in all daily interactions with the membership – in order to not set particular sectors of the working classes against others.

30The prevailing structural interpretation within these organizations of the origins of urban marginality (which in particular underlines the role of “the transformations of capitalism” and “institutional racism”) encourages them to not stigmatize a population whose involvement they seek. A scene that I observed during a Community Coalition public meeting on safety in South Central illustrated this work focused on symbolic unification. The residents who attended were for the most part elderly African Americans. Some were members of block clubs; they were the embodiment of the integrated working class that has always lived here and experienced the decline of the ghetto. To start with, they were invited to describe the problems that they face on a daily basis: increasing prostitution, young people loitering in the street and taking drugs in plain sight, dirtiness, roads in disrepair, and so forth. In response to this avalanche of difficulties leading to conflict between different sets of residents, the organization’s deputy director spoke in revealing terms about CoCo’s discursive standards.


“When I see the prostitution, the dirtiness, the drug trafficking, I see problems, but above all I see symptoms. So, yes, we could jail people who are selling their bodies or drugs, or who are making the place dirty, but that’s not going to fix the problem. What Community Coalition is trying to do is to attack the problem at the root: unemployment, failing public schools, an inefficient foster system, and so on. If our public schools worked properly, young people wouldn’t be loitering in the streets. But most of the time, people like to attack others and differentiate between good and bad people. At Community Coalition, we try to look at the structure of the system… And the root of the problem is the way that the city gives some neighborhoods priority over others.” [46]

32This discourse is revealing of these organizations’ representation practices. The community organizations studied here simultaneously seek to construct the unity of marginalized neighborhoods on a symbolic level, by transcending the class and race divides that cut through them, and to promote the interests of this group by supporting social and spatially defined demands that will benefit everyone. So, for example, during a safety campaign in 1992, rather than targeting dealers in the vicinity of convenience stores, or pimps or alcoholics, Community Coalition attacked the council to make it issue an order preventing the rebuilding of liquor stores that had been destroyed during the riots and requiring others to improve their security equipment. More recently, the organization led a campaign to turn certain liquor stores into supermarkets that offer fresh produce, so as allow access to quality food in neighborhoods that are often labeled as “food deserts”. By adopting a structural perspective – the ease of obtaining alcohol and the difficulty of buying fruit and vegetables brings about certain behaviors: alcoholism, obesity, and health problems among the poorest – these organizations seek to stem the tide of the sources of urban marginality. Moreover, such a discourse allows an attenuation of the racial divides that cut through these organizations by bringing to the fore class-based or spatially defined demands.

The symbolic dimension of representation: bringing together blacks and Latinos at LA Voice

33At LA Voice, group unification also entails shared rituals and the celebration of this unity, as if the public expression of unity was enough to bring the group into existence performatively. The speech delivered during the previously described forum by Reverend Scott, the pastor at the Macedonia Church, reveals the difficulties of this symbolic work. Perhaps as a result of the somewhat routine nature of the exercise and the candidates’ response, or perhaps because he had heard reactions indicative of this from the pews, he took the floor an hour into the debate to rock the boat. Taking the microphone, he positioned himself in front of the podium where the candidates were and addressed the crowd:


“While passing through the rows, I heard that this debate would be biased. Some people feel that the questions would mainly concern Latinos. It doesn’t matter who said it, but let me tell you that that is not the case. I want to know, how many of you have lost your jobs over the last two years? Stand up [about ten people stand up]. How many of you have lost your home in the last two years? How many have you have suffered as a result of the withdrawal of public services that you or your loved ones had benefited from? How many of you have been released from jail or know someone who has just got out? [People stand in their tens and applaud; the pastor’s flow of words electrifies the crowd] Whatever your situation, the real issue is that it’s hard for everyone right now. Immigration doesn’t just affect our Latino brothers and sisters; it affects all of us. We’ve all been affected by this recession. Blacks, Latinos, Asians, whites: we’re all in the same boat!”

35As his speech turned into a sermon, the crowd rose to their feet, the audience was in a trance, and the atmosphere was close to that of an African American Sunday mass. [47] But however exuberant this speech may have been, it also reveals the tensions that cut through a heterogeneous and febrile group. On the bus back with the Latino leaders, some seem disappointed by the meeting. They emphasize that “the black people didn’t seem interested in immigration issues” and that “they won’t support (the less applauded candidate) Garcetti, because he’s the descendant of a Mexican immigrant”. [48] It is only at the price of significant symbolic work on group unification across these divides, by putting the experience of social relegation shared by all minorities in the spotlight, that mobilization can occur in concert. The role of charismatic leaders such as priests is to inculcate in a working class beset by racial divisions a feeling of shared interests and destiny that cannot be taken for granted. But this act of ventriloquism only stands a chance of bearing fruit if it is regularly repeated. The mixed reception of these attempts at symbolic unification indicates that this is a daily task and that the religious representatives’ charismatic leadership is not on its own enough to bring the group into existence. As was the case at Community Coalition, the work of symbolic unification is carried out through a class-based discourse involving the working and lower classes’ living conditions (for example, jobs, housing, and access to public services). In the case of LA Voice, this discursive work is also shored up by certain interfaith rituals.

