Building Powerful Community Organizations: A Personal Guide to Creating Groups That Can Solve Problems and Change the World, by Michael Jacoby Brown, Long Haul Press, $19.95.
Calling All Radicals: How Grassroots Organizers Can Save Our Democracy, by
Gabriel Thompson, Nation Books, $14.95.
Tools for Radical Democracy: How to Organize for Power in Your Community, by Joan Minieri and Paul Getsos, Chardon Press, $29.95.
Social change is often depicted as the reaction to one charismatic leader’s actions or the outcome of a landmark court case. In this simplistic definition, the civil rights movement is boiled down to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, the marches that beat down Jim Crow, and Brown v. Board of Education calling for the end of “separate but equal” schools. Apart from its over-simplicity, such a portrayal also overlooks the tedious tasks and gruntwork of unknown organizers along the way. It misses the numerous meetings where snacks are supplied, strategy is planned and action is agreed upon.
Organizing, quite simply, is getting a group of people to participate in collective action to affect change. Three recent books serve as guides to organizers building community groups, unions and other social change organizations. Two of these works could be characterized as textbooks – “Tools For Radical Democracy,” by Joan Minieri and Paul Getsos, and “Building Powerful Community Organizations,” by Michael Jacoby Brown. “Calling All Radicals,” by Gabriel Thompson, gives helpful tips on organizing while maintaining a more anecdotal narrative flow.
Minieri and Getsos both did organizing work with Community Voices Heard, a Harlem-based community and labor organizing group whose successful “jobs campaign” is referenced throughout the book. The campaign improved working conditions for low-income public housing residents participating in “welfare to work” job programs in the late 1990s. Jacoby Brown has a similar background in community and labor organizing, working on such diverse campaigns as improving firefighters’ work conditions and affordable utility rates for consumers. Thompson, meanwhile, was a tenant organizer at the Pratt Area Community Council and an author and journalist (writing in City Limits, New York, The Nation and elsewhere).
All three books pay tribute to legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky, while only “Calling All Radicals” offers pointed criticism of Alinsky’s style. A self-described radical and author of classic organizing books (“Reveille for Radicals” and “Rules For Radicals”), Alinsky began organizing for better living conditions during the Great Depression in Chicago’s slum neighborhoods. Alinsky advocated appealing to people’s self-interest and creating local neighborhood organizations to run campaigns and target those in power to create social change. Alinsky’s direct action tactics – actions like pickets, protests and sit-ins done to confront your target – are still gospel in most community groups and unions today.
“Tools For Radical Democracy” and “Building Powerful Community Organizations” are the most explicit about how to build organizations for social change. The Alinskian mantra “building power” appears throughout each book and is defined by Minieri and Getsos as the “ability to act and to make things happen.” Building power is the job of every organizer and community group so that they can create change. Their textbook format lays out in bullet points how to build leadership, choose campaigns and targets, and sustain an organization. Both books offer various case studies, rooted in Getsos’ coalition-building in uptown Manhattan and Jacoby Brown’s decades’ worth of agitating around workplace issues across the country. The textbooks also offer exercises and work sheets at the ends of chapters on such mundane organizing work as phone banking, door knocking, media relations and preparing testimony to elected officials.
The textbooks contain much of the same information and are presented in a similar manner, though Jacoby Brown, who helped found the Jewish Organizing Initiative, emphasizes organizing within communities of faith slightly more than Minieri and Getsos.
While the above books are basically practical manuals, Thompson’s “Calling All Radicals” is more directed at the heart. As a former housing organizer in central Brooklyn, Thompson believes organizers are the key to building democracy and lluminates how they do the grunt work. Thompson presents tenants standing up to slumlords, and politicians reluctant to enact a tough lead paint bill, not as case studies but as part of a social justice story. One chapter uses a photograph from the civil rights era of African-American organizers talking on a porch with a rural African-American family as an illustration of the need to build relationships that motivate people into action.
“Calling All Radicals” also examines Alinsky’s organizing model and asks the provocative question – why do organizers do what they do, and to what end? Although organizing can be tedious, thankless work, the example of Christian Right activists’ dogged efforts and their eventual payoff demonstrates its value. They organized around abortion and other bread-and-butter conservative issues for years even while the Republican party turned a deaf ear. But that ideological and issue-based organizing has borne fruit for decades now, with the waging of the so-called “culture wars” and power of the Christian Right in electoral politics.
“Calling All Radicals” stops short of advocating a particular ideological line, but distinguishes itself by advocating a place for political education and ideological orientation in community groups. Thompson notes that Alinsky’s disdain for ideology and political education (Alinsky was an anti-communist) can be organizing’s undoing. There are times when organizers and community groups must combat bigotry within the group and seek to expand the consciousness of community members rather than dismissing such matters as side issues. In one example, an immigration and labor group confronts homophobic members suspected of scrawling on a bathroom wall hate messages targeting an organizer. Instead of ignoring the graffiti, the organization decides to confront the offending members and impart the history of the gay rights movement’s struggle for freedom.
“Calling All Radicals” ends addressing organizer burnout and calls for social change organizations to treat their organizers with respect and provide good pay and benefits. If you are a new organizer or want to learn how to organize for social change, pick up “Tools For Radical Democracy” or “Building Powerful Community Organizations” as a surefire way to move your neighbors or coworkers to action. For those weathered organizers with a few years working in the trenches, “Calling All Radicals” is an inspiration and affirmation that the tedious tasks of organizing do add up to create social justice.
Bennett Baumer is an organizer at Housing Conservation Coordinators, a Hell’s Kitchen-based legal services and housing organizing group.
For more information on the books reviewed, click on the titles: