Alinsky does a one-on-one

In the Summer Institute of Civic Studies yesterday, we briefly listened to Saul Alinsky talking to Studs Terkel in 1971. The tape is both an evocative glimpse of Alinsky as a person (you should picture a chain-smoking older man in a suit and small round glasses, talking like James Cagney) and an example of how he envisioned one of the basic tools of community organizing, the one-on-one interview. Near the end, he says:

I run into you. You’re on welfare, you know, standing on the corner. So we get into kind of a session. So I say, ah, where do you live?

–Over there. Well, where do you expect me to live? I’m on relief. Where do you want me to live–in a 14-carat palace?

–You pay anything to live there?

–Ah, come on, you trying to be funny?

–Well no, I don’t want to be funny. Jeez, ah, the place looks like it’s loaded with rats, roaches, everything.

–You damn well know it is.

–Hmm, what would happen if you didn’t pay your rent?

–What would happen? They’d throw me out, my kids, everybody else. What do you mean?

–Yeah. [Pause.] What would happen if nobody paid their rent over there?

–Why they’d …! Well, truthfully, they’d have a little trouble throwing us all out, wouldn’t they?

The tape ends there, but the next move would be for Alinsky to say, “Hey, mac, we’re having a meeting tomorrow night down at Our Lady of Sorrows. Interested in stopping by for a while to talk with some other tenants on relief?”


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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.