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A Model Movement

Activist Manu Ampim posits new approaches to old social problems

Towards Black Community Development
By Manu Ampim
ATR Publishing; 254 pages; $12.95 paper

Reviewed by Nicky Baxter

TO SOME, Democratic Party liberals have always been about talk, talk, talk. Ironically, many progressives have regressed to the Great Society liberals' politics-as-usual blather. That is to say, the so-called Left these days, black and white, seems content blowing off steam--no plan of action, just a surfeit of hot air.

Don't count activist/scholar Manu Ampim among that politically moribund clique. In Towards Black Community Development, the Bay Area author presents a blueprint for activists interested in transforming multiculturalism from a mouthful of hollow rhetoric into something everyday people can use to bring about social change.

Just the other side of 30, Ampim wasn't around to witness the assassination of liberalism (the Kennedys, King); nor are his ideas concerning social progress weighed down with firsthand knowledge of the Black Power Movement's bloody demise. This means, at least theoretically, that he is capable of surveying the past--its successes and (mostly) its failures--with something approaching objectivity.

For Ampim, liberalism's emphasis on speechifying was and is still its greatest weakness. Stepping to the microphone pleading for peanuts from the government, he argues in Community Development, is dumb and dumber--an anachronism in these times of severe belt-tightening.

In his view, the movement for democratic rights has been severely hamstrung by what the author characterizes as "a lack of vision." According to Ampim, "For far too many people, attending 'big' lectures has become the goal, rather than the application of the lecturer's message."

Indeed, what he describes as the "lecture model"--excessive dependence on podium-oriented politicking, has helped create a generation of do-nothing "leaders." More, the implicit dichotomy between "expert" and audience has further hampered any real growth among activist organizations. Repeatedly, Ampin hammers at the cult-of-personality mentality the lecture model presumably fosters.

But Ampim is intelligent enough--and cares enough--to know that griping will get us nowhere. He posits as a solution an alternative paradigm that he calls the "Workshop Model." Intended as a hands-on organizing tool, this model de-emphasizes reliance on individual "experts," stressing instead group expertise and participation.

As a result, argues Ampim, interested community members can create forums encouraging the free-flowing exchange of ideas. Workshops can address long-standing theoretical concepts as well as map out strategies aimed at solving local problems. Additional aspects of the workshop model include compiling and disseminating important bibliographic information about neglected but significant written works, and publishing book reviews.

Ampim himself has developed what he calls a "seven-step correspondence course" emphasizing "historical primary research methods." He also cites his own regularly convened workshops addressing findings in Kemetology/Egyptology. Ampim is also, parenthetically, founder of the locally organized Committee to Stop the Destruction of Ancient Egyptian Monuments, currently waging a campaign against the desecration of sacred Kemetic sites by "conservationists/restorationists."

Written in a highly readable, jargon-free fashion, Community Development targets ordinary people as much as it does community activists and will almost certainly be taken to task for its "unscholarly" style. (It's certainly true that you won't confuse this work with anything written by, say, Henry Louis Gates or Will Buckley, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.) Nor is Ampim's straight-from-the-hip critique likely to win him many friends among the stuffed shirts and blouses posing as community leaders; they're not Ampim's primary audience, in any case.

Admittedly, Ampim's "emphatically pragmatic" solutions--e.g., democratically conducted workshops, goal-oriented organizational methodologies--do not come out of the blue. The most progressive tendencies of the '60s (the Black Liberation and anti-war movements most prominently), sought to do some of the things Ampim proposes here. Yet this tract does more than regurgitate verities of a bygone era; it updates and refines notions involving strategies, tactics and commitment to real social change while investing these ideas with a new sense of urgency. Most significantly, Towards Black Community Development challenges its readers to question received truths. After all, everything we "know" could be wrong.

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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