What even is Community Organizing?

by Anna Hutcheson, former Growing Democracy Project Manager & PhD Candidate at Kent State University

Community organizing: we hear talk of community organizing, neighborhood committees, activism and service. We are probably familiar with organizations in our communities that make claims about pursuit of social justice, equity, activism and fairness in our neighborhoods. What, though, does any of this really mean? Are neighborhood organizations and community organizations different words for the same thing? What are the missions of these groups and for whom do they serve? We can ask these and myriad other questions regarding community organizing but ultimately, we need answers to a fundamental question: what is community organizing and where have we seen it? The good news is that we have answers, although they may differ from person to place to time, to these questions. Here, I hope to provide some answers to the broad question of “what is community organizing?” Soon, I hope to provide some examples of where we have seen community organizing in a city close to my heart, Cleveland, OH and to provide resources for those interested in engaging in community organizing and activism in the area.

Saul Alinsky is considered the “father” of community organizing in light of his development of the first community organization in the US, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council in Chicago (CLE Foundation). Alinsky then went on to form the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in the 1970s in the effort to spread his principles of community organizing and to enable individuals to promote change in their communities through a list of best practices, published in his text Rules for Radicals. The first principle provides fantastic insight on how Alinsky viewed the work of community organizing: it is about shifting power from the top and into the hands of the citizens. Alinsky was particularly concerned about the relational aspects of the dynamics between ordinary citizens in communities and those with whom they negotiate. Alinsky says about power and the relationship between the organizers and their opponents that “power is not what you have, but what the opponent thinks you have” (CLE Foundation). Further, Alinsky provides advice on tactics, referring to ridicule as “man’s most potent weapon” and the need to strike a balance between long-term strategies but also acknowledging the tax that this has on organizers (CLE Foundation). Alinsky wanted to empower communities to bring change home. 

David Beckwith’s definition of community organizing as “the process of building power through involving a constituency in identifying problems they share and the solutions to these problems they define.” Beckwith is also a major player in the history of community organizing in the US, working as a consultant in community organization and social justice, particularly in Toledo, OH. Beckwith’s principles have many spheres of overlap with those of Alinsky, but also points of divergence. Importantly, both discuss the importance of maintaining a healthy group dynamic, as well as adopting and maintaining strategies that are conducive to longevity and long-term thinking. Beckwith’s second principle is that community organizing is a “dynamic process that requires constant attention and effort” (Beckwith and Lopez 1997). He highlights the important point that in community organizing, much of the work is about the “fight” and that, inevitably, there will be losses. However, both Beckwith and Alinsky point to the need to maintain pressure. Finally, both recognize the importance of the process for those in the group, especially in regard to their personal experience. Alinsky’s sixth principle states that “a good tactic is one your people enjoy” (CLE Foundation). Beckwith’s ninth and tenth “rule” are to “celebrate” and “have fun!” He stresses the need to remember the goal of community organizing is to build and strengthen community, which can refer to the physical location, the infrastructure, and the organic beings living within it. More importantly, though, is another definition of community: the feeling of fellowship between individuals within a space. Alinsky, Beckwith, and countless local organizations—in Cleveland and without it—helped to pave the way for us to build upon and continue this work in the future. 

It is important to note here, that there are many concepts related to community organizing that are not to be treated as the same dynamic. In fact, Beckwith discusses community organizing and development as two separate strategies available to effect change. For Beckwith, community organizing is defined by the “mobilization of volunteers” while community development is aimed at providing a physical product or service. In other words, we can speak about community organizing as part of a larger process, while development is more focused on the provision of outcomes. Others echo this sentiment. Community organizing is about the collaborative and democratic process, which is predicated on mass-based participation of neighborhood citizens and residents. Community development is certainly related to this idea, and can be achieved through community organizations. However, development is about the building and maintenance of neighborhood infrastructures. Both, however, are focused on social change at the neighborhood and community level. Randy Stoecker says of the distinction, “community organizing is necessary to get the power. Community development is necessary to keep it.”  The history of Cleveland organizing is certainly a great way to showcase the interrelated dynamics of community organizing and development in the pursuit of community change.