A Way of Thinking About the History of Community Organizing

by Associate Prof. of Sociology, Stephen Valocchi

Steve Valocchi
Department of Sociology
Trinity College
Hartford, CT 06106

In thinking about what to say about community organizing, I was immediately struck by the diversity of efforts that qualify as community organizing. A quick reading of the Sunday, February 25 edition of The New York Times, for example, reveals three examples of people turning "personal troubles into public issues" - a very basic definition of community organizing. The lead article talked about the "blossoming" of neighborhood groups in New York city and across the nation doing everything from removing graffiti and renovating parks to setting up computer training for youth and a skills bank where residents can trade day care for plumbing services. Another article talked about efforts in Long Island to assist immigrant domestic workers in getting better pay and developing a collective voice in their workplaces. Still another article described a NAACP sponsored march from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to protest the governors executive order against affirmative action.

This list could go on and on. While my remarks will be limited to organizing in "physical communities" or neighborhood organizing, I want to emphasize that there are many different kinds of communities around which people can develop interests and mobilize in support of those interests. Indeed as I will suggest in my closing remarks, one of the developments of the past two decades has been the emergence of organizing around identity communities and issue-specific communities.

Here I will focus on the different kinds of neighborhood organizing that have occurred in the twentieth century, the economic and political environment in which they occurred and the problems, lessons, and dilemmas that have characterize these efforts.

There have been three dominant approaches or major types of neighborhood organizing in the twentieth century: the social work, political activist and neighborhood maintenance/community development approaches.

The social work approach sees the community as a social organism with certain needs that must be coordinated and met if the neighborhood is to survive and remain viable. The focus in this approach is on building a sense of community by gathering together existing social services and by delivering and lobbying for needed social resources. To the extent that this approach identifies a problem in the neighborhood it is one of social disorganization.

Falling out of this outlook on the neighborhood, the role of the organizer is either as an "enabler" to help the community gather itself together or as an "advocate" of the community to secure additional services. The approach that is taken to getting these services is primarily a consensual one: it assumes there is some common interest between the dominant groups and the neighborhood and it assumes a willingness of at least some in power to meet the needs of the neighborhood.

In contrast, the political activist approach sees the community as a political entity and not as a social organism. It views the neighborhood as a potential power base capable of getting power, keeping power or developing alternative institutions apart from those in power. To the extent that this approach identifies a problem in the neighborhood, it is framed as an absence of power. In this regard, the role of the organizer is to help the community understand the problem in terms of power and then to mobilize it around this understanding. Needless to say, this approach is less consensual than the social work approach in that many times gaining power for the neighborhood puts it in conflict with groups, interests, elites, who have something to lose from this power.

This approach also draws distinctions between organizers and leaders (unlike the social work approach which sees the neighborhood almost like a collective client that needs to be "administered to"). Organizers frequently come from outside the neighborhood and their job is to identify and support indigenous community leaders. This approach is very sensitive to maintaining equality of power relations in the community organization. Therefore, leadership positions should come from within the neighborhood itself.

The neighborhood maintenance approach sees the neighborhood as space that has intrinsic or commercial value. It is neither a site of service provision nor a site of power accumulation. The function of organizing is simply to maintain and improve the physical and commercial value of the property. In recent years this approach talks not only about maintaining the value of property but developing space to better meet the needs of the neighborhood residents. In this sense it skirts the boundaries of this approach and the social work approach.

These neighborhood maintenance efforts have typically come from within the neighborhood itself (unlike the political activist and social work approaches) in the form of civic associations. These associations usually involve peer pressure to maintain property or assist in providing services to the neighborhood. Sometimes they work with local officials or when necessary applying pressure on local officials to get needed services. Again, sometimes as we will see, this approach "spills into" a political activist approach as civic associations learn that their interests can only be achieved through more confrontational strategies with power-holders in the city.

Examples of the social work approach

One of the earliest examples of community organizing in the United States was found in the social settlement movement in the first two decades of the twentieth century concentrated mainly in the industrial cities of East and Midwest.

