Organizing is Building Politically Conscious Power in Directly Affected Communities

12,000 people march in Lake Worth Florida to demand immigrant rights

12,000 people march in Lake Worth Florida to demand immigrant rights

Saul Alinsky is considered the father of community organizing by many. Probably because white people have found one of their own to bestow the title of founder on, just as with the historical lie: “Columbus discovered America”. Tecumseh, Harriet Tubman, and hundreds before him already knew what community organizing was but they had not called it by the name “community organizing.” Tecumeh united hundreds of tribes to create the Shawnee Confederacy. All the sudden Saul is born in 1909 and decades later he was called the Father, just as George Washington was called the father of this country, which is also a lie.

I am not presumptuous enough to claim to be the first to have this thought, but I may be the only organizers in recent history to put it forward. When I was first a community organizer in training I was told, “Community organizing is a process where people who live in close proximity to each other come together into an organization that acts in their shared self-interest. “Although these two aspects may play a role in a community organizing, this could not be further from the truth. Alinsky may have said it. I believe he is wrong. Herein lies the reason:

I have been a community organizer for 30 years off and on. Mostly on. I have studied under the legendary Vernon Bellecourt (RIP) Grand Governing Council Leader of the American Indian Movement who sent me all over the Upper Midwest, the South and East Coast organizing for AIM years ago. I also studied under the amazing civil rights genius of Anne Braden the founder of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression for many years and got my first paying job as an organizer with the Alliance. I worked for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth for 5 years focusing on police brutality, economic justice, and mining issues. Then I worked for the Association For Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) for five years focusing on immigrant rights, the fight against gentrification in Riviera Beach and Lake Worth, and smart growth development. Now I organize for the Sierra Club in front line communities fighting toxic coal ash and strip mining. Over the years I have worked other positions temporarily running campaigns and community outreach operations under the banner Community Outreach Marketing. I have done a bit of it all. Racial justice, environmental justice, economic justice, gender equality, and nationalist organizing for the American Indian Movement.

During my years organizing, I did not like Alinsky’s traditional definition of community organizing. It just is not enough to state “People who live near each other coming together out of self interest”. It is not what we organizers who are invested in the classical science of community organizing consider ourselves to be doing. So I began to advance my own definition that I feel actually defines it a little closer to reality.

Community organizing is building politically conscious power in directly affected communities”

Over the years many I have come into contact with many workshops and training opportunities where this idea that organizing was simply “getting people who live near one another together based on their self interest” and that thought always ringed hollow. Why? Because the people you are organizing need to be powerless and looking to gain some power. Because in the process you need them to develop a shared political consciousness, to develop a leadership structure, to make systemic change.

Why did Alinsky have such a narrow definition of community organizing? Well for one, Alinsky was a rabid anti-communist contrary to what most republican operatives say. Another reason was that Alinsky seemed to be engaged in a process of proving that you could use the principles to help anyone not just the directly affected. I just disagree vehemently. Using community organizing to help yacht owners throw the homeless out of the harbor where they dock their boats just doesn’t seem to be what organizing should be about. Yet another of Alinsky’s biggest failures.

Read this excerpt from a post from Wendy Plotkin:

According to Horwitt (an organizer who worked with Alinsky), Alinsky was disturbed by his inability to introduce racial integration into the Back of the Yards in the 1940s and 1950s.  Irony prevailed.  The Back of the Yards Council was being proclaimed nationally by authors such as Jane Jacobs (THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES, 1961) for its effectiveness in preserving the neighborhood in the face of an aging housing stock and industrial disinvestment.  Ignored was the fact that the unity that contributed to this community effort was fueled in part by an anti-black agenda, in which the only outreach to African-Americans was the effort to protect them at their place of employment and their travels thereto from their segregated neighborhoods. "

Alinsky was organizing communities of privilege and who had the power of the Catholic Church behind them.

Then this:

The impetus for organizing this neighborhood came from the upper
echelons of the Chicago Catholic hierarchy and some of the clergy in
the area.  They were concerned that like many of Chicago's
neighborhoods in the 1950s, the Southwest Side would experience loss of
the majority of its white Catholic population.   Fear of the burgeoning
African-American population, deterioration of the housing stock, and
attraction to the white suburbs would lead them to flee.

Alinsky leaned heavily on churches to do his organizing for him. He also seemed to be drawn to homeowners. We see this repeated in the model of ACORN where I worked for several years. I was instructed by my regional managers to organize homeowners because “they had bank accounts”. There is and has been a very deliberate effort in much of the community organizing world to organize those who had some semblance of privilege before others. Today the Direct Action Research Training Center (DART)  model manipulates relationships with churches exclusively and calls building coalitions of churches “community organizing”.

So what do we have if we only organize people who own homes and who go to church exclusively? How can this be called community organizing? What is the point of organizing those with power? Now much of this goes on in the environmental movement and although it is a job, that part of it is not community organizing. In my world people who live in the shadow of power plants and are inundated with toxic pollution are mostly low income and they need power. Gaining allies with some privilege or power is one part of the job; but empowering the people being killed by pollution who have no power when stacked up against the powerful energy companies is my main task. In my organizing with the American Indian movement I am organizing a people who have lost their continent to get as much of it back as is possible and to win self determination. The churches are one of the biggest stumbling blocks to my organizing because they often times are receiving contributions from the very people I am fighting against in regard tot he power companies. In Indian country the churches have been the main oppressive force that has continuously harassed the American Indian communities. So why would I focus on organizing churches?

The bottom line? Alinsky is not the founding father of organizing. Oppressed people are always the true origins of community organizing. Catholics in Ireland, ok, they are the powerless in Ireland. The church doesn’t lift a finger for the Irish Republican Army. In the United States, American Indians, African Americans, Latinos, the homeless, poor Appalachians these are the directly affected communities.

My job is to assist those communities in building power. Not power for the local minister. Not power for gatekeepers like politicians. It is to build politically conscious power in directly affected communities. This is our task. To recruit warriors who are willing to lead the struggle for self determination for oppressed people. That is my job. Doing that requires that I recruit leaders who are oppressed. Doing that requires that they be working together for revolutionary consciousness. Doing that requires that I be an organizer that works behind the scenes to make the directly affected people those speaking to the media on their own behalf.

It is not enough to just organize anyone who will work with me. It is about finding those without power and helping them to build a politically conscious power base for themselves. Not the other way around. It is not to organize white people to push black people out of the community, as Alinsky found himself doing in the Back of the Yards Council. My job is not to carry water for the Catholic Church. My job is not to carry water for the Democratic party. It is my job to force the Catholic Church, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and all powerful entities to carry water for the people they are supposed to represent. Ultimately we need to see the people in power be not the wealthy inheritors of a broken political system. That is all for now.