Tag Archives: Alinsky

Rinku Sen’s Stir It Up #1: Community Organizing — History and Organisation

Rinku Sen’s guide to community organizing is brilliant — nothing could ever replace the collective energy and knowledge generated through CTWO’s (or any group’s) training programs because community organizing is all about collective liberation, but if you can’t get there then this is great. If like me you’ve been lucky enough to learn from folks there, than this is a good reminder of some of what they taught. But of course, this has also made me think a lot more about things in the way that only sitting with a book can, especially now that I am removed from the pressures of organizing and being all intellectual about shit.

You should buy it, support such work, but you can get the PDF here. The presence of a PDF available for copying means I quote at EVEN GREATER LENGTH, which is always a failing of mine. Apologies.

The book in a nutshell:

The book is organized to provide an overview of organizing and then to explore specific aspects of current practice. The tools presented here can help communities transform the institutions and ideas that shape our lives. I make two essential arguments. First, I argue that today’s social, political, and economic context, characterized by global capitalism, a resurgent conservative movement, and the continued role of racism and sexism in world society, requires a deeper strategic capacity than most organizations have today. Second, I argue that although organizing among the people suffering from these systems is more important than ever, the range of political skills required of us goes far beyond recruiting members and planning creative actions. Minimally, effective peoples’ organizations need to have not just the people but also a system for internal leadership development and consciousness raising, strong factual research, and the ability to generate media attention. Simply put, today’s movements for social and economic justice need people who are clear about the problems with the current systems, who rely on solid evidence for their critique, and who are able to reach large numbers of other people with both analysis and proposals. (xvii-iii)

Right on.

So this first post is on her overview of community organizing, anti-racist and feminist critiques of it, and how it can be combined with  learning from the many vibrant struggles around identity. It is nice and broad and captures much of the amazing work happening in the US, and which I miss so much now that I’m in the UK:

The term community organizing refers to a distinct form of organization building and social activism that grew in the United States mostly after World War II.  …. There are at least six major organizing networks in the United States, each with its own methods and theories. Since World War II, community organizing has grown into a profession, with its own body of literature, standards, and training institutes. (xliv)

The oldest network is the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), founded by Saul Alinsky:

the first to devise and write down a model of organizing that could be replicated. He created dozens of community organizations, all designed to test out a new portion of the theory, in addition to the IAF. Alinsky’s pragmatic, nonideological approach to social change has been both emulated and challenged by organizers and groups, many of which arose to fill perceived gaps in Alinsky’s work. (xliv)

They are funded primarily through institutional membership and foundation grants. Most have become faith based over time. A branch from this model came when Fred Ross Sr., the IAF’s West Coast director, developed the Community Service Organization (CSO). This worked out of LA (woo!) to register people to vote and help elect the first Latino city council member in 1949 (Ed Roybal!). He helped develop a model of individual membership, and worked with  Cesar Chavez start the United Farm Workers. I am fascinated that both started with a process of mutual aid through the pooling community funds, need to learn more about this.

Been thinking a lot and in conversations about Alinksy lately, and agree that the summaries here and in Fisher are not doing him enough justice — and it seems to me that this is often because they focus more on a calcified form of practice that he would himself have been quick to disavow. But more on that later, here just to recap what other’s feel — interesting in itself in thinking about representation and different understandings.

The People’s Institute for Community Organizing (PICO) was founded by two priests, John Baumann and Dick Helfridge in the 1970s-80s along similar lines and still going strong, faith-based organizing bringing congregations together for change. Knew some young organizers in these older organizations, liked them a lot.

And of course there is also ACORN — she’s right I didn’t know this history:

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is the undoubted leader among traditional community organizations based on the model of bringing individuals together into new formations that did not rely on existing institutions. Few contemporary activists, however, know that ACORN has its roots in the civil rights and welfare rights movements. In 1968, a chemistry professor and civil rights leader named George Wiley, active in the Congress of Racial Equality, implemented the idea of combining community organizing, which he saw winning significant victories, with the racial justice commitments of the civil rights movement in a new formation called the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). Although it survived only six years, among its lasting legacies was the creation of ACORN, which was started by Wade Rathke, who had been sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to build an NWRO chapter in 1970.