36Although there are strong ties between members of each of the churches, the links between congregations within this umbrella organization are relatively weak. The leaders do not engage in discussions with one another much, and they do not know each other very well. However, at each meeting, a meal is also provided, allowing people to have informal discussions. But the participants usually sit together with people from their own church, and they only have discussions with people whom they already know. Community organizing has nevertheless developed tools to counteract such groupings. One regularly observed ritual at LA Voice is an interfaith prayer recital at the beginning and end of each meeting. The idea is to create commonality and to put into words and thought the fact that beyond their different beliefs, all the participants share common values. During a meeting at which several new recruits were present, the director of the organization explained the rules very clearly:


“We’re an interfaith gathering, and so I invite you all to pray according to your own faith. You can call out “I am going to pray in the Christian tradition”, “I am going to pray in the Jewish tradition”, and so forth, so that we can all be together but also be ourselves according to our own beliefs. At LA Voice, we try to build a culture in which we show others that we respect who they are at the same time as being exactly who we are.” [49]

38The inclusion that the organization claims must not simply be practical; it also has to be cultural and spiritual. The symbolic strategies of group unification are therefore also subject to explicit reflexive work.

39Repeated participation in collective activities and in the life of the organization creates many socialization opportunities for participants. They learn to master the group’s style [50] and in particular the discursive norms that structure interactions within it. Whereas at Community Coalition the style is very critical, with emphasis on the structural origins of the marginalization of South Central residents, LA Voice’s is more moral. Two elements are particularly valued: common humanity beyond ethnic and religious diversity, and the personalization of social change. The way in which a meeting that brought together a large number of new leaders unfolded proved to be very revealing in this respect. [51] The encounter’s objective was to prepare for the forthcoming public meeting with the two candidates in the mayoral elections. Everett, the organizer in charge of planning the forum, began with the classic celebration of differences:


“Look around you! You’ll see different ethnicities, different skin colors, and different beliefs, but we share the same hearts, concerns, and possibilities. This group is a microcosm of Los Angeles!”

41The director of the organization then explained the rules generally and implicitly followed by participants.


“I also want you to meet one another and to have the chance to speak to one another, so that by the time you leave here tonight, you will have met someone whom you didn’t know before. This is one of the conditions for LA Voice’s success, or for success in any family or community that wants to endure in the long term: relationships and an understanding of who we are together.”

43A black pastor from a Lutheran church adds:


“More things bring us together than divide us. The challenge is to build relationships between us. I would therefore ask you to spend the next quarter of an hour having a discussion with someone whom you don’t know.”

45Unification work is easier at LA Voice than it is at Community Coalition because of the shared religious culture. As a minimum, the members are all “people of faith”, and the majority of them are moreover followers of monotheistic religions. Beyond this minimum identity of being believers, the members of LA Voice also share a common ethos: the organizational rituals (for example, prayers and hymns) draw on religious rites. On this basis, faith-based organizing seems to be better equipped to create a common identity and collective subject than individual organizing. CoCo’s prioritization of space, which involves an attempt to create a South LA identity, comes up against the same difficulties as those of the urban struggles of the 1970s in Europe, in which it proved difficult to construct mobilizations based on stigmatized identities. [52] This unification work is all the more difficult as a result of the fact that, within CoCo, ritualization is less strong than it is within interfaith organizations, meaning that the ties between its members seem to be weaker. Secular rituals – ones similar to the democratic practices of the Occupy or Indignados movements [53] – sometimes manage to compensate for these difficulties. In their absence, unity is strongly dependent on the relational work carried out by the organizers. The departure of a given organizer often results in the demobilization of a section of residents who had a special relationship with that organizer.

Embodiment tests: representation as cultural performance

46The desire to unify a relatively heterogeneous group is also reflected in the types of leaders – de facto representatives – put forward by community organizations. The practices of selection and development of leadership within the two organizations studied here show how “good” group representatives emerge. Representation does not require election, or only very rarely. Representatives are co-opted by the employees and people who run the organization. Their legitimacy essentially depends on their public performances and on their ability to correctly embody the group. While this situation of representing without holding a mandate is a matter of presence – their performance depends on who they are – it is embodied above all in interaction. The public expression of their identity to the group – something which in turn shapes the group – is what defines a good leader. Far from boiling down simply to presence itself, representation of the group is constantly replayed in practice, and it requires true skill to embody a heterogeneous and intersectional group.

