Community Organizing Discussion
Compiled by Claire O'Conner in
response to a
inquiry regarding Community Organizing
July and early August, 2003. Compiled September, 2004
Note that portions taken from Hunter Gray's community organizing
pieces have been extensively used in this discussion. See
Combined Organizing Pieces (expanded and revised) for
the original source documents.
Resources (in no order)
- A Manual for Direct Action, by Martin Oppenheimer & George
Lakey, Quadrangle Books, 180 North Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL with
forward by Bayard Rustin.
- The Bush Dyslexicon by Mark Miller.
- Charles Silberman's Crisis in Black and White describes how
Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation addressed this problem
- Freedom in the Family: a Mother and Daughter memoir of the Civil
Rights Movement, by Patricia and Tananarive Due
- Factionalism and Geronimo and Organizers and Today, Hunter
Gray, Journal of Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group [Simon
Fraser University, British Columbia.] Fall 2002 antithesis.
- Community Empowerment: Full Public Financing of Elections. A
curriculum of the Hamer's Trainer training and education program. The
Hamer's Trainers Initiative has been designed to be a multi-ethnic,
intergenerational leadership corps that will build and lead campaigns,
initiatives and coalitions around issues of equality, inclusitivity and
representation in the democratic process. It was attached to a document.
I lost it.
- The Children,
- A book Julian Bond should write.
- Organizing for Social Change (by Bobo, Kendall and Max) from
Combined Community Organizing Pieces
- Gathering Power by Paul Osterman.
- Karen S. Kalish - Kalish Communications. Estelle W. and Karen S.
Kalish Foundation. 225 Linden Ave. St. Louis, Mo. 63105. (A message came
for this person. I don't understand connection but understand the
importance of a foundation/C.O.)
- Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial
Justice in the Cold War South, by Catherine Fosl, New York:
Palgrave-MacMillan, 2002. ISBN: 0-312-29457-
- Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic
Vision by Barbara Ransby, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North
Carolina Press, 2003. ISBN: 0-8078- 2778-9,
- Wellstone Action
- Poster "Women of Hope: African American women who
made a difference." The Bread and Roses Cultural Project is a project of
Hospital Workers Union, 1199,
- Max Weber, the German Sociologist and Robert Audrey (authors cited
but no titles) addressing the issue of the need or place for charisma in
a movement the old question, "does history make the
wo/man or the other way around".
- Paolo Freirie' Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (can't find date
and publisher), Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed,
Continuum, New York, 1998.
Below is a summary of discussion points offered on the SNCC email list
in response to a request for wisdom thoughts on
organizing and on sustaining the gains of organizing. While there was a
great deal gathered on the topic of organizing, the "sustainability"
issue was not as thoroughly developed.
I hope what follows is a fair representation of the wisdom gained from
the years of experience represented by those who contributed and
accurately represents what was said. Our successes depend on sharing,
thinking and improving our organizing. As one person noted during the
discussion "What we can do is create space where
information on organizing methods, processes, and ideas can be worked
out. This space, I think. would need to be attached to real work so that
theories can be tested against real life practice."
Points Made (ordered without any obvious rationale)
- DEFINTION: Community Organizing
- Getting people together for action toward mutual great and good.
- Healthy Effective social justice organizing has to be fundamentally
grassroots in nature;
- Has to build enduring and increasing grassroots power;
- Has to generate vigorous grassroots leadership;
- Has to maintain a sensible focus on the here-and-now and,
concurrently, on the Better World Over The Mountains
Yonder and keep those two critical dimensions
integrally related to one another and each rooted solidly in the
- That's what makes any "Save the World" endeavor
- labor, civil rights, community organization,
whatever strong, sharp, vital. And, to its enemies,
- Best movements include political action
- Wellstone Action will organize a 2 1/2-day "Camp Wellstone" to train
aspiring political candidates, campaign workers and community activists.
Purpose to train the next generation of organizers involved in political
- Successful grass roots organizing inevitably gets a push-back from
power of status quo. It will always get harder. Many movements fail just
as they are getting somewhere because they read resistance as their own
incompetence or failure.