Social settlements were first and foremost "houses" set up in working class neighborhoods by the college educated sons and daughters of the middle class who were disturbed by the massive social problems of the day that accompanied rapid industrialization, urbanization, immigration. These were problems such as working class poverty, tenement housing, child labor, tuberculosis.

These early settlement house workers were also bothered by the increased distance between the middle and lower classes that also accompanied industrialization and the growing income gap. They thought that this distance could be bridged by bringing the middle class together with the poor.

Many of the settlements brought philanthropic resources to deliver many specific services to neighborhoods. Many of these services were in the form of education, for example, classes in English, sewing, wood and sheet metalworking. Others were more explicitly "social" services: legal aid, employment assistance, day and night nurseries for children, public baths, recreational programs.

Some settlements went beyond this early social work approach and were active in lobbying for tenement reform, publicly provided kindergartens, school nurses, child labor laws etc. Those that did this, however, had to walk a fine line between social work and political activist approach due to the settlement's reliance on business philanthropy. In one famous example, a settlement in Cincinnati in 1920 spearheaded a city wide community organization doing both social welfare and political work. Soon after this initiative was launched the popular press branded it as Bolshevist and business support quickly dried up.

While the settlements met the needs of several low income neighborhoods when no one else was meeting them, it did it "behind the back" of the community - with no input or support from the community. While the settlements were providing these services, no one was talking about causes of the problems they were trying to address. These are two problems that usually accompany a social work approach to community organizing.

Another more recent example in the social work approach that more successfully straddled the social work and political activist approaches was the organizing that emerged out of the War on Poverty program of the Johnson Administration in the 1960s.

The major initiative of the War on Poverty was the Community Action Agencies. These agencies were created by the federal government to sponsor neighborhood self help projects, promote social action, and coordinate existing local services as well as provide new services.

The War on Poverty emerged from a unique combination of political and economic forces: a backdrop of economic prosperity (budget surpluses), the social engineering attitudes of political liberals in White House and, most importantly, mass disruption in the cities. If not developed with the civil rights movement in mind, it was swiftly reoriented to that movement in the cities in the middle years of the nineteen sixties.

Although the War on Poverty intended to quell the disruption, it was only partly successful. Many community action agencies seized on the language of neighborhood participation in the legislation and, instead of doing service delivery, did advocacy and organizing. In the short run, the War on Poverty fueled the disruptions as it gave birth to and helped to finance the National Welfare Rights Organization. The community organizing of the NWRO defended the rights and advocated the needs of welfare recipients in addition to establishing well-baby clinics and school lunch programs.

Despite service delivery, political activism and the attempts to involve the community, the community organizing out of the War on Poverty was still a top down approach to the community and subject to the bureaucratic restraints and political infighting and turf building characteristic of most government programs. These features made it difficult if not impossible for the emerging organizations to be independent, autonomous community organizations.

Examples of the political activist approach

One cannot talk about the political activist approach to community organizing without reference to the godfather of community organizing, Saul Alinsky.

Alinsky emerged as a community organizer in the second half of the thirties and his approach is very much a product of that time. His thinking about organizing was influenced by the newly militant labor movement: he took his emphasis on democratic organizations and confrontation from the new labor organization among industrial workers, the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Alinsky's approach emphasized several things. First and foremost, the organizations should emphasize democratic decision making and encourage indigenous leadership. Second, the organizations should be open to all members of the community. Alinsky believed that more representative the organization, the stronger the organization. As we will see this requirement meant that many different interests should be represented in the same organization (depending on the configuration of the neighborhood) and many times that diversity meant avoiding issues where there was disagreement.

A third feature of the Alinsky approach involves the organizer's relationship with the neighborhood. In order to gain entree into the neighborhood (and thus gain easy influence and a wide audience) the organizer should gather the support of the traditional community leaders and organizations in the neighborhood. The starting point of the community organization is an organization of already existing organizations.

