People Power: The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinksy

People Power: The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinksy

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Saul Alinsky, according to Time Magazine in 1970, was a "prophet of power to the people," someone who "has possibly antagonized more people . . . than any other living American." People Power introduces the major organizers who adopted and modified Alinsky's vision across the United States:

--Fred Ross, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the Community Service Organization and National Farm Workers Association
--Nicholas von Hoffman and the Woodlawn Organization
--Tom Gaudette and the Northwest Community Organization
--Ed Chambers, Richard Harmon, and the Industrial Areas Foundation
--Shel Trapp, Gale Cincotta, and National People's Action
--Heather Booth, Midwest Academy, and Citizen Action
--Wade Rathke and ACORN

Weaving classic texts with interviews and their own context-setting commentaries, the editors of People Power provide the first comprehensive history of Alinsky-based organizing in the tumultuous period from 1955 to 1980, when the key organizing groups in the United States took form. Many of these selections--previously available only on untranscribed audiotapes or in difficult-to-read mimeograph or Xerox formats--appear in print here for the first time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826520418
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 03/15/2015
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 7.20(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Aaron Schutz, Professor, Department of Educational Policy and Community Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is the author of two previous books on social action.

Mike Miller was a leader in the pre-1960s' birth of the student movement at UC Berkeley, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary, and director of an Alinsky community organizing project. He has been an organizer for more than fifty years.

Read an Excerpt

People Power

The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky

By Aaron Schutz, Mike Miller

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2015 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-2041-8


Editors' Introduction


In the pages that follow, we have assembled a range of articles, documents, organizational papers, and interviews about the tradition of community organizing that began with Saul Alinsky and the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). From its origins in Chicago in the late 1930s, Alinsky's approach spread across the country, increasingly diffusing into other parts of the world.

The book is structured around the work of five of his most important colleagues — Ed Chambers, Tom Gaudette, Dick Harmon, Fred Ross, and Nicholas von Hoffman —supplemented with speeches by leaders and documents from the organizations they built. We also include pieces by organizers who either worked directly with Alinsky or followed in his footsteps, and who, in ways we will discuss, diverged from his path. Together, these texts show how different organizers and leaders have adapted and elaborated Alinsky's theory and practice in their work.

Many of these items appear in formal publication here for the first time; they were previously available only on untranscribed audiotapes or in early, mostly obsolete, and often difficult-to-read formats, such as mimeographed, dittoed, Thermo-Faxed, or Xeroxed pages. A few have remained well known among organizers, passing from hand to hand in flyspecked photocopies of photocopies. Others have mostly been forgotten. We drew some of them from university archives and the extensive collection of papers preserved by Miller during his long organizing career, and learned about others through citations in reference lists and discussions with other organizers. From a broad corpus of possibilities, we selected what we believe represent the best or most important examples of this shadow literature of organizing.

Mostly created by practitioners for audiences already deeply interested in the field, there is a directness to these texts —a vibrancy and sense of urgency often lacking in many of today's more abstract or textbook-like introductions to organizing. As we explain in introductions to each section, because these documents were created for particular purposes at particular moments of history, many reflect the issues and circumstances of the time they were written and should be read with this in mind. We hope you find them as interesting as we have.

What Is Community Organizing?

In an interview with T. George Harris, Alinsky said, "When people are organized, they move in ... to the central decision-making tables. [They] say, 'This is what we want.... We are people and damn it you are going to listen to us....' They are admitted to the decision-making tables ... on the basis of power."

Community organizing brings powerless and relatively powerless people together in solidarity to defend and advance their interests and values. Through their organizations, they speak with people power to established power on matters that affect them in their daily lives. They speak on major issues that might affect tens of thousands (or even millions), and on small but important issues like a stop sign at a dangerous intersection.

Community organizing groups typically start by trying to negotiate with decision-makers who have the authority to make the changes they want: elected officials, private sector owners, executives and administrators in bureaucracies, and the like. Decision-makers, however, are used to making unilateral decisions. They feel accountable only to those who already have substantial influence, wealth, or power. They rarely need to respond to everyday people and their concerns. As a result, decision-makers often simply ignore the people's requests to meet with them. Even when they do sit down, they generally try to defuse concerns without really listening or negotiating real change.

Action, at this point, inevitably involves conflict.

In fact, community organizing welcomes conflict as a tool to build people power. Only when adversaries recognize that there is power on the other side do they enter into real negotiations.

