Community Organizing Discussion  — 2003

Compiled by Claire O'Conner in response to a SNCC Listserve inquiry regarding Community Organizing

Late July and early August, 2003. Compiled September, 2004

Discussion participants
Heather Baum
Heather Booth
Gloria Clark
Walter Dean
Hunter Gray
Steven McNichols
       Sheila Michaels
Stephanie L. Moore
Lee Morton
Curtis Muhammad
Diane Nash (quoted in The Children)
Monica Williams

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)

  1. A Manual for Direct Action, by Martin Oppenheimer & George Lakey, Quadrangle Books, 180 North Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL with forward by Bayard Rustin.

  2. The Bush Dyslexicon by Mark Miller.

  3. Charles Silberman's Crisis in Black and White describes how Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation addressed this problem

  4. Freedom in the Family: a Mother and Daughter memoir of the Civil Rights Movement, by Patricia and Tananarive Due

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. The Children, David Halberstram

  8. A book Julian Bond should write.

  9. Organizing for Social Change (by Bobo, Kendall and Max) from Midwest Academy

  10. Combined Community Organizing Pieces

  11. Gathering Power by Paul Osterman.

  12. 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.)

  13. 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-

  14. 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,

  15. Wellstone Action

  16. 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,

  17. 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".

  18. 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)

  1. DEFINTION: Community Organizing

    1. Getting people together for action toward mutual great and good.

    2. Healthy Effective social justice organizing has to be fundamentally grassroots in nature;

    3. Has to build enduring and increasing grassroots power;

    4. Has to generate vigorous grassroots leadership;

    5. 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 grassroots.

    6. That's what makes any "Save the World" endeavor

    7. — labor, civil rights, community organization, whatever — strong, sharp, vital. And, to its enemies, dangerous.

    8. Best movements include political action

    9. 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 work

  2. 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.

  3. Discussion about organizing should be seen as a call to organize NOW. As things get tough we have to INTENSIFY THE WORK

  4. 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

  5. Organizers have to be replenished and celebrated.

  6. Don't take yourself to seriously. There is a tomorrow, and shit happens day after day.

  7. 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.

  8. Teaching organizing: Need to teach down to earth, practical. Use personal stories and case histories. Heavy ideological stuff is not useful.

    1. Can draw on history of class struggle of other movements — IWW, Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers.

    2. Includes the concrete, day to day work of bringing people, issues and structure together. Seems mundane but takes time, ingenuity and skills.

  9. It is a life time commitment for some.

  10. Progressive movers and shakers have become bogged down. Need to focus on here and now before it is too late.

  11. A plan offered for organizing

    1. Gathering the people's history

    2. Grass roots has to invite participation of organizer (some times spontaneously, sometimes "wrangled".

    3. Issues: Are not always apparent, (example economic relationships or realistic. Some are attainable now. Some in the future. Some are unrealistic.

    4. 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.

    5. Overall goals; long-range specific; short range specific.

    6. Project credibility based on grass roots — leaders must be those people who are primary beneficiaries of the project.

    7. 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.

    8. Direct action: First Amendment and related rights, picketing, sit- ins, boycotts, mass marches; need for careful organization and tactical nonviolence.

    9. 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.

    10. 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.

    11. 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!

    12. 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 GOSSIP!

    13. Coalitions [tend to be long term] and alliances [often shorter term] are sometimes beneficial and sometimes not.

    14. 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 factionalism.

  12. Saul Alinsky and his work

    1. Pro Alinsky

      1. Thousands of black organizers admired Alinsky and his work in Woodlawn area of Chicago,

      2. His gift was communicating clearly and simply both methods and techniques of organizing in dysfunctioning communities to challenge the 'power structure.'

      3. Technique - Go to a meeting after eating bowls of beans — deliver a collective fart-in if powers refuse to listen to the people.

      4. 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.

      5. 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 truths.

    2. Opposed to Alinsky (and his offspring)

      1. 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.

      2. Strategy to organize coalitions of existing leaders, Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC),

      3. Chicago style from the top down, initially won significant [victories]

      4. Never had a radical vision

      5. 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.

      6. 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

      7. Has nothing to offer Native American Community Organizers or Native people.

      8. Confrontation politics doesn't offer anything for the future. It is all about winning and not about creating solutions - a next step.

      9. Can't operate within the system.

      10. Visionless short-term pragmatism which is often devoid of a moral foundation and context.

      11. Counter to decentralized grassroots participatory organizing approach typical of SNCC.

      12. 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.

      13. 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 enemy.

  13. The community organizer must study the community and study organizing and philosophical teachings and apply techniques that will work in and for that community.

    1. Nation of Islam.

    2. Geronimo [Goyathlay] Apache leader set an example — never give up and never give in to (overt and covert) repression, social disapproval, or cooptation.

    3. 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 California.

    4. Ghandi wrote about the inner spirit of people that is in revolt against the absurd

    5. Camus talked about it in Rebel"

    6. "Soul force" and effect of it on Kingian philosophy and rules of action

    7. CORE and rules of direct action

    8. Organized labour has good techniques as well

    9. Study Max Weber — is he right that a charismatic is always a necessary factor in revolution.

    10. Must study Ms. Parks

    11. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. From Ella Baker. Ella Baker was no ordinary person

    1. 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.

    2. We need an Ella Baker Day

  16. 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:

    1. In healthy context use strategies that will help protagonists save face — spot dialogue to long retreat, long meal, or arbitration.

    2. Lost its way: (no answer given)

  17. Qualities good organizers and leaders require:

    1. intelligent; ethical, honorable with unpretentious life-style;

    2. Good communicator, good listener, who can teach without appearing to do so,

    3. Ideology should be open, sensible and flexible pragmatism

    4. Has verve and elan.

    5. Commitment to and believe in real living people

    6. Has healthy ego which must also be controlled - and even a sense of Destiny.

    7. Selflessness and ability to suppress own ego

    8. Sense of purpose

    9. Courage, tough hide, thick skull when needed against 'the enemy' as well as within — be willing to say the unpopular thing.

    10. Two-dimensional thinker — one eye on the vision, the other on day to day needs. Both are absolutely essential and interconnected.

  18. Regrets

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

    4. But to whites, this exclusion was devastating-because they have become "Black". John Parrot from U. Fla committed suicide.

    5. 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.

    6. 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.

    7. Confronting the Man with noise is nothing but being an infant screaming for a pacifier.

  19. 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.

  20. Sustainability. Every thing we need is inside the community

    1. 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

    2. 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

    3. Community will always be vulnerable if it depends on external funding — must create their own funding base:

      1. 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.

      2. Fear by leaders or staff that community that funds itself won't need its leaders anymore.

    4. Sustainability — no quick fixes. If the program matters people will find ways to sustain the most important.

      1. 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.

      2. An option is converting losses to anger and motivation to mobilize.

      3. Plan must include fundraising — long term and short term, boards and careful outreach over time.

    5. 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"

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