What is Community Organizing?

April 7, 2009 — 4 Comments

Community organizing is the means through which small, local groups collaborate to, often through what’s known as politicial jujitsu, implement incremental change. You might recall hearing it mentioned in connection with Obama, who learned it working with activist groups in Chicago. There is a deep connection between Alinsky’s tactics for community organizing and how strategy plays out over the internet.

His first tenet is the community part. Resource poor, community organizers are forced to rely on existing infrastructure. In other words, you need to intimately know the terrain and makeup of the community you’re working with. This seems obvious but it happens to contradict the operating procedure of nearly every political or social organization of any prominence – groups run by outside money, represented by leaders from different economic backgrounds, all speaking condescendingly about the “little guy.” Victor Davis Hanson illustrated Alinsky’s principal nicely when he much of the morale problem in Vietnam came from the fact that not enough leaders were dying with their troops. Alinsky thrived by noticing undervalued opportunities and then using the momentum to invigorate long disillusioned groups. The intimate knowledge of a group’s traditions was not just a way to know what a community needs, but also what assets they have available to use. People, he said, are the terrain.

The second most important Alinsky principal is what he calls “mass political jujitsu.” This is the concept of using the weight of something against itself. Alinsky once advised a group of students fighting against an archaic university administration who infringed on the rights of its students. So he asked, what is one thing the school does allow you to do? Chew gum, they said. He instructed each student to buy as much gum as they could possible chew and to discard it all over campus. A month later, the school called a meeting: ‘Alright, alright! We’ll change the rules but whatever they are, no more gum.” In jujitsu, one finds an opponents center of gravity and attacks that point to throw them off balance. In community organizing, a leader sniffs for weakness like hypocrisy, reputation, bad press, shame, embarrassment, and picks at it until it bursts.

The third is to abandon pretense, idealism and the notion of nice, neat solutions. Think about what the first two tenets require. First, you have to combine disparate and often competing groups into a coalition. Thus, a great deal of compromise. Second, you’re attempting to use your lack of resources as a weapon, essentially exploiting the humanness of your cause for attention, anger, pity or acquiescence. You can do this only if you’ve accepted that things are not only desperate but that the ends justify the means. If you’re a David attacking a Goliath, you’re not after a clean victory. Community organizing is about an honest awareness of what you’re after and being willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

Alinsky summed up the proper mindset of a community organizer this way:

“As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. It is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working within the system.”

To recap, community organizing is a way for leaders to use their expansive knowledge of local terrain to take on causes much bigger than themselves. By thinking of media and emotional pressures as a weapon, a community organizers get real world, tangible solutions. They work within the system in the sense that they understand the restraints it puts on their opponents and use it to bring them to account.

This is Part 1 of our series What Do I Need to Know?. Further recommended reading on this topic:

Rules for Radicals and Reveille for Radicals by Saul D. Alinsky

Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky: His Life and Legacy by Sanford D. Horwitt

1972 Playboy interview with Saul Alinsky

For Clinton and Obama, a Common Ideological Touchstone (MSNBC)

Democrats and the Legacy of Activist Saul Alinsky (NPR)

Rules for Radicals: Working within The System (RyanHoliday.net)

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

4 responses to What is Community Organizing?

  1. Great post Ryan, thanks.

    I don’t want to sound presumptuous or spoiled, but I think it would be also helpful to include the books/blogs/links your concepts come from for this series. I know the first thing I thought when I finished reading this post was Where can I read more about this?

    But like I said, great post either way.

  2. Done. I forgot to do that, good idea.

  3. Hi Ryan,

    I disagree with a lot of this. As an overview of Saul’s work, it’s good. As something someone needs to know, especially in the digital age, it has very little relevance. Most current community groups have discarded Saul’s ideology altogether.

    Saul’s flaw was in needing an external target. If Saul couldn’t find anyone to blame for the community’s current predicament, his efforts wouldn’t succeed. Saul could raise protests easily enough. But protests don’t build communities, they build angry groups and enmity.

    Today, it’s far more important to understand community development than it is to understand community organizing.

    Real power in a community isn’t in saying “we need you to do this”. Real power is “we are responsible for ourselves”. What do we have within us that can make the change we want? What if we stopped looking at our community from it’s problems, and began looking at the assets our community has? How can we combine them in unique and glorious ways? How can we build social capital amongst ourselves?

    The problem is that community organizing is sexier. You have big battles (or sit-downs), you have heroes, you have media interest. But, ultimately, it doesn’t make as much of a difference as the far less sexy, but far more productive, community development.

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