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The Challenge of Multisector Negotiations

Collaboration is fine in principle but not so smooth in practice. Community- university partnerships usually involve three-way or four-way negotiations among community-based organizations, universities, funders, and, sometimes, government agencies. Despite shared goals, each social location has competing agendas, constituencies, timetables, standards, budgets, and space limitations. Accrued, these complicate collaboration.

From the professional sociologist’s standpoint, dialogic social movement theorizing is risky business. We have found that it takes five to seven years for a full-fledged collaboration to bear fruit. Yet the nomadic academic marketplace makes it difficult for sociologists to make long-term commitments. With tenure track as the pacesetter, academic culture pushes fast-track research achievable in a summer. Academics need sure bets: stalled collaborations or disagreements over findings represent lost publications—not heavenly opportunities to deepen theory. And so academics gravitate toward quick ways to harvest data that minimize relation building.

The pressure to publish work that contributes to existing paradigms also results in academics writing in language impenetrable to nonspecialists. For instance, social movement theory devolves into a private language of social movement scholars. Collective actors who do not speak that language are seen as atheoretical or as sources of raw material in the colonial tradition. This hurts relation building. Activists rarely see social movement theorists honor their ideas, much less recognize that activists theorize constantly.

Perceiving theorists as being more interested in each other than in front-line experience, activists withdraw as well. That activists could have been theorists’ collaborators and have been given the short end of the academic whooping stick is obscured. A self-fulfilling prophecy is at work, with each side retreating to a stereotype of the other.

Some theorists have tried to collaborate but feel undercut by the pragmatic, antitheorizing bent of many schools of movement organizing. To complicate the most engaged theorist’s tasks further, collective actors themselves are responding to many external rhythms—city hall hearings, legislative cycles, funding cycles, and contract negotiations. Each arena—politics, philanthropy, education, economics, health care—i ntroduces unique rules of play and evaluation standards and boasts its own specialized languages, demands, and criteria for success. Organizers fear that acknowledging weaknesses will erode a hard-won reputation, destabilize a coalition, or undercut foundations’ interest.

To gain funding, for instance, the collective actor may code-switch; a project denied funding when called “infrastructure” is funded when labeled “capacity building.” They may feel pressured to claim early and exaggerated victories rather than share mixed or disappointing results. In failing to learn from valiant but unsuccessful experiments, the natural cycle of learning through action and reflection is disrupted.

Collective actors need to be convinced that academics’ or foundations’ invitation to reflect on practice will be worth the effort and will not be used against them. Activists explain that they are working hard just to hold the fort. To evaluate their organization critically is to risk not getting a grant renewed. And yet activists simultaneously express a need for safe spaces to talk and reflect. While MRAP never had adequate resources, we had enough to begin—space for reflection, access to libraries, the Internet, and an institutional sponsor so that we could approach foundations. The space we gained was tenuous at best; many of our academic peers dismissed our work as traditional professional “service.” We have never achieved sufficient institutional stability—the very process of establishing partnerships and delivering tangible results often exhausts more resources than are allotted. As a result, we learn a great deal, but consolidate our lessons incompletely.

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