City Lit: Bowling with Organizers

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It was the mid-1950s in Buffalo, and Ed Chambers was working his first organizing assignment for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). On the day of the local group’s founding convention, Chambers stepped off the hood of a car, where he’d been yelling to restore order during a protest, and met Father Jack Egan, a board member who had arrived from Chicago along with IAF founder and director Saul Alinsky. “That was a nice job, kid,” Egan said approvingly. Chambers asked where Alinsky was. “Back at the hotel having cocktails,” Egan answered.

Chambers recounts this anecdote in his memoir-cum-training manual, Roots for Radicals. The book’s title is a clever play on two of grassroots activism’s foundational texts: Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971), both by Alinsky. Reveille and Rules brim with well-told stories and excitement about people power but they are short on specifics about how to actually do the work–which, as Chambers’ anecdote suggests, is a common critique not just of Alinsky’s books, but of his on-site organizing as well.

Alinsky essentially fathered the community organizing tradition, but its by-now-venerable legacy owes more to the activists who came after him. A growing number are now nearing retirement age and they’ve begun putting the lessons they’ve learned down on paper.

Michael Gecan’s 2002 Going Public links the work to his personal story–surviving the disastrous Our Lady of Angels fire at his Catholic elementary school and going on to help start East Brooklyn Congregations. The Gamaliel Foundation’s Rev. Dennis Jacobsen wrote a guide for clergy on the hows and whys of congregation-based organizing in 2001, called Doing Justice. Shel Trapp, retired co-founder of the National People’s Action network, self-published a memoir and how-to of his own, Dynamics of Organizing, in November 2003. (Full disclosure: I helped draft Trapp’s book and do media and communications work for the Gamaliel Foundation).

These activist authors face a challenge in writing about community organizing that Alinsky didn’t have to face: They wrestle with the question of whether community exists in the first place. From Robert Putnam’s much-discussed rumination on isolation in America, Bowling Alone, to the work of academics, there’s a rising concern for the health of American civic life. What constitutes community in the 21st century? How it it mobilized? The new memoirs by aging organizers brings hands-on knowledge to this debate, moving it from the abstractions of the ivory tower to the practical realities of neighborhoods.

Chambers’ contribution gives us a look inside an accomplished community-building operation. Now 71, Chambers–known as “Big Ed” because of his six-foot-plus height–built IAF’s training institute and has run the IAF for decades. Raised in rural, Depression-era Iowa, Chambers was groomed from an early age to be a priest. After a year traveling across post-World War II Europe, where he experienced such revolutionary developments in Christianity as the French worker-priest movement, he returned home to a Catholic seminary. There, he writes in Roots, the professors derided him as as a guy who asked too many questions. Thirty minutes before his tonsure ceremony, a ritual marking the first official step on the road to priesthood, Chambers’ superior took him aside and informed him he would not be allowed to participate. Soon thereafter, he left the Midwest to join Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement in Harlem.

Chambers’ memories of his early IAF exploits in Buffalo and on Chicago’s southwest side are among the best stories in Roots. He describes his behind-the-scenes machinations on long-odds campaigns, like convincing conservative, white Catholics on Chicago’s South Side to work with African-American congregations in the 1960s, and pushing ahead in the 1980s with the first two Nehemiah Homes in Brooklyn even though the developer had neglected to get building permits.

However, Roots is not as fun of a read as either Reveille or Rules. The problem may be the burden of detail Chambers has taken on. “When we began the training institute [in the late 1960s] we didn’t know how to teach the universals,” he writes. “Saul could talk about them, but he couldn’t concretize them.” Chambers’ book offers the nuts-and-bolts that Alinsky skipped.

Most of the chapters have the “how-to” feel of a training agenda. The one on “relational meetings” is typical. Chambers explains that these one-on-one sessions, which form the foundation of IAF’s work, are the arena in which participants clarify their motivations and hopes, and come up with common agendas. He imparts some interesting observations on how these meetings typically proceed: “Big-power people will [focus] the first 20 to 25 minutes on you. Ordinary people will let you keep the focus on them.”

Chambers also offers a cogent analysis that puts community at the center of things. The private market, he argues, has captured the government, and only “civil society” can save the country. But his stories never bring into focus how he feels about the work he’s done and Roots thus fails to deliver what is promised in the introduction, that “readers who hunger for meaning, for making sense of daily reality, should be fed here.” Studs Terkel better sums up Roots’ potential impact in his preface when he calls it a “how-to book in the best sense: a primer on how to beat the dragons.”

In all fairness, anyone who tries to write engagingly about organizing is faced with the dilemma of describing something that’s only truly known through experience. It’s hard to understand organizing until you have seen policy changes result from scenes such as one that sticks in my memory, where someone old enough to be my grandmother led the crowd in telling a federal banking regulator “we’re tired of being screwed,” while handing the bureaucrat an unvarnished two-by-four peppered with three-inch screws.

Yet, while books are no substitute for actual public meetings, they have a part to play, too, in giving Putnam’s alienated bowlers a renewed belief in collective action. As the organizer old guard passes on its experience, we can only hope that someone will create a written legacy that marries Alinsky’s eloquence with Chambers’ know-how. Now, that book would deserve the title “radical.”

Gordon Mayer is a Chicago-based writer and communications consultant. He currently works with the Gamaliel Foundation.