I went door-knocking for the first time in the Mott Haven projects in the South Bronx. My college class had visited the dingy basement office of ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), in 2004 the largest community organizing outfit in the country. We were split into pairs, given clipboards, and sent into the hallways to talk with residents about their lives. Usually we were inundated before we could stammer our introductions. A Puerto Rican woman, still in her pajamas, revealed the black mold crawling down her bathroom wall. An elderly Black woman denounced the boiler that was constantly broken.
When we returned to ACORN, the staff organizer dumped our carefully-collected sheets into a filing cabinet. He said thanks, but ACORN already knew about those problems. When the ACORN management decided it was time to run a campaign, staffers would select an issue and reach out to our contacts. I was unsettled: hadn’t we promised the tenants they would hear from us?
Years later I would door-knock the same projects with Occupy the Bronx. Hoping to rally tenants against the “vertical sweeps” conducted by the NYPD. We aimed to be more radical than the nonprofits, but we used the same playbook: a flyer, a clipboard, and a spiel at the door. We targeted decision-makers and put officials on the “hot seat” at hearings. Residents familiar with the playbook often questioned us when we departed from it, asking: “Why didn’t we collaborate with a sympathetic city councilman?”, and “Why didn’t we write a grant and start some programs?” Members of Unity and Struggle have encountered a standard type of “community organizing” that most activists and community leaders use as their model.
A new generation of organizers is now looking to this model for answers. As socialist politics gain in popularity, militants across different groups and ideological trends are beginning to see “base building” as a key element of a socialist strategy. After many years of spontaneous protest, many of us share an awareness for the need of durable organizations that can involve millions of people in social transformation. To pull this off, we often draw on the playbook already used by unions and nonprofits, much like I did in Occupy the Bronx. Their tools aren’t perfect, but we can learn from them.
The danger with this approach is that practice is never separate from theory. What we do is always conditioned by the way we frame problems, and our assumptions about how organizing creates change. Practice, in turn, makes possible some new relationships and ideas while foreclosing others. We can’t simply tack on socialist politics to the existing community organizing playbook. Instead, we have to apply our critique of mainstream politics to the methods we employ. Only then, will we be able to derive new tools that can serve revolutionary goals, far different from the goals the playbook was designed for decades ago.
An Orderly Revolution
What’s known as “community organizing” in the U.S. is deeply influenced by Saul Alinsky. Alinsky built his organizing model based on his experience in Chicago’s working class slums.1 As a student at the University of Chicago in the mid-1930s, Alinsky worked with sociologists building neighborhood groups to solve juvenile delinquency. He inherited from these academics a dose of philosophical pragmatism, and the idea that crime and poverty–symptoms of capitalism–were caused by “social disorganization,” which could be cured by reintegrating broken communities into the broader social structure of civic life. In 1939, Alinsky combined these assumptions with trade union methods during a unionization drive in Chicago’s packinghouses. That year he founded the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) out of 109 pre-existing groups, working to support unionization and fight for community concerns alongside it. In 1940, he established the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as an incubator for similar groups across the country.
Alinsky received national attention for the first time in 1946 when he published Reveille for Radicals. Alinksy organized the book around stories from IAF organizers. He advised readers to form citywide “People’s Organizations” made of groups such as churches, businesses, athletic clubs and trade unions. These “People’s Organizations” would then pressure local elites for the implementation of “whatever program the people themselves decide”–the issues weren’t as important as participation, though Alinsky mentioned fights for “a high standard of food, housing and health,” credit unions, or programs against crime and delinquency. Motivated by self-interest, members would soon come to depend on one another.
Alinsky expected this process to transcend the division of society into “interest cliques,” and revive American democracy as the “dynamic expression of a living, participating, informed, active, and free people” of the sort imagined by Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson. It would be “an orderly revolution” based on “participation, interest, and action.”
For decades the IAF survived without state funding, bankrolled by individual capitalist donors connected to the University of Chicago. Their support allowed the IAF to expand to California in 1947, where organizers devised a method of recruiting individual households in Mexican-American neighborhoods using one-on-one meetings.2 In the 1960s the IAF expanded eastward in the wake of the black movement, forming organizations in Chicago and Rochester after Civil Rights protests, and redirecting the upsurges into campaigns against urban renewal and job segregation.
