Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Community Organizing

I think that Community Organizing can only be effectively done and conveyed, to / with grassroots people or formal students, if the organizer is a genuinely experienced -- experienced -- individual.

Virtually anyone can call himself / herself a "community organizer." There are not, in this particular field, any formal certification requirements or issued licenses. And it also takes a Real One [of which there are fortunately many] to effectively teach and write about it.

To me, a bona fide community organizer is someone who is actively and effectively involved over a substantial period of time in the hard, tedious, and sometimes genuinely dangerous work of getting people together and keeping people together -- for meaningful action. And, as I certainly see it, of course, this has to be within the context of the pursuit of social justice.

This has to involve much more than, simply, a few here-and-there, hit-and-miss local endeavors -- or limited "support" activities from a safe and cloistered setting. It has to involve vastly more than simply being a participant in, say, a march.

I'm talking about someone who plays a signal role in initiating constructive fires [figuratively] and who, systematically, works to carry that through to relative success as yet another stretch of the trail in the Save the World Business. Sometimes it's a pitchy-pine hot and flaring fire, more likely it's the long oak wood burn with an occasional flare.

An organizer can be an altruistic someone who starts as a neophyte and who works with an experienced organizer -- and it can also be someone who arises spontaneously in a social justice crisis and feathers out with dispatch. In both instances, the organizer "learns by doing" and keeps going.

And a genuinely good and effective organizer never stops learning from the grassroots people with whom he / she works.

Without wasting time on false modesty, I've sometimes referred to an "organizing credential" of mine as my graduate degree in militant organizing. Awarded me in 1963 in the heat of our massive Jackson [Mississippi] Movement was a sheaf of papers with myself as the lead name: City of Jackson vs. John R. Salter, Jr et al. Prepared by Mississippi's top anti-civil rights lawyer [Thomas Watkins] who consulted with a bevy of others including the then state AG, it's considered the most sweeping anti-civil rights "order" issued during the general period. It sought to prohibit us from engaging in any kind of demonstration and boycott, "conspiring" to do such, and doing anything to "consummate conspiracies" to demonstrate and boycott. And, to forestall any legal complications from the state's perspective, it set the first hearing date 90 days hence. It was copied by other jurisdictions in the South. The bevy of heavily armed wide-brim hatted Mississippi deputy sheriffs who coldly and formally delivered my copy obviously viewed it as pure Holy Writ. For our part, we simply defied it and kept going. [It's on our website, not hard to find. -- along with a great many accounts and details of my own personal organizing projects.]

But my greatest satisfactions are always based on the positive appraisals of those on whose behalf I'm involved -- in actual social justice campaigns. Those are priceless.

Academia? Taking a class or two? That can offer some valuable approaches and insights -- but only if the teacher is an organizer with substantial experience who can talk in solid fashion, not only about the work of others but, primarily, what he / she has actually done. Organizing is a living art, not simply an erector-set craft and, if it's taught as art, the recipient -- formal student or grassroots person -- will learn some very solid things.

There was a time, briefly, at the end of the 1960s, when several schools of social work issued MSW degrees with a specialization in community organizing. Apparently that proved too difficult for the schools which shifted, fairly quickly, into social policy [ mostly agency administration.] In our organizing work on the South/Southwest side of Chicago, we were fortunate in hiring and retaining two MSW persons, each of whom had their degree with a formal and specific organizing focus -- via University of Michigan and University of Illinois [Circle.] They did, as was the case of our entire staff of two dozen or so, very fine work. But they readily conceded that they were learning far more in the field than they ever had in classrooms.

For my part, I have taught community organizing [while continuing my own organizing on the side] in every one of the far-flung colleges and universities at which I've sojourned. While on some occasions, it's been an added dimension to a course formally on another topic, it's also been, in the main, as its very own course. These have carried both undergraduate and graduate credit depending on the specific student. And, of course, I've also taught it, as a working organizer, to grassroots people and other organizers as well -- in all sorts of workshops and conferences.

And, wherever I've taught community organizing, academic or grassroots or whatever, every single person -- bar none -- has wanted a practical, down to earth approach with as many personally experiential case histories of campaigns that I can provide. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. [This also includes the personal histories of various protagonists.] And I do have a great many of these personal accounts -- and there are others who do as well. At this juncture, I have several rich decades of them.

But faithfully remember: a really first-rate organizer / teacher always -- always -- learns much from his / her grassroots colleagues and classroom students.

And, although I have my own somewhat eclectic Vision and am not oblivious to theory [I got along nicely and profitably in Sociological Theory]. I've never found theory by itself -- and certainly not heavy ideology -- to be especially interesting to those to and with whom I talk. [That poses no problem for me. The genuinely radical Southern poet, the late John Beecher, an old friend over many decades, commented approvingly and publicly of me that "he wears no man's collar."

Whenever or wherever I've taught community organizing, I've always used many of my personal case histories. If particular occasion permits, I lace these with much use of primary documents -- everything from field reports to leaflets, media clippings, legal briefs, much more. We do a heavy focus on tactics and strategies, building democracy, ethical questions. [In formal courses, I've often given a key issue and its setting as an essay test question.]

Field practicums aren't offered vis-a-vis a single class. But, for especially interested students, I early on did separate, follow-up Independent Studies -- de facto practicums, complete with appropriate field placements [and for full academic credit, of course.]

I avoid overly detailed, tight syllabi. And I consistently encourage a hell of a lot of discussion. Many people have had, in their own right, grassroots organizing experiences of one kind or another. Workshops [and conferences] always have people who are actually doing good things in the field.

And all of that is super-enriching.

Certain films can be extremely helpful -- e.g., Salt of the Earth, Norma Rae, Shane. And there are many others.

And music, too: well-done civil rights songs; and labor and related stuff from, among others, Pete Seeger and Tom Glazer.

Outside speakers? Certainly an occasional one, very preferably another organizer / grassroots activist -- directly from, as the old Wobblies used to put it, "the point of production."

Written scholarly or quasi-scholarly works on community organizing? Be careful -- very careful. Most of that, at best, has only very limited use. Usually dry and lifeless, this stuff is almost always written or compiled by ivory-towered academics using comparable works by comparable others and offers very little in the way of technique and insight. I place high priority on the accounts of folks who have actually Organized. [This can include people such as the late Saul Alinsky with whose "top down" organizing strategy, I -- with my grassroots-up focus -- strongly disagree. I've used Alinsky's Rules for Radicals on several occasions as a support text.] Occasionally, I've used my own very detailed book -- Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism, 1979 and 1987]. It's been long out of print but is sometimes findable on the Net [under my former name, John R Salter, Jr].

I should also add that there are corollary works from related fields that can be helpful. A faithful member of some of our discussion lists, Sam Friedman, produced -- after long and very careful study, much of it quite direct, Teamster Rank and File: Power, Bureaucracy, and Rebellion at Work and in a Union [1982]. This is first-rate and very readable sociology in the best sense. And there are certainly all kinds of other good works in this genre. Autobiographies and oral histories by organizers and participants can be quite valuable.

But, again, on written works dealing specifically with Community Organizing, Be Very Careful.

My own course in Community Organizing is here, in mini-form:

And this has much on our organizing in Chicago during a long, sanguinary epoch. It contains, among other things, our practical critique of Alinsky]:

Hunter Gray

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