POST-ALINSKY COMMUNITY ORGANIZING: A DEFINITION
Community organizing creates durable institutions to give relatively powerless individuals a collective voice.
"Organizers" facilitate and guide these groups from the background while "leaders" give voice to the larger mass of members. Leaders learn practices--like house meetings and one-on-one interviews--for staying in touch with the interests and desires of members. Leaders use these practices to create relationships with members and draw them into collective action. Organizers may come from inside or outside communities, and indigenous organizers sometimes shift between leader and organizer roles. There are never enough leaders, and a key aim of organizers is to move as many "members" into multiple kinds of "leader" roles.
Organizing groups often fight for service programs, but rarely run them, because this would open them up to retaliation. Organizing groups often monitor service programs from the outside, however, intervening to make sure they are actually serving the interests of the community.
Community organizing seeks to generate POWER over the long term. Wins on individual campaigns are important, but the overall aim is for the organization itself to be taken seriously by the powerful (e.g., elected officials, business people, heads of large non-profit organizations, slumlords, etc.). This aim is achieved by
--growing numbers of sophisticated leaders
--increasingly knowledgeable members ready to act and become leaders
--a reputation for canny strategy
--the ability to get large numbers of people out to actions, and
--the generation of some level of fear and respect among key decisionmakers.
In the best case, established organizing groups will be brought to the table before important decisions are made. But organizing groups are always looking for new issues that will stretch them, add to their capacity, and gain respect. The "community" of an organizing group is maintained through action. If a group isn't constantly involved in campaigns and engaging members in different kinds of action, it is likely dying.
Inside organizing groups, power is collaborative--the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Externally, power is seen as a "zero-sum" game. Resources are relatively finite. If impoverished communities are to gain something (school funding, health care, etc.), then more powerful communities and individuals will need to give something up (through higher taxes, etc.). This is why you often need to fight. Nobody ever gives you anything that really matters to them for free.
Much more could be said, but this will have to do as a basic definition. Let me emphasize, this is an ideal definition--the reality is often quite messy.
ACTIVITIES THAT AREN'T POST-ALINSKY ORGANIZING
I recently surveyed members of the comm-org listserv (see www.comm-org.wisc.edu) for suggestions (see this) about how to create a brief introduction to this tradition of organizing. A number of respondents argued that people need to understand what organizing isn't if they are to really understand what organizing is. So that's what I discuss in the last part of this post. (This section is largely taken from my online introductory course on community organizing http://www.educationaction.org... NOTE: while I do critique some of these approaches, the mere fact that they aren't neo-Alinsky organizing doesn't make them ineffective or unimportant.
Activism isn't Organizing
Activists like to "do things." They get up in the morning and they go down to a main street and hold up some signs against the war. Or they march around in a picket line in front of a school. (Activists love rallies and picket lines.) Activists feel very good about how they are "fighting the power." But in the absence of a coherent strategy, a coherent target, a process for maintaining a fight over an extended period of time, and an institutional structure for holding people together and mobilizing large numbers, they usually don't accomplish much. People in power love activists, because they burn off energy for social action without really threatening anyone.
Mobilizing isn't Organizing
Mobilizers often accomplish something. They get pissed off about a particular issue or event, they get a lot of people out who are hopping mad, and they get some change made (for better or worse). Like activists, they feel pretty good about what they have accomplished. But then they go home and go back to watching TV or reading obscure theory or whatever. They've accomplished what they wanted to and now they're done.
The problem with mobilizing is that winning a single battle is often quite meaningless unless you are in the fight for the long term. Once they go home, the people they were struggling against are free to do whatever they were doing before. In fact, mobilizers can actually make things worse without necessarily meaning to, or they can be used by those who are more sophisticated about what is really going on.
Most political "organizing" is really mobilizing. The goal is to get out the vote, and then the work is done until the next election. Some political organizing may actually damage efforts to organize by misusing organizing tactics. For example, they may use "one-on-one" interviews to build relationships with people just to get them to the polls. When they simply drop these relationships instead of using them to build long term power they may turn these people off to real organizers/leaders that may come to talk with them later. It's not clear to me if Obama is doing this with his "organizing" strategy. I hope not.
Legal Action isn't Organizing
Lawyers are often quite important to those engaged in social action. Lawyers can get you out of jail, and they can help you overcome bureaucratic hurdles, among many other services. The problem comes when a social action strategy is designed primarily around a lawsuit.
My own state, Wisconsin, provides a good example. For a number of years, a major lawsuit was working its way through the courts in an effort to force the state to provide more equal funding to impoverished schools. During this time, statewide organizing around education, as I understand it, largely subsided. By the time we essentially lost the lawsuit at the state supreme court, little infrastructure had been created to fight on a political level for education. We had to start over largely from scratch. Lawsuits, then, can actually have a detrimental effect on organizing. Sometimes, however, organizers have found ways that lawsuits can help energize organizing. This seems to have happened around the Williams education case in California (see http://www.rethinkingschools.o...
