Welcome to ED POL 111:

Introduction to Community Organizing: Learning to Think Like an Organizer

Aaron Schutz

(DRAFT: 11/29/07)

Instructor: Aaron Schutz, Associate Professor and Chair

Department of Educational Policy and Community Studies

Enderis 553, Office hours: M 2:30-4:30 and by appointment

schutz@uwm.edu, Office Phone: 229-4150

Course Objectives:

This course will examine basic techniques for organizing communities. The objectives of the course are:


Saul Alinsky (1946, updated 1969). Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage.

Kimberly Bobo, et. al. (2001). Organizing for Social Change, Third Edition. Seven Locks Press.

Other readings are online in the relevant module.

For those who are interested, I have also put together a list of other resources on this webpage.


This course will be quite an eye-opener for some of you. Over the last few decades, the kind of social action that was more common in the Civil Rights era has subsided, and most community work revolves around “social service” efforts.

In community organizing terms, we increasingly expend most of our resources dealing with the symptoms of problems instead of the causes of problems.

For example, we try to help homeless people get off the street instead of trying to go after the causes that make people homeless in the first place.

In community organizing, there is an old story that helps explain the difference between “social service” and organizing against oppression.


Once upon a time there was a small village on the edge of a river. The people there were good and life in the village was good. One day a villager noticed a baby floating down the river. The villager quickly swam out to save the baby from drowning. The next day this same villager noticed two babies in the river. He called for help, and both babies were rescued from the swift waters. And the following day four babies were seen caught in the turbulent current. And then eight, then more, and still more!

The villagers organized themselves quickly, setting up watchtowers and training teams of swimmers who could resist the swift waters and rescue babies. Rescue squads were soon working 24 hours a day. And each day the number of helpless babies floating down the river increased. The villagers organized themselves efficiently. The rescue squads were now snatching many children each day. While not all the babies, now very numerous, could be saved, the villagers felt they were doing well to save as many as they could each day. Indeed, the village priest blessed them in their good work. And life in the village continued on that basis.

One day, however, someone raised the question, "But where are all these babies coming from? Let’s organize a team to head upstream to find out who’s throwing all of these babies into the river in the first place!"1


The first response is the “social service” one. The desire to rescue the people in the river is totally understandable, and necessary. They are already at risk of drowning, and someone needs to help them.

The second response is the “community organizing” one. While some people need to help those in most need, others need to fight against those who are throwing them into the river in the first place. It is this second response that is so lacking in urban contexts like Milwaukee today.

From a community organizing perspective, there are always reasons why people are in need, there are always identifiable forces that oppress people. And instead of simply trying to help those who have been harmed, we need to generate enough power to allow us to alter those aspects of society that allow this harm to happen in the first place.

To say it another way, we need to learn how to FIGHT.

It is important to note a crucial limitation of this particular story. The way it is framed, the people in the river are basically hopeless victims. In the real world, this is almost never the case. No matter how oppressed, people almost always have the capacity to organize and resist in one way or another. Community organizing and social service, then, should never be about “rescuing” people. Instead, it is about helping people who are oppressed learn skills that can help them resist.

It turns out that there are a set of skills and concepts that can help people interested in resisting oppression. Social action is not simply a random or spontaneous occurrence. Instead, there are particular methods for generating collective power. The aim of this class is to teach a few of these to you.


Before I go on to speak about the first concrete terms that we will learn this semester, I want to make something clear about concepts, in general. Abstractions ALWAYS describe things that do not actually exist in the real world.

For example, I talk about “legal action” below. But there is no such thing as an abstract legal action. Reality is always too complex and messy to be captured by simple labels like this. Legal actions, like everything else, are always “contaminated” by all kinds of things that wouldn’t seem to fit within this category, including political pressure, individual personality, accidents of history, fears of violence, etc.

The terms we will learn this semester are not terms of “science,” they are terms of “art.” They are tools to help you make sense of a complex world that they never completely or accurately describe. So, the aim in this class is to learn these concepts without taking them too seriously, if that makes any sense.

The challenges community organizers face are always pragmatic and real. Just because I tell you, for example, that you should only choose one “target” to pressure for change doesn’t mean that this general rule will always apply in the real world. Just because I tell you that a good tactic involves a lot of people doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when the best thing to do is only involve one or two people. Reality always trumps theory, here.

If you forget this, you will never be able to organize anyone. Generations of community members have been pissed off by organizers who didn’t get this, who kept citing chapter and verse of the concepts they learned in “organizer school.” People like this have failed to understand the complexity and uncertainty, the palpable and ultimately incalculable tragedy of the real world around them.

Good organizers stress again and again that we live in the world the way it is, not the way we would like it to be. We forget this at our and others’ peril.


To understand what coherent, systematic community organizing is, it’s helpful to discuss what it is not. When people talk about social action, they often mix together a range of approaches that are actually somewhat distinct. I discuss three different approaches, here. Of course, one could distinguish more types, or fewer. But these five—legal action, activism, mobilizing, advocacy, and community development—are often referred to by organizers.

Legal Action

Lawyers are often quite important to those engaged in social action. Lawyers can get you out of jail, and they can help you overcome bureaucratic hurdles, among many other services. The problem comes when a social action strategy is designed primarily around a lawsuit.

My own state, Wisconsin, provides a good example. For a number of years, a major lawsuit was working its way through the courts in an effort to force the state to provide more equal funding to impoverished schools. During this time, statewide organizing around education, as I understand it, largely subsided. By the time we essentially lost the lawsuit at the state supreme court, little infrastructure had been created to fight on a political level for education. We had to start over largely from scratch. Lawsuits, then, can actually have a detrimental effect on organizing.


Activists like to “do things.” They get up in the morning and they go down to a main street and hold up some signs against the war. Or they march around in a picket line in front of a school. (Activists love rallies and picket lines.) Activists feel very good about how they are “fighting the power.” But in the absence of a coherent strategy, a coherent target, a process for maintaining a fight over an extended period of time, and an institutional structure for holding people together and mobilizing large numbers, they usually don’t accomplish much. People in power love activists, because they burn off energy for social action without really threatening anyone.

Of course, I am exaggerating a bit, here (as usual). But I’m not exaggerating as much as I wish I was.


Mobilizers often accomplish something. They get pissed off about a particular issue or event, they get a lot of people out who are hopping mad, and they get some change made (for the better or for the worse). Like activists, they feel pretty good about what they have accomplished. But then they go home and go back to watching TV or reading obscure theory or whatever. They’ve accomplished what they wanted to and now they’re done.

The problem with mobilizing is that, as I noted above, winning a single battle is often quite meaningless unless you are in the fight for the long term. Once they go home, the people they were struggling against are free to do whatever they were doing before. In fact, mobilizers can actually make things worse without necessarily meaning to, or they can be used by those who are more sophisticated about what is really going on.

A good example happened in Milwaukee when our county executive pushed through a horrible pension payout rule that was going to cost the county and obscene amount of money. People got up in arms. They banded together to “throw out the bums” (the executive and the county supervisors who had voted for the change), and they were successful in recalling quite a few. The problem was that on many issues the county executive and the supervisors were quite progressive. And very little thought was given to who, exactly, would replace them. What happened is that an extremely conservative executive as well as some conservative supervisors were elected in a majority democratic county. And the groups that “threw out the bums” pretty much dissolved as far as I can tell. So no long-term structure was created through which an independent group of organized citizens might prevent a disaster like this from happening again in the future. All of this energy was, again, burned off and the potential of this anger was lost.