Selecting good leaders: constructing the organization’s image

47The issue of selecting leaders is approached differently in the two organizations. At Community Coalition, where participation is organized on an individual basis, anyone can in theory become a member. In spite of the desire for mass recruitment, the organization nevertheless chooses to turn away certain potential activists so as to not lead its political project astray. Some participants who demonstrate a real motivation to become involved sometimes find themselves marginalized by the organizers because they do not correspond to the image of itself that the organization wishes to present. This is particularly the case with regard to students in Community Coalition who cannot embody authentic members of the community. For instance, a young Asian American encountered in my fieldwork did not seem to correspond to the organization’s expected profile: although she was a member of a minority group, she came across as “too middle class” and “too much of a student” – with her rock-band t-shirt and mini shorts – to embody a “good member of the community”. Not only did she not have the expected objective traits – she was probably not poor, and nor was she likely to have been from a deprived neighborhood – but her public performances also did not correspond to Community Coalition’s style. For example, during one meeting, a discussion arose on the type of supermarket that the residents would like to see in the neighborhood in order to respond to the “food apartheid” that they faced. The student then suggested the establishment of a Whole Foods, a high-end organic supermarket. A man replied bluntly that “it’s too expensive for residents”. Failing to meet the standards of what was expected, she was never valued by the team, and finally left the organization after a few months. The only members of the middle class present in the association are some of its employees, with organizers sometimes experiencing social ascension as a result of their involvement. To appear suitable for recruitment, they must nevertheless combine different social properties. They must be the product of a working- or lower-class environment and a member of a minority group, and, ideally, they should have grown up in South Central. Because the organization has a large number of employees (more than 40 in 2013), it cannot make any more room for the middle classes among the volunteers lest it becomes an advocacy movement, in which poor people are a minority. Although community organizing relies on strength in numbers, in this area the non-profit allows itself the luxury of discouraging middle-class engagement so that its identity is not subverted.

48At LA Voice, the selection of leaders proceeds on a different basis insofar as only worshipers from the affiliated churches can become leaders. Churches themselves become members of the organization only insofar as they match the organization’s project (in particular in terms of their progressiveness, and also because they can reach out to working- and lower-class minorities). Among this pool of members, some worshipers from the congregations are brought to the fore. In order to study how leaders are selected and created, I immersed myself in one of LA Voice’s member churches, namely Dolores Mission, a Catholic parish that has a strong reputation for civic engagement. Situated in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, the historical heart of the city’s Mexican community, the church officially has 5,000 worshipers, and on average 500 attend the five Sunday masses. Not all of them participate in LA Voice’s activities however. The link between congregation and organization is sustained by a local organizing committee (LOC), which is made up of around ten members who meet every month. This committee’s participants are referred to as leaders. Although it is open to everyone, ultimately only a handful of worshipers are drawn to participation. Few become spontaneously involved; the leaders are most frequently co-opted by the organization in conjunction with the priest. The first stage in this co-option process is the conducting of “one-on-ones”, which are tailored interviews that allow the individual’s personal background and the possible sources of his or her engagement to be ascertained and the functioning of the organization to be introduced. Alma, the organizer of LA Voice in charge of this church, puts it clearly:


“My job is to identify the ‘good ones’, because the ‘good ones’ are the people who are going to help us to organize the community.”

50The “good ones” are often members of the church who are already involved in the congregation’s different spaces of sociability. Dolores Mission has a choir, prayer and meditation groups, catechism sessions for children, a clothing cooperative, a hostel for the homeless, and, above all, “base communities”, small groups focused on discussing and grasping the Bible’s message. A good leader is consequently an active member of his or her religious community. The view is implicitly taken that religious investment is the foundation for a desire to be engaged and for the skills that can be made use of in a more political role. A good leader must also have significant social capital within the community. The position within the religious community is a resource for political engagement: relationships with other worshipers, built during religious activities, allow mobilizing for LA Voice to take place. The religious community does not so much appear as a spiritual resource than as a relational one. Just as Communist activists mobilized their “native capital” to incite their connections to at least vote and ideally to become engaged, [54] so too leaders are all the more effective as agents of politicization because they are at the center of the church’s relational network. One of the strengths of collective organizing is its capacity to build on existing relational networks within these institutions. Although these relational resources contribute to making the leaders suitable for selection, they are not sufficient to make an individual become a good group representative. This process also requires performing the group’s intersectional culture.

Becoming a good representative of an intersectional group

51Although all the members of the community organizations are referred to as leaders, there is an implicit hierarchy among them, with some valued more highly than others. The organization’s moments of public exposure – the holding of public meetings and forums as well as speaking before the media, for example – are revealing of this hierarchy. The leaders brought to the fore on these occasions signal the image that these groups wish to present. To rise through the ranks of the organization’s implicit hierarchy, leaders must pass through a series of public tests that constitute confirmations of their legitimacy to represent the group. The cases of two leaders who are highly valued within their respective organizations are symptomatic of this process.

