What organizers aren’t

4 October 2008

From a multi-part series: “Benjamin takes several months to get around to responding to all the crazy shit that’s been said about organizing thanks to Sarah Palin.”

One of the reasons that Sarah Palin can claim confusion about what community organizers to is that there’s no agreement, even (especially?) among the many people who call themselves organizers on what organizers do. By my lights, the defenses of “organizing” made since then have obscured more than they have clarified.

I want to write a little bit about the sort of organizing that I do, and that Barack Obama did, which is congregation-based community organizing in the tradition of Saul Alinsky. Whatever 60s-radical patina the word “organizer” has (that appeals to some and repels others), it comes largely from this tradition.

I only know the barest outline of Obama’s organizing career. But I know enough to say with certainty that congregation-based community organizing, as I am learning to practice it, and as Barack Obama did, is not:

Direct Service – Organizers do not provide direct services. So people who put together food banks and homeless shelters, and who build houses with habitat for Humanity – they do good work, but it’s not organizing, because it’s not about power. (Examples of this misunderstanding here.)

“Putting on Events” – A day or two after Palin’s speech, I saw on a comment board a defense of her derisiveness: “I was a Cub Scout master, so I was a community organizer, too, and you only need a high school education to do that.” Unless these Cub Scouts brought the mayor in front of them and asked for a commitment to take action, he wasn’t community organizing.

Advocacy / Activism – Simply being in favor of something does not make you an organizer. In fact, community organizers are, at least in their professional lives, distinguished by not really being in favor of anything except building the power of organized people. Once you’ve built power, then you don’t have to stop at being in favor of things. You can actually get them. Advocacy and activism are about being right. Organizing is about being effective.

Issue / Union Organizing – This is a subtler distinction, maybe, because they are about building power, too, but around a particular set of issues, rather than for its own sake. This probably deserves a discussion of its own, and I don’t feel prepared to start it right now.

What organizers (and direct-action community organizations) do is stuff like this (from a description of my organization):

[The organization] develops its issues through a listening process. Teams are formed in our congregations to meet individually with other members of the congregation to meet and discuss their concerns for the community and congregation. As a result, hundreds of problems surface and are brought to an assembly in the fall. At this assembly, leaders vote on problems they consider to be the most urgent.

We then conduct four months of research on these top-voted problems and take appropriate action to solve them. Members of our congregations then do research about the problems, meet with experts, and look into solutions that have worked well in other places to solve the problems affecting our community.

Members of [the organization]’s member congregations will then meet with public officials to present them with a reasonable, well researched proposal, and invite them to the Direct Action Assembly. At that Assembly, hundreds of people from the member congregations of [the organization] participate in a face-to-face meeting with decision-makers and public officials, who are asked to make specific commitments for action.  [The organization] monitors actions taken after the direct action assembly to assure that the commitments are met. The 2008 [direct action assembly] was attended by almost 1,100 people.

This is what we mean by “direct action”—taking action to hold officials accountable for justice and fairness in our communities—rather than “direct service,” which is what many traditional nonprofits provide. Direct-service organizations deal with helping individuals (mercy); direct-action organizations like ours try to get at the root causes of community problems (justice). The member congregations and clergy of [the organization] take seriously the biblical injunction to “do justice” (Micah 6:8).

For what it’s worth, I think it’s a mistake for organizers to hail Obama as a paragon. As a candidate, he’s talking not about how he built power so people could win what they needed (justice language), but about how he went to “serve people who’d lost their jobs in the steel mills” (charity language). I like Obama, but let’s never forget: He’s a guy who decided he’d rather be in City Hall than fighting it.

Organizers are doing something more important, more basic, and more radical, than what any politician – Obama or Palin – is doing. Organizers build power, because power is the price of admission to a democratic society. Power comes through organized money and organized people. The bulk of people, who don’t have Lehman Brothers-style money to play with, need to organize themselves to get what they want and need.

Let me say at plainly as I know how: If you are building the power of organized people to hold political and economic systems accountable, you are organizing. If you aren’t doing that, you’re not organizing.

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One Response to “What organizers aren’t”


  1. […] I found an old post by beeveedee on Community Activism, what it is and what it isn’t.  He/she quotes from Alinsky on why […]


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