- Discussion about organizing should be seen as a call to organize
NOW. As things get tough we have to INTENSIFY THE WORK
- Use the Booker T way and the way of Dave Dennis and Bob Moses of
developing one self as a response to this madness by knowing how to
think by using Algebra
- Organizers have to be replenished and celebrated.
- Don't take yourself to seriously. There is a tomorrow, and shit
happens day after day.
- Thanks to Ella [Baker] we have done a good job with people who are
called to struggle...and people who agree with us already, but the
challenge is to involve those who haven't yet joined the struggle. Those
many hornswaggaled by the I can make it on my own, it
doesn't matter if I get a hernia, heart disease, black lung, breast
cancer, emphysema, diabetes, become a junkie, or alcoholic, trying to
pull myself up by my boots straps sucker.
- Teaching organizing: Need to teach down to earth, practical.
Use personal stories and case histories. Heavy ideological stuff is not
- Can draw on history of class struggle of other
movements IWW, Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers.
- Includes the concrete, day to day work of bringing people, issues
and structure together. Seems mundane but takes time, ingenuity and
- It is a life time commitment for some.
- Progressive movers and shakers have become bogged down. Need to
focus on here and now before it is too late.
- A plan offered for organizing
- Gathering the people's history
- Grass roots has to invite participation of organizer (some times
spontaneously, sometimes "wrangled".
- Issues: Are not always apparent, (example economic relationships or
realistic. Some are attainable now. Some in the future. Some are
- Planning philosophies: Top down, vs. grassroots up. Heavy grassroots
involvement is always critical. Useful approach to grass roots
engagement grass roots define and choose leaders and
potential leaders. Often things start out with a steering committee of
leaders and then, after the organization has grown and more people are
involved, have elections of regular officers.
- Overall goals; long-range specific; short range specific.
- Project credibility based on grass roots leaders
must be those people who are primary beneficiaries of the project.
- Some people may want to move too fast and others too slowly;
organizer helps to develop group's tempo and helps grassroots leaders
and people meet those expectations.
- Direct action: First Amendment and related rights, picketing, sit-
ins, boycotts, mass marches; need for careful organization and tactical
- Media use. Judicious and careful use: national wire services; local
television, often with national hookups; local radio; local and regional
press; specialized press; news releases who, what,
when, where, why and how; press conferences; leaflets with ALL pertinent
information; newsletters; community newspapers; community cable TV;
Internet; always a need for up-to-date media/contact lists.
- Lawyers and litigation: defensive and aggressive legal
actions "criminal" and civil; local volunteers; paid
lawyers; national organizational attorneys e.g., ACLU,
Lawyers Guild, Native American Rights Fund; some non-in-court matters
can be handled very effectively by good law students.
- Possible allies and political action: National organizations; and
government agencies [be careful]; political - informal approaches and
quiet contacts; formal approaches and lobbying and direct requests;
electoral [voting]. DON'T GET CO-OPTED!
- Power structure analysis: Check out Moody's industrials and Standard
and Poor's; and check out lawyers and their big business connections in
Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, and see FindLaw, and also firms in
U.S. Lawyer's Directory; City Directory will often give the official
occupation of people; check out corporate profit and not for profit
charters at the state secretary of state's office; check out annual
registration of organizations from state attorney general or sometimes
secretary of state; data on charitable organizations can be found at
state attorney general's office; county tax assessor; also various
national and regional Who's Who and IRS and U.S. Government Organization
Manual and Congressional Directory. DON'T NEGLECT HELPFUL NON-OFFICIAL
- Coalitions [tend to be long term] and alliances [often shorter term]
are sometimes beneficial and sometimes not.
- Although no organizer whether from the "outside" or
the "inside" - will ever have full consensus from the community, he or
she must avoid the temptation to be a "Lone Ranger." That role can be
temporarily justified only in cases of extreme fear or heavy
- Saul Alinsky and his work
- Pro Alinsky
- Thousands of black organizers admired Alinsky and his work in
Woodlawn area of Chicago,
- His gift was communicating clearly and simply both methods and
techniques of organizing in dysfunctioning communities to challenge the
- Technique - Go to a meeting after eating bowls of
beans deliver a collective fart-in if powers refuse to
listen to the people.
- No one approach has all the answers. We must honor and respect, and
tell our youth of the work by Miss Baker, SNCC, COFO and as well as
Alinsky and IAF.
