Rethinking community organising

Saul Alinsky

Saul Alinsky on Chicago's south side, where he organized the Woodlawn area to battle slum conditions.

Building a just, sustainable future will require transcending traditional community organising models. Working through existing institutions within the current system is not good enough. The latest from the SYMBIOSIS RESEARCH COLLECTIVE

At its core, the institution-based community organising model rests on extracting concessions from the system as it is—but the system as it is is fundamentally broken.

"There can be no separation of the revolutionary process from the revolutionary goal."  – Murray Bookchin, Forms of Freedom.

The term “community organising” has become such a part of the modern political landscape on the left that it is easy to forget that it has a relatively recent history and a specific origin.

Indeed, it has come to encompass all manner of movement-building and activism on the left, especially as progressive young people flocked to the profession since Barack Obama popularised it a decade ago. 

"Community organizing" originally referred to a very specific model, however - one that remains heavily influential today.

The origins of community organizing

The modern community organising tradition in the United States can largely be traced back to a single person. Saul Alinsky started out organizing in 1930s Chicago in the Back of the Yard neighborhood, an area known for the horrific working conditions of the Union Stock Yard described in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle.

Over the next several decades of work, he developed a model called congregation-based or institution-based community organising, which involves professional organisers working through existing faith and community institutions to build power and win campaigns around specific issues in a community.

Alinsky’s impact on modern organising is hard to overstate. He founded the Industrial Areas Foundation, a community organising network and training organisation that exists in cities across the US to this day. Mentees of Alinsky’s and trainees who passed through the IAF went on to found the other three major community organising networks in the country: DART, Gamaliel, and Faith in Action (formerly PICO) - as well as countless affiliated and non-affiliated local groups.

Alinsky’s books Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971) have long been the go-to handbooks for organisers.

The philosophy laid out therein, along with other training materials and exercises Alinsky developed, has influenced generations of community activists and is still taught in many organising trainings today.

Given the breadth of impact and continued precedence of Alinskyist organising, we should critically examine some of its basic tenets and their limitations as we develop a new revolutionary politics of radical democracy and neighborhood organizing.

Organiser as outsider—the need to de-professionalise organising

One fiercely debated concept is who counts as an 'organiser'. The Alinskyist model imagines the community organiser as necessarily an outsider, someone who can view a community’s problems with critical distance without the baggage and bias of those who belong to it.

The organiser, for Alinsky, is a removed professional who should be able to organise anywhere and whose focus is to develop and build power for others, in a role he sometimes referred to as that of a creator or god.

The people whom the organiser seeks to develop in the community are called 'leaders', and are interested in building power for themselves and improving their community’s situation.

This creates a strange dynamic where often white, often better-educated, often better-resourced, often younger people are going into communities they’re not from and getting paid to organise the people in those communities, who are in turn expected to become trained in organising themselves and shoulder a lot of the work. 

Except those community members are called 'leaders', never 'organisers', and are not employed by the network.

Despite decades of criticism, this approach has not been changed, especially in the years since community organising took off among leftist millennial college grads looking for meaningful work.

I should know: I was one of them.

I attended the week-long initiation training for one of the big four national networks with a large group of both organisers and leaders several years ago, and I remember someone asking our trainer what the difference was between the two roles. “The only difference,” our trainer joked, “is that one of them gets paid.”

I’m not arguing, as some on the left do, that you can or should organise only in your own community: such arguments verge on nativist, segregationist thinking that can easily turn into the kind of dark municipalism we discussed in our last piece.

I am arguing, however, that we should rethink this model, and cultivate a new approach centering community members rather than professional organizers, if we are to move towards an entirely different system. 

Working through existing institutions

Alinskyist organising is called institution-based or congregation-based community organising because it is designed around organising within existing institutions, usually faith-based ones.

Alinsky and later organisers in his tradition insist on the value of institutions, and I agree.

We need structures through which we can be intentional about how labour and power is shared, through which we can hold one another accountable, and through which we can create lasting alternatives to the domineering institutions that presently govern our lives.

Alinsky insists on organising only through existing institutions, however. The rationale is that congregations and community institutions are already organized—they have an internal structure, division of labor, a gathering place, buy-in from the community—and so they are much easier to move into action on an issue than starting from scratch.

There are two significant problems with this approach, one which has always been present and one which has increasingly become an obstacle in more recent decades.

Moral flexibility

The first issue with working through existing institutions is that the institutions in question often have some very questionable values.

Misogyny, homophobia, classism, and racism are ingrained in the history and fabric of many faith traditions, and the first two are still formally written into many faith doctrines to this day (as is classism, with prosperity gospel traditions).

Even more deeply, such institutions are often built around extremely rigid hierarchies that are antithetical to the construction of a free, equal, and democratic society.

It doesn’t help that the Alinskyist model brings no shared set of values or educational framework of its own to the table to help people move past some of these oppressive attitudes and practices. The model is issue-based, and Alinsky famously advocated being apolitical and willing to be morally flexible on almost any question if it helped win the issue at hand.

"The world as it is"

This perspective is part of a core training point in Alinskyist organising - ”the world as it is” versus “the world as it should be.”

It’s framed as pragmatism: we don’t live in the world as it should be, we live in the real world, and we have to act according to its rules to get what we want.

