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J. community organizing and social change

community organizing and social change
Author(s): randy stoecker
Source: Contexts, Vol. 8, No. 1, who fights our wars (WINTER 2009), pp. 20-25
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the American Sociological Association
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community organizing
and social change
by randy stoecker
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It was 2008, early in the presidential campaign season. Everyone
was talking about whether a woman or an African American. would
be the Democratic party nominee for president. And then they
began talking about community organizing.
In the early days of the Democratic primary we learned that both
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had connections to it. Clinton
had written her undergraduate thesis on the famous community
organizer Saul Alinsky. Obama had actually done it in Chicago
through the Gamaliel Foundation, one of the national faith-based
community organizing networks.
Obama's community organizing experience, described in
his autobiography Dreams from My Father, became a lightning
(ACORN had, in fact, identified predatory lending as a problem
and began organizing against it more than a decade earlier).
rod at the 2008 Republican National Convention where for-
ACORN fought back, and the GOP went down in defeat
mer New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor
in virtually every battle, with their attempts to thwart voter
Sarah Palin mocked Obama and community organizing.
Community organizers responded- within days you could
buy a t-shirt saying "Jesus was a community organizer. Pontius
Pilate was a Governor." (Pontius Pilate, of course, was the pub-
registration turned back by courts, attorneys general and,
increasingly, popular opinion.
And now, we have a president who is a community organ-
izer. We could, perhaps, say "former" community organizer.
lic official said to have ordered the crucifixion of Jesus.)
But once you learn the craft of community organizing, and
Networks grew across the country as community organizers
witness its ability to empower people, its spirit stays with you.
and community organizing groups initiated a massive media
It certainly has for Obama. Community organizing's democrat-
strategy and registered voters by the
hundreds of thousands. The Association
of Community Organizations for
Reform Now (ACORN) alone registered
more than 400,000 new voters and
nearly 1 million others who had fallen
off the rolls. Local community organiz-
ing groups in major cities each regis-
Community organizing's democratic, and fundamentally sociological, impulses bring a sense of
reward and satisfaction unmatched by other
forms of political practice.
tered sometimes tens of thousands of
ic, and fundamentally sociological, impulses - understanding
Then came the Republican attacks on ACORN, one of the how power works and using that understanding to build the
country's largest community organizing networks. ACORN'spower of all the people - bring a sense of reward and satissuccess at voter registration drives in swing states brought outfaction unmatched by other forms of political practice.
the worst anti-democracy impulses from conservatives. In more
There's a great deal more to community organizing than
than a dozen states right-wing politicians accused ACORN ofBarack Obama and ACORN, hpwever. At its root, community
voter registration fraud. Republican presidential candidate John organizing isn't about big organizations or charismatic lead-
McCain, in an impossibly bizarre attempt at misdirection, eveners, or even about specific political agendas or ideologies.
charged ACORN with causing the global financial meltdown Rather, it's about activating people at a local, neighborhood
Contexts, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 20-25. ISSN 1 536-5042, electronic ISSN 1 537-6052. © 2009 American Sociological Association.
All rights reserved. For permission to photocopy or reproduce see http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintinfo.asp. DOI:
1 0. 1 525/ctx.2009.8. 1 .20.
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winter 2009 contexts 21
level to claim power and make change
for themselves. It's the process by
which grassroots organizations form
and grow, their members develop
leadership skills, and ordinary people
learn to change social policy.
The belief is that poor and work-
ing class people have been shut out
from access to political and economic power because they haven't organ-
ized themselves in this way. Once
they're organized, the theory goes,
they'll have a voice in policy issues.
