4 Contrasting Organizing Approaches: The “Alinsky Tradition” and Freirian Organizing Approaches
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4 Contrasting Organizing Approaches The “Alinsky Tradition” and Freirian Organizing Approaches MARTY MARTINSON CELINA SU 59 Community organizing efforts across the country and the globe reflect a range of models with different philosophies and strategies for systematically bringing people together to bring about social change. This chapter explores two such models of community organizing—the “Alinsky tradition” and Freirian approaches. Here, we examine the key components of each model, contrast the basic assumptions and strategies embedded in each, and identify the ways in which these models might complement or learn from each other. Community organizing in practice, of course, rarely reflects an ideal model in its pure form, as each effort requires strategies and tactics that are specific to the given situation (Rothman 2008; Sen 2003). Nevertheless, the influence of the ideas and practices of Saul D. Alinsky and Paulo Freire over the past several decades have been significant and thereby warrant more detailed examination. Saul Alinsky (1909–1972) Born into a middle-class Jewish immigrant household in Chicago, Alinsky worked as an early labor organizer with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and emerged in the 1930s as a formidable community organizer when he worked with the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago. There, he built an “organization of organizations” that brought together churches, labor, and service organizations to successfully fight for expanded social services, education, and other community needs in the meatpacking and stockyards section of Chicago. As community organizer Mike Miller (2009) notes, Alinsky “borrowed from the tough approach of the industrial union movement, grafted its strategy and tactics onto the poor, working-class communities that surrounded the great industrial stockyards of the Midwest, and found in local traditions and values the ideas that supported organizing” (10). Alinsky’s efforts succeeded in achieving his goal of using “people power” to counter the “money power” of the Chicago political machine and to gain seats at the decision-making tables (Miller 2009). After the successes of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC), Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation in the 1940s to expand the BYNC model to other parts of the country. Alinsky employed and promoted a conflictoriented and pragmatic style of organizing. As he pronounced, “The first step in community organizing is community disorganization,” achieved by identifying the controversial issues upon which people feel most compelled to act (Alinsky 1971, 116–7). While Alinsky himself said that there is no such thing as a step-by-step “prescription” for organizing, as each effort requires situation-specific tactics, the ideas and strategies he described in his books Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971) suggest that there are general principles to be followed in an Alinsky tradition of community organizing. The Alinsky Tradition of Community Organizing According to Alinsky, the organizer’s role is that of an outsider who agitates, listens to the concerns of the people, and then mobilizes them to act on those concerns. In order to do this, the organizer needs to establish legitimacy in the community—or, as he phrased it, “get a license to operate” (1971, 98). The organizer gets this license by demonstrating “credentials of competency” (101) through prior successes and by agitating within the community so that people will voice their concerns and invite the organizer in to help. In Alinsky’s words, the organizer must “agitate to the point of conflict,” “rub raw the resentments of the people of the community,” and “fan the latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expression” (1971, 116–117). The organizer then helps people move from this generalized discontent to focusing on specific issues around which they can organize campaigns and create change. Overall, the organizer must persuade the people that they can do something about those issues if they mobilize to create a mass-based organization. Again, quoting Alinsky (1971): “As long as you feel powerless and unable to do anything about it, all you have is a bad scene. . . . The organizer makes it clear that organization will give them the power, the ability, the strength, the force to be able to do something about these particular problems. It is then that a bad scene begins to break up into specific issues, because now the people can do something about it. What the organizer does is convert the plight into a problem. . . . The organization is born out of the issues and the issues are born out of the organization” (119–120). The issues to...



Subject Headings

  • Health promotion.
  • Community health services -- Citizen participation.
  • Community organization.
  • Community development.
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