Robert Fisher on Community Organizing in America — 1886 through 1946

I read Robert Fisher’s Let the People Decide years ago now, and after all I’ve read in the meantime appreciated it more and more this time around. I love the long view of historical struggle, the historical framework it is set into. The importance of contextualising the massive influence of Alinsky — taking him in the round and not as a kind of straw man — while developing our understanding of how things need to grow and change, and where they have done so. It’s an interesting timeline, there is so so much in here I didn’t know, had not even heard of. I suppose my own research has thrown up other vibrant traditions of grassroots community-based organizing through the 1930s and the war years, primarily in the African American Community that I missed a bit, but this begins to open up the deep histories of struggle we can look to in the US. I particularly love the drawing out of lessons for contemporary struggle…

I’ve based my posts around his periodisations, so we start in the 1880s up through the Great Depression

Social Welfare Neighborhood Organizing, 1886-1929

This connects to the Social Settlement movement in the UK — 1884 saw the founding of Toynbee House in East London by two students at Oxford (and still standing as a community space and centre today, though it has changed with the times). It promoted the need for those who wished to work with a community to actually live — usually embracing some level of poverty — within it. Still a problematic and often patronising idea, but a step up from mandating improvements from comfort in stately surroundings miles away. It  inspiring similar settlements across the UK and in the US. Most famous is probably Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. I’ve been meaning to read more about Hull House but not worked myself up to it, precisely because this is my general view of those participating in this movement:

Settlement workers got involved in neighborhood organizations out of a mixed bag of sympathy, fear, guilt, social concern, and a desire to give purpose to their own lives. (8)

And also for this reason:

They sought harmony within an unjust economic framework — liberal reformers not ready to challenge the economic roots of poverty (10)

They still, for the most part, blamed the poor for their own poverty and worked around programmes of skills trainings, moral uplift, birth control in the way that leaves you feeling disgusted because it’s more about preventing mucky poor people from reproducing, rather than supporting capable women to take control of their lives and choices.

Seeing only deficits, such models were often insensitive to existing networks — yet Fisher notes how poor communities continued to be organized outside of these top-down elitist structures.  Churches, synagogues, mutual benefit associations, and ethnic, labor and political organizations continued to thrive alongside informal networks of support. (13)

Out of and in response to the Settlement Movement, which I knew of, came the Community Center Movement, which I did not.  It was driven by people who wanted something more effective and widespread and with more bottom-up from local communities. It reached its peak between 1907-1915, yet still struggled with top-down programming, and it remained primarily managed by the elite. As WWI started, many such community centre’s actually began to drive patriotism and work with the government to track ‘subversives’ among ethnic and radical populations, effectively bringing the whole thing to a halt. (21)

I very much loved the deep look at the Cincinnati Social Unit Plan — a unique community-based child welfare program created by Wilbur and Elsie Phillips under a Socialist mayor (!). It attempted to put real power in the hands of mothers for deciding priorities and support needs, and showed real success in improving health and making concrete changes in people’s lives. However, the fall of the mayor meant the programme was defunded and fell apart.

This happened despite the Phillips’ ongoing attempt to distance themselves from the mayor’s socialism in claiming that that their work was not political. Fisher also notes despite the successes of the programme, they still failed to fully escape elitism, which ensured they were not able to sink deep enough roots in the community they were working in, preventing the community from feeling a full sense of ownership of the programme that could have led to a fight to preserve it under a new mayor.

Lesson, this shit is political and you will need people’s support to keep it going through hard times.

Radical Neighborhood Organizing 1929-1946

Starts with Langston Hughes’ poem to a landlord — few better places to start:

Landlord, landlord,
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’l pay you
Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on-till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.

Police! Police!
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!

Copper’s whistle!
Patrol bell!
Arrest.
Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:
MAN THREATENS LANDLORD
TENANT HELD NO BAIL
JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL!

Some things never change. But the 1930s were some time to be alive. Fisher writes:

Neighborhood organizing in the 1930s was characterized not only by its radicalism but by this dual concern of building an insurgent movement at both the national and local levels. (38)

I think perhaps we’re approaching this level again. There is a long, very interesting discussion of the radical work of the Communist Party at this time — a small proportion of community organizing but a very visible one, and quite influential in tactics and strategy. But this difference is key between the Party’s organizing of the period and what would come to be known as community organizing:

Most activists now see the primary goal of neighborhood organizing as awakening people to a sense of their own power. the Communists saw neighborhood work as a means of recruiting people into a national organization. (39)

But still, the Unemployed Councils? They would divide up a city or rural area into sections and then send organizers there to get to it, build a council that began to organize and implement direct actions, stop evictions, face down bailiffs, force up relief centres. They did some amazing things. But always controlled by the Comintern. Underground for a long time, the party came out in the open in late 1920s to organize the unemployed and racial minorities until the 1935 switch to popular front. But until then they did some brilliant things. In 1930, they decided on a:

four-pronged “bread and  butter” strategy focused on relief, housing, race, and “translocal” issues…issues outside the community which would concern neighborhood residents. (43)

Key issues basic to life itself, but tied into wider struggle through the ‘translocal’ aspect — in Harlem, for example, support for the Scottsboro boys was just one of these, along with anti-lynching legislation, and opposition to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. They had tremendous successes in the early days across the country. Fisher notes that in Detroit, the unemployed councils succeeded in stopping practically all evictions through direct action.