- Alinsky pointed out one of the greatest organizing maxims - "Never
do anything for anyone, because then it becomes their right." Observed
to be Al-Anon maxim too and therefore probably one of those universal
- Opposed to Alinsky (and his offspring)
- Alinsky can be best understood in context of Chicago and its
history. Turbulent with a flood of ethnicities, racism and
ethnocentrism. Tradition of political bosses. Machiavellian use of race
and ethnicity to create and maintain grassroots divisions, elites and
patronage. In this context Alinsky developed top-down, coalition and
narrowly pragmatic organizing approach which eventually became the dogma
of his Industrial Areas Foundation.
- Strategy to organize coalitions of existing leaders, Back of the
Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC),
- Chicago style from the top down, initially won significant
- Never had a radical vision
- Though Alinsky denounced early efforts, his subsequent efforts
followed the same progression as BYNC, tub-thumping coalition of
leaders, short-term victories, political alliances and payoffs,
ossification and corruption.
- Grass roots organizing with vision and pragmatic approach at the
same time in Chicago had major successes despite Daley Machine,
Republicans, racists, realtors, police, gangs, urban renewal, part of
the Catholic Church and Joe Meegan and his Back of the Yards
Neighborhood Council and Red Baiting. Though not perfect, successes have
lived on over the years
- Has nothing to offer Native American Community Organizers or Native
- Confrontation politics doesn't offer anything for the future. It is
all about winning and not about creating solutions - a next step.
- Can't operate within the system.
- Visionless short-term pragmatism which is often devoid of a moral
foundation and context.
- Counter to decentralized grassroots participatory organizing
approach typical of SNCC.
- Not clear about tools. Alinsky, et al, provide historical data such
as 'who', 'when', 'where', 'what' but neglects the 'how.' Metaphor
used we can see a pyramid but do we know from looking
at it, how it was built.
- Ignores that part of organizing that is creating, maintaining, and
nurturing a process through which peoples come together to share power.
Black Stone Rangers (Alinsky kin) of Chicago, don't seem relevant when
compared to Dr. King's message on non-violent resistance and love your
- The community organizer must study the community and study
organizing and philosophical teachings and apply techniques that will
work in and for that community.
- Nation of Islam.
- Geronimo [Goyathlay] Apache leader set an
example never give up and never give in to (overt and
covert) repression, social disapproval, or cooptation.
- Cesar Chavez used the Industrial Areas Foundation philosophy and
practice, but transformed it to meet the cultural needs and the
character of his Mexican farm workers in organizing his farm workers in
- Ghandi wrote about the inner spirit of people that is in revolt
against the absurd
- Camus talked about it in Rebel"
- "Soul force" and effect of it on Kingian philosophy and rules of
- CORE and rules of direct action
- Organized labour has good techniques as well
- Study Max Weber is he right that a charismatic is
always a necessary factor in revolution.
- Must study Ms. Parks
- And above all, Ms. Baker. It is more than what she taught, it was
she did that caused her to become the mother figure to SNCC.
- The Black Panthers and other grassroots organizations had different,
but strikingly effective, organizing strategies and tools. What works in
a low-income inner city neighborhood may not work in the low-income
Hispanic community next door.
- From Ella Baker. Ella Baker was no ordinary person
- From her I learned that if I want to change the world for the
better, I must get up each morning, step outside my door, and do the
thing that I find there.
- We need an Ella Baker Day
- Dealing with factionalism: Its' emergence may be due to influence of
individual, disruptive pressures from outside or movement may have lost
its way. Strategy to deal with it depends on its cause:
- In healthy context use strategies that will help protagonists save
face spot dialogue to long retreat, long meal, or
- Lost its way: (no answer given)
- Qualities good organizers and leaders require:
- intelligent; ethical, honorable with unpretentious life-style;
- Good communicator, good listener, who can teach without appearing to
- Ideology should be open, sensible and flexible pragmatism
- Has verve and elan.
- Commitment to and believe in real living people
- Has healthy ego which must also be controlled - and even a sense of
- Selflessness and ability to suppress own ego
- Sense of purpose
- Courage, tough hide, thick skull when needed against 'the enemy' as
well as within be willing to say the unpopular thing.
