The squeaky wheel gets the oil: Community organizing and the rise of neoliberalism in the 21st century

Plan Author

  • Alex Lawsure, 2019

Fields of Concentration

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Rachel Madson, Brandeis University


My intention for these papers is to examine how outcomes in urban environments are shaped by social, cultural, and economic influences. In the first paper I reflect on my experiences of community organizing in Boston neighborhoods, where I worked as an intern at the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation. In the second paper, I explore neoliberalism and the changing landscape of community organizing, resulting from the shift away from federal involvement in urban renewal. My final paper is titled, “ The influence of culture: The Americand Dream in the urban landscape,” and my Plan is completed by written exams on specific questions in urban sociology.


As I listened to Roger, it became apparent that this ordinary inconspicuous plaza was a point of great pride. This was a pattern I noticed in organization; it wasn’t uncommon for a lot of significance to be assigned to the typically banal (Interview 2019). A new heating system in a property, a community made mural, or playground was usually met with great excitement. Things an ordinary person may never stop to notice were talked about like it’s where the real work went. I noticed that JPNDC, while working with the community, was essentially trying to build pride, or the ability to stand up and say you’re proud to be a part of the neighborhood. To a lot of the people I worked with these ordinary things became revolutionary once seen in their historical context. While providing basic needs like housing and other resources, there was always great care given to include social needs. Providing affordable housing was the core mission of the organization but there was also a more unspoken purpose of creating community power and identity in the face of a history of poverty and political neglect.

The city is often defined in simplistic physical terms of population density, infrastructure, designated area, and relative permanence of its settlement. Population is certainly an important factor shaping cities, but this characteristic does not highlight the social, cultural, and economic interactions existing within the urban environment. For instance, this approach does not characterize the municipal government’s relationship to its citizens, social and economic factors encouraging growth, or its place in relation to state or federal decisions. While these factors may be more difficult to describe in physical terms, they play an important role in the shaping of cities.

When the community’s vision is at odds with that of the local government, a community organization’s response is more than just weighing their mission against government granted opportunities. It’s a decision relating to power, identity, the notion of collective autonomy and this country’s tradition of devaluing the experiences and perspectives of poorer communities. In deciding to host the rally against violence despite how it may affect their relation to the Mayor’s office, JPNDC contributed a small piece to the larger cultural fight over who gets to determine the future of poorer urban communities. For JPNDC this is not the first instance of this sort of situation, and it’s certainly not the last, but these decisions can add up to a greater sense of community agency.


I remember endless coffee. I think the most interesting part of my Plan is when I discuss the contradictions in the American Dream narrative

My Plan was inspired by the work I did for the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation my Junior year. It is the building block for work I’m hoping to do with community development corporations.