Tag Archives: Mike Miller

Mike Miller: community organizing

Mike Miller’s Community Organizing is exactly what it says — a (very) short book, and a good very practical introduction to the updated basic style of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Area Foundation (IAF)’s kind of community organizing that has its roots back in the 1930s. There is, as always, and emphasis on democracy in the preface:

‘Community organizing’ applied democratic ideals and practices to specific contexts… (1)

First line of the book proper though?

‘Power’: the ability to act effectively in the world. (3)

The focus is on the organizer:

The first organizer in one of these organizations is typically an outsider. Because the people inside the community have histories of rivalry, any initiative taken by a local person or group is likely to leave out some people and groups, heightening conflict. (3)

Miller writes the book developing a kind of real-life example of an organizer coming into a community, which gives a good concrete view of the process as it is supposed to work, and also means it is full of practical advice if you are going to do things this way. While Alinsky himself was quite flexible for much of his career (see his own book, and Myles Horton’s description of his strengths) the IAF model has moved to work only through faith organizations (see more below). After being invited (and paid) they start with an initial set of workshops:

participants learned about community organizing and its relationships to the American democratic tradition, to the teachings of their own religious faith, and to the specific problems facing them. their members, their neighbors and their congregations. More than anything else, they learned, at least in the abstract, that building an organization was more important than any particular issue. In fact, they came to realize that this organization-building was the key to an effective struggle for justice… (5)

What follows is key to the methodology: one-to-one meetings. Out of this, leaders are developed

organizers have a core meaning for “leader.” … someone with a following. (6)

That’s not entirely universal, but a good place to start. Miller talks about social capital and the mediating institutions of civil society, why the IAF focused on most deeply rooted institutions — ie churches and other faith based institutions. He quotes extensively from a document called Organizing for Family and Congregation, published by the Industrial Areas Foundation in 1978, and written by then-director Ed Chambers. It gives  for the theoretical ideas and context underpinning the IAF’s approach with great clarity:

Our country is in…crisis…. The intermediate voluntary institutions including churches–are ineffectual in a power relationship with the powerful. As a result, the middle is collapsing, confused. The economic and political middle is being sucked dry by a vacuum — a vacuum of power and values. Into that vacuum have moved the huge corporations, mass media and “benevolent” government… (10)

This is so much about the middle, seems to stop its analysis of what is wrong with the world at a fairly shallow level. PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) is a spin-off on the Alinsky approach also founded in faith-based organizing. Their 2011 statement of vision and purpose goes rather more to the point:

We pledge to teach, preach and organize to unify people of faith around reducing poverty and increasing economic and racial justice. We will challenge our elected leaders from both parties to put the needs of working families, the poor and the common good of our nation ahead of short-term political calculus and special interests. Join us in making America a land of opportunity for all people. (15)

Miller describes why Alinsky-style organization moved towards this exclusive focus on faith-based organizing — he argues that the 1970s saw other voluntary and community organizations ‘atrophied’ or co-opted in search of funding, thus faith-based organizations became seen as the

only value-based, stable organizations in many low- to moderate-income communities.

And of course, in organizing through such stable institution with large membership bases,

The organizer formula, “Organized people plus organized power” was met. (16)

There is some discussion of ACORN here, Miller notes their work as a different model developing out of Alinsky’s associate Fred Ross’s work, a model which builds membership into the organization directly.

So back to IAF model in progress, the organizer has been doing lots and lots of one-ones, over a few months she ‘knows’ the city. She asks the leaders to come together. Together they pick their first issues, which are ‘Immediate, specific and winnable’ (23), Miller adds they are also believable and non-divisive (24). This is because he argues that skepticism is the biggest problem, the organizer needs a win to show people what they are capable of.

So what does it take to move decision makers? First a political understanding of their position and the political moment:

…they must be very secure and very powerful and thus not constrained by the threat of rivals and competitors. Or, they must see that the price paid to maintain the status quo is not worth paying. (29)

One or other of these will define the strategy. Miller’s organizer Jeanne must prepare for the conflict and confrontation (in traditional Alinsky style).

Almost everything Jeanne had to teach came together in the preparation for meetings with ‘decision-makers,’ the meetings themselves, and the post-meeting evaluation. The drama of a three-act play unfolds, with heroes and villains, the uncertainty of how the plot will unfold, the high point of tension, and the final resolution. (31)

This emphasis on narrative is interesting, the technique of role-playing is of course key in preparation for the meeting or action to pressure those in power. From my own experience, this is necessary (if not sufficient) for success. Miller emphasizes that the organizer must ensure that the leaders are not afraid to press the yes or no question, they must cut through the ‘fogging’. I love that word, it’s exactly what politicians and bureaucrats do. Miller writes

Most powerful people know how to deal with conflict. Most are used to dealing with conflict. It is the powerless who see conflict as somehow uncivilized. Decision-makers know this, and often seek to use this sense of misplaced politeness to control. (30)

So true.

He outlines some key tests for good tactics. They:

  • should contribute toward winning

  • …should contribute to building an organization — involve more people in active roles, deepen skills and self-confidence, recruit new allies and members, broaden appeal to wider public (34)

In a nutshell.

Miller briefly talks about role of education, that community organizing can’t simply be about getting more power and resources for one group or victory will simply maintain power relations intact by simply substituting one group for another. He does works through a sample workshop that helps educate more broadly around political issues.

These are the quick and dirty basics, which boiled down to bare essentials as they are, give quite a good idea of what Miller would consider those essentials to be…of course, his analysis goes much deeper elsewhere, given his decades of work in both SNCC and the IAF, and his current position as Executive Director of the ORGANIZE! Training Center, definitely check out their website:

The purpose of the ORGANIZE! Training Center (OTC) is to strengthen democracy by supporting strong, participatory, democratic organizations whose principal constituency is people of low- and middle income. OTC is committed to social, environmental, and economic justice for all, to a democracy that is based on the active participation of all its citizens and residents, and to building strong communities based on the ideas of individual responsibility, solidarity, and our interdependence as human beings.

Since “community organizing” is widely used with many meanings, we place our work in what has come to be known as the “Alinsky tradition” and the work done in the Deep South by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“Snick”). More broadly, we place our work in the tradition of radical democracy as expressed in American history by the industrial labor movement of the 1930s, the early period of the Populists, the Knights of Labor, the Abolitionists and those American revolutionaries for whom independence from Britain and democracy were equally at the core of their philosophy. We root our work in the social and economic justice, and moral teachings of the world’s great religions, and the small “d” democratic tradition.

[Miller, Mike (2012) Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction. Milwaukee: Euclid Avenue Press.]