I am an organizer. For twenty years, I worked for Syracuse United Neighbors (SUN) a community group organizing for better neighborhoods–safe and affordable housing, crime-free streets, equitable city services and an end to bank redlining. Presently, I am working for ARISE CNY, a local center for independent living–organizing for the rights of people with disabilities in housing, transportation, healthcare and accessibility.
Until Barack Obama successfully ran for President, not many people had ever heard of this profession. The only thing I can say about organizing is that it saved my life.
Organizing gives me a sense of purpose in life. Organizing gives me the chance to use my talents as a writer and a speaker and a policy wonk. Organizing gives me the ability to use these talents to help people, not waste them on some corporate nonsense. And above all, organizing gives me the opportunity to meet a wide range of wonderful people–people also struggling to make sense of their world and provide a better life for themselves and their families.
The basic blueprint for community organizing was developed by Saul Alinsky who helped organize neighbors in the Back Of The Yards area of Chicago starting in the 1940′s. As the documentary film about Alinsky “The Democratic Promise” states:
A passionate believer that social justice could be achieved through American democracy, Saul Alinsky methodically showed the “have-nots” how to organize their communities, target the power brokers and politically out-maneuver them. The lessons he taught people about the nature of power, imparted dignity to the poor and helped create a backyard revolution in cities across America. His work influenced the struggle for civil rights and the farm workers movement, as well as the very nature of political protest.
Check out the connection that Saul Alinsky had with Syracuse. Although his time here was limited, (about one year) his work here indirectly led to SUN’s establishment in 1977.
My organizing style and philosophy has been directly influenced through SUN’s work with National People’s Action, a national organizing network.
The organization was founded by two Chicagoans: Gale Cincotta and Shel Trapp. N.P.A. is known for two things. 1) The group was responsible for creating and enacting the federal Community Reinvestment Act. 2) The little yellow school buses that cart up to a 1,000 angry protestors to the houses of government bureaucrats and business folks on the Sunday afternoon of its annual conference in Washington, D.C.
Gale taught us to be as well informed on the issue as we could possibly be and Shel taught us to take that knowledge right to the bastards and demand justice! Shel also helped the founders of ADAPT develop their in-your-face style of direct action organizing for disability rights.
Many tomes have been written about organizing–many more since Obama’s election. But if you want the basics–check out Shel Trapp’s “Basics of Organizing” As the sub-title says–you can’t build a machine without the nuts and bolts. You can also check out the numerous posts on organizing that I’ve written since 2004 on this blog: just check out the Community Organizing category for a complete list.