Without community organizing, there
are only fleeting demonstrations, iso-
lated spokespeople, and top-down
social policy.
the origins of organizingSaul
D. Alinsky speaks to crowd before meeting in a high school in 1967.
Community organizing has been
unique to the United States until
is Saul Alinsky, who helped build powerful neighborhood
recently when U.S. -style global capitalism downsized izing
and elim-
first in Chicago in 1939 and then across the
inated government services in nation after nation and
nation into
community-level responses. But in this country, Alexis
de the 1970s. His influence extends to many of the
Tocqueville documented our foreparents' willingness community
to form organizers working today, and he influenced the
voluntary organizations two centuries ago.
development of many of the community organizing net-
- national organizations that support the development
The founding of this country in opposition to central
of thousands
of neighborhood and community organizations
ernment and collective tax redistribution, by a relatively
the country.
group of people with exclusionary religious and cultural
in a very big space, provided fertile ground for a form of Those
polit-networks include Alinsky's own Industrial Areas
ical action that focused on smaller community-basedFoundation
interest (IAF), the Gamaliel Foundation, the PICO National
Network, the Direct Action Research and Training Center
groups. The idea of bringing together like-minded neighbors
the Midwest Academy, National People's Action (NPA),
to defend local space has remained ever since. And (DART),
while the
participatory impulses of community organizing now
push and
it others. The list is split about evenly between those
networks that are faith-based - relying on religious principles
to be inclusive and democratic, its original populist underpintheir motivation and congregations for their participants nings mean the craft is more anti-elitist than either for
and secular networks such as ACORN, NPA, and the Midwest
tive or progressive.
The power and presence of community organizing
In ACORN we see the other foundation of community
overtime, as urban historian Robert Fisher explored in his book
Let the People Decide. Working class people forced toorganizing
stand in - the civil rights movement. While we best know
the civil rights movement because of its large national events
bread lines during the Great Depression, African Americans
and white
its religious leaders, the movement was built by African
responding to the ravages of segregation while their
neighbors enjoyed the expanding wealth of the late 1American
950s andcommunity organizers such as Ella Baker in rural
and urban neighborhoods across the southern
1960s, and urban neighborhood residents realizing that
corpoStates. Myles Horton, the long-time leader and corations and governments were disinvesting from their United
communities in the 1970s and 1980s were the source of the most
founder of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, was per-
haps the crossing point between the Chicago influences that
powerful community organizing periods in the past century.
guided Alinsky and the southern civil rights movement.
But even during historical periods when not much appears to
be happening on the surface, community organizers were
Until today, the most successful recent community organ-
izing period was in the 1970s when small neighborhood groups
working behind the scenes in rural and urban communities
across the nation.
across the country began realizing banks weren't making loans
The person most clearly associated with community organ- in their communities. As they studied and fought against this
22 contexts.org
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practice of "redlining" they built a national movement that
they also find themselves organizing in white working class
produced the federal Community Reinvestment Act. The result,
communities, where injecting progressive ideology into the
by some estimates, was as much as $1 trillion of investment
process might get them booted from the neighborhood, and
into poor and working class communities across the country.
where community members often support discrimination. One
Today, there are community organizing groups in every
of Alinsky's greatest disappointments was the racism practiced
state and every large city. Perhaps because of its local scale and
by his first, and most successful, community organizing effort
methodological process, most scholars never judged commu-
in Chicago's Back of the Yards community. And community
nity organizing interesting enough for serious study. So, no
organizers today, such as Rinku Sen in her book Stir it Up, are
one has counted all the groups, some of which come and go
asking whether some degree of ideology should help guide
with the ebb and flow of issues and funding.
But because community organizing groups focus on issues
We know even less about the numbers of lives touched by
those organizations. Many groups are part of one of the
generated by their members from the ground-up, they typi-
national community organizing networks, others operate inde-
cally don't affiliate with political parties or strict ideological
pendently. Many are informal groups composed of communi-
platforms that impose issues on them from the top-down. Two
ty members who have maybe never heard the term commu-
slogans of community organizing show just how embedded
nity organizing. We suspect the organizations number in the
the culture of populism is in the practice.
The first says "no permanent friends, no permanent ene-
thousands and have hundreds of thousands, possibly millions,
mies." In contrast to Giuliani's bluster at the Republican
of members.
Despite these large numbers, community organizing did-
n't get the attention it deserved until the practice elected a
National Convention, in the documentary The Democratic
Promise we see him promoting the efforts of East Brooklyn
community organizer as President of the United States. While
Congregations - a faith-based community organizing group -
nearly everyone knows something about the civil rights move-
after the same film showed the previous Democratic mayor,
ment, and many have heard of Alinsky, few of us knew of any
Ed Koch, mocking them. The second slogan is "never do for
of the major community organizing networks until ACORN
anyone what they can do for themselves," which sounds as
became so prominent this past election season.
