For most people, the functioning of a democratic state can be pretty complicated and incomprehensible. Decisions follow decisions, each having a huge impact on our lives, but many people can put up with the assumption that they are not in the position to influence how things work. Or their everyday struggle to make ends meet supersedes any other efforts. Legislators often seem to be distant, they listen only to those who are close to the fire. Due to the uneven distribution of power, communities with less capacity to advocate for themselves can easily become marginalized, which makes them subject to fraud, exploitation or oppression. One of the main tasks of a democratic state therefore would be to create space in the decision-making process for those social groups who need more effort to articulate their demands. In most cases, however, this happens only after putting pressure on the legislators.
But why would those who struggle for survival or assume they have no influence on how things work start to organize themselves? Alinsky says because it is their self-interest. So he traced those concrete, immediate and winnable issues which embittered the lives of most members of the neighborhood. And he wanted to track down those locals who can be allies in building a neighborhood organization. Because if the members of the community realize that together they have the power to influence the decisions on their lives, they will feel less marginalized.
For this Alinsky and his organizers needed to know the neighborhood like the palm of their hand. They started with data analysis: before the field work, they wanted to draw a preliminary profile of the neighborhood. They combed through census data, reports by local planning commissions, and public statistics, then they made an inventory of all the public institutions, associations, sport clubs, social agencies and local businesses, etc. They carried out research on the history of the neighborhood and its people. They mapped power relations and the network of relationships. They started organizing only then. Obviously, by that point, they had several hypotheses of what the most crucial issues could be for the neighborhood, but they put these in brackets. They wanted to hear from the members what makes them angry. Alinsky's organizers built on people's self-interest.
After the research, they divided the neighborhood into smaller units and started canvassing. They conducted hundreds of interviews, with residents, shopkeepers, leaders of local civil society organizations, church leaders, or people active in other fields of public life. They took thorough notes on the behavior and social habits of the people. They visited new contacts other people mentioned. They used qualitative and quantitative research methods used in sociology and anthropology such as participatory observation, unstructured, semi-structured and in-depth interviews, statistical analyses, etc. At the end of the day they recorded voice reports on their conclusions. They wanted to draw a profile of the fears, sorrows, hopes and skills of people living in the neighborhood.
Area canvassing usually takes one or two months of intensive work. Within this period the community organizers get in touch with the whole neighborhood. Canvassing can happen through many different ways. Organizers can contact those who seemed interesting during the research phase, and they will suggest new contacts to talk to (this is the snowball method applied in sociology and anthropology). Organizers may have acquaintances from earlier and start tracing those networks. New opportunities can also come the their way through sheer coincidence.
Many organizations apply the more direct door knocking. Student volunteers or community organizers visit the members of the neighborhood in their homes, they knock on each and every door to try to identify the crucial issues for the community and make them open to cooperation. Building relations can be very tiring and may hold out little hope in the beginning. But there are communication techniques which make dismantling the walls easier. (For example: "What made you angry recently? "I don't know, leave me alone." "Your neighbor, Mary said that trash is not picked up. Is this a problem for you? What do you think should be done?)
Building trust is a process which starts from zero. Therefore in the beginning, rejection and suspicion are part of canvassing. One of Alinsky's most quoted story is how he infiltrated into one of Al Capone's mobs in Chicago. (At this point yet he worked as a young criminologist, not as a community organizer.) Through long weeks he hung around the headquarters of the mobsters, the Lexington Hotel in Chicago, and he was always dismissed by them. Then one night at the neighboring table, one of the professional assassins of Capone, Big Ed said: "Hey, you guys, did I ever tell you about the time I picked up that redhead in Detroit ?" The others moaned in chorus. "Oh, no... Do we have to hear that one again?" Big Ed got disappointed when Alinsky poked him and said: "Mr. Stash. I’d love to hear that story." The gangster's face lit up. "You would, kid? Here, pull up a chair."
Through these initial contacts and talks we can draw a profile of the concerns, skills and visions of the people living in the neighborhood. And through these methods, we can form more personal relations with those who seem reliable and pursue group interests. Through longer, personal conversations we can identify the concrete, immediate and winnable issues, in which many people have a self-interest and which can help mobilize the neighborhood. And we can identify those people who can lead on issues and become leaders. And we can determine the forces and resources which keep a community together, and which we can build on to organize the first neighborhood assembly.
(Source: Sanford D. Horwitt: Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky - His Life and Legacy. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1989; Playboy Interview: Saul Alinsky - a candid conversation with the feisty radical organizer. Vol. 19. no. 3. - March, 1972; Saul D Alinsky: Rules for Radicals - A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. Random House, New York, 1971)
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