Another example came when the Milwaukee school board was moving towards a “neighborhood schools” plan that would have eliminated parents’ rights to bus their children to the school they preferred. A lot of “mobilizing” happened: parents banded together and a seemingly vibrant parent group emerged. Along with MICAH (the organizing group I work with) they fought the bussing plan. But the parent organization seemed to start dissolving even before the conflict was over. Only MICAH was left to try to hold the district accountable for any agreements it had made.


Advocates speak for others instead of trying to get those affected to speak for themselves. Advocacy often involves relatively privileged professionals speaking for marginalized groups. But advocates also include leaders who illegitimately take it upon themselves to represent the point of view of an entire group. The latter are often chosen by the powerful as “legitimate” representatives of points of view that serve their interests.

Like everything we will talk about this semester, it is frequently difficult to draw clear lines between who is an “advocate” and who “authentically” represents a particular collection of people. In fact, as we will see in the video next week, conflicts about who “counts” as an authentic representative are often central to many battles over important issues.

Advocates usually consult those they are speaking for in one way or another. And they may recruit individuals for testimonials and other purposes. But, in the end, they end up making the final decisions, themselves, about what needs to be done and what should be said.

Advocates often speak for groups like children and the mentally ill who (they assume, usually incorrectly) cannot speak for themselves. More generally, however, the actions of advocates always come with the implication, to one extent or another, that a particular group is not totally equipped to represent itself.

Advocacy is not always a bad thing. If I go to court, I will have a lawyer to represent me (another term for lawyer is “advocate”). Independent groups often do research and advocate for positive changes. And in some cases, I would argue, the general answer to a particular problem is fairly obvious. Finally, as we will see, organizing people, especially impoverished and oppressed people can be an enormously resource intensive process. In a world with limited resources, some kinds of straightforward advocacy may be a necessity.

Advocacy is problematic, however, to the extent that it suppresses or replaces the authentic “voice” and “power” of the people, however difficult it may be to figure out exactly what these look like or mean.

Community Development

In contrast with community organizing, community development efforts focus not on taking power away from the powerful but instead on working through collaborative relationships (often with the powerful) to improve communities.

Community development is not infrequently driven by a “deficit” perspective on impoverished communities. This deficit vision can make these communities seem as if they are mostly made up of problems (often problem people) that need to be “fixed” by outside agencies. These efforts are often led by outside organizations and/or professionals with limited long-term connection to the communities they are trying to assist. Institutions like large hospitals, public school systems, and banks often engage in this kind of “top down” community development. Sadly, this perspective also pervades many groups in impoverished areas that represent themselves as “community-based,” since they are usually run by people whose backgrounds, lifestyle, living situation, and understandings are quite different from those of residents.

On the other hand, an increasingly popular approach is referred to as “asset-based community development,” which tries to emphasize that communities always contain many resources as well as challenges. Asset-based approaches take a “half-full” instead of “mostly-empty” perspective on community institutions and individuals. And they try to mobilize the resources already available in a community for its own improvement. These assets include the skills and leadership of community members and the capacities of existing local institutions (like churches). The asset-based approach, in the ideal, follows a democratic process guided by authentic representatives of the communities or group being served. Because impoverished communities do, in fact, lack the level of resources available to the privileged, however, these efforts are also generally supported by outside agencies and funders.

Community development of both kinds often involves providing direct services to individuals and families like food, mortgage counseling, and medical help. More broadly, community development includes efforts to build new housing, beautify blighted areas, form business incubators, hire more police, and other similar projects.

To one extent or another, however, both types of community development share the conviction that community improvement can be accomplished through an essentially cooperative process. Community development broadly understood, then, tends not to threaten the “powers that be.” The cooperative approach of community developers and the (at least initially) conflictual approach of community organizers is a key distinction between them.

Another important difference between organizing and development is that organizing groups generally don’t actually provide actual services to people. In the past, when groups tried to provide services and fight power, they often found that the first thing that happened was that the powerful threatened their service provision efforts. For example, I heard recently about an organizing group in New York City that fights for improvements in public schools. This group decided that it would try its hand at actually running a couple of public schools itself. Not surprisingly, the next time this group challenged district policies, the district threatened to cut funding from these schools. This put the organizing group in the difficult position of defending what it had already won while it tried to fight for something new. Because strong organizing efforts have often leading community development groups to lose their funding, very little organizing today takes place in traditional community-based organizations.

While community organizers often fight for community development projects (like neighborhood centers, after-school programs, more funding for homeless shelters, more money for low-income mortgages, etc.), then, they generally do not actually run these services themselves.2


Lee Staples, in Roots to Power, argues that community organizing groups can be categorized as having one of four different kinds of constituencies: Turf, Issues, Identity, or the Workplace. (For our purposes, a constituency is the collection of people one is trying to organize for collective power.)


Groups that organize by turf focus on a particular physical area, such as a neighborhood, housing development, electoral jurisdiction, church parish, business area, government zone, trailer park, colonista, or school district. Participation and membership usually are open to anyone living or working in the designated area. (Staples, p. 4)

Turf groups organize around issues that affect the local area. These issues range from fights for a new stop sign in a neighborhood to requests for multi-million dollar commitments of new housing development funds or for “living-wage” laws affecting every business in a city.


Other organizations will be formed to address specific issues, such as health care, education, taxes, housing, foreign policy, discrimination, or the environment. The unique concerns of various subgroups (e.g., disabled people, ethnic populations, or lesbians and gays) will not be central to the [organization’s] goals. Rather a broad array of people will be recruited and activated around their interests relative to the particular issue. (Staples, p. 4)

These groups may be limited to a particular geographic area, but the real focus is on the issue. These issues can be quite broad, and don’t necessarily mean a group has a very narrow focus. For example, a wide range of specific challenges could be addressed within the broader area of welfare reform, or the environment, or police relations. At the same time, some groups are quite narrow, focusing, for example, on reclaiming and defending a specific stream or park.

Communities of Identity

These organizations are created around the interests of particular identifiable groups like “race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, immigrant status, religion, and physical or mental disability.” Recently, immigrant “identity” groups have been quite visible in the United States, with enormous marches across the nation.


The most familiar form of workplace organizing is the union, of course. But there are other forms of workplace organizing that “combine turf, issue, or identity organizing with workplace issues.” A range of “worker centers” around the nation have sprung up to facilitate these kinds of broader relationships, bringing issues like welfare reform and broader immigration issues into the mix along with issues focused on specific employers or employer groups. At the same time, broader coalitions can bring community-based organizing groups together with unions to exert pressure on employers.