For example, tenants in a rat-infested, high-rent, no-services apartment building might organize themselves and seek changes from their landlord. When the landlord refuses to meet with them, they might start picketing him at a place where their presence will embarrass him, or engage in a rent-strike that will affect his profits. If they are wise in their choice of strategy and tactics, these actions will lead to substantial gains in their cause, reflected in an agreement that will recognize the tenant association as the collective voice for the tenants. Even after an agreement is reached, however, the tenants must stick together to prevent the landlord from backsliding, or evicting tenant leaders, or otherwise trying to ignore or undo what he has agreed to. This is why they need a long-term organization, not simply a momentary mobilization. Similar stories could be told about negotiations with plant managers, public administrators, politicians, corporate and financial executives, and others who hold the power to make decisions that affect people's lives.

Community organizing is a thoroughly practical process. Organizations are successful only when they clearly identify their power in relationship to their potential adversaries. In the vernacular, they don't pick fights they don't have a chance of winning. Early on, when an organization's membership is relatively small and it faces greater skepticism, it tackles smaller issues. Over time, small victories increase the competence and self-confidence of participants and help them recruit skeptics. The formula is simple: more people + more power = a growing capacity to address issues that are more deeply rooted in the status quo. Through organizing, communities that were marginalized, excluded, oppressed, and discriminated against increasingly gain the capacity to foster effective change.

In the most general sense, community organizing seeks to change the relations of power between existing institutions and the formerly powerless. Community organizers, including most of the writers of the essays included in this volume, build these community organizations. They identify leaders and potential leaders in communities and do their work through them.

In his short book Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction (Milwaukee, WI: Euclid Avenue Press, 2012), Mike Miller provides a detailed view of how institution based community organizing was implemented in a small Presbyterian church that was a member of what he calls "American City Community Organization (ACCO)." The book presents a composite story of the development of this congregation and the larger organization of which it is a part. The portrayal of fictional organizer "Jeanne Steuben" carefully demonstrates what a community organizer working in this tradition does.

A Brief History of the Alinsky Tradition of Community Organizing

Alinsky's first organizing project led to the creation of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) in Chicago. He borrowed from the tough approach of the 1930s industrial union movement, grafting its strategy and tactics onto the poor, working-class Back of the Yards neighborhood next to Chicago's vast industrial stockyards (an area infamously described in Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle). Drawing on local traditions and values, Alinsky built community power on the strength of long-standing formal and informal social relationships. His organizations were rooted in existing institutions within these communities and built new associational life as the situation required.

As Alinsky noted in an interview many years later, Back of the Yards

was the nadir of all slums in America. People were crushed and demoralized, either jobless or getting starvation wages, diseased, living in filthy, rotting unheated shanties, with barely enough food and clothing to keep alive. And it was a cesspool of hate; the Poles, Slovaks, Germans, Negroes, Mexicans and Lithuanians all hated each other and all of them hated the Irish, who returned the sentiment in spades....

I knew that once they were provided with a real, positive program to change their miserable conditions, they wouldn't need scapegoats anymore. Probably my prime consideration in moving into Back of the Yards, though, was because if it could be done there, it could be done anywhere.

Whether this long-after-the-fact explanation really reflected what he was thinking at the time, the poverty and interethnic conflict he faced in this neighborhood are well established by historians.

The BYNC established the pattern for Alinsky's subsequent organizing. Catholic parishes and the Packinghouse union were the BYNC's most institutionalized anchors, but it also included every type of organization that Alinsky and his partner, Joe Meegan, could identify and draw in: block clubs, sororal and fraternal organizations, mutual aid societies, athletic clubs, interest groups, merchants, and so on. And, where appropriate, new groups were formed. The goal was to get every group that had any real following among local people to be part of the organization —including groups that had previously believed they could never work together, like the Communist-led local union and the often-warring Catholic parishes that reflected the ethnic tensions of the neighborhood.

Without Meegan, the local Irish Catholic lay leader in Back of the Yards, Alinsky could not have proceeded. Meegan was widely respected and trusted in the neighborhood; he "credentialed" Alinsky. But after the creation of the BYNC, its co-organizers took different paths. Meegan became the director of the BYNC. The BYNC became his life's work, and persists today —albeit with a great deal of controversy surrounding it (to Alinsky's disappointment and frustration, its later efforts included the goal of keeping African Americans out of the neighborhood —an issue we address elsewhere).