The IAF won praise from Fortune writer Charles Silberman in 1964, whose book Crisis in Black and White lauded Alinsky’s work as a constructive solution to black rioting and alienation. Success followed: Alinsky appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, republished Reveille in 1969, and finished Rules for Radicals in 1972 before dying of a heart attack. His last book is his most famous, but it offers little beyond Reveille. Again interwoven with stories, Alinsky offers maxims on how organizers should gain community trust and select tactics. He insists campaigns must make issues concrete by targeting specific individuals, personalizing attacks on them, and polarizing public opinion. And he insists that, to win significant reforms, “Have-Nots” must win over the middle class to take advantage of their numbers and clout as stockholders.
As Alinsky’s ideas gained a wider audience in the 1970s, critiques emerged from different parts of the left. Many of them are reprised today because they remain relevant. Alinsky praises participatory democracy, but his model runs on the leadership of permanent paid staff. His pragmatic focus on immediate interests leaves broader questions of social transformation unaddressed. His insistence that demands be “winnable” and that strategies “never go outside the experience of your people” keeps campaigns trapped in the bounds of official politics and ideology. His focus on the public sphere fails to organize families or reproduction.3 His emphasis on community-wide organizations fails to address class and race hierarchies, and produces only fragile colorblind unity–a defect revealed when his own BYNC fought to keep their neighborhood segregated in the late 1960s.4
We can deepen these critiques with the help of communist theory. Alinsky drew many of his methods from the CIO and other mid-century trade unions, which were themselves growing incorporated into capitalist reproduction, focusing ever more narrowly on the one-sided interests of their members as labor-power (fighting for wages or benefits) while concealing deeper issues of alienation. Alinsky blasted unions for their narrowness, but his model accomplished much the same thing on the terrain of reproduction. It reduced communities to their one-sided interests as citizens (fighting for services or legislation) while concealing the class relations that deny us control over our homes, cities and living conditions. Instead of transcending interest groups, it carved proletarian life into a jumble of competing issues and constituencies.
Alinsky’s model both reflected and contributed to the trend of real subsumption: the reorganization of the labor process and daily life according to the requirements of capitalist accumulation.5 Alinsky’s “People’s Organizations” expressed real antagonisms that workers felt as capitalism transformed neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, cities. But instead of grasping these conflicts as different expressions of the class relation, Alinsky viewed them as distinct constituencies whose interests could be represented organizationally. And he redirected them into demands that fit within capitalist forms.
No Instant Solutions
Hundreds of groups appeared in the 1970s based on Alinsky’s model. Now the federal government took over from individual capitalist funders, supporting the expansion through Great Society initiatives such as the VISTA program. As the autonomist journal Zerowork put it in 1977, “the plan was to unionize the ghetto” and channel mass anger into manageable forms. At the same time, many activists embraced community organizing as a pragmatic alternative to the New Left youth movements, which, as the decade wore on, seemed increasingly naive. “This isn’t a gathering for those who want instant solutions,” a community organizer told the Washington Post in 1982, “this is a bunch of people in it for the long haul.”6
Several large networks formed at this time now make up the Alinskyist infrastructure in the U.S. The IAF grew increasingly congregation-based after the 1970s, and expanded into the South and East coast. The Gamaliel Network, founded in Chicago in 1968, expanded across the Midwest working to address the urban-suburban divide and reform tax and transit policy. It gained notoriety for employing Barack Obama as an organizer in the mid-1980s. The People’s Institute for Community Organization (PICO, now Faith In Action) was founded in Oakland in 1972, and expanded across California and the Western states fighting for health care access. National People’s Action, founded in Chicago in 1972, brought together church, union and senior groups to oppose red-lining, and helped write and pass federal legislation such as the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act. Direct Action Research and Training (DART), a smaller network, was also founded in Miami in 1977.
By far the most successful network was ACORN, founded in 1970 as a spin-off from the National Welfare Right Organization.7 ACORN concentrated on low-income communities of color, organizing around housing and living wage issues in the South, Midwest and East Coast. But it was rocked in the early 2000s by embezzlement scandals and right wing exposé videos, until lawmakers cut contracts with ACORN affiliates and the network collapsed. Former ACORN groups continue to operate under new names, such as the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, New York Communities for Change, and the Center for Popular Democracy, which staged protests against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination.