ACORN was the first to design a replicable model for the individual-membership organization. Today, ACORN has organizations in twenty-six states and counts among its successes winning many local living wage campaigns, resisting redlining by banks and insurance companies, and reforming local public schools. ACORN’s outreach to individuals and its continued commitment to organizing the very poor makes it an important supplement to the IAF and PICO, institutional models that address only marginally the question of the unorganized (Delgado, 1986). (xlviii)

Since then a n umber of other models and networks have developed, such as the National Organizers Alliance (NOA). Relationships between everyone often remain a bit fractious, at least they were in LA. Personalities are of course part of it, but the various critiques raise some of the biggest issues in the country really, primarily those of how we understand our relationship with capitalism, inseparable from the ways race, gender, sexuality intersect with class and struggle. That, and who gets to say ‘I am the community’. That’s a tough one when you’re just fighting for a seat at the table.

Anti-racist critique of traditional community organizing

So… the  anti-racist critique of traditional models. Sen writes

The antiracist critique centers on three concerns: the domination of community organizations by white staff and white “formal” leaders such as priests and union officials; the refusal of most community organizations to incorporate issues focused on racism; and the lack of flexibility in the rules of leadership and tactical planning. (xlix)

So as already noted, it was a blow to him that Alinsky’s first community organizing victories happened were won by the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, yet it became an active racist force for segregation in the late 1960s. Sen’s own analysis of this:

So, Alinsky knew enough about race to be embarrassed by explicit racism but not enough to embrace organizational practices that could centralize antiracist work and that could develop a sophisticated antiracist analysis that kept up with the efforts of the right wing. As years passed, the larger community organizing networks tended to follow that lead… (liii)

Related to that, is that the tactics and the formula for success given by traditional models — choosing limited campaigns that are winnable — are not enough to shift the balance of power nor do they ‘match the political cultures and priorities of communities of color and antiracist activists’ (she cites Delgado, 1986; Fellner, 1998; Blake, 1999 — I haven’t read any of these folks).

As the conservative backlash and active racism of the right grow, campaigns need to shift and begin to tackle some of the harder issues at the core of what communities of colour face.

One last critique:

Finally, people of color argue that many of the rules of community organizing run counter to the political traditions, cultures, and realities of communities of color. They point to three community organizing trends in particular: the separation of leader and organizer roles, the refusal to advance a fundamental critique of capitalism and U.S. democracy, and an over-reliance on confrontational tactics as the only sign that institutional challenge is taking place. In many communities of color, organizers are a part of the community’s leadership, publicly acknowledged and included in decision making. Sometimes these leaders are paid to do their organizing, and often they aren’t. Examples abound, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Anna Mae Aquash. While many organizers of color see the importance of leadership that generates new leaders, they resist drawing a false line between leader and organizer.

Many people of color have little faith that simply raising their voices will have a dramatic effect. Tactically, communities of color are accustomed to finding other ways to challenge institutions, including building alternatives.(li)

This brings us to the community organizing networks formed explicitly attending to race, the first of which in 1980 was the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) ‘by Gary Delgado, a former welfare rights and ACORN organizer, and Hulbert James, a former SNCC and HumanServ organizer’.

CTWO advanced a strategy based on two notions: that people of color occupied a colonized position within the United States and could find common cause across the lines separating black, Asian, Latino, and Native American communities, and that community organizing offered potentially strong forums for such politics if it could be conducted with clear antiracist analysis and priorities.(liii)

A second network from the early 1980s, Grassroots Leadership, was founded by Si Kahn (I remember his book How People Get Power as being as awesome as the title) ‘to be an explicitly biracial network of community organizations in the South that continued the tradition of combining art and culture with organizing practice’. (liii)

Feminist critique of traditional community organizing

Sen describes four targets of feminist critique

community organizing overemphasizes intervention in the public sphere, does not allow organizers to balance work and family, focuses on narrow self-interest as the primary motivator, and relies on conflict and militaristic tactics.

Things we thought a lot about at SAJE, things that ultimately limit movement when left unaddressed — but they are hard, particularly the work and family balance. We never got that right, don’t know that anyone did. Sen argues that both the critiques emerging from anti-racist work and communities of colour and the critiques raised by feminism all point to the issue with the pragmatism Alinksy emphasized in his trainings and in his writings.  She writes:

In many ways, the lack of sophistication that traditional community organizing applies to large-scale economic, racial, and gender questions resulted in the lack of explicit ideological discussion in most traditional organizing networks. Over time, the pragmatism that Alinsky espoused came to characterize community organizations; it determined the path of internal conflicts about class, race, and gender, and eventually of those about immigration and sexuality. If a particular issue was bound to divide a community or was difficult to address entirely in the public sphere, most community organizations did not deal with it. Domestic violence and police brutality provide excellent examples of issues that could divide a community and that local institutions resisted dealing with. … Over time, additional forces and new movements have changed community organizing by creating an imperative for different methods and politics. (lvi)

This tendency to shy away from difficult issues is a natural one, particularly in the emergency-driven environment of organizing desperately trying to weld people into organized struggle. It is hard, requires time and space and thought and tools. Luckily people have been working on theory and on tools for decades, it is for us to carve out the time and space and that requires will.