I also love the party’s insistence on complete equality between whites and people of colour in these years, with the party line being:

…the struggle of white workers would never succeed unless workers of all races were included as equal participants (45)

In some ways the shift to the Popular Front strategy and new focus on anti-fascist struggle and union organising was important, but it left hanging all of the work already started. Above all, eradicating racism was left to the side, and members were ordered to abandon work on the councils by 1939. But while it lasted, Fisher argues the CPUSA was successful because it:

emphasized organizational discipline, defined local issues in a national and international context, linked community struggles with those in the workplace, developed alliances between black and white workers, and offered a thorough political analysis of the problems community people faced. Such accomplishments by radicals had rarely been seen before in this country. (49)

Errors? Lots:

political opportunism, its interest in the needs of the Soviet Union over those of American workers, and its autocratic organizational structure, which quashed the type of criticism necessary to prevent ideological and tactical errors… abandonment of African Americans… (49)

There was, however, a developing understanding of organizing and movement. Fisher writes:

There is a complementary relationship between social movement and community organizing. Local organizing oriented to social change can exist without a movement, but it will not thrive for very long. When a movement develops, however, community organizations often ride the wave of mass support. (52)

Out of this ferment Saul Alinsky would emerge, already organising with the CIO through these radical 1930s, already grappling with these connections (more in Alinsky’s own words can be found here). Fisher emphasises the continuities in struggle — Alinsky would apply his work with the CIO to the Back of the Yards neighborhood in a way that Fisher describes as ‘a kind of “trade union in the social factory”‘. While he would later describe himself as an “urban populist”, Alinsky started out in his student days involved in the CP ‘in typical Popular Front terms, as a “professional antifascist.”‘ (56)

As I say, I really like how this contextualises Alinsky’s insights into, and codification of, community organizing. This particularly draws out how the weaknesses of the communist party’s work in its accountability to Moscow rather than to local people almost certainly influenced Alinsky’s move towards a ‘non-ideological’ standpoint which is now where much critique of his methodologies is pointed.

Fisher describes what he believes to be the five essential elements to ‘Alinskyism’, recognizing of course that this simplifies it all a bit, always dangerous:

  1. The professional organizer is the catalyst for social change. They need to be well-trained, creative, help to make democracy happen.
  2. The task is to build a democratic community-based organization. Democracy as self-determination, people make the decisions about the things that effect them. The organizer is catalyst for this, not the leader.
  3. The goal is to win power. ‘Power is the sine qua non of Alinsky organizing. … Neighborhood organizations are seen as the interest groups of the powerless and unorganized.’ (53) This is ultimately based on self-interest.
  4. Any tactics necessary should be used. I like Fisher’s list: ‘Negotiation, arbitration, protests and demonstrations; boycotts, strikes, and mass meetings; picketing, raising hell, being diplomatic, and being willing to use anything that might work… (54)
  5. A people’s organization must be pragmatic and nonideological. Alinsky believed ideological organizations were undermined because ‘their organizers came with preconceived ideals, goals and strategies; they did not let neighborhood people make decisions… Only the progressive ideology that people developed themselves would last.’ (55)

Fisher continues:

Alinsky grounded his pragmatism in the promise of pluralism. He believed that the economic and political system could work for working-class people if they could reach the bargaining-tables of power. (55)

You know that idea’s come in for a lot of critique.

His Back of the Yards campaigning was pretty impressive, and out of it developed some lessons I recognize well: do your homework before the community meeting (you’ll have already talked to everyone to know where they stand, you don’t want no surprises), build the organization by winning victories, use service delivery if you need it but the primary goal is social change.

Of course you also have the Alinsky signature, conflict:

which raised strategy and tactics to paramount importance in community organizing, above and beyond questions of ideology, goals, and even democratic structure. (61)

And beautiful as the Back of the Yards struggle was, it became racist and reactionary, and Alinsky himself came to call this community a hell hole of hate as they fought to keep African Americans out. This perhaps highlights the weaknesses of an organization that puts process over goals, and only discusses tactical questions. Such a strategy only makes sense if the only problem is a lack of power, rather than deeper issues around capitalism itself and how that articulates with race, class, gender and etc. Fisher describes the older Alinsky as essentially cool with liberal capitalism, someone who loved FDR, believed in this ‘interest-group model of democracy’ and did not question capitalism itself. (64) Arguably the lesson here, is that we do need to grapple with ideological understandings, while also some practical focus on building movement and winning things. We can’t forget how important — and how possible — winning things actually is. The struggle is how to tie that into a programme for truly radical transformative social change that can only take place over the long-term.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]

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