Alinsky rules, and not just among radicals

If Saul Alinsky were alive today, he would be 100 years old. And what a world he would see around him: Barack Obama, "organizer in chief," ensconced in the White House; Tea Party activists, gleefully employing Alinsky-like tactics at last summer's town hall health care forums, and ACORN -- now the nation's most famous community organization -- laid low by scandal.

More Americans than ever before have heard of the term "community organizing." And more than a few now recognize the name of the man who shaped and promoted the practice. But what is it? And what difference does it make?

At its essence, community organizing is small "d" democracy. It happens when people come together to take action on shared interests and values.

This generic community organizing takes place every day in neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, church groups, advocacy groups -- the rich and colorful crazy quilt of America's civil society. Community organizing is to democracy as air is to the lungs.

Alinsky's genius was to develop specific methods to help citizens build effective power: How to translate a private grievance into a public issue that can be acted on; how to identify and nurture citizen leaders; how to build effective, democratic community organizations, and how to plan actions to achieve collective goals.

I first encountered the Alinsky approach in the mid-1970s when I joined the South Side Coalition, an affiliate of his Chicago-based mother ship, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF).

I was one of hundreds of veterans of the '60s-era social movements who had settled into south Minneapolis. When an Alinsky organizer came calling, I jumped at the chance to see what I could learn about the practical arts of organizing with my working-class neighbors.

Over the next year, I received a crash course in the Alinsky method. I learned how to plan an effective meeting: No more endless discussions. Meetings should start and end on time. I learned how to select issues that were immediate, concrete and winnable. Ideological theorizing (a favorite activity of the '60s left) was strictly forbidden.

Note: Conservative charges to the contrary, Alinsky was no Marxist. He was strictly Madisonian. Politics is a struggle of competing factions. The point is to make sure your faction wins.

The South Side Coalition was actually one of four IAF organizations established in Minnesota in the '70s and '80s. Taken together, they involved thousands of Minnesotans in effective campaigns on issues like stadium funding, bank lending policies and police accountability. And they developed hundreds of leaders who took what they learned to their neighborhoods, workplaces, churches and civic organizations.

Today, community organizing is alive and well in the metro area. Organizers focus less on public confrontations and more on relationship building.

An exclusive emphasis on immediate victories is giving way to an understanding that many of the issues facing low-income and working-class communities are structural, and require analysis and long-term approaches.

Clear-headed tactical thinking remains important, but so do values and worldview. Today's organizers understand that you can't win on universal health care in a society where free market individualism and distrust of government are the pillars of public philosophy.

But what about those Tea Party protesters? Might they be channeling Alinsky, too? Dick Armey, former Republican majority leader, said recently, "What I think of Alinsky is that he is very good at what he did, but what he did was not good."

Alinsky's means travel comfortably across ideological lines. But his ends, as Armey properly noted, do not.

In the preface to his classic exposition of community organizing principles, "Rules for Radicals," Alinsky explains: "What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. 'The Prince' was written by Machiavelli for Haves on how to hold power. 'Rules for Radicals' is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."

So happy 100th, Saul. As long as there are Haves and Have Nots, you will be relevant and remembered.


Tom O'Connell is a professor of political studies at Metropolitan State University. He coordinates the university's minor in community organizing and development.

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