On Identity and Struggle

The final section here deals with the impact of other kinds of movement struggles — first the new organizing strategies of SEIU (Justice for Janitors) and HERE (Hotel and Restaurant Workers) and their rejuvenation of the labor movement through the organization of immigrants in precarious sub-contracts. Second the rise of identity-based movements. There is much to learn here, many of these campaigns have been fierce, beautiful, victorious.

Sen writes:

In part, identity politics started as an analytic movement, a movement of ideas, that upheld the importance of the political experiences of marginalized constituencies and expected progressives to unify around the imperatives of attacking racism, sexism, and sexual oppression as they had around class. Identity politics—a political vision that recognizes the problems of societies in which rewards and punishments are distributed by massive systems according to physical attributes—led to some of the most important theoretical and political movements of the last thirty years of the twentieth century; these movements ranged from black feminism to the anti-AIDS campaigns to the community-based worker organizing described above, and they have, in turn, profoundly affected community organizers and their ideas.

Such identity politics rejected the idea that everything could be reduced to class, that certain fights could wait until the class war was won, that all of these differences were just distractions from the war against the bosses. I rather love how Sen breaks down why this is terribly wrong:

First, activists exploring identity politics developed the idea that identities that had been considered biological are socially constructed.

Second, activists developed the idea that these social constructions create vastly different experiences among people as they relate to the institutions of private and public life. In acknowledging this difference in life experience, activists were forced to grapple with the reality that black autoworkers require voting reform as well as union membership or that women might rebel against the nuclear family because that structure burdens them a great deal more than it does men or that black women’s priority gender issue might be welfare while white women’s might be abortion.

Third, identity politics raised the idea that one solution might not fit all: controlling capital might not prevent institutional racism; third world liberation might not address women’s oppression. Activists observed that movements for one kind of liberation might not embrace the issues that would lead to other kinds of liberation (lx)

Those who could not find their place in traditional Left movements  left to found their own groups around these different dimensions of struggle, and they were vilified for it. Sen describes a

… growing resentment among white leftists (including many community organizers) toward the attention afforded identity-based movements, as well as a troubling nostalgia for universal labor and populist movements that regularly excluded people of color, encouraged nativist violence, and kept women out of the paid labor force. As Kelley (1997) writes, “They either don’t understand or refuse to acknowledge that class is lived through race and gender. There is no universal class identity, just as there is no universal racial or gender or sexual identity. The idea that race, gender and sexuality are particular whereas class is universal not only presumes that class struggle is some sort of race and gender-neutral terrain but takes for granted that movements focused on race, gender and sexuality necessarily undermine class unity and, by definition, cannot be emancipatory for the whole.” Researcher of conservative movements Jean Hardisty puts it more bluntly when she writes, “To the heterosexual, white, male leaders of the Old Left, class oppression (and hence the demands of the labor movement) was the movement’s principal concern. The neglect of ‘other’ oppressions stems from their lack of relevance to that leadership” (1999, p. 197). (lxii)

This break has not been closed in Sen’s view, she writes:

Identity movements and community organizing have both been growing but largely along parallel tracks; they speak little to each other and share few issues and resources. The question is how to achieve the goal of scale without leaving important non-majority issues and constituencies by the wayside. (lxiii)

CTWO’s work, and the rest of this book, is beginning a conversation about how this might be possible.

[Sen, Rinku (2003) <em>Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizin and Advocacy</em>. San Francisco: Chardon Press.]

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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.

Neo-Alinskyism

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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Robert Fisher on Community Organizing: the glorious 1960s

Part 2 on Robert Fisher’s great book on Community Organizing (read part 1 from 1886 to 1946 here). This might be the best part, the most inspiring at least, because weren’t the 60s amazing? We have won so much since then and I wouldn’t want to go back, but that feeling that revolution could come tomorrow?

Damn, I wouldn’t mind that at all.