Alinsky, in contrast with Meegan, saw the possibility for a larger agenda. With support from high-level Catholic clergy, key people in the industrial union movement (specifically in the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO)—and the wealthy department store owner Marshall Field III, he started the IAF. Under its umbrella, and with the legitimacy his supporters provided, Alinsky sought to spread this work across the Midwest, particularly in places with sympathetic bishops and strong locals of the Packinghouse Workers union.

World War II brought an abrupt halt to Alinsky's local organizing, and he joined the Roosevelt administration to provide productivity assistance in wartime industries. At the end of the war, Alinsky resumed his work, but soon had to contend with the anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy era. Divided by anti-Communism and increasingly co-opted by a relatively narrow collective bargaining and political agenda, labor's support for Alinsky's work withered.

Catholic support grew, however, especially where there were bishops in the tradition of Catholicism's social encyclicals, which said the church should engage the world on behalf of social and economic justice, and in the National Conference of Catholic Charities, a service and action arm of the national church. Soon joining the Catholics, particularly in previously white but now African American communities, were mainline Protestant churches with an institutional interest in dealing with the problems posed by largely vacant church buildings, and a new breed of inner-city pastors with a moral commitment to racial and economic justice. These Protestant churches sought ways to translate the sometimes conflicting social gospel and Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr's approach to social justice (Protestantism's equivalents to the Catholic social encyclicals) to the problems of the ghetto. Catholic and Protestant leaders spread the word about Alinsky through their official church bodies, which mostly responded favorably when local church leaders decided they wanted Alinsky to organize in their communities.

Nicholas von Hoffman

Among the most imaginative of Alinsky's early lead organizers was Nicholas von Hoffman, whose work with African Americans on Chicago's South Side led to The Woodlawn Organization (TWO), returning Alinsky to national prominence in the 1960s. For the most part, the core of the IAF's work in the early post–World War II days had been in white ethnic, working-class neighborhoods. The impact of the Deep South Freedom Riders on TWO led von Hoffman and Alinsky to conclude that they were in a rare moment in history when a social movement moves significant numbers of people into action. They hoped to draw on this energy in more "movement-like" actions while still working to build durable local power organizations. TWO's slogan was "self-determination through community power." As Minister Franklin Florence, an African American leader of the IAF's later effort in Rochester, New York, said of his group, "When you say 'black power,' in Rochester, you spell it 'F.I.G.H.T.' (Freedom, Integration [later Integrity], Goals, Honor, Today).

Fred Ross

Somewhat separately from all this, Alinsky heard about Fred Ross just after World War II. Louis Wirth, one of Alinsky's University of Chicago sociologist poker-playing partners, complained that Ross was supposed to be doing research but was always getting distracted by social action. Alinsky's ears perked up. After further checking, he offered to take Ross off his friend's hands. Ross's engagement with poverty went back to the 1930s; in fact, Ross had worked in the Farm Security Administration camp depicted in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. There he had developed a democratic tenant body, and the farmworkers had used lessons from their experiences governing a camp to deal with local politicians and growers.

After the war, working with Mexican Americans, Ross developed an organizing methodology that used informal house meetings as the key building block for chapters in what became the statewide Community Service Organization (CSO). Ross, and later other organizers, identified informal leaders or potential leaders whom they would meet with one on one and ask to host house meetings. By agreeing to be hosts, these people agreed to get "their people" to attend. Thus, the house meeting tested whether someone could deliver. After a critical mass of house meetings demonstrated local interest, an area-wide meeting would give birth to a CSO chapter.

The CSO became a powerhouse organization for Mexican Americans in California. For example, it was largely responsible for the election of the state's first Mexican American member of the U.S. Congress —Ed Roybal —and it was the frontline fighter in battles against urban renewal, job discrimination, police harassment and brutality, and other problems.

The individual membership approach to building CSO chapters contrasted with the "organization of organizations" approach of Alinsky's BYNC, in which organizations were the formal members, though in both cases the organization was built around local leadership. In the CSO, individuals joined geographically-based (town or urban neighborhood) chapters, and the chapters were members of the statewide organization. To create an institutional anchor, CSO chapters typically established "service centers," which offered an array of services to members and the larger community.

