See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more) Buy the eBook of "and the echo follows"

Opinion Advertize Permission
To be notified of new articles Survey Store About Us
Community Autonomy:
The El Sereno community in Northeast Los Angeles

Aiming to rebuild society from the bottom up

by Roberto Flores
Los Angeles, California


Roberto FloresThe basic Indigenous response to the conquest, to capitalism and to neoliberalism has been one of autonomy. Today, it seems that autonomy is a particularly efficient and powerful response enjoying universal resonance and garnering international support.

Globalization of economies has hastened the inability of nation-states to govern and this has had a paradoxical liberating effect on civil society worldwide. World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund) austerity programs micro-manage affairs from a global supra-structure, leaving no significant decision making to the nation-state. The salvaging of macro-economies is accomplished by devastating the micro-economies and eroding social services, particularly education. The global hegemonic role of corporativism through GATT, and NAFTA together with the impact of austerity programs promoted and designed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund have resulted in an overwhelming abandonment of the poor and the impoverishment of larger numbers in all countries.

Representative democracy and government for and by the people no longer exists. The lethal combination of the global trends has emphasized individualism over collectivism and destroyed communities alienating individuals even from themselves through the denial of their language and culture. In the face of this abandonment and destruction the people have no choice but to form parallel structures intended to recover and rebuild community, culture, language and dignity. Ultimately autonomy is aimed at allowing civil society recover it rightful role as the main component of any country. Phase I is an effort to utilize the Zapatista model to facilitate this natural tendency towards dignity and as a proactive and constructive response to abandonment and destruction created by the negative aspects of transnationalism.

Community Autonomy:
The El Sereno community in Northeast Los Angeles

The El Sereno Asset Inventory proposal recommends that the El Sereno community in Northeast Los Angeles, California rebuild itself by focusing on its strengths. Phase I proposes that the El Sereno community use these strengths to facilitate creative extensive community development. This proposal aims to establish a positive framework for the long term community reconstruction of El Sereno. To achieve this, it is essential that the Asset Inventory be designed, administered, analyzed and utilized by the El Sereno Community.

The overall and long term goal of Phase I is to facilitate the current proactive tendency towards dignity through building Community Autonomy. Community Autonomy is the ability of a community to take independent organized initiative on its social, cultural, economic, educational, and political affairs. Independent initiative includes making crucial long and short-term decisions on these matters based on an independent perspective and analysis. The initial stage of Community Autonomy entails a process of building positive interdependency between individuals and bottom-up relationships and structures between community and leaders.

The theoretical framework of this approach is eclectic but in the main borrows from universal notions modeled by the Zapatista Autonomous Communities in Chiapas, Mexico. Some of basic tenets include the refreshing leadership ethic of "Todo Para Todos, Nada Para Nosotros", (Everything for Everybody, Nothing for Ourselves). Central to this approach is "Mandar Obedeciendo" (Lead by Obeying). Essential for participatory democracy and the development of everyone's contribution is the view expressed in "Todos Somos Ramona" (We are all Ramona). The organize locally connect globally perspective is included in the view articulated in "Detras de Nosotros Estamos Ustedes" (Behind Us We Are You). Lastly, the profound faith that the answers are in community and that all have an inalienable right to dignity and the primacy of community over government is expressed in "No Tenemos Que Pedir Permiso Para Ser Libres" (We Don't Have To Ask Permission to be Free).

Proactivity and Independent Initiative

The approach to this community reconstruction project is from its inception an attempt to be proactive. Proaction is the extent to which any particular action or plan of action allows an individual or group to take independent initiative. Independent initiative is necessary because Community, or civil society, is neither government nor owners of corporations.

In the US, the interest of government and most corporations are wedded to an exploitive economic system that are creating an increase of inequality. Civil society makes up the largest part of the country yet the part without a voice, the part that is viewed as exploitable and dispensable. What is in the interest of civil society is not in the interest of abusive and irresponsible government or unregulated corporations and visa versa.

Because of this difference in interest, proactivity requires independent perspective, a broad and inclusive approach, a dignified humane goal and independent organizations. As an approach to community development, proactivity takes the form of autonomy and includes the collective process of reflection, consultations, participatory democracy, the practice of self-reliance and the concept of building a sustainable community.

The overall approach proposes that El Sereno initiate the reconstruction of itself not primarily in response to its destruction but in recognition of its constructive potential. The proactive asset based model sees the community as a collective of resourceful and equal subjects. The proactive asset based model projects a profound belief that the answers are in the community.