Organizations of Organizations

Another difference between community organizing groups is in how they are organized. In this course we will focus on “organizations of organizations.” Organizations of organizations bring existing groups together into a coalition that allows the larger umbrella organization to draw from an already existing membership. In America, today, the most prominent example of organizations of organizations is congregational organizing, which brings together collections of churches (and sometimes other organizations like unions). As we will discuss later, in impoverished urban communities churches are one of the last remaining truly grassroots organizations. In fact, most of the larger nation-wide progressive organizing groups in America are based in congregations. Part of the reason we will focus on congregational groups, however, is because this is the arena that I have the most experience with. National organizations of local congregational organizing groups include The Industrial Areas Foundation (the organization Alinsky founded), The Gamaliel Foundation, and PICO.

This may be surprising to progressives who see religion portrayed in the media as only a conservative force. And, in fact, churches have been quite powerful in support of a conservative agenda in America. However, there are good reasons why progressive groups may also base their groups in churches. Most importantly, instead of recruiting individual by individual, you can recruit entire groups of people who are already in community together and who will remain in community as opportunities for social action wax and wane. Organizations of organizations bring with them a long-term stability that individual based organizing groups sometimes struggle to match.

Of course, this approach also brings problems. Individual organizations may have their own issues and concerns, and these can create conflicts in the larger umbrella organization. Individual organizations also bring a set of values and commitments with them to the table, and the umbrella organization needs to find a way to work across these. Progressive congregational groups will find it difficult, for example, to work on issues related to sexual orientation or abortion for obvious reasons. Conservative groups tend to have less trouble with this (although fractures have been growing recently) because their congregational groups tend to share a common “dogma,” unlike progressive organizations which include congregations from across a fairly wide spectrum of beliefs.

There is also an issue with “who” is being organized when you focus on organizing congregations, because churches are some of the most class-segregated places in America. The fact is that progressive congregational organizations tend to draw together mostly middle-class people, broadly speaking, and tend not to bring in those who are most impoverished, even in highly impoverished neighborhoods. Churches serving extremely poor people in American urban areas tend to focus more on “faith” than on “works,” and tend to be less interested in joining social action groups that will be engaging in conflict in the “dirty” world of the public sphere. More conservative congregational groups seem to have been more successful recently at organizing the working-class, but, again, this may be changing.

(While we will be focusing on approaches to organizing emerging out of a more progressive tradition, the specific techniques and concepts are useful regardless of one’s location on the political spectrum. In any case, let me stress that while my own perspective on a particular issue may often be clear, your political/social orientation doesn’t matter for the purposes of assessment in this class.)

“Door-Knocking” Groups

In contrast, groups that focus on organizing individuals have a lot of work set out for them. The usual method of organizing individuals in poor communities is “door knocking,” where organizers and leaders go door-to-door to try to convince people to join their organization. It’s important to understand that the distinction between individual- and organization-based organizing groups, like most distinctions we will be using, is not that strict, since “door knockers” often try to establish relationships with respected group leaders (pastors, etc.) to give them more credibility in speaking with individuals. Nonetheless, the organizing in this approach is mostly one by one. In contrast with a congregational group, which may only have one or two organizers for a city-wide group, a door knocking group often needs a number of organizers to bring in enough members. The largest group of this kind in the nation is ACORN.

Organizations developed through door knocking are more likely to draw in poorer members of impoverished communities. However, they may not have the stability of a congregational group. This is because the members of the door knocking group are not part of some durable institution like a church that maintains their relationship to the umbrella organizing group. If an individual-based community organizing group goes through a fallow period without a lot of compelling issues to fight about, members may drift away and find other uses for their time. Community organizing groups “live” only through action, and without action they will tend to dissolve.

In fact, Charles Dobson (2003) cites a 1999 study by the League of Women Voters showing that “the main barrier to citizen participation is lack of time” and that “many people viewed community participation as direct competition for time spent with family and friends.” Therefore, even though “46 percent of Americans say they would like to be more involved,” if you lose their attention you may fairly quickly find that it is difficult to get it back (p. 83).


Each module for this course will begin at 4:31pm on Saturday and end at 4:30pm on the following Saturday. You must finish the readings and post by noon on Wednesday, and must reply to other’s posts by the end of the module.


For the beginning of each module, I have written an introduction like this one. These introductions serve essentially as the “lectures” for each module. You will also have readings for almost every module.

These introductions are designed to SUPPLEMENT the reading. In some cases I will give you information that is not included in the readings. At other times, I will reframe what is said in the readings. In no case will I cover everything that is in the readings. To get the full benefit of this course, and to be able to successfully pass the quizzes that precede each posting assignment, you will need to read my introductions and the readings. While you will see some repetition between my introductions and the readings, it will be helpful to sometimes hear important material from multiple perspectives. In some cases, students have found either the reading’s explanation or my explanation the one that really “clicks” with them. Others find they don’t really “get it” until they read both.

In the second half of this course, when we are learning more specific concepts about organizing, my introductions frame out the material that you will need to know for the final exam. However, the exam questions will assume that you have read both my introductions and the chapters in the textbook, and some questions may refer only to material from the text.


Again, the best way to ask a question is to send me an email at schutz@uwm.edu, and I’ll try to answer you quickly. You can also post the question just like you would any other post. Sending me an email is a better way to get a quick response, because I’ll be checking my email more regularly than I will the posting forum, which I’ll look at on a fairly regular schedule.

PLEASE NOTE that unless you request otherwise, I may write a response to your email to the entire class, because other people may be having the same issues. I will try to keep the questioner anonymous, but it is possible someone may recognize you. If you request it, I may still send a response to the entire class, but won’t include your original question.


A couple of caveats before we begin.

First, in this class I will only teach a very small selection of the concepts and skills you would need to be an effective community organizer. In part this is because I am not an organizer myself, in part because our time is simply too limited, and in part because classroom knowledge is never enough to allow someone to actually act effectively in the world.

If you find you are interested in actually becoming an organizer, our Department also offers a Certificate in Community Organizing, in which you will participate in a week-long practical organizing workshop and then complete a semester-long internship with a community organizing group.

Second, community organizing is not like math. The concepts and ideas we learn in this class are only guidelines, suggestions for how to act. The real world is always too complex for a set of abstract ideas to tell you what to do. You are never relieved of the responsibility to think for yourself. In some cases, the concepts learned in this class will end up pointing you in exactly the wrong direction. Even on the final exam, you are free to disagree with the model I present in this class, and as long as you justify your decisions adequately (and show you know what the “class” answer would have been), you will not be penalized. BE CRITICAL!


While I am not an “organizer,” I do have extensive experience working with social action groups in Milwaukee. For the last seven years or so, I have participated on the Education Committee of the major congregational organizing group in Milwaukee: MICAH (Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope). With MICAH I have worked on campaigns to fight efforts to eliminate parents’ rights to bus their children to schools of their choosing, and am currently working on a campaign to improve health care in Milwaukee Schools. One of our recent accomplishments was the inclusion of about four million dollars for new school nurses in the Governor’s budget. (Whether this is successfully funded depends on the actions of the current legislature). We will talk about congregational organizing groups later in this class.

For those who are interested, my webpage is at www.educationaction.org, where you will find a series of posts I have written on community organizing and that go into my work with MICAH in more detail. I have drawn from these posts in developing this class, and together they summarize much of what I am trying to get across, while going into other areas that we don’t have time to engage with this semester.