Tim: socialization and discipline of a young leader

Tim is one of CoCo’s stars. This sixteen-year-old joined the organization two years earlier at the urging of his mother, a member of Community Coalition. He recalls: “I knew nothing about politics at the time. As I was growing up, I learned to understand how the world worked, and that there wasn’t a lot to be done to change it. I didn’t know anything about ‘people power’ and all those things.” Having grown up in a relatively engaged household, though also an impoverished one – his divorced mother has been unemployed for three years – Tim seems to have been transformed by his experience: “The things that they’ve taught me here have changed my way of seeing things.” His mother agrees: “Before, he was shy and not very interested in politics. It allowed him to come out of his shell.” “It’s true that I didn’t know how to speak in public. The first time that I had to speak in public, I was really stressed out. But you get used to it by doing it again and again.” “Before, he didn’t come to church, but now he comes a lot more, and he’s even in the choir”, adds his clearly satisfied mother. He has also become a student representative on his high school’s council. (“I didn’t even know that there was one before.”)
At ease in public, Tim is regularly brought center stage during events organized by Community Coalition. When the organization took the lead in the local demonstrations that followed the acquittal of the man who killed Trayvon Martin in July 2013, [55] Tim spoke at a public meeting and was interviewed on local TV. Briefed by CoCo’s organizers (“they prepared us to make sure that we gave the right message”), his speech was what was expected from him: he called on demonstrators to go home peacefully and without there being any violence, while at the same time he attacked the discriminatory workings of the American justice system. He wore a shirt and tie for the occasion – in contrast to his usual streetwear – and shortly afterward he was invited to meet the city’s new mayor. He is on the path toward becoming a public figure, and he envisages having a career in politics. However, he would first like to study in Washington at Howard, a university that is considered the antechamber for the African American political elite, also known as the “black Harvard”.

Isabel: embodying the suffering of the undocumented

Isabel is an undocumented person, and she is regularly invited to tell her immigration story at public events such as the accountability session organized for the May 2013 local election. Isabel’s engagement might seem unlikely from a sociological perspective. She arrived from Mexico in 1998 on her second attempt, joining her sister in Los Angeles. After initially being employed and exploited at an illegal textile factory, she now works on the checkouts at a supermarket. In a situation of precarious employment, her undocumented status, which has taught her to be discreet, is not conducive to her public engagement. She is always fearful of encountering the police, being arrested then deported, and finding herself far from her children.
Her involvement in LA Voice has changed her. “I’ve learned to be less shy and to speak out in public.” Having been in the United States for more than fifteen years, she still only speaks Spanish, though she has recently started to take English classes through her church and LA Voice. Her becoming an activist also owes a great deal to her participation two years ago in a placement run by PICO, “where I truly came to understand the philosophy behind community organizing. This was where I fell in love with LA Voice. They explained to us the different stages of organizing, as well as the one-on-ones, the meetings, the activities, and so on.” Through her involvement in LA Voice, she has also discovered “how this country’s political system worked”. Her participation in the campaign to regularize the status of undocumented workers has led to her following the news more closely, and she now knows the Republican and Democrat positions on the issue. She has also gained an excellent knowledge of the US legislation process. Learning through participation seems to be a constant process: “Before, I was a bit nervous before I spoke, but Alma and Mario [the organizers] really helped me to learn and prepare. I think that this has been part of my development… Zach, the director, always says to me, ‘You can do it’, and he encourages me, which gives me confidence.” Each time before she participates in public, she practices with the organizers. Her public speaking is very focused: she always repeats the same speech that describes her immigration story in detail. The idea is to move the audience in order to mobilize them.

52In both cases, access to the status of spokesperson stems from the reiteration of successful public performances as well as on the rehearsal of their role with the higher-up employees. [56] The performance of leader is connected to a set of expectations that are implemented through these preparatory exercises. The role incorporates participation in a set of training sessions that are based in particular on role playing. In the sessions, individuals learn through repetition to play the role of leaders through further public speaking in a range of situations. Tim in particular learned through role play within CoCo’s youth branch, which frequently offers “devil’s advocate”-type role play, in which participants have to defend a given political position. [57] Isabel, meanwhile, learned during the information sessions that a good personal account must include “a challenge, a choice, a result, and a moral”. [58] The speech given in public is sometimes written by the employees, with the leaders appearing as actors in a play partly written by others. [59]

53Tim and Isabel have both been on a path to gaining increasing civic competence. They have acquired new knowledge and skills through participation, and their engagement has strengthened their self-confidence and self-esteem. Although they are true leaders within their organizations, they nevertheless embody different styles of leadership that are imbued with the prevailing norms from their respective groups. Shaped by the teachings of CoCo’s youth branch, Tim has absorbed a structural discourse. He frequently refers to “the system”, “racism”, or the “lack of opportunities offered to minorities”. He says that he “fights for equality and justice”. Isabel, an undocumented Mexican, adopts a discourse that is more moral than it is political. She denounces “the separation of families because of immigration policy” and the “fear of being deported” which are at the root of her engagement. The words that she spoke during the forum at which the campaign to promote the regularization of undocumented individuals was launched reveal the personalization of politics that is particular to LA Voice.


“Today, I feel powerless about not being able to offer my children the safety that they deserve. That is why I’m here tonight in spite of that fear. To tell you, elected gentleman who have the power to change the law, to support the process of regularization, which will allow all of our families to safely live in this country.” [60]

55She was warmly applauded, her words resonating with the participants’ personal experience and more broadly with the style of the group that she embodies. [61] Mastery of the discursive style and codes of the organization is essential if one is going to speak in its name and be recognized as having the legitimacy to do so by both its employees and its audience.