Advocacy isn't Organizing
Advocates speak for others instead of trying to get those affected to speak for themselves. Relatively privileged professionals often advocate for marginalized groups. And sometimes individual members of impoverished groups become effective advocates. But advocates also include leaders who illegitimately take it upon themselves to represent the point of view of an entire group. The latter are often chosen by the powerful as "legitimate" representatives of points of view to the extent that they serve their interests.
"Pulling Yourself Up By Your Own Bootstraps" isn't Organizing
Getting people in your neighborhood together to clean up the park, creating a block club to watch out for scared children or criminals, developing a local savings plan in your church, or creating a community garden can be good things to do. In some cases they may actually be quite transformative, and they can foster the emergence of truly indigenous, creative, and relevant models of social action and change. Some of the most impressive examples of this in America came during the Black Power Movement and in the Nation of Islam, for example. But they don't count as post-Alinsky organizing. The post-Alinsky tradition assumes that the problems facing impoverished communities result from the effects of powerful forces acting on them from outside. If you don't contest these outside forces, you are unlikely to be able to maintain the kind of community you want. "Bootstrap" kinds of efforts can lead to organizing, but they generally don't.
Direct Service is not Organizing
As I noted in this earlier post in this series, Americans today generally equate civic engagement with direct service. But individuals helping individuals (or individuals helping organizations like hospitals, etc.) are unlikely to lead to significant social change, even if it may make you fell better. It allows people to act without getting out of their comfort zone.
Community Governance isn't Organizing
There are a range of efforts going on to ensure that different kinds of services are more responsive to community voices. While representatives of community organizing groups may serve in processes like this, organizing groups themselves almost always remain separate. And there's a good reason for this. Established non-profit and government organizations like schools and health clinics are generally dominated by middle-class professionals with little relationship to the communities they serve. This creates real challenges in even the most honest efforts to altruistically create structures for participatory governance. Organizing groups generally try to remain external to these groups so that they maintain their independent critical voice. In my own research, I was not able to find any effective model for getting public schools, in particular, to allow authentic community participation. However, there is work on how what Archon Fung calls "Empowered Participation," for example, might be effective. There are also a range of efforts to make government more deliberative drawing on promising examples in Latin America, Canada, elsewhere, but my knowledge of these is limited.
Movement Building is not Organizing
Organizers in this tradition are seeking to build identifiable organizations, durable institutions with clear leaders and structure. This is quite different from efforts to foster the emergence of more vaguely defined mass "movements," although organizing groups may certainly participate in such a movement. See Anderson's book The Movement and the Sixties for a thoughtful discussion of "movements."
Nonpartisan Dialogues About Community Problems are not Organizing
There are a range of efforts to create opportunities for people to meet together and engage in dialogue about community problems. My favorite example is the study circles approach, but there are innumerable other examples. The dialogue approach seems very important and is sometimes overlooked by those focused on community organizing and fighting over power. Unlike community organizing, the effort in contexts like these is to be open to a diverse range of opinions, out of which some consensus may be reached, but not necessarily. While dialogue also happens inside organizing groups, the focus is on generating a collective and singular "voice" and on wresting resources and power away from "others." Organizing assumes that dialogue isn't enough since success requires someone to lose resources, control, etc. Everyone is not allowed in the discussions that happen inside community organizing groups, and there is emphasis on the idea that there is a difference between a diversely defined "us" and "them." Dialogic efforts, even those that seek to engage in action after dialogue, tend to place more hope in the possibility that we might all get along if we could just talk honestly with each other.
Lifestyle Changes aren't Organizing
Buying a Prius may help the environment in some small way, but it is unlikely to make any real impact on pollution or climate change. Sometimes (mostly middle-class) lifestyle activists will say "well, if everyone bought a Prius, then we'd change the world." There are only two problems with this. First, even if everyone did buy a Prius it wouldn't make much of a difference. And second, everyone is not just going to go out and buy a Prius because they think you are so cool and they want to be just like you. It may be true that having a small, committed group of individuals begin with lifestyle changes may catalyze the emergence of a social movement for larger structural changes. But it is the collective action and structural change that makes the difference, not the fact that you own a Prius. Again, this is often a way for relatively privileged people to feel good about their actions without going outside their comfort zone.
That seems like more than enough for now. I'd welcome any comments, critiques, and corrections.
But a couple final points for those who are interested. First, examples of alternative traditions of community engagement can be found in Myles Horton's vision of the Highlander Center and in the legacy of Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from the 1960s. These approaches are generally more lauded by middle-class intellectuals than the Alinsky model because they fit quite well with middle-class preferences for non-hierarchical collaborative dialogue. Second, the community organizing vision of a shifting and open leadership hierarchy may be more realistic in community organizing than in labor organizing, despite other similarities. Leaders of community organizing groups (unlike organizers) are rarely paid, and members of community groups can easily "vote with their feet" if they don't agree with leaders' decisions. In contrast, leadership positions in unions are often paid, and "exit" from unions is much more costly. (See Democracy and Association by Mark Warren on the ways "exit" and "voice" affect different kinds of social change organizations.)]