Ross involved people like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Gil Padilla in the CSO, where they became leaders and then full-time organizers. In the early 1960s, they became key organizers, joined by Ross, in a newly forming farmworker organization initiated by Chavez in the area around Delano, California, which eventually became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).

Ross's vision represents a different strand of the Alinsky tradition. And Ross's individual membership strategy remained influential in the years to come. It informed a range of important efforts, from Cesar Chavez's farmworker organizing to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), formed by Wade Rathke in 1970. And Ross's boycott operation was the school for many organizers who went into both labor and other community organizing work.

Tom Gaudette

Tom Gaudette was famously needled by Alinsky in 1961 into quitting his position of vice-president at Admiral Corporation to become an organizer. He worked with Alinsky on a number of projects before striking out on his own. Gaudette's own work focused on neighborhood organizing with congregations and other neighborhood institutions, but he did not focus on the internal life of the churches themselves to the extent that the later IAF would. He mentored Shel Trapp, who developed an approach to block club organizing, and who, along with the leader Gale Cincotta, created National People's Action (NPA) and its training arm, the National Training and Information Center (NTIC), which won major changes in national housing laws, among many others. Gaudette also trained Fr. John Baumann and Fr. Jerry Helfridge, who created what became People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO) when they went to California.


Excerpted from People Power by Aaron Schutz, Mike Miller. Copyright © 2015 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments xi,
Preface: Why Is Alinsky Important Today?—Mike Miller, xiii,
Part I: Introduction,
1 Editors' Introduction—Mike Miller and Aaron Schutz, 1,
2 Saul Alinsky and His Core Concepts—Mike Miller, 17,
3 What Is an Organizer? (1973)—Richard Rothstein, 43,
Part II: Alinsky's Colleagues,
Section A: Nicholas von Hoffman: The Woodlawn Organization and the Civil Rights Movement in the North,
4 An Introduction to Nicholas von Hoffman—Aaron Schutz, 49,
5 The Woodlawn Organization: Assorted Essays (1961–1969)—Various Authors, 58,
6 Questions and Answers (1959)—Saul Alinsky, Nicholas von Hoffmna, and Lester Hunt, 68,
7 Finding and Making Leaders (1963)—Nicholas von Hoffman, 74,
Section B: Fred Ross: Organizing Mexican Americans in the West,
8 Fred Ross and the House-Meeting Approach—Various Authos, 87,
9 Cesar Chavez and the Fate of Farmworker Organizing—Mike Miller, 101,
10 Dolores Huerta and Gil Padilla, 114,
Section C: Tom Gaudette and His Legacy,
11 Tom Gaudette: An Oral History—Various Speakers, 124,
12 Shel Trapp and Gale Cincotta—Various Authors, 143,
13 What Every Community Organization Should Know about Community Development (1975)—Stan Holt, 163,
14 John Baumann and the PICO National Network—Interviewed by Mike Miller, 168,
Section D: Dick Harmon,
15 An Introduction to Dick Harmon—Various Authors, 174,
16 Making an Offer We Can't Refuse (1973)—Dick Harmon, 185,
Section E: Ed Chambers and the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF),
17 Ed Chambers: The IAF Institute and the Post-Alinsky IAF—Mike Miller, 195,
18 Organizing for Family and Congregation (1978)— Industrial Areas Foundation, 215,
19 Relationship and Power: An Interview with Ernesto Cortes Jr. (1993)—Noëlle McAfee, 226,
20 A Call for Organizing, Confrontation, and Community Building (1995)—Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, 235,
21 Standing for the Whole (1990)—Industrial Areas Foundation, 239,
Part III: Different Directions,
Section A: Heather Booth, Midwest Academy, and Citizen Action,
22 An Introduction to Heather Booth, the Midwest Academy, and Citizen Action—Aaron Schutz, with commentary by Mike Miller, 245,
23 Direct Action Organizing: A Handbook for Women: Chapter 1 (1974)—Heather Booth,
Chapter 1 (1974), 264,
Section B: Wade Rathke and Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN),
24 An Introduction to Wade Rathke and ACORN—Aaron Schutz, 274,
25 ACORN Community Organizing Model (1973)—Wade Rathke, 285,
26 The Story of an ACORN Organizer: Madeline Talbott—Interviewed by Mike Miller, 305,
Part IV: Concluding Commentaries,
27 The State of Organizing—Mike Miller, 311,
28 Thinking beyond the Present—Aaron Schutz, 326,
Index, 339,

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