56Not all leaders experience such an upward trajectory, however. Maria’s case is illuminating here. A regular participant in Dolores Mission’s LOC, she was elected to LA Voice’s council of leaders, which brings together representatives from each congregation that is a member of the organization. There was nothing obvious about her selection for this body, however. She was elected against all expectations, and other leaders appeared better suited to carrying out the role; she was pushed to put herself forward after no one wanted to stand. A 50-year-old renting public housing, originally from Mexico but now naturalized, Maria does not speak English, something which creates problems when it comes to coordination with the members of other churches. This position of representation might have meant a stepping stone in her process of empowerment. Although it was a proof of the group’s confidence that resulted in her more intensive participation (thereafter she attended the leaders’ council and was in more regular contact with Alma, the organizer), Maria does not seem to have acquired new competences or undergone a change in status six months after her nomination. When she had to speak in public, her contributions, even in Spanish, garnered little attention. She was discreetly criticized by another Dolores Mission leader, Dario, who seems to have gained importance within the group over the course of the campaign on the regularization of undocumented immigrants. He rebuked her for the unsuccessful organization of a party at Dolores Mission. The event was supposed to raise funds for the church, but the low attendance resulted in only a modest sum being collected. This relative failure was attributed to poor mobilizing ability on the part of Maria, who coordinated the event. A good leader is first and foremost a person who knows how to mobilize the community. The representatives constantly face a series of tests, the outcome of which decides whether or not they will be able to climb a rung in the organization’s implicit hierarchy. The difficulties that Maria encountered seemed to have put a stop to her rise, whereas Isabel continued to be increasingly valued. Isabel never disappointed when she spoke in public at important events, and she perfectly played the role expected of her, which was to embody the suffering experienced by undocumented Mexicans and, more broadly, the fight against state violence that strikes minorities. In doing so, she managed to embody her primary group – undocumented Mexicans – and to articulate a discourse that makes sense to LA Voice’s other members: suffering experienced by families and the rejection of violence.

57Community organizations choose to bring to the fore members who correspond to the image that they wish to put forward of themselves – a young African American from South Central who is capable of giving an articulate political speech, or an undocumented Mexican mother and practicing member of her church. Tim and Isabel are therefore highly valued and put into the spotlight by their respective organizations. This creates new responsibilities and implies self-discipline and working on oneself. [62] Isabel started learning English and reading up on US politics, while Tim gradually changed his way of speaking and his dress. [63] This self-discipline is a first step in the process of becoming a public figure. In the cases under consideration here, the relatively recent nature of their path toward becoming public figures does not indicate, as things stand, a break away from the grassroots however. It is also worth highlighting that the implicit nature of representation prevents the emergence of what Pierre Bourdieu described as the “office effect”. [64] Here, the leaders are only leaders insofar as their performances give them legitimacy, both at the base (in the eyes of the membership) and higher up (in the eyes of those who run the organization). In the light of these demands, the collectives are characterized by a significant rotation of leaders. It is rare to remain legitimate in the long term. Those who run the organization are also careful to avoid the appearance of a permanent class of unelected leaders. It is therefore unlikely that the emergence of public figures will lead to a bureaucratization of the organization, a process that in general confirms a disconnect between representatives and represented. [65] Moreover, the work on self that leaders undertake does not necessarily result in a detachment from the grassroots, and can in fact be conducive to broadening their representativeness. Without such discipline, these leaders would in fact struggle to truly embody any intersection – and therefore the organization itself. Over time, if Isabel only comes across as an undocumented individual, she will not be able to remain a significant representative of the organization. By the same token, Tim cannot just appear as a “teenager”. The evolution of his self-presentation is a means to better perform a bigger group, namely Community Coalition, the majority of whose members are adults. However, Tim must walk a tightrope, as he cannot completely abandon his “ghetto youth” features, which allow him to represent a particular subgroup (which is itself intersectional) comprising members of minority groups and victims of discrimination at school or at the hands of the police. The skill required by leaders in the public performance of intersection reinforces the need for significant symbolic work on the unification of the group. The more the group appears united around a shared collective identity, the easier it is to embody it.

58* * *

59Understanding representation as a performance enables us to grasp its inclusive and exclusive dimensions. [66] The construction of social groups by representation does not necessarily entail the dispossession of the represented. On the one hand, the desire of community organizations to represent the working and lower classes results in significant participation by the latter, who find themselves taking center stage. By making visible and shaping the contours of the US working and lower classes, community organizing contributes to bringing the group into existence on a political level. In so doing, it allows those who are subaltern to be able to call on a relatively autonomous ability to act for themselves. Although I do not have space to go into greater depth with regard to this point here, this capacity to act results in significant advances in the group’s interests at the local, regional, and state levels. [67] The crux of representation of the working classes is in fact not a matter of mobilizing them or giving them public visibility. Rather, it is making these processes result in access to power. As was highlighted by Pierre Bourdieu – who however overly emphasized the usurping dimension of representation – “it is always necessary to risk political alienation to escape political alienation”. [68]

60Understanding representation from the perspective of “representative claims” moreover enables us to place the emphasis on its performative dimension. Representation is never a “blank check”; it always supposes a transaction between principal and agent, requiring on the agent’s part a continual accomplishment of a series of public tests if the magic of representation is not to cease functioning. In this regard, the principal has a certain power in the relationship of representation, which partially constrains the agent.

