Problems and Purpose
Community organizing is a process where people who live in proximity to each other come together into an organization that acts in their shared self-interest. Unlike those who promote more-consensual community building, community organizers generally assume that social change necessarily involves conflict and social struggle in order to generate collective power for the powerless. A core goal of community organizing is to generate durable power for an organization representing the community, allowing it to influence key decision-makers on a range of issues over time. In the ideal, for example, this can get community organizing groups a place at the table before important decisions are made. Community organizers work with and develop new local leaders, facilitating coalitions and assisting in the development of campaigns.
Community organizers generally seek to build groups that are democratic in governance, open and accessible to community members, and concerned with the general health of a specific interest group, rather than the community as a whole. Organizing seeks to broadly empower community members, with the end goal of "distributing" power more equally throughout the community.
Community organizing is not to be confused with community development. Consensual community development efforts to improve communities through a range of strategies, usually directed by educated professionals working in government, policy, non-profit, or business organizations, is not community organizing. Community development projects increasingly include a community participation component, and often seek to empower residents of impoverished areas with skills for collaboration and job training, among others. However, community development generally assumes that groups and individuals can work together collaboratively without significant conflict or struggles over power to solve community challenges. One currently popular form is asset-based community development that seeks out existing community strengths. The relationship between community organising and community development is however more one of nuance than total difference. There is much community development literature and practice which is very similar to community organising, see for example the international Community Development Journal. And certainly since the 1970s community development practitioners have been influenced by structural analyses of inequity and power distribution.
Origins and Development
Use the United States
Robert Fisher and Peter Romanofsky have grouped the history of "community organizing" (also known as "social agitation") in the United States into four rough periods:
1880 to 1900
People sought to meet the pressures of rapid immigration and industrialization by organizing immigrant neighborhoods in urban centers. Since the emphasis of the reformers was mostly on building community through settlement houses and other service mechanisms, the dominant approach was what Fisher calls social work. During this period the Newsboys Strike of 1899 provided an early model of youth-led organizing.
1900 to 1940
During this period, much of community organizing methodology was generated in Schools of Social Work, with a particular methodological focus grounded in the philosophy of John Dewey, which focused on experience, education, and other sociological concepts. This period saw much energy coming from those critical of capitalist doctrines as well. Studs Terkel documented community organizing in the depression era, perhaps most notably that of Dorothy Day. Most organizations had a national orientation because the economic problems the nation faced did not seem possible to change at the neighborhood levels.
1940 to 1960
Saul Alinsky, based in Chicago, is credited with originating the term community organizer during this time period. Alinsky wrote Reveille for Radicals, published in 1946, and Rules for Radicals, published in 1971. With these books, Alinsky was the first person in America to codify key strategies and aims of community organizing. He also founded the first national community organizing training network, the Industrial Areas Foundation, subsequently led by one of his former lieutenants, Edward Chambers.
The following quotations from Reveille for Radicals (Alinsky) give a good sense of Alinsky's perspective on organizing and of his public style of engagement:
A People's Organization is a conflict group, [and] this must be openly and fully recognized. Its sole reason in coming into being is to wage war against all evils which cause suffering and unhappiness. A People's Organization is the banding together of large numbers of men and women to fight for those rights which insure a decent way of life....
A People's Organization is dedicated to an eternal war. It is a war against poverty, misery, delinquency, disease, injustice, hopelessness, despair, and unhappiness. They are basically the same issues for which nations have gone to war in almost every generation.... War is not an intellectual debate, and in the war against social evils there are no rules of fair play....
A People's Organization lives in a world of hard reality. It lives in the midst of smashing forces, dashing struggles, sweeping cross-currents, ripping passions, conflict, confusion, seeming chaos, the hot and the cold, the squalor and the drama, which people prosaically refer to as life and students describe as "society."
1960 to present
The civil rights movement, anti-war movements, Chicano movement, feminist movement, and gay rights movement all influenced and were influenced by ideas of neighborhood organizing. Experience with federal anti-poverty programs and the upheavals in the cities produced a thoughtful response among activists and theorists in the early 1970s that has informed activities, organizations, strategies and movements through the end of the century. Less dramatically, civic associations and neighborhood block clubs were formed all across the country to foster community spirit and civic duty, as well as provide a social outlet.
Loss of urban communities
During these decades, the emergence of an ongoing process of white flight, the ability of middle-class white Americans to move out of majority Black areas, and the professionalization of community organizations into 501(c)3 nonprofits, among other issues, increasingly dissolved the tight ethnic and racial communities that had been so prevalent in urban areas during the first part of the century. As a result, community organizers began to move away from efforts to mobilize existing communities and towards efforts to create community, fostering relationships between community members. While community organizers like Alinsky had long worked with churches, these trends led to an increasing focus on congregational organizing during the 1980s, as organizing groups rooted themselves in one of the few remaining broad-based community institutions. This shift also led to an increased focus on relationships among religion, faith, and social struggle.
Emergence of national organizing support organizations
A collection of training and support organizations for national coalitions of mostly locally governed and mostly FBCO community organizing groups were founded in the Alinsky tradition. The Industrial Areas Foundation was the first, created by Alinsky himself in 1940. The other key organizations include ACORN, PICO National Network, Direct Action and Research Training Center, and the Gamaliel Foundation. The role of the organizer in these organizations was "professionalized" to some extent and resources were sought so that being an organizer could be more of a long term career than a relatively brief, mostly unfunded interlude. The training provided by these national "umbrella" organizations helps local volunteer leaders learn a common "language" about organizing while seeking to expand the skills of organizers. The Midwest Academy, based in Chicago, provides week-long training in organizing nationally to organizers and leaders who are not part of these established national organizations. The Center for Third World Organizing provides training focused on "change efforts in communities of color." CTWO advocates a process in which those that are most impacted are leading the fight for social change. CTWO offers multiple trainings that provide the tools needed to become an effective organizer.
The distinction between an "organizer" who staffs a community organization and "leaders" who make decisions and provide the public face of their groups was increasingly standardized over these years, even in many organizations not linked to "umbrella" training groups as the Alinsky tradition became increasingly influential.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Neighbourhood and community organizations are typically open to all and specifically address community members. However, informal hierarchies and exclusionary mechanism might be at work.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Alinsky, Saul (1987/1946). Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage.
Lead image: "Tenants of 85 Bowery and housing advocates protest in front of the Department of Buildings office at 280 Broadway in Manhattan on April 26" Linda Rosier/amNewYork https://goo.gl/8cY1tB
Secondary image: Members of the 83-85 Bowery Tenants Association, Getty Images https://goo.gl/gdGWqh