The Latino Civil Rights Movement

Aaron Schutz

Video: “Taking back the schools” (Chicano!: the history of the Mexican American civil rights movement; pt. 3)

All of you have heard of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and hopefully Malcom X. What most of you don’t know, if my experience with these classes is any guide, is that there were parallel civil rights movements going on in other communities as well. The video we are watching on Wednesday represents one of the events of the Latino civil rights movement. One of the reasons I like using this video is because it introduces people to a complexity of the civil rights movement that is usually ignored. As the movie also points out, it’s important to understand that the first important school desegregation court decision was about Mexican American students, not African Americans.

I’m not an expert on what activists at that time called the Chicano movement, and I’m not going to go into detail about it here.

However, there are a few things that will be helpful for you to know to understand what is happening in the video.


Studies of the civil rights movement have showed that actions that seemed spontaneous to outsiders were actually almost always well planned ahead of time. While it’s true, for example, that Rosa Parks didn’t necessarily plan not to move from her seat at the moment she made this decision, the bus boycott itself was planned for quite a while ahead of time, and drew upon an earlier, much less contentious and much shorter bus boycott that had happened earlier elsewhere in the South. In fact, local groups almost held the boycott some months prior to Parks’ decision. But the woman who didn’t give up her seat that time turned out not to have the spotless “character” they felt they needed. So they waited for the next opportunity.

The point, here, is not that they knew what would happen ahead of time. Of course, they didn’t. In fact, learning to plan for the unpredictable will be a key part of our final exam. But they prepared as well as they could. And they drew upon a wide range of established organizations and experienced leaders to make it happen. The same is true the events described in our video.


The movie we will be watching tells the story of the Chicano student revolt against the public schools in Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s. The documentary is wonderful, but one of its failings is that it can give one the impression that the leaders of this movement just emerged out of thin air. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, Latinos had been working to develop leaders, including student leaders, in a range of different ways for years prior to this. And the key leaders of the LA student revolt emerged from this effort.

In the decade or so prior to the LA revolt, numbers of Mexican American students on college campuses in California were increasing at a fairly fast pace (even if they remained small in comparison with whites). These college students created their own “Chicano” organizations and often became radicalized in the “heady” environment of the 1960s, supported by a small number of sympathetic professors. Among other things, these organizations began to fight for Chicano Studies programs in their universities. Students traveled to areas where Latino radicalism was emerging in the United States, and also attended national, regional, and local meetings where they framed their own vision of what a Chicano struggle might look like. As with all social movements, there was not one single vision that everyone agreed upon. Instead, these were contexts of strong debate and disagreement. At these meetings, women also began to resist the ways in which men tended to dominate the “movement.”

The following is an extended section taken from Chicano, a text written by F. Arturo Rosales to accompany the documentary series our movie is part of:

The genesis of these events [in Los Angeles] is found at Camp Hess Kramer, a 400-acre spread in the rolling hills just east of Malibu. Significantly, here too were the elements that linked previous Mexican American politics and its ideological orientation to Los Angeles Chicanismo. In April, 1966, in an effort to tackle Mexican American youth issues, such as gangs, school dropout rates, access to college education, the Los Angeles County Human Relations Council invited adults in community leadership positions to meet with about 200 teen-agers from various backgrounds in round table discussions.

The next year, many of the same young people attended a follow-up meeting at the camp. As one of them, David Sanchez, began to stand out, adult camp organizers decided to mentor his progress. Since age fifteen, Sanchez had worked as a youth counselor for the Social Training Center at the Episcopalian Church of the Epiphany under Father John Luce. The Episcopal priest introduced Sanchez to one of Los Angeles's busiest political activists of the time, Richard Alatorre, then a staff member of the Los Angeles Community Services Program, an associate of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a Democratic Party activist. Alatorre's connections earned Sanchez a place on the Mayor's Youth Council, which elected him chairman. But according to Sanchez, the Young Republicans did not want a Mexican in that position and tried to oust him. Moctezuma Esparza, however, another council member and an articulate Camp Hess Kramer veteran versed in parliamentary procedure, scuttled their plans.

By his own admission, Sanchez was cleancut and not a cholo (street tough). When he was chairperson, no inkling existed as to the future of this precocious teen-ager, except that he might be headed for a successful college career. But most young Mexican American males growing up in East Los Angeles, regardless of their orientation, eventually butted heads with policemen. At one point, Sanchez had been "slapped around by the police/, an experience that convinced him that police brutality was a community problem. When he tried to bring up the issue to the youth council, it was ignored because the adult politicians did not wish to air the problem.

In Los Angeles, most Mexican boys his age worked in grocery stores, movie theaters and car washes to make spending money. Richard Alatorre, however, obtained for Sanchez a winter job with the Boy's Club while Father Luce used him as youth counselor in the summer under the auspices of Volunteers ln Service to America (VISTA). In the summer of 1967, at age seventeen, Sanchez wrote a successful proposal to the Southern California Council of Churches for funding to start the Piranya coffee house-envisioned as a teen-ager hangout to keep them out of trouble. The grant provided rent and other expenses for one year, enough time for a social revolution to emerge. Sanchez recruited Vickie Castro, Ralph Ramirez and other friends from Camp Hess Kramer, and they formed the Young Citizens for Community Action (YCCA). The Pirayna became the headquarters of the YCCA. This upward bound, clean-cut youthful group became the foundation of one of the most militant, sometimes violence-prone, Chicano organizations in the country: the Brown Berets.

Initially, the group worked within the system, but the social ferment which characterized East Los Angeles during this time radicalized the YCCA, Eleazar Risco, for example, a Cuban acculturated to Mexicans (he spoke Spanish with a Mexican accent), began publishing La Raza, a tabloid specializing in exposing police brutality and educational inadequacies, issues that resonated among East Los Angeles Mexican Americans.

The crudely printed, passionately written, if not too well-researched, La Raza; which Risco regularly left at the Piranya clubhouse, excited the young patrons who read not only about police brutality, but also blistering attacks on the school system. This latter issue was close to a group more interested in college than gang life. In 1967, for example, when Julian Nava, the Harvard-educated historian, successfully ran for the Los Angeles County School Board, members of the YCCA worked enthusiastically on his campaign. He became the first Mexican member to ever serve in that capacity.

But La Raza also appealed to the cholo element of East Los Angeles. Risco and his helpers shaped the tabloid's content to appeal to this marginalized element, chronicling la vida loca, as life in LA's mean streets was known. Police-bashing was particularly attractive to this group. To their delight, the first issue of La Raza led off with a banner headline of EJ Papa newspaper attacking LAPD Chief Thomas Redding, "Jefe Placa, tu abuela en mole (Fuzz Chief, your grandmother in chili sauce). But the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department, noting the critical police stance of persons connected with Father Luce's operation, harassed Piranya club members by enforcing a curfew law for teen-agers. David Sanchez's sister, for instance, was detained because she was in the coffee house after 10 p.m. The group decided to protest. For many YCCA members who picketed the sheriff's sub-station located across the street, it was their first militant act. Not all of the coffee-house members agreed with the gradual radicalization of the group, however, and many walked out as a consequence.