61Representation also entails a number of exclusive dimensions. The claim to give a voice to subaltern classes leads community organizations to select and foreground certain representatives. This process of selecting good leaders is necessarily at the cost of a form of dispossession on the part of the represented – and in particular of the ordinary members of these organizations. It is not only the co-opting of “good leaders” that makes these practices exclusive, but also the fact that the co-option process is principally carried out by the employees of the organizations and the people who run them. If the capacity to carry out a leadership role were collectively sanctioned – via a shared evaluation of the representation tests undertaken by leaders (similar to the evaluations carried out on the success or failure of a collective action) – leaders would be directly accountable to the group that they represent. Today, this accountability is indirect and overseen informally by those who run the organization. This lack of transparency and of democratic procedures is sometimes criticized by certain members. If the performing leaders became permanent representatives in the organization, it might result in more institutionalized forms of dispossession. Their effective rotation has, until now, allowed such forms of bureaucratic domination to be avoided.

62The challenge for community organizations lies in their desire to represent a group that is heterogeneous and fragmented along class, race, and gender lines. An initial way of resolving this dilemma would entail opting for serial representation, in which each subgroup is put in the spotlight, their aggregation creating the whole that is sought to be represented. This is partly what CO does at its public events, at which several leaders represent different segments of the larger group that is intended to be represented. Its practice of descriptive representation goes further, however. The ability to represent this larger group – the working and lower classes – cannot be reduced to elements of objective embodiment or a mere “presence”. Although it is necessary to be a member of a minority group and come from the working classes to represent the group, this is not enough to become a “good leader”. It also requires the capacity to embody the style, the spirit, and, in particular, the discursive norms of the group during public performances. The ability to embody and to be perceived as a legitimate representative of the group depends on the outcome of the public tests that leaders must undergo. Thus, African Americans have to appear in a manner such that Latinos can identify with them, and vice versa. This requires discipline over both body and discourse. With regard to the question of whether any member of the subaltern classes can represent them, the answer is yes, though the embodiment of their diversity supposes real interactional skills, with public performances having to reflect the group’s different facets. This is not possible for everyone. For this reason, these representational performances of intersection are complemented by symbolic work of group unification and by training, rituals, and specific discourses that aim to bring together the different segments of the subaltern classes under a single banner that is easier to embody.

63In spite of the important symbolic work that they undertake, one of the difficulties that community organizations face is that they are unable to draw on a specific theoretical or ideological framework to encourage this unification process. CO has not to date put forward its own categories designating the social world, nor conceptualized a specific political or historical subject. Unlike the labor movement, which has been able to draw on the Marxist-Leninist corpus, there is something of a theoretical void to community organizing. The pragmatism and rejection of ideology that have characterized the Alinskyan project since its beginnings – in order to differentiate it in particular from left-wing social movements and the labor movement, which seemed to leave only a marginal place for those primarily concerned [69] – has had consequences until now. As a result, the question of the creation of a unified political subject is rarely addressed. In the absence of an autonomous category with which to identify, CO incorporates one of the dominant categories of American civic life: “the community”. Employed by very heterogeneous actors – including conservatives, progressives, and radicals – this category perhaps appears too broad to truly contribute to the political subjectivization of the US subaltern classes. Although the blur surrounding the notion of community fosters loose coalitions between disparate actors, it can also prevent the completion of the symbolic work of unification. Some organizations that have appeared recently nevertheless seem both to take inspiration from Alinsky’s methods and to reject his demonization of ideology. [70] However, the critical theorists who have attempted to define the contours of this political project – for example, Edward Soja or David Harvey, around the concept of “spatial justice” – have to date found only a faint echo within US social movements. [71]

The English version of this article is published thanks to the support of the CNRS.


