Fisher on community organizing through the 1970s

Another post on Robert Fisher’s Let the People Decide, that starts back in 1886 (pt 1) to root this in some of the US’s history, and the last post on the 1960s…all too brief as I think about it. But time marches on, Fisher takes us through the 1970s, and it’s interesting to consider the decade from Fisher’s view. Sadly at no point does fashion enter the discourse.

The New Populism of the 1970s

The 1970s was certainly a very bad time for cities — I very much appreciate, as I say, how Fisher weaves in some of the political and economic context for the organizing that was happening. As he writes

Neoconservative strategies for urban change became commonplace. Using models of “planned shrinkage” or “triage,” officials planned to bulldoze or ignore the poorest areas of the city. (136)

And they did to a great extent, I can’t really imagine watching that, going through that..

Fisher opens a section on the roots of the New Populism with a quote from Tom Hayden, ‘The radicalism of the 1960s has become the common sense of the 1970s’. He cites Mike Miller of the Organize Training Center in SF (hi Mike!) as describing “the basic values of the new populism are the values of democracy.” Fisher continues with a full quote: “Its fundamental analysis is that “unchecked power has become concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people who are at the helm of the major corporations of the nation.”

So what does Fisher mean by populism here in this context?

While it is critical of elements of the economic system, it sees bigness and unaccountable power, rather than capitalism, as the fundamental problem. (139)

Despite Hayden’s quote, Fisher describes community organizing through this decade as working to tone down from the 1960s, to return to Alinsky and rebuild.  Given the repression and that people in power recognized Alinksy’s work as much less threatening than that say of SNCC,  such a return could be helpful in achieving concrete wins. Fisher writes that while Alinsky himself and earlier Alinskyite organizations in mid 1960s through 1970s ‘practiced ideology of equality and the tactics of non-violent confrontation of the civil rights movement’, they would come to shift over this second decade ‘from a civil rights orientation to an emphasis on negotiation and community development’ (142).

Fisher also notes the way that community organizations themselves became more conservative over time (thought he notes most organizations had a life of only around 6 years, so survival into conservatism was rare, an interesting thing to think about). TWO in Woodlawn became involved in development, built housing, ran a head start program, moved into ignoring radical roots in demanding long-term change and instead bargained to improve conditions on a very local level.


This chapter opens with a quote from ACORN  president Steve McDonald:

Some people say what does ACORN want? The answer is simple: We want sufficient power in our cities  and states to speak–and be heard–and heeded–for the interest of the majority of citizens. We want to participate in community and civil affairs, not as second class citizens because we don’t drive Rolls Royces, but as men and women committed to a better future where our concerns are met with justice and dignity; where wealth, race and religion are insufficient excuses to prevent equal participation and impact in government; where any person can protect his or her family and join with others in community strength; and where, as ACORN’s slogan goes, “the People Shall Rule.” That is what ACORN wants. Nothing more and nothing less.
–Steve McDonald, ACORN president, quoted p 145

He describes the central program of community organizing in this decade:

The essence of neo-Alinskyism in the 1970s was to develop more political organizations rooted in neighborhoods, grounded in local concerns, and focused on winning concrete gains. The goal was to advance social and economic democracy, empower people, and challenge power relations within and beyond the neighborhood.

There were many such organizations, most of them able to

acknowledge that fundamental social change in this country demands a multi-issue, multiclass, multiracial, national effort that rests on grassroots organizing but goes beyond the neighborhood or community units. (146)

These are organizations that broke away from the IAF model, which Fisher argues had become highly professionalized and large-scale. Of course, this mode  has continued in parallel, and been most successful in Mexican-American communities of the South West, where churches remained very strong and were willing to play a role in local issues.

I definitely need to read more about Fred Ross, who worked with Alinsky but shifted the model in important ways, as he emphasized door-to-door, issue organizing (and Cesar Chavez of course). He also inspired the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), and out of this came Wade Rathke who would start up ACORN to avoid what we saw as weaknesses of NWRO which often divided neighbors

The ACORN Model as summarised by Fisher:

  1. You, the organizer, are sent to a community — you don’t come with an issue, but openly organize for social and economic justice for low and moderate income people
  2. Develop internal contacts. Get people’s name, go to their homes for talks.
  3. Organize the first house meeting. Want it to be representative of the community, under 12 people. This will become a committee, begin to identify issues (149)
  4. Promote the organization. Go door to door with organizing committee, engage people.
  5. Honor the organizing process. Do not make assumptions, remain open, create index files on people you meet.
  6. Identify an issue. This should appeal to most people, it doesn’t matter the issue, but that people get involved, the organizer presents options and way to deal with it
  7. Hold a neighborhood meeting. Big event, invite everyone you have contact with. Get membership — ‘The dues are significant not only because they provide some funding but, more important, because people relate differently to an organization that they own. (151)

Fisher’s critique — that they still tended to stay away from issues that would ‘jeopardise a victory’. Like racism… The thinking was very much like that of Alinsky’s, and organizers avoided issues that undermined unity and clouded the focus on the “real enemy.” (151)

Winning, noted by some, was an ‘obsession’ with ACORN.

ACORN also moved towards electoral politics, to hold power rather than just pressuring those in power. As Fisher writes, there was also:

a strong tendency in ACORN and related efforts to remain staff intensive, to see the organizer as an “expert” who practices a method, almost a “science,” of organizing. In some projects grassroots participation tended to appear only at selected and critical times–at mass meetings, direct actions, and elections… (153)

Political education was de-emphasized, pragmatism made the rule, the goal to move from one victory to the next rather than moving more slowly through a process of education. This probably isn’t entirely fair to many local chapters, but I only worked with them very tangentially in LA. This theme of electoral power has certainly been picked up by other groups though.

I have his book on ACORN sitting in a stack, not sure when I’ll get a chance to read it, but hopefully not before too long.

It can’t be ignored, of course, that some of these  ideas have also been taken up by more right-wing neighbourhood groups like ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights) in Boston with their ‘a,b,c’ program: antiabortion, antibusing, anticommunism. A working class organization but affiliated with business. Although seen as aberrations, Fisher writes that these were the other side of populism without conscious political education. He’s probably right about that.

Alinsky style and tactics were also taken up by community development organizations through this decade and into the next, but Fisher notes how they tended to become steadily more conservative both in tactics and vision as they established themselves. Having only known the well established versions, I’d certainly agree that this was true in many, but not all cases.

This was also a decade of growing numbers of women getting involved and moving into leadership. There was also a growing realisation that successful organizing not actually built on self-interest alone, but also idealism and the implementation of people’s own vision.

But more on that, surprisingly, in the 1980s.

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






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