About this time, Carlos Montes, who also played a crucial role in the rise of the Brown Berets, entered the scene. As a student at East Los Angeles City College, he had obtained a job as a teen post director for the Lincoln Heights area. This was a federal program sponsored by Father Luce's center and the CSO that Tony Rios, Cesar Chavez's former boss, ran out of Los Angeles. The YCCA members spent a great deal of time at the Church of the Epiphany, and soon Montes blended in with them. At Father Luce's center, Montes also met the passionate Risco, who produced La Raza in the Church basement.

While it is difficult to trace the idea of the walkouts to anyone group or individual, it is certain that Camp Hess Kramer veterans, some who became Brown Berets, were the core planners. But certainly many activists participated from other groups; some were members of one, or more than one, organization. For example, Vicky Castro, Carlos Munoz and Gil Cardenas from United Mexican American Students (UMAS) from California State College Los Angeles and Moctezuma Esparza from UCLA were crucial in organizing the effort. They devoted numerous hours to discussing educational inadequacies and how they could be changed. Perhaps influenced by the black cultural movement, they all agreed that education of Mexican Americans lacked cultural relevancy. Soon the planners favored the idea of a walkout as a means of dramatizing their issues. They then printed propaganda broadsides designed to persuade students to abandon their classes. Their activities became so overt that weeks before the strike, students, teacher, and administrators knew about the impending walkout. In fact, one month before the incident, teachers openly debated the issue and started taking sides. Meanwhile, Chicano newspapers La Raza, Inside Eastside and The Chicano Student helped fuel the passions of students and boycott supporters by spreading an "awareness" among students and nonstudents alike. A few days before the walkouts, for example, La Raza blasted the shortcomings of the school system and encouraged students to leave their classes.

The decision as to when to begin the protest did not come easily, however. The Brown Berets, who dominated the planning group, apparently wanted immediate action, but some of the university students argued for a more cautious approach, according to Brown Beret, Chris Cebada. Because the Brown Berets counted many high school students in their numbers, they won out and the strike was slated for March. In addition, high school students not in the Brown Berets provided leadership. The editors of La Raza, Eleazar Risco and Joe Razo, enthusiastically supported the effort and, indeed, they were later indicted by a grand jury for their role in a "conspiracy to disrupt public schools."

The college students and Brown Berets must have possessed a precise rationale as to why the walkouts were necessary. But only a few of the 10,000 high school students who participated in the boycott were as politicized; they did not have the same ideological motives for their action. As John Ortiz, one of the college leaders, indicated, it was happening at Berkeley...the media reported strikes occurring throughout the country. So many kids got caught in the climate of protest, they were products of their time. Others felt it was the right thing to do. And others because they wanted to 'party,'

This motivation would be true in other Chicano student activities, whatever their character. But in the same statement, Ortiz explains the outcome for the uncommitted who just followed the crowd:

But one thing is for sure; as the strike intensified and people were getting arrested, the students became politically aware. The events politicized the students. And that's why they walked out of their classes!'


There is much more that I could say, but I think it’s best that at this point you just watch the movie.

As you watch the movie I want you especially to be looking for any patterns you can find that seem to emerge from the events you see. What strategies to the students use and how effective are they? How do the unpredictable events of history affect their efforts? What strategies does their opposition use to thwart their goals?

We will be using this movie as a common context that all of us can refer to as we move forward in the class to discuss different issues around community organizing and social action.

See you Wednesday!


(To be completed AFTER our Wednesday meeting)

Remember to read the first two chapters of Reveille for Radicals. We won’t discuss Alinsky in detail until next week, and I’d like you to get a sense of him yourself before I start giving my own perspective.

Respond to the following questions with a minimum 300 word response. Remember the criteria for effective responses given in my first Introductory Lecture. (In general, be specific about your points, and give evidence to support them.) Make sure you read all of the other students’ responses and comments as well as my own. There will be no required “reply” to the responses this week, but again, remember that there will be extra credit for those who put in extra effort on the forum.

  1. Discuss one key lesson that you learned from the video about how best to engage in community organizing.
  2. Discuss one key event in the movie that you think illuminates something important about community organizing.
  3. Discuss one key quote from the first two chapters of Reveille for Radicals and discuss why it seemed important to you.

Encountering Saul Alinsky, Part I

Aaron Schutz

Reading: Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, Introduction and Chapters 1, 3, 4 & 5

Meeting [Alinsky] for the first time is something of a shock. For this firebrand is a tall, squarely built, heavily bespectacled. conservatively dressed man in his mid-fifties. He looks less like a practicing revolutionary than a bemused professor of philosophy en route between campus engagements. This illusion vanishes when he starts to speak. His gestures and his language are muscular, whether he is using the idiom of metaphysics or the vernacular of a tough street fighter. He is at home with both. (Impressions of Marion K. Sanders in Alinsky, 1965a:38)

[Quotes in this lecture are taken from Reitzes & Reitzes. (1985). The Alinsky Legacy. Another great resource for learning about Alinsky is his biography, Let Them Call Me Rebel, by Sanford Hewitt]

In this module, we meet Saul Alinsky.

It is important to acknowledge that many others have contributed to this tradition, people from all cultures and races and traditions, including union leaders, civil rights activists, abolitionists, and people fighting for the rights of women, people of diverse sexual orientations, people with disabilities, immigrants, and more.

Today, however, most community organizing groups work within what is generally acknowledged to be the Alinsky tradition. More than any other person in America, it was Alinsky who framed out, wrote down and created training programs to perpetuate specific skills for organizing communities to resist oppression.

Like any human being, as we will see, Alinsky had many limitations, both personal and practical. His vision of social action has continued to be developed and in some cases contested by alternative visions during his life and today.

A couple of early stories from Alinsky’s life, long before he became an “organizer” gives a sense of the kind of person he was, and of his ability to be creative and sensitive to the particularities of the different people and cultures he engaged with.

First, there is the story of how he insinuated himself into Al Capone’s Gang:

Upon graduation [from the University of Chicago] he accepted a fellowship in criminology. Al Capone’s gang was the subject of his research and he thought that the best way to study the organization was to establish personal ties with its members. Therefore, he went to the group headquarters, the Lexington Hotel, and hung around the lobby. One day he sat at a table next to some of the gangsters. One of the gang wanted to tell a story, but the others, having often heard the tale, refused to listen. Alinsky interrupted and announced that he’d love to hear the story. The gangster proceeded to tell him the story. “Big Ed had an attentive audience and we became buddies. He introduced me to Frank Nitti, known as the Enforcer, Capone’s number-two man, and actually in de facto control of the mob because of Al’s income-tax rap. Nitti took me under his wing. I called him the Professor and I became his student” (Alinsky, 1972:66).

Second, Alinsky told a story about gaining the confidence of the members of a gang that didn’t trust him.

His chance came when one of the gang leaders was killed in a drugstore hold-up. The boy’s mother was weeping and bemoaned the fact that she didn’t have any pictures of the boy. Alinsky found a photographer, rushed to the morgue, and after touching up the photographs presented a picture of the boy to his mother saying, “Dumas gave this to me just last week.” Word soon spread of the incident and Alinsky was able to make contact and establish ties with the gang.


In the movie we are watching this week, we learn about Alinsky’s first organization, The Back of the Yards Organization.

