Vulnerability and Power Social Justice Organizing in Rockaway, New York City, after Hurricane Sandy

University dissertation from Uppsala : Department of Government, Uppsala University

Abstract: This is a study about disasters, vulnerability and power. With regards to social justice organizing a particular research problem guides the work, specifically that emancipatory projects are often initiated and steered by privileged actors who do not belong to the marginalized communities they wish to strengthen, yet the work is based on the belief that empowerment requires self-organizing from within. Through an ethnographic field study of social justice organizing in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in Rockaway, New York City, the thesis explores whether and how vulnerable groups were empowered within the Occupy Sandy network. It is a process study that traces outside activists attempts at empowering storm-affected residents over time, from the immediate relief phase to long-term organizing in the recovery phase. The activists aimed to put to practice three organizing ideals: inclusion, flexibility and horizontality, based on a belief that doing so would enhance empowerment. The analysis demonstrates that collaboration functioned better in the relief phase than in the long-term recovery phase. The same organizing ideals that seem to have created an empowering milieu for storm-affected residents in the relief phase became troublesome when relief turned to long-term recovery. The relief phase saw storm-affected people step up and take on leadership roles, whereas empowerment in the recovery phase was conditional on alignment with outside activists’ agendas. Internal tensions, conflicts and resistance from residents toward the outside organizers marked the recovery phase. It seems that length of collaborative projects is not the only factor for developing trust but so is complexity. The more complex the activities over which partners are to collaborate the less easy it is. Based on this we could further theorize that the more complex the work is the more challenging it is for privileged groups to give away control. The internal struggles of the organization partially explain the failures to influence an urban planning process that the organization attempted to impact, which connects the micro-processes with broader change processes toward transformation of vulnerability.

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