Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The community organizing industry

Dislike: In the U.S., as a result of the professionalization of community organizing, a lot of operative decisions are made by the staff of the non-profit community organization. Therefore, a big part of action-related decisions are delivered in the staff meeting, and for the sake of dynamic action or because of the routine, the planning and implementation processes are not inclusive enough towards members. Together with this, it is fair enough that the community organizer does not want to become an external facilitator. But to what extent should they intervene? Can they take up tasks in organizing an action or an event? Or does the independence of the membership overwrite the potential benefit of such a contribution?

Alinsky formulated the vital core of community organizing in his sentence: "Never do for others what they can do for themselves." Instead, you should have ears and the heart to understand where the other person's self-interest lies (what is the goal that is personally important for them and which would make them take action), where this self-interest intersects with the self-interest of the others, and then you can start to agitate. A community organizer is to create a platform so that at least some community members start to develop trust towards one another, and start to believe that taking action is worth it (the community organizer arouses self-interest), and start to involve others and motivate them to make the decision-maker accountable. These initiating members may become community leaders.

The practice of professionalized community organizations seems to contradict to the Alinsky principle: the community organizer delivers a lot of tasks which the membership could deliver if there was a more inclusive strategy. In the professionalized community organizations, naturally, the primary goal is to involve more and more people affected by the issue through participating in negotiations with the decision-makers, giving media interviews, and sitting in thematic committees; and to some extent, members also have a say in the decision-making process through the listening tours and at the annual membership assemblies. However, this does not mean at all that all action-related tasks are carried out by the membership, or there were no strategic decisions made without the approval of the membership on tactics or media communication, on statements or press releases. While based on the Alinsky principle, it may seem that in the ideal world of community organizing, the community organizer is not there to take up part of the action-related tasks, or it may seem as if the community should only set such goals and actions which members can deliver without having the community organizer help them out with some of the tasks.

However, community organizations in fact work along the Alinsky principle because the "Never do what others can do for themselves" does not necessarily mean that community organizers should remain external facilitators, and let community members implement the action by themselves. But it certainly should mean that, through participation, more and more people should have an opportunity to get involved in social action. Apart from this, if the organization has a professionalized, paid staff, and its operation becomes dependent on grants, this always raises the concern that the decision-making and strategic processes become a routine and this routine becomes institutionalized due to the lack of any regular community revision of organizational structure. This is true even if the membership vested the staff with the responsibility to support chapters by taking over operative tasks, knowing that this will weaken any opportunities for direct democracy and consensus-based decision-making.

The dilemma of intervention

Aside from the advantages and disadvantages of the operation of the institutionalized civil society, compliance with the Alinsky principle raises further concerns: in a nutshell, the dilemma of intervention. When group work starts, it becomes one of the first concerns for a community organizer to decide to what extent they should contribute with their own knowledge to the group talk. Where is the border line between adding new viewpoints to the group ethos and between pushing the setting of goals which members do not have enough skills, knowledge or experience to realize, and therefore it would weaken rather than strengthen members? Where is the point at which the unbalanced power relations tilt in favor of the experienced community organizer (of possibly better social status) against committed members who may have less experience in organizing?

Let's take an example. When talking to homeless people about possible solutions for the housing crisis, some of the very first answers coming up are the utilization of vacant flats and property: barracks standing vacant since the transition of the '90s should be renovated, vacant public housing should be used, opportunities should be given for people with housing problems to refurbish the flat in exchange for housing. These answers would undoubtedly result in an immediate remedy in people's lives and for the city, but still raise a lot of concerns: turning barracks into flats would bring about segregated neighborhoods, and would contribute to the expulsion of the poor from the inner city, the majority of the vacant buildings are in bad shape, and people moving into these neighborhoods could in the long run (without other supplementary measures) contribute to the exclusion of the poor. In addition to this, these solutions would not necessarily serve a systemic change even if they could become good pilot projects. Systemic changes are the extended and integrated public housing system, the housing benefit increase. And as temporary solutions, the housing poor and the homeless need more shelters for victims of domestic violence and more temporary family shelters to give the family a chance to stay together, well-operating social services and well-functioning debt management at a district level. Bread and work. And of course, it is also true that by renovating vacant flats, the decision-makers may easily pretend that they took care for the housing of the people.

This situation raises several questions for the community organizer. Let's stick to the group talk example above: to what extent can the community organizer shape the strategic direction set by the group or to what extent can they direct the way of thinking of members towards something totally new? Second of all, to what extent should the organizer take part in the implementation of the action-related tasks for the sake of the victory and group cohesion in case the group does not possess all the knowledge needed for the realization of the action? And, most of all, how can the community organizer balance out power inequalities between them and the group without taking over too much of the leading role and dismantling the status of the community leader, but still finding a way to be able to share their ideas with the group?

Let's start with the first dilemma. During community organizing those people who don't have a say in the decision-making process organize for a more equal redistribution of power and resources by democratic means. The ultimate aim is the long-term and systemic change, whereas the tactic to involve people is to build on the issues they determine for themselves, which can first be smaller, local goals. Community organizing is therefore a joint learning process. The responsibility of the outsider community organizer is to enrich the perspective of the community with new aspects, while he or she expands his or her own perspective through understanding how members of the community define their problems and what they think is possible to shape their own future. Joint learning can help weighing the pros and cons: inviting people affected by the issue (experts by experience) or "anointed" experts, elaborating questions together before the talk, discussing presentations or films in the issue, organizing internal trainings to activate the experience and knowledge of community members. In order to achieve long-term social change and a more equal redistribution of resources and the building of bridges between social classes, it should not be the aim of the community organizer to deactivate his or her own knowledge, and to deprive the community of his or her own ideas and viewpoints instead of enriching group strategy (provided he or she has ideas addressing systemic change on the issue), but he or she must integrate any smaller goals into the strategy which are set by the people affected even if they address particular issues.