A fourth feature of the approach has to do with goals: the organization should be geared to meeting people's self interest however they define that interest. As someone once said, the goal of Alinsky was "letting the people decide no matter what they decide."

The fifth feature has to do with strategy. Very simply, Alinsky believed, to paraphrase Frederick Douglas, that power concedes nothing without a fight and that using conflict strategies yields the greatest gains for the organization.

The final feature of his strategy was to fight for concrete victories because winning builds organization. With these last two characteristics you see the two-fold emphasis of Alinsky style organizing: to gain power and to build stable, durable organizations.

Alinsky first applied his principles to his organizing in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago in the thirties and forties. Back of the Yards was a stable, white ethnic working class community next to the slaughterhouses. It was in these kinds of neighborhoods - racially homogeneous with strong ethnic, political, social organizations - that his approach was most successful.

The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council developed by building a broad coalition of union leaders, priests, small business men and neighborhood residents. In so doing and in engaging the "powers that be," the BYNC got jobs and services from the corporations, the Chicago political machine and the federal government.

Unlike the social work approaches to community organization this political activist approach has the potential to create stable, democratic, and effective organizations of neighborhood residents by seeing its role as "meeting power with power."

There are some dangers and pitfalls in this approach, however. One has to do with its emphasis on established institutions. This emphasis on neighborhood elites proved dangerous in BYNC and in other Alinsky-style organizations as these elites came to define the goals and programs of the organization. Also, the emphasis on letting the people decide and avoiding issues that could cause disagreement proved problematic as the BYNC organization decided that it was in their self-interest to keep blacks out. The attempts to avoid issues of racism in the organization came back to haunt BYNC as blacks sought entrance into the neighborhood in the early forties.

After the fifties, a decade hostile to the political activist approach to community organizing, Alinsky experienced a heyday in the late 60s and 70s, as liberals and liberal leaning foundations embraced his method of community organizing as a more reasonable alternative to the militancy and rebellion in cities.

Many other political activist organizations emerged in the 1960s, out of the civil rights movement and the student movement. While similar to the Alinsky model in that they emphasized democratic practices and confronting power with power, they were fundamentally different from Alinsky in their goals. Whether it be the community organizing of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Economic Research and Action Projects of the Students for a Democratic Society, or the Black Panther Party, these organizing attempts emphasized fundamental social change and were profoundly ambivalent about building stable organizations. In this regard, they did not last long: sometimes they dissolved on their own (the ERAP projects of SDS); other times they were infiltrated by the FBI and their leaders harassed, jailed or murder (the Black Panther Party).

As a partial reaction to the radical community organizing, many Alinsky type organizations cropped out throughout the country with organizers trained by and funding from the Industrial Areas Foundation - a foundation financed by liberal organizations, churches and labor unions.

Because traditional Alinskyism builds its power base through alliances with traditional community institutions like churches or ethnic organizations, it has been most successful in communities where those organizations are still viable. For example, Alinskyism has flourished in many Mexican American communities in the south west where the church functions as the center of religious and ethnic life.

As recession hit and urban problems grew in the 1970s, more and more community activists recognized the limitations of organizing in one place against issues that were less local and more national in origin. Out of this realization emerged a variety of organizations that were neighborhood focused but got their agendas and their money from their state or national affiliate. The central task of these organizations was to build power across neighborhoods and communities. ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is perhaps the best example of this. Citizen Action is another.

It differs from Alinksyism in that it engages in electoral politics as a way of gaining power, and it does not rely on support from foundations and churches but on door to door solicitation and dues paying members.

The neighborhood maintenance/community development approach

The third approach to community organizing is perhaps the loosest of the three categories. Included in this category are the neighborhood associations and civic clubs that emerged in the 1950s in the new suburbs throughout the United States. These associations and clubs were designed to enhance and protect property values and to lobby local officials and business to improve services to the neighborhood. Other approaches have been emerging in the 1980s and 1990s in community organizations that have already developed a power base in a city and that use that power base to deliver housing or employment services in a nonprofit corporate form.