The Neighborhood Organizing “Revolution” of the 1960s

Another great quote from Malcolm X:

I, for one, believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what it is that confronts them, and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program; and when the people create a program, you get action. When their “leaders” create programs you get no action. (98)

I find it hopeful, even if I will never believe revolution is right around the corner, that there is a steady progression in how we come together to change the world, and that the issues encountered through one struggle inspires new, and often better responses to carry the struggle forward. Fisher writes:

As preceding chapters have demonstrated, the stop-gap solutions and tenuous class and race relations of one decade often become the central problem and basis for change in the next. And each new situation seems to breed new forms of neighborhood organization activity. (98)

I think he’s right, we have come a long way, and it feels good to look back to these years and see the seeds there, things I took for granted but that were invented, tested, put into action. The chapter looks at ‘the quasi-anarchist experiments’ of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) — I’ve ben reading all kinds about the first (Ransby and Cobb and Morris and Zinn and others). Fisher writes:

The groups were important innovators in a new style of community organizing, but only one of many types of grassroots efforts during the decade. (99)

He notes how geographical shift to suburbs meant poverty invisible to those living outside city center, which allows poverty to be redefined as a “black problem” both because of its concentration, but also because African Americans are leading the fight back. This connection between the spatialities of segregation, white privilege and struggle are so important, and I think finally through the new Movement for Black Lives and #BlackLivesMatter, much more of this is being explored. But at the same time as there was a spatial separation of elites, the NAACP and SCLC tended towards an elite way of working (and for the NAACP always had, with some exceptions amongst the branches), despite King’s vision of democracy. The youth entering the movement opened it all up and made it more participatory through student sit-ins and freedom rides.

Fisher notes that like Alinksy, SNCC and SDS called themselves “nonideological”:

they advocated  in their words and behavior a moral revolt and nonconformity…rejected liberal faith in modest reforms…emphasis on direct action and the formation of locally autonomous, insurgent community organizations…rejected all centralized, bureaucratic, hierarchical forms…

They moved away from concerns with organization and power, and

substituted an all-embracing political credo that emphasized democratic action and relationships, processes and values. “participatory democracy,” they called it. “Let the People Decide.” (107)

The common ‘ingredients’ of these approaches (I love these lists):

  1. Be a catalyst, not a leader
  2. Let the people decide
  3. Develop loose organizational structures – to encourage maximum participation, consensus decision making (108)
  4. Establish places in the community free of external restraints – development of community unions open to all. My favourite idea, why don’t we have a million of these?
  5. Develop indigenous leaders
  6. Create supportive personal relationships (109)

A lot of those ideas are still part of the canon, along with some new additions. Many of them to deal with the shit gender dynamics that Fisher notes were still in operation here, with women doing much of the work while ‘men always remained center stage and dominated the organizations.’ (113) That picture at the top of the post was carefully chosen to make sure I don’t feel too much nostalgia.

Gender issues (and race for damn sure, and homophobia, and etc) must have damaged the strength of the movement. Fisher notes another three principal factors that hurt their efforts up to 1965. The first, the decimated state of the left and the absence of any national program to provide support, so they had to rebuild from scratch. I am divided on that as a negative factor actually, after my experiences here in the UK. The second is the difficulties in building a ‘leaderless’ movement of ‘organizers’. Fisher writes:

It is critical in community organizing to provide leadership, to do organization building, and to teach leadership and rudimentary organizational skills, but most new lefters though this ran counter to the idea of letting the people decide. (116)

I am rather fascinated by that because I can see where they were coming from ideologically, but it seems so clear that direct democracy in practice is something that is learned, that you improve with practice, that takes skill to make work effectively in a way that ensures everyone’s voice is heard, everyone can speak, everyone has power. That shit is hard. Anyway.  He describes the third factor as the ‘sheer physical and emotional drain of organizing’ (117). That shit is real too.

But undoubtedly these have had a big impact on the developing  models for community organizing.

The 1960s also brought the Great Society, it’s organizing projects and its Community Action Agencies. An attempt to buy out revolution really. Fisher describes the havoc that government funds caused, thrown at community organizations to try and quell the disorder that was beginning to effect economic and political centers, He writes:

The Great Society, however, was more than a traditional liberal reform program to palliate and co-opt mass insurgency. It sought not only to defuse protest from below but to reincorporate African-Americans into the political process and thereby solidify their support for the Democratic party. It sought in essence to create new black political organizations in the inner cities and the rural South that would strengthen black political involvement and electoral participation. (122)

And in many ways it succeeded. The theme of a Black elite co-opted by the establishment and becoming part of the foot holding people down, well, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation does a brilliant job at looking at that. And this is long, so the 1970s are continued next post.

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