What image comes to mind when you hear the phrase “community organizing”? For years I thought of people much different than me doing hard work that was important to them. Then, a decade ago, when I read about Barack Obama’s engagement with organizing in Dreams of My Father, I thought more romantically about the practice, imagining what it was like for a charismatic young Columbia educated man to move to Chicago and bring together people on the south side of Chicago to stand for meaningful change. But sill community organizing seemed foreign to me. Never did I think I would be called to engage a form of it.
My first brush with “community organizing” was disillusioning. I was part of an effort to ensure that low-income housing remains available in my neighborhood, here in Oak Park. Following one public meeting, several of us gathered around a professional organizer to debrief the meeting. Rather than cultivating a conversation, the organizer chided us on how poorly we pushed our position. He said that we had missed an opportunity to stand strong and instead had been too soft, polite, and dismissive of our own power. Looking back, he was right. But the way he communicated this was not helpful. I had no relationship with this guy who came off so condescending. After that experience, I distanced myself from anything that smacked of organizing. Instead I went about my various endeavors essentially as a lone ranger.
I know a lot of people have been turned off to community organizing based on the model created by Saul Alinsky. It relies on gathering people through our shared anger and then to make forceful shows of strength for the sake of bullying community leaders into giving in to their demands. It identifies the establishment as “the enemy.” This kind of organizing can smack of uncompromising righteousness. And I can’t blame anyone for wanting to stay away!
That said, Alinsky was a genius. He brought people together in a given community to talk to one another about what they really needed. He recognized that the voice of the oppressed and the most vulnerable in society is the most important voice to prioritize. The first community he organized was workers in the 1930s who labored in the Chicago stockyards made infamous by Upton Sinclair. The Polish and Irish communities he organized not only gained better working conditions but their communities significantly shaped the city of Chicago. Because he was called to serving the needs of the oppressed, he began organizing the growing black ghettos of Chicago--to the ire of Richard Daley. And he took his organizing to some of the most troubled neighborhoods in the country, for the sake of lifting up the voices of the most vulnerable.
The basic building blocks of social change, according to Alinsky--and I think he is absolutely right--are 1-on-1 conversations among a matrix of people. However, the implementation of his model often leads to the disrespect of women and of those identified as “the enemy.” For example, one of his “rules” in his Rules for Radicals is “Ridicule is man’s most effective weapon.” I beg to differ. I believe that love is man’s--and woman’s--most effective weapon, as demonstrated by Martin Luther King, Jr. Sure there is confrontation and controversy, but the demands made retain the respect for the worth and dignity of all people.
Community organizing groups often can develop approaches that rely on manipulation, trying to recruit people through their 1-on-1 conversations to achieve a specific goal. That's not what authentic relationship building is about. And when there is a sense of manipulation, rather than authenticity and openness, that gets communicated.
Another one of his basic contentions is that the world changes through two means: organized money and organized people. If we go about our efforts as lone rangers, we don’t have any real power. If we find ways to connect with others and stand together, then when can have real influence in the world. But how we develop this shared influence and how we wield our power is critical.
And so I am interested in honing an approach to organizing that I call “Alinsky with Love.” I’m so glad that others have already done a lot of reflection on just this. Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heitzel articulate so beautifully a “faith-rooted” approach to organizing that begins with moving from the source of our hope and joy rather than relying on our anger. For anger as a motivation is not sustainable. Anger, as important as it is in justice-seeking and justice-making work, cannot be the foundation or core motivation. Instead, the foundation of effective community organizing, I believe, draws on the humanity of who we are and the humanity we encounter in others.
This is what Martin Luther King, Jr., articulated as what kept him going: the faces and stories of people who struggled and suffered under the unjust and crippling forms of human-created oppression. Following Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Adin Ballou, King organized various communities to expose the blatant racism and violent, inhumane practices within our country.
There are great people in Chicago and beyond who are organizing with this approach.
The best articulation I’ve found of what I’m calling “Alinsky with Love” from a Christian perspective is the work of Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heitzel. Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World is a must-read for any spiritual or religious progressive who wants to bring people together to make a difference in the world.
In the coming week, I shall launch a listening campaign in my own community, and I will invite you, wherever you are, to join us in the work of love with courage. So next week’s post will address specifically what I like to call “face-to-face” or “1-to-1” conversations look like, that hold the seeds in strengthening our communities around our most deeply held values and call each of us to articulate where love is beckoning us.