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.