Building something better: How community organizing helps people thrive in challenging times

Americans don’t agree on much these days, but many feel that the U.S. is on the wrong track and the future is bleak. In a time of unprecedented division, rising inequality and intensifying climate change, it’s easy to feel that progress is impossible.

In fact, models exist all around us for building safer and more equitable spaces where people can thrive.

We are sociologists who study organizational systems, political and economic institutions and environmental justice. In our new book, “Building Something Better: Environmental Crises and the Promise of Community Change,” we explore how people adapt to crises and thrive in challenging times by working together.

The organizations that we profile are small, but they make big impacts by crafting alternatives to neoliberal capitalism – an approach to governing that uses austere economic ideas to organize society. Neoliberalism aims to put government in service of corporations through measures such as deregulating markets, privatizing industries and reducing public services.

Here are three groups we see building something better.

Humans being, not humans buying

Some groups build better systems by rejecting neoliberalism’s hyperindividualism. Individualistic logic tells people that they can make the biggest changes by voting with their dollars.

But when people instead see how they can create real political changes as part of communities and collective systems, amazing things can happen. One example is the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest areas in the U.S.

This organization is led by and serves Lakota people who, like other Native nations, contend with devastating structural inequalities such as racism and poverty. These challenges are rooted in settler colonialism, especially the Lakotas’ loss of their tribal lands and displacement into less secure locations.