Organizing for the Impossible

Si Kahn’s new ‘guide for rabble-rousers’ challenges community organizers to think very carefully about their campaigns for justice.

Adam Kader

Protesters rally before an act of civil disobedience to protest the lack of federal immigration reform, on May 17, 2010, in New York City. Nearly two dozen labor and community leaders, local clergy and City Council members were arrested while stopping traffic. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In Cre­ative Com­mu­ni­ty Orga­niz­ing: A Guide for Rab­ble-Rousers, Activists and Qui­et Lovers of Jus­tice (Berrett-Koehler, Feb­ru­ary), Si Kahn argues that cul­ture must be inte­grat­ed into orga­niz­ing, but he does not always suc­ceed in show­ing how to do so. He dis­cour­ages an add cul­ture and stir” approach, yet the sto­ries he tells – singing to main­tain hope while being arrest­ed, design­ing an organization’s logo to com­mu­ni­cate mis­sion, val­ues and inclu­siv­i­ty – are lit­tle more than that. And Kahn’s exam­ples of cre­ative” orga­niz­ing – such as form­ing alliances with the faith lead­ers of a cam­paign tar­get – strike me as sim­ply good organizing. 

Dissing Saul Alinsky is now in vogue. Organizers today understand the problems of traditional Alinsky organizing.

What Kahn does, how­ev­er, is suc­cess­ful­ly cri­tique some core assump­tions of Alin­sky-style orga­niz­ing. Saul Alinksy, the founder of com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing, began in the 1930s by work­ing with neigh­bor­hood groups in Chica­go to lever­age change from local pow­er-hold­ers. The mod­el he devel­oped, in part based on the labor move­ment, has since been insti­tu­tion­al­ized by nation­al train­ing groups and adapt­ed by activists in oth­er move­ments. Alinsky’s cur­ren­cy recent­ly got a boost when he was dis­cov­ered” by the media amidst the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign of a cer­tain for­mer com­mu­ni­ty organizer.

But diss­ing Alin­sky is now in vogue. Orga­niz­ers today under­stand the prob­lems of tra­di­tion­al Alin­sky orga­niz­ing: the focus on large mobi­liza­tions of peo­ple doesn’t encour­age peo­ple to gain a deep­er under­stand­ing of com­mu­ni­ty issues; gen­er­ates ego­ism among orga­niz­ers; and sparks turf wars between orga­ni­za­tions. The ideas of rad­i­cal Brazil­ian edu­ca­tor Paulo Freire – who espoused a the­o­ry of orga­niz­ing based on a cycle of crit­i­cal reflec­tion, action, and crit­i­cal reflec­tion again – have chal­lenged Alinsky’s intel­lec­tu­al reign. Freire’s ideas have been increas­ing­ly adopt­ed by orga­niz­ers in the work­er cen­ter move­ment and assim­i­lat­ed into foundation-speak. 

Kahn, a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er for 45 years and a singer-song­writer, dis­tances him­self from Alin­sky when he writes that com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing must not only change pow­er, but also people’s rela­tion­ship to it. In oth­er words, he calls for orga­niz­ing to raise and trans­form con­scious­ness. At the same time, Kahn holds to fun­da­men­tal Alin­sky orga­niz­ing con­cepts, like appeal­ing to people’s self-inter­est, even as he stretch­es those con­cepts. (He describes his own moti­va­tions for orga­niz­ing as moral self-interest.”)

But why not also rec­og­nize that some peo­ple are moti­vat­ed by sol­i­dar­i­ty? Self-inter­est may ini­tial­ly lead peo­ple to join a move­ment, but sol­i­dar­i­ty can sus­tain involve­ment. Work­ers join the Arise Chica­go Work­er Cen­ter, where I work, most often out of self-inter­est – they want jus­tice on the job. But oth­ers join because they believe in our mis­sion to orga­nize low-wage and immi­grant work­ers. Sure, we can reduce this impulse to self-sat­is­fac­tion – feel­ing a part of some­thing” – but I find that con­cept less com­pelling than solidarity. 

Kahn poignant­ly ques­tions the util­i­ty of the tra­di­tion­al­ly held stop sign prin­ci­ple,” in which an orga­niz­er gal­va­nizes the com­mu­ni­ty around an easy, winnable tar­get – like com­pelling a local offi­cial to install a stop sign at a dan­ger­ous inter­sec­tion. The vic­to­ry teach­es peo­ple they have pow­er and in this way, the the­o­ry goes, an orga­niz­er can pre­pare the com­mu­ni­ty for increas­ing­ly bold cam­paigns against power-holders.

As Kahn points out, You run out of fixed fights pret­ty quick­ly.” And after easy vic­to­ries, the com­mu­ni­ty may be unpre­pared and unable to deal with los­ing real bat­tles. He advo­cates a more poet­ic vision of orga­niz­ing, in which we fight for the impos­si­ble” – cam­paigns that seem out of reach but ulti­mate­ly can appear inevitable. Kahn’s posi­tion boils down to a sim­ple ques­tion: Why not orga­nize the com­mu­ni­ty to fight for what it real­ly wants? 

He pro­vides evi­dence for the wis­dom of a more direct approach. He details how Grass­roots Lead­er­ship, the nation­al anti-pri­vate prison orga­ni­za­tion Kahn found­ed, in August 2009 con­vinced the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion to end the fed­er­al government’s prac­tice of detain­ing immi­grant fam­i­lies at the T. Don Hut­to Res­i­den­tial Cen­ter (a for­mer state prison run by a cor­po­ra­tion) out­side of Austin, Texas, and scut­tled fed­er­al plans to build three new fam­i­ly deten­tion centers.

To gird him­self for ambi­tious orga­niz­ing, Kahn adopts a mod­est opti­mism, telling us that we nev­er know what is pos­si­ble … and there­fore we can nev­er com­pro­mise with injus­tice.” At its best, Cre­ative Com­mu­ni­ty Orga­niz­ing offers an eth­i­cal guide for orga­niz­ers work­ing in poor com­mu­ni­ties that they’re not from, and makes clear that pro­gres­sive val­ues must not be aban­doned for strate­gic posi­tion­ing. Kahn recounts a Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee (SNCC) strat­e­gy to force depart­ment stores in For­rest City, Ark., to hire black work­ers. In order to divide and con­quer, SNCC lead­ers decid­ed in 1965 to boy­cott just one of four local stores, the Jew store.” Kahn, who is Jew­ish and began his orga­niz­ing career with SNCC that year, writes:

SNCC was fight­ing for the ulti­mate under­dog, African Amer­i­cans. To tar­get anoth­er his­toric under­dog, even if one more priv­i­leged than his Black cus­tomers – didn’t that just rein­force the injus­tice? I was not just learn­ing how to do cre­ative com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing, I was being intro­duced to its eth­i­cal complications.

With sto­ries like these, Cre­ative Com­mu­ni­ty Orga­niz­ing chal­lenges orga­niz­ers to reflect on their rela­tion­ship to the com­mu­ni­ties they work in. That kind of self-aware­ness and sen­si­tiv­i­ty are cru­cial if ordi­nary peo­ple are to make extra­or­di­nary change. 

Adam Kad­er, the direc­tor of the Arise Chica­go Work­er Cen­ter, blogs for Labor Notes.
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