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    Dovi, “Preferable descriptive representatives”; Laura Disch, “Toward a mobilization conception of democratic representation”, American Political Science Review, 105(1), 2011, 100-14.
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    Definition given at a training course on community organizing for employees of the Community Coalition group. (Back-translated from original French article.)
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    Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss, Des syndicats domestiqués. Répression patronale et résistance syndicale aux États-Unis (Paris: Liber/Raisons d’agir, 2004); Harvey Molotch, “The city as a growth machine: toward a political economy of place”, The American Journal of Sociology, 82(2), 1976, 309-32; Robert Fisher, Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994).
  • [16]
    Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Random House, 1971).
  • [17]
    Charles Tilly highlighted the notion of “contentious performance”, which relates to the way in which groups implement a repertoire of action according to their own history and situation. They are constrained in their performances, though they do have some leeway. However, this perspective focuses more on historical transformations of performances than on their ideal conditions, or on the way in which they shape organizations and their members. The goal here is above all to grasp the way in which these collective performances contribute to the representation of social groups. See Charles Tilly, Contentious Performances (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  • [18]
    Michael Saward, The Representative Claim (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • [19]
    Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959).
  • [20]
    Here, I make use of pragmatic sociology’s notion of an “épreuve”, or test. See Daniel Céfaï and Isaac Joseph (eds), L’héritage du pragmatisme. Conflits d’urbanité et épreuves de civisme (Paris: Éditions de l’Aube, 2002).
  • [21]
    On the way in which cultural or interactional performances contribute to the social construction of reality, see Edward Schieffelin, “Performance and the cultural construction of reality”, American Ethnologist, 12(4), 1985, 707-24.
  • [22]
    Alexandre Jaunait and Sébastien Chauvin, “Représenter l’intersection. Les théories de l’intersectionnalité à l’épreuve des sciences sociales”, Revue française de science politique, 62(1), 2012, 5-20.
  • [23]
    Francesca Polletta and James Jasper, “Collective identity and social movements”, Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 2001, 283-305; on the subject of community organizations, see Audrey Célestine, “De ‘la menace portoricaine’ aux mobilisations hispaniques: la trajectoire collective des Boricuas de New York”, Revue française d’études américaines, 124(2), 2010, 103-20.Online
  • [24]
    In particular owing to lower levels of trust between racial groups: see Robert Putnam, “E pluribus unum: diversity and community in the twenty-first century”, Scandinavian Political Studies, 30(2), 2007, 137-74. For a stimulating discussion of this literature, see Edward T. Walker and Lisa Stepick, “Strength in diversity? Group heterogeneity in the mobilization of grassroots organizations”, Sociology Compass, 8(7), 2014, 959-75.
  • [25]
    Walter Nicholls, “Forging a ‘new’ organizational infrastructure for Los Angeles’ progressive community”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(4), 2003, 881-96.
  • [26]
    On the subject of these two models of community organizing, see Heidi Swart, Organizing Urban America (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2007); Julien Talpin, Community Organizing. De l’émeute à l’alliance des classes populaires aux États-Unis (Paris: Raisons d’agir, 2016).
  • [27]
    Montanaro, “Democratic legitimacy”, 1101.
  • [28]
    I refer here to the data from John McCarthy and Edward Walker, “Alternative organizational repertoires of poor people’s social movement organizations”, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 33(3), 2004, 107-8. In total, 211 organizations were included in the study; they answered a self-administered questionnaire.
  • [29]
    Richard Wood, Building Bridges, Building Power: Developments in Institution-Based Organizing (Jericho, NY: Inter-Faith Funders, 2011), 2.
  • [30]
    Wood, Building Bridges, 8.
  • [31]
    Figures from a self-administered questionnaire by Lisa Ganghelli and Julia Craig (eds), Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities. Impacts of Advocacy, Organizing and Civic Engagement in Los Angeles (Washington: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 2010), 28-9.
  • [32]
    Michels, Political Parties.
  • [33]
    See Wood, Building Bridges, 7.
  • [34]
    See Daniel Gaxie, Le cens caché. Inégalités culturelles et ségrégation politique (Paris: Seuil, 1978).
  • [35]
    Voting systems are decided at the local level in the United States and therefore vary from one city to another.
  • [36]
    Paula Cossart, From Deliberation to Demonstration. Political Rallies in France, 1868-1939 (Colchester: ECPR Press, 2014).
  • [37]
    Macedonia Church, Watts, Los Angeles, 22 April 2013.
  • [38]
    LA Voice, preparation meeting for the candidate forum, Los Angeles, 15 April 2013.
  • [39]
    Young, “Deferring group representation”.
  • [40]
    As Melissa Williams has commented, while identities risk reifying social groups, highlighting shared experiences of domination is necessarily fluid. See Melissa Williams, Voice, Trust, and Memory: Marginalized Groups and the Failings of Liberal Representation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).
  • [41]
    William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: the Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
  • [42]
    Olivier Schwartz, “Peut-on parler des classes populaires?”, La vie des idées, 13 September 2011. Available online at [last accessed 10 January 2017].
  • [43]
    Loïc Wacquant, “Scrutinizing the street: poverty, morality, and the pitfalls of urban ethnography”, American Journal of Sociology, 107(6), 2002, 1468-532.
  • [44]
    Wacquant, Urban Outcasts, 246-7.
  • [45]
    See Julien Talpin, “Politiser les jeunes du ghetto: l’organizing de jeunesse entre empowerment et endoctrinement aux États-Unis”, Sciences et actions sociales, 1(1), 2015, <> [last accessed 10 January 2017].
  • [46]
    Observation notes, Community Coalition, Los Angeles, 27 March 2013.
  • [47]
    Observation notes, LA Voice, Watts, Los Angeles, 22 April 2013.
  • [48]