He noted later that he learned three lessons from the Back of the Yards experience:

  1. To hell with charity. The only thing you gel is what you’re strong enough to get--so you had better organize.
  2. You prove to people they can do something, show them how to have a way of life where they can make their own decisions--and then you get out. They don’t need a father who stands over them.
  3. It comes down to the basic argument of the Federalist papers. Either you believe in people, like James Madison and James Monroe, or you don't, like Alexander Hamilton. I do. (Current Biography, 1968:4)

It is important to understand that the second rule, above, the idea that an organizer should get out as soon as possible, has been strongly modified by more recent organizations in his tradition. One thing Alinsky found was that the organizations he founded often dissolved a few years after he left. What they needed, later organizers decided, was long term support, both from organizers and from training organizations. But we will discuss this in later classes. The important point is that even from the beginning we must be prepared to critically evaluate what Alinsky thought he had learned and meant to teach others.


This module begins with a video about Alinsky’s life as an organizer, and then you will read some chapters from the first book he wrote about organizing, Reveille for Radicals. Together these give a pretty good overview of the man and his vision.

Reveille represents Alinsky’s first effort to put what he had been learning about community organizing on paper. It was written in 1946, and so it contains a lot of information about this long-gone era of American history. A couple of decades later he wrote a second book about organizing, Rules for Radicals, which is somewhat more practically oriented. But it is in Reveille that we get the best picture of Alinsky the person and of his overall vision of what organizing was trying to do. And I think you will be surprised at how contemporary many of his examples seem.

A couple key changes in American society since he wrote Reveille are important to note.

First, the local ethnic and other community organizations he talks about have mostly disappeared in our urban areas today. What are left are the kind of community organizations that he critiques, largely run by professionals with little authentic connection to the communities in which they work.

Urban Americans are much more isolated from their neighbors than they were in Alinsky’s day. And this creates new and significant challenges for organizers, since Alinsky’s model is one where one organizes organizations and not a bunch of isolated individuals. This isolation is one reason why organizers generally focus on churches, today. Churches represent one of the few remaining places where community people come together in organizations.

Second, our world is much more globalized today. Banks and department stores, for example, are no longer owned by local people that you can target and influence, but instead, in many cases, by multinational corporations that are extremely difficult to influence. This creates enormous challenges for organizers who want to change the way these institutions impact on local neighborhoods.

It is crucial to understand from the outset that Alinsky lost in his fights as much or more than he won. When you go up against power that is greater than you, there is no assurance of victory. What we are learning in this class are some tools for contesting power. But in many cases we are not creative enough, or power is too great for us to succeed in any specific effort.


Alinsky tended to play down the importance of his academic background. He noted at one point, for example, that he

was astounded by all the horse manure they were handing out about poverty and slums, playing down the suffering and deprivation, glossing over the misery and despair. I mean, Christ, I’d lived in a slum. I could see through all their complacent academic jargon to the realities” (Alinsky, 1972:62).

It is crucial to understand, however, that this stance of his was something of a smoke-screen. In fact, he was also very much a social theorist for his entire life. He trained with the best academic social theorists of his time who were at that time at the University of Chicago where he studied as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student for a number of years before he started working as an organizer. He came to organizing with essentially a doctoral level understanding of the most sophisticated urban sociology and anthropology of his time, and was well-trained in the research skills in these areas.

Alinsky drew on this academic background throughout his career. His research skills were crucial assets to him when he entered a new community and needed to understand its culture and dynamics in order to understand it. He essentially entered new communities as an anthropologist, seeking to understand the core cultural practices of the key groups in the area he was trying to organize as well as the tensions between them.

Despite his frequent attacks on “book learning” and “academics”, then, he was one of the best-trained and most accomplished “academics” in the country himself in his particular area.

I say all this to emphasize, as Alinsky would have, I think, that while book learning and perspectives drawn from academic social science are very limited and will not, by themselves, empower you to act, they are crucial tools for helping you understand the subtleties of urban oppression in the world today.

Alinsky tends to downplay his academic background for a number of reasons. First, his “down with the people” attitude gave him credibility when he was working with those who had much less academic training than he did. Second, he was right to attack academics for trying to make sense of the social world isolated away from their ivory towers.


In this course we will learn about the model Alinsky developed and that has been evolved by those working in the tradition he established. What I call the “neo-Alinsky” approach that predominates in community organizing groups, today, however, is only one of an enormous range of possible approaches to generating power for those who are currently marginalized in our society. These include national groups whose individual members aren’t really that involved in policy or lobbying, like the Sierra Club, legal action groups run by lawyers like the ACLU, lobbying or research groups without any definable constituency like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and more. Each of these puts pressure on the powerful in different ways and has very different relationships to the wider public and to “constituencies” that are constituted in very different ways.

The model we are discussing is designed to organize groups and individuals on the scale of a small city or collection of neighborhoods. The larger an organization gets, the more difficult it is to engage with key participants as individuals.


A key distinction in organizing that Alinsky draws on in this book is between “leaders” and “organizers.” In a simple sense, organizers are the people who develop the structure of an organization and train leaders in the skills necessary to act successfully. In contrast, leaders are the ones who actually make the decisions in a community. As Staples notes, within the model we are studying:

the two roles are very different. By definition, a leader directs and guides a group by being out in front of followers. No matter how democratic the process, leaders go before their backers, showing the way for action. They lead by pulling their constituency along through example and inspiration. . . .

It’s the organizer’s job to get other people to take the lead, continuously locating “new blood” to invigorate and democratize the organization. Potential recruits need to be identified, relationships established, and recruitment undertaken. . . . Someone needs to cultivate emerging leaders, providing encouragement, support, and training as needed. Organizers help facilitate the development of shared goals for change along with strategies and action plans to accomplish them. . . . They help expand the members’ knowledge and skills, bolster their self-confidence, and deepen their commitment to collective action. As organizer Moshe ben Asher often says, “Coaching is the essence of the organizer role.” (pp. 27-28)

Sometimes people take on both roles, but this is only possible for “insider” organizers that come from the community. As I note next week, Alinsky focuses on “outsider” organizers who come into a community from outside. But such leader/organizers need to “strike some balance between these two distinct functions . . . . Otherwise, the group will suffer from inadequate leadership or . . . a lack of organizational development—unless other members take up the slack.”

Alinsky didn’t always make this distinction as clearly as organizers generally do today. For example, in the video it has him speaking to a TV reporter about resistance to him coming into town. Today, an organizer would generally not go in front of the cameras like this. However, notice in the Kodak example in the video how the people who speak to the crowd or to the meeting of stockholders are always local leaders and not Alinsky. In general, it’s the leader’s job to lead and it’s the organizer’s job to stay in the background and help leaders do their jobs.


  1. Alinsky argues that problems in poor areas “stem from sources far removed from the [local] community.” Discuss one example of a problem that has it’s source far beyond the place where it is felt most strongly and why this may make it challenging for people in local communities to fight to change this problem.
  2. Alinsky says that the “real” leader in a particular context is often not the person that the establishment “says” is the real leader. Describe a situation you have been in where the “real” leader is not the person who one would think. If you can’t think of one, ask someone you know for an example to discuss.
  3. Quote a statement in the reading FROM CHAPTER 6 that you found especially insightful or interesting and discuss why. You might agree or disagree with the statement.