- Two-dimensional thinker one eye on the vision, the
other on day to day needs. Both are absolutely essential and
- So in the new post Jim Crow, we knew we had to have a urban strategy
and, taking the little book by Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, we
put down Kingian Philosophy, and began to organize tenant unions,
welfare mothers, garbage and service workers for unions, and joined the
"war on poverty" and carried on protests and demonstrations.
- Continuing the confrontation strategy, some of us began to "Feel
Good" when Willie Ricks and Stokely screamed "Black Power" at the
moderate Niggers and white American. The felt humiliation from white
america was released.
- Black Power may have worked at expressing rage. As a community
organization tool, it raised a Black Rage that was nation wide in the
city fires of 1967 and 1968 after the execution of Dr. King. But after
the fires were put out, the old freedom movement was co-opted by the
bureaucracy. We should have learned from Booker T that these people are
going to beat you down one way or another.
- But to whites, this exclusion was devastating-because they have
become "Black". John Parrot from U. Fla committed suicide.
- You can't have a class war in America. We learned that from
organizing the poor. They want national conferences in Las Vegas like
any one else.
- Every body talks about the great victory of the passing of the Civil
Rights Bill in 1964. But for us, as a Community Organizer, the Dream of
a Beloved Community died on the convention floor of the 1964 Democratic
Convention. The derisive laughs by the liberal democrats about the
Freedom Democratic Party.
- Confronting the Man with noise is nothing but being an infant
screaming for a pacifier.
- No Regrets. Despite statements to the contrary, the movement
and MFDP did not collapse as a result of the Atlanta City Convention.
Experience post 1964 included: Activities in north Mississippi (Holly
Springs), run by Ivanhoe Donaldson and involving Cleve Sellers and
Stokely Carmichael and Fannie Lou Hamer, Many northern students involved
in agricultural committees and boards of supervisors, continuing voter
registration and get out the vote efforts. High school students put out
newspapers and continued to integrate everything. Some went to SNCC
office in Atlanta and to Selma and Lowndes County Alabama. Record of the
events preserved and stored at USM Center for Oral History and archives
of USM Hattiesburg.
- Sustainability. Every thing we need is inside the community
- Beginning in the late 1960s the community's ability to provide
leadership and funding for itself was retarded by the "501C-3 syndrome".
Poverty Program and foundations moved us from self-sufficiency to
dependency as we abandoned grass roots in favor of grants. We are now
exposed to opportunistic vultures
- Non Profits and Movements are different usually
attract different caliber of people, no life-threatening situations so
less discipline leaving people freer to act out little ego trips',
although sense of urgency with some non-profit work, it lacks the in-
your-face' of the movement that comes from living with people struggling
against racism and poverty
- Community will always be vulnerable if it depends on external
funding must create their own funding base:
- Healthy funding mix to sustain efforts must include contributions
from the community (if it is important, they will find a way), a donor
based built from stakeholders and some government or foundation money.
These last 2 are too often effected by political forces of the time.
Also negative effect on organization and purpose as it shifts focus to
get the money.
- Fear by leaders or staff that community that funds itself won't need
its leaders anymore.
- Sustainability no quick fixes. If the program
matters people will find ways to sustain the most important.
- Comes from creating structured ways to talk with people involved and
to provide ways for planning, writing time lines and assignments,
providing needed training and carrying out the plan.
- An option is converting losses to anger and motivation to mobilize.
- Plan must include fundraising long term and short
term, boards and careful outreach over time.
- Gathering the historic record. Sustains a community, helps renew it
vision. Gathering north MS Oral History has been underway since 1995.
More than 40 taped and transcribed interviews housed at Rust College and
USM Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage.
Good Last Words
It's beginning to sound like dialogue, put a little more love and
respect in it and we might be on to something.
Keep talking. One thing for sure, we're in a hell'e'vue mess and not one
of us, all by ourselves, knows how to get out of it.
Maybe, just maybe, if we keep talking, clarity may come, and this
suggests that we just might need each other.
But the formal rules of community organizing don't mean a thing unless
people are already in revolt.
"Every thing we need is inside the community"
Copyright © 2002-2005
Last Modified: June 3, 2005.