Now we're finally understanding how powerful commu-
much like "pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps" as any
conservative should want. The difference, of course, is that the
nity organizing can be. Indeed, in many ways community
organizer is there to help people develop their own strategy
organizing is the foundation of social change.
to demand and get boots.
how it works
common path. The community organizer enters the neighbor-
In most cases, implementing these principles follows a
You may have encountered community organizers knock-hood and gets to know people. Some networks have a special
name for this process - the one-to-one. In a one-to-one, the
ing on your door. They aren't the ones trying to convince you
to adopt their religion, or give money
and sign a petition, or vote for their
candidate. They're the ones asking you
You may have encountered community organizers
about the most important issues in the
community, and encouraging you to
knocking on your door. They're the ones asking
you about the most important issues in the
come to a meeting to talk about those
issues. They want to know what you
think and what issues you're willing to
work on. They will definitely twist your
arm - hard - to get you to contribute at least your time andorganizer talks with individuals in the community, learning how
they feel about it, what issues they're passionate about, and
maybe your money, too. But their main focus will be in getwhat skills and resources they could contribute to an organizting you to work on issues you already care about. Of course,
ing effort. Sometimes the organizer also visits existing civic
if you want to discriminate against gays and lesbians, oppose
organizations and congregations.
equal rights for all, or limit democracy to only the rich or educated, they won't work with you. Their commitment, first and
At this point, they're organizing what historian Mary Beth
Rogers described as cold anger in her book of the same name.
foremost, is to the expansion of democracy, and that's what
leads those on the extreme right to fear them so much.
This is the process of taking unfocused frustration and chan-
neling it into social change strategy. Hot anger is the anger of
Consequently, individual community organizers are more
riots. Cold anger is rational anger, the anger of organizing.
likely to identify with the political left, because that's where
they find the most sympathy for expanding democracy. But
Eventually, this process gives the organizer a sense of who
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the community leaders are - not the official leaders, but the
actual leaders - and what the important issues are. Then they
start organizing meetings in people's homes, church basements, or other places people gather. It's these places where
most of the work of community organizing is actually done.
Those meetings lead to the selection of issues for the
group to work on and the development of a strategy to work
on them. In some communities that may be about trying to
rid a park of gang violence, in others it may be about getting
rid of an unwanted developer. The organizer's job is to help
the group pick an issue they actually have some hope of win-
ning, and then helping them develop a strategy for doing so.
The group then initiates a campaign strategy around that issue,
often involving some form of confrontation such as a large
public meeting with a targeted corporate or public official. The
group insists on a yes or no answer to very specific
A young
Barack Obama while a student at Harvard Law
The goal is not just to win on the issue, but to
an he studied after working in Chicago for three
as a community organizer.
organization that can win on other issues as well and
an institutionalized force in the political system. To this end,
about the celeissue, come up with a position statement, and develsome community organizing groups hold large annual
an action strategy - picketing the slumlord's suburban
brations where they promote their past victories andopprioritize
their current issues.
home. Then, everyone made signs and Lewis trained neigh-
organizing in action
Someone would speak to the media, someone WQuld lead the
borhood people to lead all the important parts of the action.
chants, "the
someone would negotiate with the police if they came.
Community organizing is guided by the principle
the group left for the action, you could almost taste
people shall rule," and its task is to help the people not
the tension
and worry - it was the first time most of them had
gain power, but the skill to grow and use that
in a public action. Would they get arrested? Would
Community organizers, with some exceptions, don't
lead, they
slandered in the news? But they started picketing,
propel. The organizer is, in the best case, the expert they
who be
the rules of peaceful protest with the police who
how to get people to a meeting, develop a strategy,
and win
on the scene, were interviewed by the TV news, and
a policy battle. But it's the people who come to that
they left with
who are supposed to choose the issue, develop a position
ona new sense of power. It started out as just a
training, but it launched a multi-year
A newly revitalized community organizing practice
may help turn the tide of a decaying polity and a
campaign that eventually helped shut
down the slumlord's company.