The expansion of the organizing networks also produced more than 20 training institutes by the early 1990s. Each training institute churned out a new layer of professional organizers. In 1972, former Students for a Democratic Society members Heather Booth and Steve Max formed the most successful training institute: The Midwest Academy. The Academy’s Organizing for Social Change manual synthesized a set of tools from Alinskyism. Organizers “cut” problems into issues that have winnable solutions, and “target” individuals with “the power to give the group what it wants.” They “power map” allies and enemies, and wage campaigns of escalating pressure to win reforms. Wins “build power” by growing the group’s membership, and by obliging politicians to consult with the organization in the future. The Academy claims to have trained over 25,000 activists in workshops, and graduated over 8,500 organizers from its course in Chicago.
When federal funds dried up in the 1980s, the organizing networks had to lean on foundation grants, churches or unions to survive. Most saw their membership plateau: in 1994 the average organization had four staff and a budget of $120,000-160,000.8 As national and international forces increasingly shaped local issues, many groups felt compelled to collaborate with the Democratic Party so they could influence state and federal policy–and supplement their budgets win government contracts. PICO began lobbying at the state level in 1994 and federally in 2002. ACORN formed the Working Families Party in 1998, cross-endorsing progressive Democrats in several states. The Midwest Academy launched CitizenAction to support Democrats in the 1996 midterms, endured some scandals, and then merged with National People’s Action in 2016 to form People’s Action.
Despite their spread, the new community organizing networks could not compete with the grassroots regiments of the New Right. They saw their constituencies scattered by deindustrialization, their targets leap in geographic scale, and their potential wins shrink with the retreat from Keynesianism. They compensated for Alinsky’s missing political vision by aligning with the Democratic Party, only to see it move rightward. Yet there were few alternatives. Veterans of the New Communist Movement increasingly retreated into community organizations, union bureaucracies, and the Jesse Jackson campaigns as the mass vanguards of the era receded. By the 1990s, community organizing had become the default mode of activism across the country.
The New Normal
Local struggles in the Bush and Clinton eras continued to generate new groups, and sometimes, committed militants seeking revolutionary politics. In most cities these assumed the nonprofit form, and militants were tracked into paid staff positions. This resulted in a steady proliferation of community organizations: Asian American organizations, Latinx workers centers, Queer People of Color groups, and so on. The new groups were younger and less white than the older networks, a reflection of the struggles that birthed them. While networks like Gamaliel endured internal battles with their white old guard, independent institutes emerged to train organizers of color. These new institutes included organizations such as the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) in Oakland in 1980, and the Institute to Eliminate Poverty and Genocide (now Project South) in Atlanta in 1986.
Rinku Sen, a CTWO organizer, profiled the “90s renaissance” in her book Stir It Up. The new groups used standard organizing methods, but borrowed radical language from campuses or older socialist staff members. In place of Alinsky’s “participatory democracy,” they might name classism or imperialism in a list of systemic problems, and point to “transformative change” as their ultimate goal. Lacking federal support, they remained local but formed national coalitions around specific themes: Jobs With Justice (1987), INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (2000), the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (2001), the U.S. Social Forum (2007)9, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (2007) and the Right to the City Alliance (2007).
National trends were reflected in miniature in the Bay Area. There, protests against the Gulf War and California’s 1996 affirmative action ban spurred young revolutionaries to form STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement), a cadre group that lasted until 2002.10 STORM is over-hyped in right wing conspiracy theories, but it was influential because its members became paid staff, executive directors, and board members of prominent nonprofits: People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL), the Ella Baker Center, and Causa Justa / Just Cause. These groups established the Bay Area as a community organizing hub alongside cities like Atlanta and New York. SOUL also gained national influence through its trainings in Oakland. Its manuals such as Youth Organizing for Community Power build on the Midwest Academy model, adding elements of popular education and nonviolent direct action.
Yet by the 2000s, the community organizing model had begun to hit limits. INCITE! published The Revolution Will Not Be Funded in 2007, popularizing a critique of the “nonprofit-industrial complex. In their view, nonprofits depend on grant funding, and so limit themselves to the campaigns and constituencies funders will support. These debates became concrete in 2009, when a rebellion erupted in Oakland after the police murder of Oscar Grant, and captured the attention of activists nationwide. The Bay Area nonprofits soon formed a coalition calling for peaceful rallies, and fielded marshals to clear youth from the streets. Leaked emails revealed nonprofits were in conversation with the city government to “begin ‘innoculating’ our bases” against the danger of outside agitators and rioting.11 Much like the IAF forty years earlier, nonprofits in the Bay proved more equipped to contain mass action than to enable it.