The second, very frequent dilemma for a community organizer is to what extent he or she should participate in the operative tasks, in the implementation of the action: what he or she should take over (or whether he or she should take over anything at all) so that the action and the message become stronger (as a result of his or her experience and skills acquired during years of organizing demonstrations and dealing with the media). In the case of his or her active involvement, it is unavoidable that there will be people in the group who cannot properly follow what is going on and the group will not necessarily be able to reproduce the event on their own. The community organizer, however, is in charge of maintaining the energy level of the group: for this, he or she needs to provide an effective and dynamic framework for the group action and for the sake of victory, she needs to contribute to achieve the goals, and to bring tons of inspiration and perspective to the group.

The goal naturally would be that the community organization becomes self-sufficient. Therefore, we need to shape those processes which make it possible that every member can take part with some smaller or bigger tasks in group activities and to make leadership development an organic part of group life (internal training, tasks for new members, etc.). However, the principle that we should never do what others can do for themselves is not equal to facilitating from the background. Due to the myriad of tasks, the challenges of organizing actions, and the disappointment in politics, it would be difficult to maintain the energy level of the group, to strengthen its integrity, to achieve its first victories and a growing membership if the community organizer sticks to the role of an external facilitator and does not take part in the delivery of action-related tasks.

This of course raises important power dilemmas which leads us to our third question: how to deal with power inequalities. The community organizer is usually an outsider, not the member of the community (the group of people affected by the issue), he or she knows and understands the theory and practice of community organizing, and, in case he or she managed to gain the trust of the community, this outsider position can help him or her identify those members who enjoys the trust of the community and are democratic and inclusive. They are potential community leaders who can bring people together, help the community formulate the most immediate issues and mobilize for the sake of social change - with the help of the community organizer. The community organizer enters the life of the community, strengthens group cohesion, helps build the democratic decision-making processes and a democratic communication culture, helps the group find new solutions and brings in new viewpoints. And, because the community organizer is an outsider, he or she is a messenger to the other world, from which members of the community can draw on for new knowledge and values.

After trust has been built between the organizer and the community, however, it can happen that the organizer has a bigger say or represents a greater authority when making decisions than the members or community leaders (e.g., in case of vacant buildings, when saying that the vacant building issue should not explicitly be included in the policy recommendations because it can be misleading and contra-productive in the long run). It would be naive to think that inherent inequalities in the cooperation of an organizer and a community can be solved only by consensus-based decision-making and democratic communication mechanisms. We have to be conscious of these power inequalities originated in our social status, gender, ethnicity, and we have to find out newer and newer mechanisms in order to even these out as much as possible, and transform into something nourishing instead of something oppressive. The task of the community organizer is therefore to activate the knowledge of the community about their society: to formulate questions which bring forward new viewpoints based on the experience of the members and which, therefore, the community organizer does not have access to (e.g., in case of vacant buildings: why is this topic so self-evident when talking about housing problems with people affected by the issue? why don't people come up with the idea of subsidized housing instead? how can this issue inspire people with housing problems to get involved? what policy recommendations can be made? is the renovation of a dilapidated flat with the participation of skilled or unskilled realistic? what help would the new resident need to be able to finance their new housing? etc.)

The "checks and balances" are significant in community organizing, too. A community organizer needs to fulfill a lot of roles in a group which has just been established (he or she needs to take care of group dynamics and communication, creating the group ethos (system of principles and attitudes)), where roles have not yet been solidified, where principles are still not compact, or there may be oppression among members, where the internal communication culture has not yet been established. For me, therefore, it seems more effective and fruitful when two or three community organizers work in one group, supporting and controlling one another, making it more fluid to bring in new energy and new viewpoints, and making the above mentioned power dilemmas more controllable.

The "Never do what others can do for themselves" principle therefore does not necessarily mean that community organizers should facilitate from the background, but it wants to say that everybody should take up tasks and roles according to their skills, including the community organizer after considering the above mentioned dilemmas, so that everybody becomes responsible for victories or failures.

The way how professionalized non-profit community organizations operate justifies this task-sharing direction. In their case, however, it is a disadvantage that the efficiency of how these tasks are shared between chapters and the staff (namely, which set of tasks and responsibilities are delegated to the staff and decided at a staff meeting) is usually not questioned and revised on a regular basis by the community and there is no regular confirmation of the organizational structure by a community decision.

Read it in Hungarian.
An extended version of the article was published in a Hungarian community development periodical, Parola (2012/4).


  1. I do have one concern with your blog piece. Alinksy's frame of reference for community organizing was just for one community. Obviously, working in one community allows a much higher level of participation by people who live there. In organizations that are doing a broader geographic region, they have to develop something broader that guide organizers and holds everyone accountable — an organizing plan, statement of beliefs, a platform, detailed campaign plans, etc. You make a lot of very good points in the blog, but I think there are some other distinctions that need to be made.

  2. This makes a lot of sense. I think my critique was more about how institutionalized, grant-dependent civil society works and I try to be very critical about our role in this. (In the case of the NGO world, there are a lot of wonderful results but at the same time this mechanism wastes so much money, and has so many expensive projects with no real outcome.) In the case of community organizations in the post, I wanted to highlight that democracy can essentially be limited when we talk about a big NGO and it is important to highlight this when we send out the message that the community organization is of the people and by the people.