What is community organizing anyway?


It seems everyone these days is a community organizer.  Tea Party activists gleefully claim they are out-organizing the nation’s organizer in chief, Barak Obama.  Meanwhile, on different political terrain, all manner of non-profits, advocacy organizations and neighborhood organizations have at least one person on staff with the title, community organizer.                               

More Americans than ever before have heard the term, community organizing.  But what is it?  And what difference does it make?

At its essence, community organizing is small “d” democracy.  It happens when people come together to take action on shared interests and values.  This generic community organizing takes place every day in neighborhoods, work-places, schools, church groups, advocacy groups-the rich and colorful crazy-quilt of America’s civil society.  Understood this way, community organizing is to democracy as air is to lungs. 

But organizing strong and effective collective efforts is easier said than done.   Principles of effective action are critical.  Saul Alinsky is the person most recognized for developing community organizing as a specific field. A charismatic character with a flair for the irreverent phrase and creative conflict, Alinsky taught hundreds of aspiring organizers methods to help citizens build effective power:  how to translate private grievances into public issues; how to identify and nurture citizen leaders; how to build effective, democratic community organizations; and how to plan actions to achieve collective goals. 

I first encountered the Alinsky approach in the mid-seventies when I joined the South Side Coalition, an affiliate of his Chicago-based mother-ship, the Industrial Areas Foundation.   I was one of hundreds of veterans of the 60s era social movements who had settled in South Minneapolis.  When an Alinsky organizer came calling, I jumped at the chance to see what I could learn about the practical arts of organizing with my working-class neighbors.

Over the next year, I received a crash course in the Alinsky method. I learned how to plan an effective meeting.  No more endless discussions.  Meetings should start and end on time.   I learned how to select Issues that were immediate, concrete and winnable.

The South Side Coalition was actually one of four IAF organizations established in Minnesota in the 1970s and 80s. Taken together, they involved thousands of Minnesotans in effective campaigns from fighting public funding for the domed stadium (the original sports stadium fight) to challenging bank lending policies, to police accountability. 

While aspects of the Alinsky tradition remain influential, today’s organizers draw from a variety of exemplars and traditions.  In my own teaching, I stress the contributions of Ella Baker, who taught a generation of young black activists the principles of democratic organizing and grass-roots leadership, and  Myles Horton, whose Highlander Education Center became the crucible for the Southern labor movement  and a critical “free space” for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

More critically, organizers are creating new practices that reflect changing times and serious reflection on what works-and doesn’t.  Today’s organizers focus less on public confrontations and more on relationship building. An exclusive emphasis on immediate victories is giving way to an understanding that many of the issues facing low-income and working-class communities are structural and require analysis and long-term approaches. 

Clear-headed tactical thinking remains important, but so do values and world view. Organizers understand that you can’t win on universal health care in a society where free market individualism and distrust of government are the pillars of public philosophy. 

Most importantly, there is an emerging understanding that the struggle for racial justice is essential to achieving genuine democracy and social equality.  Only by naming and confronting policies that perpetuate racial disparities, can organizations build the unity necessary to achieve deep and lasting social change.  

Contemporary community organizing comes in many shapes and sizes.  But that doesn’t mean every organization is really doing community organizing.   How do we recognize the real deal? 

In the preface to his classic exposition of community organizing principles, “Rules for Radicals, Alinsky offers a clue. ” What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for Haves on how to hold power.  Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”

Whether the constituency is “have-nots” or the middle class (and it is often both), genuine community organizing is about collective action to achieve social power.  Power can be used for just or unjust ends. The community organizing tradition at its most authentic is rooted in the deep and too often hidden history of social justice movements in the U.S.