At training, this was always explained as a necessary strategy in order to achieve the world as it should be, but I frequently found myself looking around and wondering what that “world as it should be” would look like absent a shared set of values or efforts to grow past our various blindspots.

Such “pragmatism” also constricts what is politically possible, as it means you end up working off of the lowest common denominator of shared values for fear of alienating member institutions. We couldn’t co-sponsor anything to do with gender or reproductive rights, much less work on the issues ourselves, and I was told in no uncertain terms not to bring up the question of gay marriage or Israel-Palestine with certain pastors. 

What kinds of institutions can constitute a democratic public sphere?

To return to the question of institutions, this doesn’t mean that I think these institutions are beyond repair or that I’m advocating abandoning them altogether.

I am a practicing Catholic who has remained so because from a personal standpoint, I still find beauty and community in elements of my tradition, and I believe in the possibility of redemption and transformation.

Faith is a powerful motivator and unifier, and faith traditions certainly have a place in a vibrant public sphere - but even the most progressive and open faith tradition should not itself constitute the public sphere. After all, we don't just want to leverage popular power through community institutions; we are also working to build a new world in the shell of the old.

From an organising standpoint, we have to ask ourselves if these types of institutions are capable of laying the groundwork—much less becoming the central foundation—for a radically transformed society.  

The more recent and increasingly prevalent problem with organising through existing institutions is that those institutions are crumbling.

The crumbling community sphere

I was employed as a community organiser in Detroit, where I still live and organise (though now in my own neighborhood and not for pay). The effects of neoliberalism are most visible in the negative, in the absences and gaping holes it leaves in our communities.

Austerity measures and economic pressures have forced public parks, recreation centers, public schools, and community businesses to close, while foreclosures have forced many residents out of their homes. Overgrown lots and abandoned buildings take the place of once-vibrant community institutions, and once-active block clubs are either shadows of their former selves or no longer exist at all.

In downtown Detroit and in other American cities that are wealthier and more gentrified, meanwhile, the destruction of public space the form of privatisation, from parks to schools to plazas. The main plaza in the heart of downtown Detroit is now Quicken Loans plaza, patrolled by private security guards who waste no time telling protestors and loiterers to leave.

Where community and faith institutions still exist, their membership is on the decline. Church participation is waning among younger generations, and severe economic pressures on the working poor mean that free time to participate in any kind of community is scarce. Other factors we’ve touched on in earlier articles —suburbanisation, car culture, the atomisation of society—play a role as well.

So if these institutions don’t exist like they used to and are not suited to being the kind of transformational vehicle we need, how are we supposed to radically transform society?

Working through the existing political system is insufficient

This brings me to the last major limitation of Alinskyist organising, the element perhaps most often critiqued on the left: radical transformation is not really the goal.

Capitalism gets a wide variety of treatments in modern organizing trainings depending on the individual trainer, but a coherent critique that demands its replacement altogether is largely absent.

Much of Alinsky’s and his followers’ writings display an obsession with Athenian democracy and with the American founding fathers. They portray representative democracy and the US political system as an essentially unproblematic system that has simply been corrupted and must be restored by making its people into active citizens again.

'Winning' is understood only in terms of getting elected representatives to acquiesce to your demands, rather than changing the way our political and economic systems are structured. This isn't just their poor political analysis – the model itself of strategically leveraging community power to extract concessions from those with real decision-making power is inherently reformist.

The short-sighted focus on picking only concrete and winnable issues means never getting at underlying systemic problems that require longer campaigns or that cannot be solved at all within the constraints of the current system.

Build new community institutions

At its core, the institution-based community organising model rests on winning reforms from the system as it is—but the system as it is is fundamentally broken.

There is no sustainable future under capitalism and no mechanism to stop the ravages of capitalism under representative democracy. If we're going to stop the crises of our time, we need to develop a different politics altogether.

Of course, even if our goal is total structural transformation, we still have the need for oppositional politics in the meantime. We have to survive long enough to make it to the revolution, and we have to create space within the current system for alternatives to breathe and grow.

But if oppositional politics can best be accomplished by organising through institutions, and those institutions are either defunct or not suited to transformational politics, then even just extracting wins from the current system requires building new institutions in our communities.

All of this means that our energies as organisers are better suited toward building genuine alternatives. By organizing community-based, grassroots institutions, of participatory democracy and a solidarity economy, we can simultaneously prefigure the kind of society we’re working towards and meet immediate needs in the here and now.

Alinsky’s legacy

We’ve written about what these institutions might look like here and here. Constructing grassroots democratic institutions of our own allows us to simultaneously engage in survival politics in the short term and drive the transition toward a different type of society in the long term.

We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater; we can use some of the tools Alinsky contributed to build these new institutions.

The concept of the one-on-one, a conversation between organiser and community member designed to build a relationship and unearth the community member’s motivations and stake in the work, remains a valuable organising tool.

So too do some of Alinsky’s other contributions — the importance of communicating using language and analogies that make sense for the audience and context, for example, and using humor and ridicule in actions against political opponents. We can learn a great deal from his work on how to execute strategic campaigns, to win important reforms or halt destructive policies.

Modern organisers are indebted to Alinsky’s legacy in many dimensions. But his model must be transcended if we are going to transform "the world as it is," and build a just, free, and democratic society together.

These Authors

The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organisers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organisations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev

This article was written by Katie Horvath (@katesville7).

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