As usual, your post should be 300 words long and should be posted by Wednesday morning at 9am. Then your reply to another student’s post (or collection of other posts) should be 200 words long.

Now you should watch the video on Alinsky and read Chapters 3-6 of Reveille before completing the quiz and then posting on the discussion forum for this week.

Encountering Saul Alinsky II

Aaron Schutz

Reading: Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, Chapters 6, 7 & 8.

The video and chapters we read last week give a good sense of the kind of person Alinsky was. This week’s video and chapters get more specific about how Alinsky thought neighborhoods should be organized. Most of what he says is pretty straightforward. I am going to focus in on a couple of key points about Alinsky’s model, here.


I wrote about this issue in our initial introduction, but it’s worth revisiting in the context of Alinsky’s particular approach.

People new to organizing often think that you need to start an organization from scratch, reaching out to individuals one by one. And there are some organizing groups that do this. But most don’t. Why?

Well, first, it’s a lot of work. If you have to connect with each individual one by one, you are going to have to knock on a lot of doors, and experience a lot of rejection. You will need a lot of people who will be able to do this work on a continuing basis.

Second, once you make connection with like-minded individuals, you will need to work hard to keep them together. These are people who didn’t initially belong to an organization, and if you don’t work hard to keep them engaged, you will soon find them floating away, drawn by other commitments and opportunities.

It’s no accident that only one national organization, ACORN, that uses this approach.

While Alinsky did do some work to develop entirely new groups in the different places he organized, creating new block clubs, etc., most of his energies focused on organizing already existing organizations.

When you organize organizations, you are pulling together collections of people that already see themselves as established groups. They are already in relationship with each other and already have some structure and set of common interests or tasks that hold them together. And they already have leaders.

When you organize organizations, you don’t need to stay in contact with every individual member. Instead, you need to connect with what Alinsky calls their “native leaders.” And this is a much smaller group of people.

It’s crucial to remember, therefore, that what Alinsky did, and what he was recommending others do, was organize organizations. When a new community organizing group held a founding convention, the delegates were not individuals, but organizational leaders. And the members of Alinsky-based organizations are not individuals but instead organizations themselves.


One thing that Alinsky failed to focus on in his early years was the set of values on which a particular organization was based. His aim was to give power to people without power, and he wasn’t inclined to stress the importance of moral vision.

He later discovered how dangerous it was to focus on power without also emphasizing how to ethically use this power. In fact, the first organization he created, the Back of the Yards Organization discussed in last week’s video, used its power in later years to try to keep black people out of its neighborhood. Alinsky ultimately recognized this problem, and even talked about going back to the Back of the Yards to organize against the organization that he had initially created.


Reveille for Radicals is not really a “handbook” for organizing. He meant his later book, Rules for Radicals to serve that purpose better. Instead, Reveille is meant to teach people how to “think” like an organizer. It addresses the kids of issues one is likely to encounter, not what to do about them more specifically.

One of the problems with the reception of Reveille, from Alinsky’s perspective, was that people tried to use the book like a handbook. They’d get into trouble, and then they’d look through the pages of the book for examples of things they could do. The problem with this is that each of the stories Alinsky gives are unique. The strategies he used (because most of the “organizers” mentioned in the book are him) worked because they fit the unique contexts he was working in. You can’t just transplant a creative idea from one context and use it in another one.

What Alinsky was trying to show was that organizers have to be creative. They have to know their contexts well (like anthropologists) so that they are able to come up with the right actions as they encounter specific challenges. The point he was making was that there really isn’t any handbook that can tell you what to do in every circumstance.


Today few if any organizers would try some of the things that Alinsky did, like lying to participants, or leading actions himself. And today, organizers try to stay in the shadows, letting local leaders take public positions. You would never have one of today’s organizers on the news, like Alinsky was (in the video) when he got involved in the Kodak effort in Rochester.

Organizers today see themselves as facilitators. It’s their job to help local leaders achieve their goals. We’ll be using this distinction between “leaders” and “organizers” as we go forward.

Also, Alinsky’s vision of organizers was of people who come in from “outside” a community. Today, this is sometimes true. But it is also the case that local leaders become organizers. Further, many organizations informed by Alinsky’s ideas do not follow his models as closely as do some others. In these organizations, the distinction between “organizer” and “leader” is often much more blurred, if this distinction holds any meaning whatsoever in the first place.

In this class, we try to follow Alinsky’s lead. We will be learning how to “think” like an organizer. I won’t really be trying to teach you many practical tools of “how” to be an organizer in specific, like working with the media, public speaking, working with coalitions of organizations, fundraising, and the like. Some of these things you can learn better in other classes. Some I’m not really equipped to teach well. And many of them you would really need to teach in an internship or outside training program offered by expert organizing groups. Those who are interested in going farther should consider completing the Certificate in Community Organizing offered through our Department.


Alinsky’s model tended to assume that organizers will be recruited from outside instead of developing organizers who are native members of particular communities. In fact, as Staples notes, there are a range of plusses and minuses with both insider and outsider organizers.

One benefit of outsider organizers is that they come without any historical “baggage.” They don’t have established enemies or patrons, and they don’t have a reputation that will influence how they are received. Interestingly, in the civil rights movement in the South, groups invariably chose leaders for new organizing efforts who were relatively new to a community for just these reasons. For example, this is a key reason Martin Luther King was chosen in Montgomery to lead the bus boycott over a more established minister.

Outsider organizers also don’t have many preconceptions about what a community can or can’t do, or what kinds of relationships or alliances might be created. They can bring a fresh perspective on community change and structure.

On the other hand, outside organizers can never play the mixed role of “leader/organizer” as we discussed last week. They don’t have the internal credibility as a member of the community, and could easily be accused of being an “outside agitator.” We saw in both the Alinsky video and in the video about students in LA how this accusation is often used by powerful people who resist change.

Further, an insider organizer “experiences the constituency’s opposition at a gut level, not as an intellectual enterprise. She or he has a personal stake in the group’s issues, which generates passion, energy, and commitment to the organizing effort.” And this “mutual self-interest is easily understood by other group members, often making the insider’s motives and goals more clear.” At best, they come with a sophisticated understanding of the history of a particular area or group, and don’t have to spend as much time getting the lay of the land.

But this personal relationship to a particular group or area also comes with many pitfalls. Insider organizers can forget that it’s their job to empower others, and push their own agendas, with destructive effects on the organization. And they can confuse the roles of leader and organizer, leaving one or another side under-developed, and potentially restricting opportunities for new leaders to emerge. We all know of organizations that become “one person shops” based on the personality of a single individual.


  1. Pick one of the stories about organizing tactics that Alinsky discusses in pages 135-153, at the end of chapter 8, and discuss why you think the tactic was or was not effective. You might also talk about a different context and how the tactic would need to change to work in that context.
  2. In Chapter 7, Alinsky gives some examples of how he appealed to people’s self-interest. State what you think the term “self-interest” meant to Alinsky and discuss a couple of examples of things that you think would be in your “self-interest” and that might motivate you or others to participate in social action.
  3. Quote a statement from the reading that seemed particularly insightful and discuss why.

