So you’ve been inspired by the Obama campaign (and abhorred by the Republican slanders) and you have decided you want to become a community organizer. What better job in the world can there be than helping others change their world? However, most people don’t really have an idea about what organizing is and how they could fit into that world. I’ve been an organizer for almost 15 years, but I still look for good writing about my chosen profession.
So, if you’re a bit of a bookworm like me and you want to figure out this organizing game, what should you look for? If you dig around a bit, you will probably run across Saul Alinsky and his two books, “Reveille for Radicals” and “Rules For Radicals.”
Saul Alinsky is the father of community organizing, he created the Back of The Yards neighborhood power group in Chicago in the 1930’s, created a network of community organizations that still exists today (the Industrial Areas Foundation) and tried to develop the methods to teach others how to organize. His two books, “Reveille for Radicals” and “Rules For Radicals” are considered the ur texts of organizing.
I also do not recommend that you read them right away. Reveille was written in 1946 and the more popular Rules was written in 1971. The books are important to read and once you start to get involved with an organization, both are inspiring and insightful. But the books are dated and do not give the kind of introduction to organizing I would recommend.
Instead, go with:
This is a book that I tend to re-read every year. It was given to me by one of my leaders, the term organizers use for the resident/members of an organization. The story follows a woman who banded together with her friends and family in a low-income Berkeley, CA neighborhood to fight the increasing crime and violence that the crack epidemic brought to their street. The book details their victories, but doesn’t shy away from describing their troubles either. A strong community gardening program employing area children during summer vacations resulted from their work, however the author was forced to move from the neighborhood and crime continued to cause problems for families. The book gives great insight into the motivations of the people an organizer will work with and the problems facing organizations that rely entirely on volunteers.
2) Younger people should run, not walk, to pick up a copy of Calling All Radicals by Gabriel Thompson. This book is a flat-out recruitment pitch for organizing and has a lot of detail on the author’s experiences starting out as a young organizer in New York City. I was inspired by two facets of this book.. The first is Thompson’s belief in using the history of people’s movements to inspire people to action, as well as create bonds between groups that may otherwise view each other with suspicion.
The other is the cogent discussion on the role of political education in organizing. Since Alinsky started the Back of The Yards group, professional organizers have been trained to step out of the spotlight and help the members of the organization dedtermine the path they want to travel. But the very first community organizing group, started by Alinsky to help uplift the residents oppressed by their employers at the adjacent Chicago stockyards in the 1930’s and 1940’s, became a reactionary force in the 1960’s, fighting to keep blacks out of their neighborhood. Thompson argues in favor of groups educating their members about the poliical and ideological basis for their struggles.
3) At its heart, Community Organizing is about creating organizations of citizens whose collective power will allow them to be heard by politicians over the din of lobbyists and other influential folks. The best book about power and its effects on neighborhoods and everyday people is
Going Public by Mike Gecan.
Mike is the lead organizer for E. Brooklyn Congregations, a community group affiliated with Saul Alinsky’s original organizing network, the Industrial Areas Foundation. This group took a neighborhood that one visiting politician once called a “preview of the end of civilization” and transformed the area with the construction of over 1,000 affordable single family homes–all owner-occupied. This didn’t happen overnight, and the troubles aren’t all fixed, but Gecan gives a great introduction to the hard, person-by-person struggle to put together a powerful organization. By the way, check out the section dealing with Rudy Guliani and how he sought out the help of E. Brooklyn Congregations to help quell the tensions and potential for violence after the many instances of police brutality in N.Y.C.
Rudy does know what a community organizer does–they pulled his ass out of the fire.