a community organizing primer

This year is the centennial of Saul Alinsky’s birth. Also in 2009, another Chicago community organizer was elected president of the United States–the first person with such a background to reach the White House. Meanwhile, one group with at least peripheral connections to both Alinksy and Obama–ACORN–has become a political hot-button. Yet we know from last year’s Civic Health Index (for the National Conference on Citizenship) that the vast majority of Americans have no idea what “community organizing” is. In an open-ended question, most people either cited local philanthropic behavior (like raising money for the PTA) or said they didn’t know what the phrase meant.

I know much less about community organizing than many others (including some who read this blog). But for newbies, the most important point I’d want to convey is the vast diversity of forms of community organizing. It is a contested term for a field full of controversy. At the risk of oversimplification, here are some types:

Strategic organizing starts with some kind of policy agenda, such as saving civilization by reducing carbon emissions or saving unborn children by ending abortion. Strategic organizers need to recruit and motivate strong supporters, find non-supporters who might be persuadable, and mobilize people who have special assets to contribute to the cause (e.g., money, skills, serious commitment, network ties, or fame).

Strategic organizing has a family resemblance to ideological organizing and partisan organizing. Indeed, parties and campaigns use community organizing techniques. I would nevertheless make distinctions here. Causes, ideologies, parties, and candidates are different things, and sometimes there are intense conflicts among them.

Relational organizing doesn’t start with a cause, but rather with a set of people–for instance, all the residents of a neighborhood or all members of a congregation. There is usually a long initial process of listening and discussing to decide what the common cause should be. Because the commitment is to relationships, not to predetermined outcomes, organizers do not select which individuals to mobilize because of what they can contribute to the cause. There is an ethical commitment to the relationship itself that can survive differences of opinion or failure to contribute effectively to the cause.

Relational organizing can occur within a homogeneous group, but it’s related to broad-based organizing, in which there is a commitment to connect and listen to all sectors or perspectives within a geographical community. A broad-based organizer will want to make sure that liberals, conservatives, industries, environmentalists, religious and secular people are all “at the table.” In deliberative organizing, as practiced by Everyday Democracy and a few other groups, diverse conversations become the central objective. In other broad-based organizing efforts, advocacy takes more time than discussion, but one purpose of the advocacy is to build ties among diverse groups.

Yet another distinction is confrontational organizing (in which conflicts and flash-points are used to build momentum) and more collaborative approaches.

Roughly speaking, groups like ACORN are strategic, confrontational, and ideological. Groups like PICO, Gamaliel, and much of IAF are relational and broad-based. There are also many internal debates and compromises.

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  • Peter Levine

    From Harry Boyte via email:

      While I agree generally with your distinction between two broad approaches (what you call strategic, ideological, and confrontational “organizing” on the one side and relational and broad based organizing on the other), I think your primer — as important as it is for getting discussion started — is at once too simple and too complicated, and also leaves out a key element.

      The distinction that most in the second approach make is between “mobilizing” and “organizing,” drawing on an important history that is largely unknown even among organizers, though people understood it comes from the freedom movement and Bob Moses (whom I believe got it from Ella Baker). The mobilizing history has important earlier roots, such as the progressive “mass politics” described by Michael Sandel and others, dating from the turn of the 20th century, which conceived as “mass man” largely in consumer terms. It was a widespread approach in the 1930s New Deal, as Steven Fraser shows (The Rise and Fall of the New Deal). It was especially the politics of the ideological and Leninist left, reflected in the distinction between “mass organizing” and “vanguard.”

      Mobilizing resurfaced and crystallized in new ways in a set of techniques such as the door to door canvass in the 1970a, and has largely shaped much of politics and citizen action since. It rests on a formula — identify a target, define issues as good versus bad, and develop a simple script that rules out cultural and other complexities.

      Mobilizing aims at winning concrete benefits, and it has had considerable success.

      Organizing’s fundamental aim is the development of what can be called people’s civic agency, capacities for confident, skilled, collective action in open and fluid environments without any tightly defined script. Organizers use different terms to describe such development — “developmental politics,” “public growth,” or, in the theological language of Ernie Cortes, “metanoia.”

      Organizing has earlier roots as well, such as the popular education tradition of folk schools, workmen’s circles, etc., and the settlement house tradtion, but its modern roots are in the 1930s, where a diverse group of organizers and activist intellectuals — Saul Alinsky, Bayard Rustin, Miles Horton, Ella Baker and others — sought to develop, in different ways, an approach that would develop people’s capacities for work across differences without a secret vanguard. Organizing like this also had a strong “cultural organizing” dimension, described in works like Lary May’s The Big Tomorrow, on the motion picture industry, and Michael Dennings’ Cultural Front.

      This tradition powerfully influenced the freedom movement (Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, is good here), and crystallized in the new generation of broad based and other groups that used relational approaches in the 1970s.

      At bottom, there are different philosophies of the person and conceptions of the possibility of change at work. Basically, mobilizing takes for granted mass consumer culture. Organizing seeks to break beyond it, with a narrative, co-creative dynmamic, productive conception of the citizen.

      I describe this history in my piece on “Repairing the Breech” out in the new journal Partnership: A Journal of Service Learning and Civic Engagement at http://www.partnershipsjournal.org/index.php/part/index

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