Remember: It’s best to answer each question separately, and in each answer I expect a discussion that includes specific reasons why you take a specific stance and evidence that your perspective makes sense. 300 words is a minimum, but as you can see from some of our prior week responses, in general it takes more than that to complete an effective response.

Gender and Organizing

Introductory Lecture

I am going to keep this week’s lecture pretty brief, because I think the article for this week is pretty self-explanatory.

In general, the article argues that there is a “women’s” approach to organizing community that contrasts in a number of important ways with what they call Alinsky’s “male” model of organizing.

It’s important to understand that when they are talking about a “women’s” model, they are NOT arguing that ALL women use one model and ALL men use another model. Instead they have developed what they call an “ideal type.” An ideal type takes the complexity of real life and abstracts out of it certain generalizations that don’t really exist anywhere in the real world.

One way of thinking about an ideal type is to think about how tall different people are. In any classroom, there will be relatively tall people and relatively short people. If you rank people from short to tall, you will find (usually) that more women are on the shorter end, and more men are on the taller end. But (and this is important) you will often find women who are taller than many of the men, and vice versa.

For our purposes, the idea that women are short and men are tall is an “ideal type.” It is a pattern abstracted out of a real phenomenon, a real tendency, but it also exaggerates the reality of this distinction in order to arrive at a clear statement about men and women.

The same can be said of the two models of organizing in the article we are reading. Just as with height, you will find many women who are more likely to use the Alinsky model, and many men who are more likely to use the “women’s” model.

To prevent any confusion, in class and online I will often use the term “private” to describe what Stall and Stoecker describe as the “women’s” model and the term “public” to describe the Alinsky model. This allows us to gain what is important about the insights without getting confused. We’ll talk more on Wednesday about why “private” and “public” are relevant terms to use, here.

See everyone Wednesday!


Read the article “Community Organizing or Organizing Community”

Answer Quiz

By noon on 10/10 write at least 300 words in answer to the following three questions.

I had meant to ask people to write this sooner, but I didn’t do it on the schedule, and so I’m sticking with the usual time. However, I’d appreciate it if people would post by Tuesday, if possible, so I can see what people are thinking about.

  1. Quote a specific statement in the article that you think is either fair or unfair to Alinsky as you understand him from our readings over the past two weeks. Explain why you believe this statement is fair or unfair.

  1. The middle part of the article discusses three different ways that a “female” approach to organizing differs from “male” approaches (which we are generally referring to as “private” and “public” approaches) in sections titled: Public and Private, Power, and Leadership. Choose ONE of these three sections and give a brief example from your own experience or from the media that seems to illuminate some aspect of the “female” or “private” side of the section. Most of your examples will probably not be about “community organizing.” Experiences in your family, at school, at work, that seem to relate to the issue are fine. Explain what your example can help us understand about the authors’ argument.

  1. Discuss one way that you think that the Male and Female (or, in our terms, “Public” and “Private”) approaches to organizing might support each other. You should refer to the last section of the article where the authors discuss their own opinions about how these approaches might work together. You might quote and then agree or disagree with one of the authors’ statements in this last section, or you might contribute your own idea.

As usual, by 4:30 on 10/12 write a 200 word response to a post written by another student or to a more general issue you see in the comments this week. You may also comment on our discussion in class.

Community Organizing After Alinsky

Aaron Schutz

READING: Mark Warren, Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy, Chapter 2.

In the years since Alinsky’s death, the organizing groups that draw from his ideas have developed in a number of different ways. The reading for this week, from Mark Warren’s Dry Bones Rattling, gives a good sense of what these changes look like. I’m going to summarize a few of these, here.


In the 1930s and 1940s in America there were still strong local ethnic and other organizations in poor areas of cities. Today, this is much less true. In our inner cities, neighbors often hardly know each other and often hide behind barred windows and doors. Even when neighborhoods mix middle-class and poor residents, they often live in fundamentally different networks—the middle-class people hanging out with people like them and vice versa.

The “community” organizations that remain look much like the ones Alinsky attacked in Reville. They are generally run by middle- and upper-class people who have little real connection to the community. And they are almost completely focused on providing services instead of developing collective power in the neighborhood.

Because mobility is so high, and because true neighborhood organizations have largely dissolved, the “native leaders” that Alinsky talked about are much harder to find.

The one exception is religion. There are many churches left in poor areas, and these churches represent one of the few authentic community organizations that still exist.

As I noted before, creating organizations by bringing many individuals together is an enormously time and resource intensive task. You need a large number of organizers and volunteers to go “door knocking” to find people willing to join. It’s much easier to develop an maintain an organization if you can organize groups of people who are already organized.

This is one reason why most of the major community organizing groups today are congregation-based.

The second reason to turn to churches is that they come to organizing with a strong set of values. I say values and not “faith” because unlike more right-wing social-action oriented religious groups, progressive groups are invariably collections of quite diverse religious traditions. It would be impossible for progressive organizations like these to agree on a strict dogma. Instead, they focus on their shared set of values—a belief that all people deserve respect and economic security, for example—to orient their actions. These values reduce the possibility that they will end up pursuing goals that seem unethical as Alinsky’s Back of the Yards Organization did when, in its later years, it started working to keep black people out of their neighborhood.

Later on, when we discuss how these organizations “cut an issue” to work on, we will discuss the challenges that dependence on these values without agreement on the specifics of a “dogma” bring to these organizations. At this point, it’s important to understand that these organizations are somewhat limited in what they can work on if they want to avoid splintering apart. For example, organizations made up by a diverse set of relatively “progressive” religious groups can’t really take a stand on abortion, since there will be broad disagreement about the right answer. On the other hand, they don’t have much trouble agreeing that having 40 kids in a classroom is too much, or that poor kids deserve decent dental care.


Because the diversity of local neighborhood groups prevalent in the early part of the 20th century has been lost, and because churches do not necessarily train people to be strong leaders with the capacity to confront power, it has become increasingly important to community organizing groups to develop new leaders.

As we noted in our discussion of the Stall and Stoecker article, it is not entirely fair to say that Alinsky did not work on developing local leaders. But it is true that the need for new leaders is even more critical today. As you will see in the Warren article, this has also led to a focus on encouraging a wider range of people to become leaders. Many of the major leaders of the organizations in Texas that Warren talks about are now women, a radical change from Alinsky’s days.


Churches are organized for worship, they are not necessarily organized to foster collective action. As a result, much of the leadership training that the post-Alinsky organizers focus on involved helping people form networks of relationships with their fellow congregation members. In Alinsky’s day, a leader was someone who brought an organization or established group with him. Today, organizers often describe a leader is someone who has established “relationships” with a large number of people and who can draw on these relationships to turn people out for actions and to identify good prospects for new leaders.

We will learn more about how they teach new leaders to develop these relationships in the module where we learn how to do “one-on-one” interviews.


  1. Discuss what you see as one key strength or weakness of using churches for community organizing.
  2. Discuss one difference between Alinsky’s vision of organizing and the vision of organizing developed in Texas by Ernie Cortes as described by Warren.
  3. Quote a key statement in the reading that you found especially insightful and discuss why you think it was important.

1 www.rmcumc.org/MI/Justice/Parable_of_the_River.doc

2 For those interested in a more sophisticated discussion of relationships between community organizing and development, see this paper by Randy Stoecker.