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What Do Community Organizers Do?

01 March 2009
Five people sitting on park benches (AP Images)

A community organizer, David Wilson, talks with Chicago residents about housing concerns.

By Kathy Partridge

Millions of U.S. citizens have used community organizers to learn how to press governments to do the right thing.

Kathy Partridge is executive director of Interfaith Funders, a network of faith-based and secular grant makers working to advance the field of congregation-based community organizing.

This article appears in the March 2009 issue of eJournal USA, Nonviolent Paths to Social Change (PDF, 783 KB).

In Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election campaign, the candidate cited his experience as a community organizer in Chicago to prove that he understood the problems of ordinary working people.

His opponents suggested that community organizing lacks “real responsibilities” like those of a mayor or governor.

In fact, a community organizer’s work has plenty of real responsibilities.

Let’s start with a story: Some neighborhood women went to see the new “community organizer.” They had heard that he fixed things, and they certainly saw plenty wrong in their neighborhood — bad schools, drug houses, filthy streets, poor health care, and more. Sitting in the simple, crowded office, they poured out their complaints while the organizer listened.

“Those are certainly some problems,” he said.

“Well, what are you going to do about them?” demanded the women.

The women were flabbergasted by the reply: “Nothing.” The organizer continued, “These aren’t my problems; they are your problems. Let’s talk about what you are going to do about them.”

That true story sums up what a community organizer does and does not do. A community organizer doesn’t “fix things” — doesn’t provide services or make impressive speeches. A community organizer attacks the problems and injustices of low- and moderate-income communities by helping the people affected act together to make changes themselves. This basic tenet is the Iron Rule of Organizing: “Never do for others what they can do for themselves.”

Community organizing is the deliberate practice of recruiting and empowering community leadership: uniting people to define problems, craft solutions, and press decision makers to improve the lives of a neighborhood, city, or socioeconomic group.

Recruiting Leaders

Community organizers recruit and empower community leadership, rather than becoming spokespersons themselves or acting on an issue alone. They do this because they believe that it is a democratic right for people to have a role in deciding issues that affect them.

Fred Ross was a trained community organizer who worked in some California Mexican neighborhoods in the 1960s and saw the desperate living conditions and difficult work for low pay. There he met César Chavez, a young man with children. Chavez was annoyed at first when Ross asked him to become a leader. Chavez later told a story of how he had invited Ross to meet local men at his house with the idea of intimidating Ross and scaring him off. “But he started talking, and the more he talked, the more wide-eyed I became ... A couple of guys who were pretty drunk at the time still wanted to give the gringo the business, but we got rid of them. This fellow was making a lot of sense, and I wanted to hear what he had to say.”

Ross sensed that Chavez had the talent to lead his community and came back again and again, challenging Chavez to stand up for what he believed in, until Chavez too believed that he could lead. Chavez went on to become a hero for social justice leading the United Farmworkers Union, which won fair labor contracts with the growers. He inspired many U.S. social movements against the Vietnam War and for the rights of minorities and women.

Community organizers unite people to define problems. Rather than providing social services, they follow a process of getting people to talk to each other and to act collectively on issues, gaining personal confidence and civic skills in the process.

They begin an organizing campaign by talking with people individually or in house meetings to find out who has a talent for leadership and to identify key problems. With the support of their community organizer, the participants identify their common values and interests and then work jointly and publicly on campaigns for civic change.

As these new community leaders work together, they build stronger relationships with people in their own institutions, such as churches, schools, and neighborhoods. As they discover that they share concerns with people in other institutions or neighborhoods, they build connections across the chasms of religion, class, and race. The organizing process can generate transformational power to bring positive change to individuals, communities, and society at large.

Money or People

According to the second tenet of organizing, “power comes either through organized money or organized people.” Since poor communities don’t have money, organizers have to rely on people.

When Ernesto Cortes returned to his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, in the 1970s, he was angry that the poorer Spanish-speaking section of the city lacked the services that the other sections enjoyed. In fact, streets flooded so badly when it rained that a child had drowned! As a trained organizer with the national organizing network Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), Cortes went to the local Catholic churches and challenged the parishioners to press the city government to make massive infrastructure repairs in streets and sewers and to improve public safety.

