So You Want To Be A Community Organizer

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:

1) Altars In The Street by Melody Chavis.

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.

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3 thoughts on “So You Want To Be A Community Organizer

  1. Harris Callahan

    (Saul Alinsky ) In a Sea of Foreclosures, an Island of Calm

    By JIM DWYER NYTimes
    Published: September 26, 2008

    …The congregations that banded together to build the Nehemiah houses — the South Bronx Churches and the East Brooklyn Congregations — did not align themselves with either political party, but employed tactics developed by Saul Alinsky, who is thought to have been the father of modern community organizing.

    They made specific, persistent demands; at times, they were criticized for following the playbook of Mr. Alinsky, who described himself as a radical.

    In New York, at least, Nehemiah gave the city 3,900 homes in neighborhoods that had been mostly rubble. The people paid their bills. They changed the city. Radical indeed.

    Read rest of NYTimes below.
    ===

    Just about eight years ago, Patricia Worthy signed the papers for the first mortgage of her life, getting the customary dizzy spell as she looked at the line that listed, all in one place, 360 monthly payments of principal and interest.

    She signed. So did 690 other families in her development, in the New Lots section of Brooklyn. All of them were buying homes for the first time; all were people of modest or moderate means. They were moving into a neighborhood that had been a forsaken stretch of abandoned buildings.

    Those 691 families all took on their responsibilities at the dawn of a new era of debt, one that was not only deregulated but also seemingly deranged. Since then, across the country, the rate of defaults has soared.

    Not, however, in Ms. Worthy’s development.

    “In my area, we have not had one foreclosure,” Ms. Worthy said this week.

    Her home was one of the 3,900 built under the Nehemiah housing program, which began nearly three decades ago, when acres of the Bronx and Brooklyn had fallen to ruin. Land was vacant. A group of churches and community organizers, and a developer named I. D. Robbins, came up with the idea to mass-produce single-family homes on these lots and sell them at low prices. They named their plan after a prophet of the Old Testament who rebuilt Jerusalem.

    In the 27 years since the program started, fewer than 10 of the 3,900 households have defaulted on mortgages, a rate that is close to zero, said Michael Gecan, a senior organizer with the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, one of the forces behind the program.

    “We demanded down payments,” Mr. Gecan said, “and we resisted government attempts to have us waive down payments. Over the last six or eight years people kept suggesting various programs with zero down. We kept saying, ‘That’s ridiculous — that’s how you get into mass foreclosures.’ ”

    Through the 1990s and until the last few months, the banner of universal homeownership was flown high by Democrats and Republicans. Behind this virtuous cause was a jungle of counterintuitive arrangements, like loans with no down payment or income verification. These practices make sense only under a system in which the most valuable aspect of the loan papers themselves is that they can be bundled together and sold without any scrutiny of their actual worth. The result was a system of agreed-upon hallucinations.

    With the collapse of these delusions, the Democrats have pointed to the uncaging of the financial industry by its Republican champions, like Phil Gramm, the former senator from Texas who was chairman of the Senate banking committee. Others have said that the problem arose because of the social piety of Democrats pushing for loans to uncreditworthy minority applicants.

    Yet the people in the Nehemiah program, nearly all members of minority groups, have a superb record of meeting their obligations. Mr. Gecan says that’s because from the very beginning of the program, the developers insisted that the buyers have a real financial stake in the houses. Another factor, Ms. Worthy said, was that the Nehemiah buyers, who were helped by two church groups, looked at what they were getting into. They were not vulnerable to the predatory lending scams that accelerated over the last decade.

    “People were educated on what they could afford,” Ms. Worthy said. “We weren’t asked to sign blank documents. We weren’t asked to say that we made $5,000 a month as opposed to the $1,000 that we might have actually made.”

    The rules Nehemiah applied to its buyers were precisely those that most lenders used to do business until recent years. In fact, that orthodoxy forced the Nehemiah developers to turn to alternative sources for capital. The financing came from a revolving fund set up by a coalition of churches and the Community Preservation Corporation, and with mortgages guaranteed by the State of New York. The city also provided an interest-free loan.

    The congregations that banded together to build the Nehemiah houses — the South Bronx Churches and the East Brooklyn Congregations — did not align themselves with either political party, but employed tactics developed by Saul Alinsky, who is thought to have been the father of modern community organizing. They made specific, persistent demands; at times, they were criticized for following the playbook of Mr. Alinsky, who described himself as a radical.

    In New York, at least, Nehemiah gave the city 3,900 homes in neighborhoods that had been mostly rubble. The people paid their bills. They changed the city. Radical indeed.===

    Like

  2. Resident Planning Geek

    I should specify that, aside from the staples you mentioned, thanks for suggesting one I’ve not been introduced to: Altars In The Street by Melody Chavis.

    Like

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