In the early days of a community
organizing effort like this one, the res-
corrupt economy.
idents often don't know enough to sustain it without the organizer's help, just
like they may not know enough to replace the shingles on their
that issue, design a strategy, and lead the public effort.
roof or repair
An action training event led by Bertha Lewis,
nowtheir pipes without an expert to help. The organplays a and
much more prominent role in those early days. But
ACORN's chief organizer, illustrates this process.izer
the roofer
other ACORN organizers were part of a three-yearunlike
to or plumber who does the work for you, the
build community organizing capacity in Toledo, Ohio,
they help you learn to do it yourself. In the best
held monthly trainings the first year.
community organizing, it's the leaders- community residents-
give the
news interviews, do the public speaking, and yell
The day before this particular training she met
in the campaign.
leaders of two neighborhood organizations. Together
decided to focus the training around how to do a public action,
building on the
and chose a local slumlord operating in both neighborhoods
It's possible community organizing's new visibility will result
as the target.
The morning of the training Lewis brought together the
neighborhood organizations' two dozen members to talk
in new resources, energy, and initiatives. There are now efforts
through the National Organizers Alliance to channel former
24 contexts.org
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campaign organizers into community organizing. A newly revi-
recommended resources
talized community organizing practice may help turn the tide
COMM-ORG. http://comm-org.wisc.edu. A website that assembles key works on community organizing from academics and
practitioners, and offers a discussion list with mòre than 1,200
of a decaying polity and a corrupt economy, focusing especial-
ly on the poor and working class who lack access to the fundamentals of life itself - a living wage, an affordable mortgage,
and health care.
These possibilities come with risks. Politicians don't nec-
essarily have ideals and goals compatible with community
organizing, and we don't know whether the office of president will influence Obama more than he can influence it.
Peter Dreier. "Shifting Gears: Transforming Obama's Campaign
into a Movement for Change," The Huffington Post, November 6,
2008. A sociological reflection on the role of community organizing
in the Obama presidency by a prolific writer.
Robert Fisher. Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in
America, updated edition. (Twayne Publishers, 1997). A social history of community organizing in the United States.
Adding to this uncertainty, new initiatives have emerged Robert Kleidman. "Community Organizing and Regionalism," City
posing as community organizing under labels such as consen-
and Community (2004) 3 (4): 403-42 1 . An analysis of the challenges
sus organizing, community building, or asset-based commu- of moving community organizing beyond local issues.
nity development. Promoted by academics, foundation offi- Aldon Morris. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (The Free
cials, and government officials, these models replace an
understanding of oppressive social structures that divide the
Press, 1 984). One of the few sociological studies of the civil rights
movement from a community organizing point of view, focusing
on the network of local organizations and strategies at the foun-
haves and have nots with an assumption of common interests dation of the movement.
between them that will allow for conflict-free social change.
Such an approach contains within it the threat of a renewed
backlash against community organizing.
Rinku Sen. Stir it Up. (Jossey-Bass, 2003). Explores how to integrate
racial/ethnic identity and ideology into community organizing, and
move from local to larger issues.
For community organizing to continue making meaning- Randy Stoecker is in the rural sociology department at the University of
ful contributions to broad-based empowerment and bottom-
Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Research Methods For Community Change.
up social change, education about the realities of oppression
and training in power-based community organizing strategies
will be crucial. Most community organizing networks have to
support their own organizer education programs, and in some
cases that can mean only 10 days of training and an apprenticeship.
Our universities and colleges - and sociology departments - haven't been helpful in this regard. Community organ-
izing courses don't exist on many college campuses, and the
number of degree programs that focus on community organ-
izing can be counted on two hands. This has long been the
case. In fact, three main historical heroes of community organ-
izing - Alinsky, Horton, and Jane Addams (who co-founded
with Ellen Gates Starr the famous settlement house Hull House
in Chicago) - studied with or were colleagues of the famous
University of Chicago sociologists of their time. But none of
them ever felt welcomed enough to make a career out of soci-
ology or academia.
Perhaps now is the time to finally make that right. In the
process, academics can begin to combine their efforts with
community organizers and their grassroots leaders, replacing
higher education's charity-based approach to service learning
and civic engagement with a social justice approach that supports community organizing groups and helps secure the foun-
dation for social change.
winter 2009 contexts 25
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