After achieving some success in San Antonio, Cortes worked in poor communities throughout Texas, from urban Houston to the colonias, or rural settlements, of the Mexico border, forging a new, larger-scale model of organization that united many institutions and could act on state-level issues. They leveraged $8 million for the 1997-98 supplemental state funding program for the IAF's Alliance Schools; created a $12 million fund for long-term training for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) recipients; and designed a bond package for $250 million in state bonds to bring water and sewer services to the colonias along the Texas-Mexico border.

Cortes has since turned his talents to Los Angeles, where the inaugural meeting of the IAF organization ONE-LA in 2004 had a turnout of more than 12,000 people and initiated campaigns aimed at cleaning up toxic dumps near schools, improving street lighting, and passing a $1 billion affordable housing bond.

Organizers work with a group’s leadership to craft effective public campaigns and turn concerns into winnable issues. The Association of Communities Organized for Reform Now (ACORN) has a national web of more than 400,000 member families in more than 100 cities, active on many issues.

For example, when Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans flooded for days, local ACORN organizers, many of whom had lost their own houses, fanned through the emergency shelters, used cell phones to find scattered ACORN members, and went before city and national officials to insist that the government be fair to poor people in rebuilding the city. While they have not won all their demands, they have successfully obtained funds directed to rebuilding their ruined neighborhoods and helped thousands of residents get back into their homes.

All organizing is done locally, but that doesn’t mean it stays small. In the California city of San Jose, community organizers with the PICO National Network of faith-based community organizations learned that many families went without health care because of inadequate county government spending for public clinics. They organized through local churches to press county officials to change the policies and then spread the campaign to other groups affiliated with PICO throughout California. Over several years, PICO California mobilized a coalition that won $13.4 billion in increased education and health funding.

Community organizing groups address almost every social injustice affecting the quality of life for low- and moderate-income people: children’s health care, wages, immigration reform, affordable housing, improved schools, safe neighborhoods, job training, and more.

In December 2008, more than 2,500 community organizers and leaders from around the United States assembled at a forum in Washington where they heard from Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to then-President-elect Obama. They had suggestions for elements of the president-elect’s economic recovery plan: to prevent housing foreclosures and require concessions from banks receiving government bailouts; to reform the ailing American health care system, especially ensuring that all children receive coverage; and to include training for jobs that pay wages adequate for a decent life.

Paid and Unpaid

Where do community organizers come from? They can be residents who pull their neighbors together to take action, working without pay, simply out of conviction. Often, they are local religious leaders, and they are found engaged in small-scale grassroots organizing in nearly every American community.

But community organizing in the United States can also be a paid profession on a larger scale. That kind of community organizing originated in the work of the late Saul Alinsky, who honed his techniques, based on radical union organizing, in the stockyards neighborhoods of Chicago in the 1930s. Alinsky brought together diverse ethnic groups to fight for fair delivery of city services, including police protection from crime, and for fair bank lending.

Hundreds of men and women of all ages and races now earn their living as community organizers. Their pay comes through dues paid by members of the organizations they work for, as well as from donations from churches and private foundations. Many organizers are recruited from the ranks of the membership, while others attend training held by national organizing networks, on college campuses, or through the labor movement.

Community organizers in the United States today may work on a single issue or unite one constituency, such as people with disabilities. But more commonly the community organizing movement is intentionally multi-issue, multi-constituency, interfaith, and cross-class.

President Obama gained his experience in institution-based organizing, which forms federations of member groups such as churches, schools, and even soccer leagues. He worked on the South Side of Chicago in the early 1980s, prior to attending law school, in association with the Gamaliel Foundation national organizing network, which provides training and oversight for organizations in 20 states. After graduating from law school, Obama returned to Illinois and continued his connection to organizing. Famously, he successfully courted his future wife, Michelle, by taking her to an organizing training session in a church basement.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama turned to some of his community organizing mentors to create the effective Campaign for Change, incorporating tools of community organizing such as one-to-one relationship building, house meetings, and neighborhood teams.

Over the past decade, community organizing has seen extraordinary expansion in the number of geographic areas and constituencies involved, in the kinds of tactics used, and in the effectiveness of improving public policies and services. Community organizing now operates at a grand scale that U.S. social movements rarely achieve, with thousands of institutions and millions of citizens involved.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.

César Chavez speaking to enthusiastic crowd (AP Images)

César Chavez accepted the challenge to organize farm workers.

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