Rethinking community organising

Symbiosis Research Collective

Publisher:  The Ecologist
Date Written:  10/07/2018
Year Published:  2018  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX22930

Building a just, sustainable future will require transcending traditional community organising models. Working through existing institutions within the current system is not good enough.



The origins of community organizing

The modern community organising tradition in the United States can largely be traced back to a single person. Saul Alinsky started out organizing in 1930s Chicago in the Back of the Yard neighborhood, an area known for the horrific working conditions of the Union Stock Yard described in Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle.

Over the next several decades of work, he developed a model called congregation-based or institution-based community organising, which involves professional organisers working through existing faith and community institutions to build power and win campaigns around specific issues in a community.

Alinsky's impact on modern organising is hard to overstate. He founded the Industrial Areas Foundation, a community organising network and training organisation that exists in cities across the US to this day. Mentees of Alinsky's and trainees who passed through the IAF went on to found the other three major community organising networks in the country: DART, Gamaliel, and Faith in Action (formerly PICO) - as well as countless affiliated and non-affiliated local groups.

Alinsky's books Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971) have long been the go-to handbooks for organisers.

The philosophy laid out therein, along with other training materials and exercises Alinsky developed, has influenced generations of community activists and is still taught in many organising trainings today.

Given the breadth of impact and continued precedence of Alinskyist organising, we should critically examine some of its basic tenets and their limitations as we develop a new revolutionary politics of radical democracy and neighborhood organizing.

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