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An Internet Guide to Community Organizing,

by Shayna Strom History and Theory of Community Organizing

Any history of community organizing starts, inevitably, with one man-- Saul Alinsky, born in 1909 in the Chicago slums. Growing up, Alinsky was heavily influenced by the burgeoning labor movement, but saw new potential in uniting people around issues of concern to their community rather than just their jobs. Soon, Alinsky was traveling around the country, attempting to politicize ordinary people and enable them to fight back against the people and forces constraining their lives. Alinsky was known for using confrontational tactics like sit-ins and boycotts; for awhile, he carried a business card reading, "Have trouble, will travel." In 1941, he formally created the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), an attempt to bring his organizing vision to a broader audience. Then, in 1968, he decided to stop roaming the country, and instead set up a training institute for organizers, an institute that became the core of the network now known as the IAF. In his many years of organizing, Alinsky trained some of the greatest organizers of this century, including Cesar Chavez, founder of United Farm Workers (UFW).

The genius of Alinsky's organizing techniques came in his willingness for confrontation, but also in the ways he redefined ordinary concepts to allow people to reconceive their own lives. Most prominently, Alinsky redefined the ideas of power and self-interest. When people think of power, Alinsky often noted, they view it as a negative phenomenon, and think of Lord Acton's famous saying: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Yet as Alinsky wrote in his book Rules for Radicals, "When we talk about a person's lifting himself by his own bootstraps, we are talking about power. Power must be understood for what it is, for the part it plays in every area of our life, if we are to understand it and thereby grasp the essentials of relationships and functions between groups and organizations, particularly in a pluralistic society. To know power and not fear it is essential to its constructive use and control." Alinsky's message to ordinary people was that the wealthy already asserted their power, and were not afraid to do so. If the average person ever wanted to take control of his own life, he would have to learn to use power as well.

Similarly, Alinsky redefined the concept of self-interest. Self-interest, he said, is not the same thing as selfishness. The world is not motivated by altruism; organizations will eventually fail if they sideline people's self-interest, forcing participants to manage internal conflicts. When self-interest is aligned with organizational interest or public interest, it is a relational concept, and makes organizations and campaigns significantly more sustainable.

Using the twin-concepts of power and self-interest, Alinsky developed a new way for low-income individuals to engage with politics. "Community organizing groups" are not social service providers; they are also not traditional "advocacy" or "activist" groups that speak for the disadvantaged. "Organized" groups are associations of people capable of taking action as a group—in this case, poor individuals who fight in their own self-interest to reclaim their communities, whether that means pressuring Kmart to stop selling guns or pressuring a city to institute a living wage. Community organizing is, one might say, about restoring local democracy and accountability to communities—and about building leadership and empowering the disenfranchised in the process.

Community Organizing Groups Today

Today, while almost all community organizing groups follow Saul Alinsky's basic tenets, groups still differ in their approach in two major ways.

First, some community organizing groups organize people within institutions, and others organize them as individuals. Alinsky's IAF has always argued that the only way to create sustainable community organizing groups is to draw on the power of pre-existing relationships—in other words, to organize people as members of their churches, schools, or neighborhood associations. Institutions become members of local IAF groups; individuals cannot join the groups on their own. Three of the other major community organizing networks that exist today-- the Gamaliel Foundation, the Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO), and the Direct Action Research and Training Center (DART)—all follow the IAF model. Together with the IAF, these "institution-based community organizing networks" have over 130 active local groups, made up of 4,000 member institutions and reaching between 1 and 3 million people nationwide.

On the other hand, the remaining national network of community organizing groups, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), organizes people as individuals rather than through institutions. Founded in 1970, ACORN has long argued that most low-income individuals (and in fact, the poorest low-income individuals) are not connected to any institutions in a meaningful way. By organizing door-to-door, rather than through churches, ACORN may sacrifice some stability but gain an ability to reach out to the worst-off. ACORN now involves over 150,000 families in over 450 neighborhood groups in 60 cities across the country.

Second, the existing community organizing groups differ in the scope of the issues they tackle. While all community organizing groups strive to be "bottom-up," and thus driven primarily by local issues and concerns, some of the groups explicitly have a national or regional agenda as well as a local one. ACORN, for example, has a national predatory lending campaign, while Gamaliel has recently voted to take on a national civil rights for immigrants campaign. The IAF, on the other hand, sometimes takes a regional approach but has consciously not attempted to work at a national level.

Moreover, there is a huge range of local community organizing groups around the country that are not connected to any national network. Such groups—for example, Make the Road By Walking or the Fifth Avenue Committee in New York City—never deal with national issues, since they have no national connection. Their work is driven solely by local concerns. They may fight to shut down a liquor store across from a neighborhood school, to force the city government to translate its materials into multiple languages, or to make a local landlord deal with the rats in his buildings. Whichever issues they choose to work on, however, those issues are determined by the members of the community organizing group—the local residents.

The definition of the geographic area to be organized also carries with it implicit judgments about issues and organizing priorities. For example, the Gamaliel Foundation has organized on a regional basis, intentionally crossing urban-suburban boundary lines. This approach recognizes that traditional "in-place" strategies of community development, local school reform, etc., while important, are insufficient to address issues of poverty concentration, disinvestment, and regional inequities in housing and education.

For More Information

One of the best web-resources on community organizing is COMM-ORG, a website with community organizing-related papers, syllabi, and an archived email discussion list. You can see archives of their discussion list here, and can subscribe to their email list here.

To read interesting discussions about community organizing by some of the major players in the field, it is worth looking at the website of the Organizer's Forum, which was created to provide ways for organizers to share and reflect about their work. You might also want to take a look at the Center for Community Change, which provides assistance and advice to many community organizing groups, and the National Organizers Alliance (NOA), which has a useful links page and is a good source of information about jobs in community organizing.

There have also been a number of wonderful books written about community organizing. Some particularly notable ones include:

Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals

Michael Gecan, Going Public

Sanford D. Horwitt, Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy

Dennis Jacobsen, Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing

Mary Beth Rogers, Cold Anger: A Story of Faith and Power Politics

Mark Warren, Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy

Shayna Strom is a PRRAC Research Associate.

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