Community Organizing Still Has Room to Grow

By Guest Columnist Sep 12, 2008

Originally posted on Movement Vision Lab By Charlene Sinclair There is no question as to whether community organizers have real accomplishments and responsibilities. The question though should be whether community organizing, as it is currently practiced, is structured to achieve the right accomplishments and responsibilities. In the last week, community organizing has been thrust center-stage. In response to demeaning and mocking comments made at the Republican convention, organizers and their supporters have rushed to defend the field and craft of organizing. As a long-time organizer, I do testify to the powerful and important work done by community organizers. However, as we encounter derision by politicians, we should not lose sight of the ways that organizing still has room to grow. Of particular concern to me – a Black woman, the daughter of immigrants, who became an organizer after being a member of a community organization – is our continued failure to confront the ways that racism and capitalism are embedded in the tradition and ongoing structures of community organizing. Certainly these criticisms are not the ones that would be leveled by the current critics of community organizing, and that is very much why we, as organizers, should grapple with them. To examine such foundational questions about the philosophy, technique, and processes of the field of community organizing, we must begin with a critical re-reading of organizing’s “holy” books: Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and Reveille for Radicals. In the Alinsky model, community organizing groups tackle issues evolving out of particular situations of misery by putting forth solutions that are cloaked by the illusion of pragmatic impartiality. Due to this pragmatism, the assumptions of this model often fail to take into account the hegemonic hold of Euro-capitalist cultural imperialism which defines social ideals according to the interest of the privileged and powerful. By failing to acknowledge cultural hegemony, organizing often structures its processes within that hegemony, rather than in opposition to it. Alinsky himself states that we should “start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be…it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be.” In Rules for Radicals, Alinsky juxtaposes revelation against revolution, stating that too often those rebelling against the current political and economic structures look for immediate dramatic change (revelation) and do not understand the painstaking and slow process that is necessary to build the instrument of change – a power organization. Furthermore it is in the process of building a power organization that “the supporting base of a popular reformation” is built. According to Alinsky, it is only through the wielding of power by the organization that real societal change (revolution) occurs. Therefore for Alinsky, the precursor to revolution is a powerful organization that accepts the world as it is and works for incremental change within the construct of the existing system. But, as noted above, the existing system is structured to ultimately advance the interests of the privileged. So while community organizing does indeed get a little more for a specific constituency, it can’t advance to revolution because it affirms the fundamental basis of the structures that are at the root of the oppression organizing espouses to change. Organizing gets us reformation not revolution. Alinsky disciples, adhering to this formulation, have developed a powerful methodology for putting “oppressed” people into motion. However, the organizations that drive this methodology are frequently staffed and supported by those with little or no experience of the oppression they are fighting. And in their organizing structures, these organizations often mirror the highly racialized and patriarchal systems of oppression within the dominant culture; as demonstrated by the fact that White men are running most of these organizations (and therefore frequently the ones quoted in the recent news coverage defending organizing) and that the basis of the methodology of community organizing rests on the understanding and viewpoint of a white man. Thus armed with the rhetoric of “leadership from the grassroots,” this process often conceals the explicit and implicit racism at the core of its assumptions and methodology, while placing real power in the hands of an outside (often white) agitator whose interest and world view may not be that of the people experiencing the injustice. It conceals a system which articulates the expertise of those impacted by issues of injustice, but in practice does not readily embrace institutional leadership emerging from the grassroots, often racialized, communities of the poor. Quite the contrary, Alinsky styled organizing discourages institutional leadership emerging from communities and actively promotes (both in theory and practice) leadership from the outside. I have always found it interesting that the world of community organizing rarely turns the mirror upon itself – and the defense of organizing these last few days was no exception. This failure to critically analyze how its methodology and tenets adhere to dominant racist and capitalist ideology must be challenged. For community organizing to fundamentally address the ever increasing misery of those with the least, we must be unafraid to embark on a critical examination of its “holy” books, central assumptions, and strict methodology. There is no question as to whether community organizers have real accomplishments and responsibilities. The question though should be whether community organizing, as it is currently practiced, is structured to achieve the right accomplishments and responsibilities. Charlene Sinclair is a 2008 Taproots Fellow.