The neighborhood organizations that emerged out of the suburban sprawl of the 1950s were essentially associations of homeowners They developed them as a way to collectively enforce deed restrictions in their neighborhoods. They functioned as traditional improvement associations, supplying services, lobbying city hall for street repairs, park development, schools, traffic signs etc. In some cases they were used to prevent racial integration and to prevent panic selling.

These are typically not included in history of community organizing but these efforts illustrate one of the features of all the approaches to community organizing: Community organizing cuts across the political spectrum. They can espouse a progressive politics like ACORN is wont to do or they can espouse a conservative rhetoric like many of these civic associations did.

The recognition of these as community organizations also points to a debate on the nature of community organizing. That debate centers around the role of ideology in the organization: To what extent do you espouse a set of ideals - that then become your reason to act? In this sense, self-interest competes with or must be reconciled with the ideology of the organization (or vice versa).

The other kind of community organization that can be put in this category is the community development orientation that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.

These decades are similar to the fifties in that they also are politically conservative times that have discouraged the creation of political activist community organizations. These decades are different from the fifties, however, in that the repression of the fifties that silenced progressive and liberals in the fifties has not taken place in the 80's or 90s. This absence of repression made it relatively easier for community organizers coming out of the political activist approach to come up with new strategies to deal with difficult times.

One common characteristic of these efforts has been the deemphasis on dissent and confrontation. The new organizations see themselves as more proactive and more development minded. Part of this shift away from confrontation may be the life cycle of organizing (As one community activist said, "First, defend the neighborhood, then take an offensive stance."). Part of it also must be the constraints of the political environment.

The Alinksy approach to community organizing stressed picking targets in the economic and political environment that are visible, local, and capable. Today, targets are no longer in the neighborhood or city or are "downsized" and "global."

This approach is best seen in the move toward community economic development and the building of community partnerships with local economic and political powers. In particular, we see the growth of non-profits (community development corporations - cdcs) that serve low income community, are governed by a community-based boards, and develop business enterprises or housing developments.

A good example of this approach and also of the shift from confrontation to development is the story of Southeast Baltimore Community Organization.

SEBCO emerged in the late 60s as a way to stop the construction of a highway through the neighborhood. In the process of this mobilization, the neighborhood uncovered a whole host of local issues and a secret redevelopment plan for the neighborhood. In 1971 a coalition of already existing groups came to together to form an Alinsky style organization that used many Alinsky style confrontation tactics (eg. mothers with baby carriages blocking the street, a wheelchair protest march).

During this time the organization also worked with city officials to develop affordable housing for the community and out of these efforts set up a community development corporation for housing. Its success spawned other community development corporations: one for jobs and business opportunities and one for health assistance.

While these development efforts provide direct services and fill neighborhood needs with neighborhood participation, the relatively few jobs they create or houses they provide have not come close to meeting the needs in today's cities. Also, these cdcs depend on external funding. In recent years, the federal government has cut back its support while cities, states and private foundations have not picked up the slack.

By way of conclusion I would like to remind you of the diversity of community organizing efforts that I haven't mentioned. This diversity seems particularly important in a time when "the neighborhood" as community is under particular strain. Poor urban neighborhoods in the nineties experience persistent poverty with fewer of the social institutions that propped up those neighborhoods in the past and that served as the springboard for Alinsky-style organizing. While the nineties has seen the decline of this kind of organizing, it has also seen the rise of organizing on the basis of other definitions of community - communities of color, feminist, peace, environmental communities, gay,lesbian and other sexual communities.

There is both a hope and danger in this diversity: hope in that these organizations have proliferated even at a time when civic and traditional political participation has declined; danger is that this diversity could result in a fragmentation among people who desperately need to communicate with one another. Particularly in today's political climate, people interested in social justice, democratic participation, cultural freedom, racial equality, and the general non-exploitation of people and the planet, should be talking to and acting with one another.


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