When national mass movements re-emerged after 2011 they revealed the same limits exposed in the Bay Area. During Occupy and Black Lives Matter, community organizations found it difficult to engage with large-scale spontaneous participation, and strategies which evolved collectively beyond the planning of single groups or coalitions. Their model became outmoded as people experienced mass protest, and began grappling with national and world-historic issues, not just local ones. Today it is commonplace for young activists to critique nonprofits for co-opting resistance. Paid organizers feel it too: a 2013 survey showed a widespread desire among organizing staff for more political clarity and long-term thinking, across the organizational “turf” of issues and constituencies.11 The movements of the past decade have produced forms of consciousness and activity that demand, in turn, new organizational forms.
Reinventing Our Tools
To create an organizing model adequate for our moment, we don’t have to throw everything out and start from scratch or “go back” to earlier methods. Instead, we have to reflect on the implications of the previous decades for the methods we use today.
We can already see, in outline, the methods we need. Community organizing focuses on immediate interests and winnable demands, leaving broader social transformation unaddressed. An alternative would make clear the goal of revolution, and assess our accomplishments in relation to it. Community organizing imagines social divisions can be overcome by representing the interests of constituencies and winning concessions for them. An alternative would explain how interests are shaped by class relations, and work to break some interests apart (whiteness, cross-class populism) while bringing others into being (black autonomy, women and queer autonomy, class independence).
Beyond these general features, we have to reinvent community organizing tool-by-tool.
Community organizing “builds power” by growing the membership of one’s own organization, and gaining influence in the state through collaborative relationships with politicians and legal reforms. It views organizing as a battle of “people versus money,” in which the ability to “turn out” numbers provides a quantitative balance to capital. This approach tends to limit demands and tactics to what is acceptable to bourgeois politicians, stopping at electoral challenges. It views members of as passive objects, and spontaneous mass action as a liability.
An alternative would understand class power as the growing solidarity and combativeness among the proletariat, and fragmentation among the capitalists. For example, rather than measuring power by the numbers “turned out” by organizers, it might assess the kinds of activity and consciousness developed through a given campaign. Instead of seeking friendly relationships with politicians, it might measure power by our ability to force elites to make bad choices, leaving them weaker and more divided than before.
Alinsky recruited existing community groups wholesale, while later models recruited individually through one-on-ones. The first approach tends accommodate the internal contradictions of already-existing groups, such as the conservatism or cross-class character of many church congregations. The second approach is labor intensive, and often relies on paid staff to sustain a regimen of calls, meetings, follow-ups and plug-ins.
An alternative could not magically solve these challenges, but would approach them differently using worker’s inquiry and class composition. These tools would help identify the most advanced layers in a given community, and develop forms of organization that build on the consciousness and activity they already display. For example, inquiries might suggest that already-existing networks among mothers could provide recruitment and communication in a tenant union, while students or retired workers could fulfill some of the tasks normally done by paid staff.
|“Cutting” the Issue|
Traditional community organizing “cuts problems into issues” by framing a complex problem in terms of a clear solution with moral stakes, and identifying a clear set of allies and targets. This approach often appeals to allies using common sense capitalist ideology, and poses “winnable” solutions that accomodate the political and economic system rather that destabilizing it.
An alternative would frame issues in ways that push on internal contradictions within mass consciousness, and seek to undermine the common sense ideas that hold together ruling class blocs. For example, rather than appealing to the respectability of someone killed by police, a campaign might appeal to the hatred of cops latent among black, latinx and poor white youth. (A later installment of this series will deal with issues of framing and narrative in more detail.)
A common tool, “power maps” help organizers identify allies and targets while developing campaigns. They chart actors horizontally based on their agreement or opposition to an issue, and vertically based on their degree of power. Organizers then pick a primary target who will concede a demand, and secondary targets who can pressure the primary target as an individual. This method tends to highlight ways to access relationships with different ruling class actors, and can often leave targets as legitimate and powerful as beforehand.