    These elements were gleaned as a result of embedding myself in the collective – one of the advantages of ethnographic inquiry – and confirm that one cannot infer participants’ state of mind based on mere observation of a gathering. I nonetheless consider that observation of performances remains an essential element in understanding their effectiveness, with the applause and cheers or jeers of the crowd confirming whether or not the performance matched up to the group’s norms. To grasp the importance of these performances over the long term and in their full depth, a broader apprehension – outside of the meeting places – nevertheless seems necessary, as Nicolas Mariot advocates in “Les formes élémentaires de l’effervescence collective, ou l’état d’esprit prêté aux foules”, Revue française de science politique, 51(5), 2001, 707-38.
  • [49]
    Field notes, 15 April 2013.
  • [50]
    Nina Eliasoph and Paul Lichterman, “Culture en interaction: une ethnographie des styles de groupe de deux organisations civiques en Californie” in Mathieu Berger, Carole Gayet-Viaud, and Daniel Cefaï (eds), Du civil au politique. Ethnographies du vivre ensemble (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2011), 357-401.
  • [51]
    Field notes, Los Angeles, 15 April 2013.
  • [52]
    See Paula Cossart and Julien Talpin, Lutte urbaine. Participation et démocratie d’interpellation à l’Alma-Gare (Vulaines-sur-Seine: Éditions du Croquant, 2015).
  • [53]
    See Héloïse Nez, “Délibérer au sein d’un mouvement social: ethnographie des assemblées des Indignés à Madrid”, Participations, 3(4), 2012, 79-102.
  • [54]
    Jean-Noël Retière, “Autour de l’autochtonie: réflexions autour de la notion de capital social populaire”, Politix, 63, 2003, 121-43.
  • [55]
    On 26 February 2012, Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old African American, was shot dead in Florida by George Zimmerman as he returned home. In spite of there being strong suspicion of racial motivation, Zimmerman was acquitted a year later. The verdict, which was viewed as unjust by black communities in particular, lit a spark in the United States and was an impetus for the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • [56]
    Although the processes described here are, to use Judith Butler’s conceptualizations, rooted more in performance than they are in performativity, in both cases, they function and acquire their effectiveness through repetition. See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999).
  • [57]
    See Talpin, “Politiser les jeunes du ghetto”.
  • [58]
    Documents relating to the structure of personal accounts, handed out at a training session led by PICO, 10 February 2013.
  • [59]
    For similar conclusions, see Hélène Balazard, “Mobiliser et mettre en scène des ‘leaders’: les coulisses des assemblées démocratiques de London Citizens”, Participations, 4(3), 2012, 129-53.
  • [60]
    Field notes, Los Angeles, 27 March 2013.
  • [61]
    The sociology of social movements has emphasized the notion of “resonance” in order to understand how successful the framing of a mobilization may be. One could also argue by the same token that a public performance can resonate to varying degrees, depending on how suited it is to the style or cultural norms of the organization in question. See Robert D. Benford and Scott A. Hunt, “Dramaturgy and social movements: the social construction and communication of power”, Sociological Inquiry, 62, 1992, 36-55; Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow, “Framing process and social movements: an overview and assessment”, Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 2000, 611-39.
  • [62]
    Erving Goffman strongly emphasized the discipline required to assume a role necessary for the accomplishment of suitable performances. See Goffman, The Presentation of Self.
  • [63]
    On the changes (in dress, hexis, and speech) required in role assumption and in fitting into partisan culture, especially in the case of newcomers, see Julien Fretel, “Habiter l’institution. Habitus, apprentissages et langages dans les institutions partisanes” in Jacques Lagroye and Michel Offerlé (eds), Sociologie de l’institution (Paris: Belin, 2011), 195-217.
  • [64]
    Bourdieu, “La délégation et le fétichisme politique”.
  • [65]
    On this subject, see Baptiste Giraud, Julian Mischi, and Étienne Penissat (eds), “Porte-parole, militants et mobilisations”, special issue, Agone, 56, 2015.
  • [66]
    Samuel Hayat, “La représentation inclusive”, Raisons politiques, 50(2), 2013, 115-35.
  • [67]
    Talpin, Community Organizing.
  • [68]
    Bourdieu, “La délégation et le fétichisme politique”.
  • [69]
    Aaron Schutz and Mike Miller (eds), People Power: The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky (New York: Vanderbilt University Press, 2015).
  • [70]
    See the attempts related to the organizing of social transformation initiated by Eric Mann and the Bus Riders’ Union in Los Angeles. Eric Mann, Playbook for Progressives (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011).
  • [71]
    See David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (New York: Verso, 2012); Edward Soja, Seeking Spatial Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Descriptive representation has often been conceptualized as the opposition between a politics of ideas and a politics of presence. This article argues that the legitimacy of the representation of historically marginalized groups demands above all an interactional performance from the representatives; they have to embody the group in their practices, which translates into a series of public tests. This dramaturgical approach is explored through the study of American community organizations that claim to represent poor people, and in so doing bring them together over and beyond the race and class boundaries that divide them. Conceptualizing representation as a set of tests allows us to understand it as an interactive and contingent process that can be politically inclusive or exclusive.


  • poor people
  • community
  • democracy
  • public tests
  • intersectionality
  • descriptive representation
Julien Talpin
A research fellow in political science at the CNRS, Julien Talpin is a member of CERAPS (UMR 8026) at Lille University and the coeditor-in-chief of the journal Participations. His research focuses on collective action in poor neighborhoods in France and the United States. He also coordinates a research project focusing on how the experience of discrimination shapes mobilization and civic engagement in poor neighborhoods in France and North America. He recently published (with Paula Cossart) Lutte urbaine. Participation et démocratie d’interpellation à l’Alma-Gare (Vulaines-sur-Seine: Éditions du Croquant, 2015) (CERAPS, Université Lille 2, 1 place Déliot, BP 629, 9024 Lille cedex).
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