Asset Based Inventory:
Framework for Long Term Community Development

The media, government bureaucracy, and many service agencies perpetuate the image of a dependent community, one that can do nothing for itself, that is helpless and incapable of solving its own problems. Unfortunately, this negative myth has been internalized by a significant sector of the community. Gang warfare, and drug use manifest this negative view of self-hatred. The typical community development model basis itself on a Needs Assessment model. This has fueled the definition of community as people with needs that someone from the outside can service.

An initial inventory of the community assets" is absolutely essential to break with the reactive deficit approach to community development. Asset assessment allows a community a way to identify and utilize resources at its collective disposal. This real and new sense of itself then allows the community to overcome the victim" and object" status and to transform to that of subjects," with the ability and right to determine their own destiny. It is therefore the immediate and short-term goal of this proposal to expose the El Sereno Community its newly uncovered rich resources.

An objective of this approach and process is to harness the everyday spontaneous individual tendencies toward dignity. The long-term goal is to build communities that develop participatory democratic structures. The current systemic collapse of neoliberal systems and increasing inequality mandates the development sustainable advanced democratic systems grown from the bottom up. We audaciously propose that these new autonomous communities become the pluralistic building blocks of a new nation.

Community Autonomy

Community Autonomy is not just the process but is also the end product. As an outcome of process, Community Autonomy allows the community to collectively interact with neglectful and irresponsible government from a position of independence and strength. It is important to stress that this definition of Community Autonomy has no goal to separate from the country. On the contrary, Community Autonomy is a process and method of integrating a community on its own dignified terms into an gradually redefined national project.

Background and Global Setting

  • The Market Imperative of Capitalism vs. Civil Society
    The concept of community reconstruction implies prior destruction. Phase I assumes that the economic systems of capitalism and now (in an exaggerated manner) global capitalism or transnationalism, have had a devastating effect on working class and poor communities of the US. The El Sereno community is a typical, poor working class community that, over the last 20 years, has shown all the classical signs of destruction and deterioration.

    The political economy of the Capitalist system has particularly damaged communitiesí collective sense and ability to direct their own destiny. Most communities are neither expected nor encouraged to give opinions on the lack of dignified jobs, inferior education, toxic dumps or the utilization of land. Communities are carefully ignored and suffer from lack of appropriate education, information and misinformation. Communities are almost never encouraged to help plan affordable housing. Government typically excludes communities in decisions concerning drug infestation, the pervasiveness of crime, police abuse or on the building of ever more jails instead of schools.

  • Manufacturing Consent (Chomsky)
    Government bureaucrats and agencies have justified exclusion from major decision by pointing to the role of "experts" "authorities" and contrasting their credentials with those of "plain community folk". To build community consent it is essential that the opinions of these experts are projected as "disinterested" and "objective". One of the most typical methods of developing consent is through the utilization of political bosses, caciques who broker and buffer for government. These political bosses attempt to "convince" the people to allow them to do the job they were elected to do. Generations of exclusion has created barrios and ghettos of clients and victims who have learned to depend on outside agencies and experts to define and meet their needs. The deficit or needs based model has shown tremendous shortcoming particularly because it views the community as helpless and ignorant.

    The economic system of Capitalism requires submissive and passive consenting consumers and the collective addictive dependency of communities on politicians, agencies and the welfare state.

  • Transnationalism, The Nation State and Community Autonomy
    The globalization of economies (transnationalism) has paradoxically hastened the inability of nation-states to govern and this in turn has had a paradoxical liberating effect on civil society worldwide. World Bank and IMF austerity programs tend to micro-manage affairs from a new global supra-structure leaving no significant decision making to the nation-state. Representative democracy, the ability to have your point of view and interest represented by an elected official, the centerpiece of the capitalist nation-state, no longer exists. The paradox is that it is precisely from this transparent and conclusive failure that a new and liberating approaches seems to be birthing. Finally there are no more illusions. Civil society is quickly becoming aware that it must do what governments have no will to do and no longer can. Out of the global political-economic ruins are being born several phoenix movements that offer liberating solutions of democratic autonomy, participatory democracy. These are proactive self-sustenance; movements aiming to rebuilt society from the bottom up. The current Zapatista movement gestating on the other side of US borders is one such proactive movement.

Roberto Flores: In Chiapas, Roberto Flores did research on the "Feminine Factor Within the Zapatista Movement." Beto is a life-long activist for human rights, and is now working with others on facilitating and developing the concept of "autonomy" as a method of rebuilding through structural development of oppressed communities. Beto's work on autonomy is aimed at supporting the development of a strategic alliance with the Zapatista communities and the development of a long term strategy for social justice through infra structural change.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 6, 1999.