An alternative would visually represent the contradictions within ruling class blocs, and highlight ways to amplify them while increasing working class unity. For example, organizers might “power map” institutions rather than individuals, representing each as a circle divided down the middle. They could then arrange the individuals within each institution on either side, according to their position on some internal division. Finally, they could strategize how to polarize that division, forcing the institution to act in their favor while leaving it internally fractured.
The most common community organizing strategy tool is the five-column Midwest Academy chart. First, organizers identify campaign goals. Second, they weigh the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities the organization will face in the campaign. Third, they list the campaign’s constituencies, allies and opponents. Fourth, they narrow these to a list of primary and secondary targets (stepping aside to power map). Finally, they brainstorm a list of escalating tactics to apply pressure to their targets. This approach can impose linear thinking on organizers, suggesting a controlled series of escalations and a static audience of targets and allies. It can also accept issues or actors as they currently exist, without strategizing how to redefine them in the course of a campaign.
An alternative chart would work to develop flexible battle plans while transforming the limits of political possibility. For example, it might identify a goal that is currently considered impossible by existing political actors, and identify ways to make them possible given the balance of forces. It would not only identify a field of allies and opponents, but also help organizers envision how to transform, unify or split these actors in the course of a campaign. It might build in flexibility by including prompts to predict the likely reactions of actors to different tactics. And to facilitate collective rather than expert strategizing, it might include prompts to help organizers identify the information their group would need in order to develop a complete strategy.
These are only a few suggestions, brainstormed by members of Unity and Struggle based on our work alongside comrades in tenant unions, solidarity networks, and anti-police campaigns. As more militants engage in practical organizing across the country, we will be able to rework our inherited organizing models in practice, and invent the new tools we need.
- For an overview of Alinsky’s life and work, see Sanford Horwitt (1992) Let Them Call Me Rebel, Vintage Press; and and David Walls (2015) Community Organizing, Polity Press. For a collection of primary texts related to the IAF, see Schultz and Miller (2015) People Power: The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky, Vanderbilt University Press.
- The CSO would go on to train Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, and incubate the National Farm Worker’s Association. For an account of how community organizing methods served the early NFWA better than standard trade union methods, see Marshall Ganz (2009) Why David Sometimes Wins, Oxford University Press.
- See Stall and Stoecker (1998) “Community Organizing or Organizing Community?: Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment” in Gender & Society, Vol 12, issue 6, pg 729–756.
- See Gary Delgado (1997) Beyond the Politics of Place: New Directions in Community Organizing in the 1990s, Applied Research Center.
- For Marx’s sketch of formal vs. real subsumption, see the unpublished sixth chapter of Capital; For different theories built on his categories, see Endnotes’ “The History of Subsumption.”
- Bill Peterson. (January 11, 1982). Activists of the ’60s Meet, With Optimism, Under a New Banner. The Washington Post.
- For an overview of ACORN and the other post-1970s Alinskyite groups, see David Walls (2015) Community Organizing, Polity Press; and Heidi Swarts (2008) Organizing Urban America: Secular and Faith-Based Progressive Movements. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- For an overview of ACORN and the other post-1970s Alinskyite groups, see David Walls (2015) Community Organizing, Polity Press; and Heidi Swarts (2008) Organizing Urban America: Secular and Faith-Based Progressive Movements. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- For an account of the first U.S. Social Forum hosted by Project South, see Project South, The First U.S. Social Forum: Report from the anchor organization.
- STORM’s summation document from their disbanding is archived online, ironically by a right-wing critic.
- Revolutionary left groups produced lots of writing on the 2009 Oscar Grant rebellion. See Advance the Struggle (2009) “Justice For Oscar Grant: A Lost Opportunity?”; Advance the Struggle (2010) “Nonprofits Defend the State – Need More Proof?!”; Raider Nation Collective (2010) “Lessons Never Learned: Nonprofits and the State, Redux”; And Anonymous (2012) Unfinished Acts: January Rebellions.
- See the final report from the Ear to the Ground project: Ntanya Lee and Steve Williams (2013) More Than We Imagined: Activists’ assessments on the moment & the way forward. Lee and Williams later helped found LeftRoots, a cadre formation primarily composed of staff organizers in NGOs.
This essay was written by the author with edits from Unity & Struggle and Ctek.