Monday, July 15, 2013

A different sort of organizing

When we see a problem in a community and we hope to help fix it, we should understand that we must try to organize the community in order to effect such change. We cannot ride in on our white steeds and save a neighborhood; that neighborhood must organize itself and accomplish its own salvation, its own business. So how many ways are there to help with that process?

One of the giants in the field is, of course, Saul Alinsky. I was raised in the Midwest, which is where Alinsky worked much of his career, in Chicago, though he moved around with his model of organizing poor communities to achieve gains. He became so feared by some city fathers that he was even banned preƫmptively by Oakland and I expect he'd be thrilled that he still has the power to put Newt Gingrich's panties in a twist.
Alinsky (1971) would start his entrance into a community by "a denunciation of exploiting employers, slum landlords, police shakedowns, gouging merchants" (p. 98) and take it from there. He often won the campaigns he undertook and he empowered people and communities who had been so crushed they thought they had no power--the self-fulfilling prophesy.

My family--at least my paternal side--were defiant Scottish-Americans whose anti-colonialist anger made them great candidates for that Alinsky Adversarial Approach and we pretty much did our activism that way from the beginning. The earliest I knew about as a boy listening to the men was the 1934 Teamsters strike in Minneapolis--pure adversarial, objectifying the enemy, swinging at the cops and goons with baseball bats and fists. My Dad gave me his copy of Alinsky's Rules for radicals when I became a young community organizer and I learned the lessons. I was a nonviolent street fighter.

Then I was exposed to other methods over the years, learning new approaches in the peace movement that I hadn't learned in the labor struggles nor tenants' rights struggles in Minnesota. The hippie co-op movement had interesting different methods and philosophies too, and I began to understand that the zero-sum game was not the most efficient. Just as all founders give us the Big Idea that is soon improved upon, so too was the Alinsky model. It is great, and I have found that sustainable community development is better gained and maintained by a more consensus paradigm (e.g. Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009).

I am quite grateful to the lineage of those who have devoted themselves to this noble work, that of bringing more justice more often to more people, especially those who have learned not to expect it.


Alinsky, Saul D. (1971). Rules for radicals. New York: Random House.

Ohmer, Mary L. & DeMasi, Karen (2009). Consensus organizing: A community development workbook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

No comments: