Two Kinds of Community Organizing

by John McKnight on July 7, 2010

Tagged as: Gifts / Hospitality / Association / Safety

Advocacy Organizing and Neighborhood Organizing

While President Obama was campaigning, he made the words “community organizing” famous as he told about his youthful days as an “organizer” in Chicago.  That experience in a low-income neighborhood taught him more, he said, than anything he had ever done.

I was one of those involved in his training.  He was a thoughtful, wise and balanced young man.  What he learned was a kind of neighborhood organizing that was developed by Saul Alinsky.  The method is described in Alinsky’s classic book, Reveille for Radicals.

Basically, the method involved an organizer like Barack getting to know what issues local people and their leaders were most concerned about — failure to pick up garbage, a bad school, job discrimination, things like that.  Based on that knowledge, the organizer would bring neighbors together in a new “power organization” that could deal with the issues.

The way the organizer taught local people to deal with the issues was by confronting the leaders of the responsible institutions, i.e. the garbage collection department, the school principal, the discriminating employer.  These confrontations were typically demonstrations, picketing, invading offices and holding large meetings to put the institutional leader on the spot.  The strength of the organization was measured by the power of the group to force their adversary to meet their demands.

I did some of this kind of organizing as a young man.  It is a very important method of dealing with all kinds of injustice.  It pulls people together around their mutual anger.  However, it has some important limits.

First, it’s hard for people to keep focused on anger over the long term.  The hot coals inevitably die down and the organization can become nearly dormant until a new issue emerges.

A second limit is more important. Usually unrecognized is the fact that these “power organizations” are basically consumer groups.  Their focus on outside institutional adversaries has as the goal the delivering of good and fair consumer services — regular garbage pickup, effective teaching, good employment.  In each case, the neighborhood is not a producer.

Instead, the group is an advocate pressuring an institution to produce what the neighbors want to consume.

This method is ineffective, however, if the neighborhood issue to be dealt with has to be produced by the neighbors themselves and not an outside institution. This is often the case when the “issue” is improving health, safety and the environment — and raising children.  For these and some other issues, there is no one to march on, no place to protest.  Instead, neighbors are necessarily the creators and the problem solvers.  If we don’t “produce” a solution or a social invention, there is no one who can do it for us.  We can’t buy good health, a safe clean neighborhood or a village to raise our children.  Instead we must use our gifts, skills and capacities to create the answers to these concerns.

The basic method for neighbors creating these answers is to connect themselves in new ways.  It is these ways that we describe in our book, The Abundant Community.  They are the ways of the other kind of organizing that is not based on anger.

Perhaps it would clarify the two ways of community organizing if we called the Alinsky way “advocacy organizing.”  The second ways is actually “neighborhood organizing” — often creating a neighborhood in a place where people lived in houses, isolated from each other.

At best, we should be locally organized to do both things — advocate and build a neighborhood.  The two ways are not in conflict because each addresses a different goal.  They are like two different tools.  Each is useful but neither can do the job of the other.  And the job of a neighborhood organizer is to connect rather than confront, to create rather than demonstrate.

Are you a neighborhood organizer?  Tell us the story of your work in the neighborhood.

Would you like to be a neighborhood organizer?  Let us know and we will put you in touch with people who are pioneering a neighborhood way.

~ John ~