Martinson and Su describe Alinsky’s organization methods as “conflict-oriented and pragmatic” (2012). This is because the very first thing he does in order to gain a following is stir up anger in a community. According to Alinsky, a leader needs to position himself within a community, listen to what the issues are, then crank it up a notch by inciting hostility to motivate the community to take action (Martinson & Su, 2012). This kind of technique truly does get people excited for their organization, because it fills people with energy. The leader can then step in and direct that energy to whatever problem needs to be solved. The more worked up a community is, the more willing they will be to put in effort, and this means that issues can be resolved quickly and efficiently. Keeping up this high energy and motivation, however, can be a very difficult task. Alinsky uses easily attainable victories which tend not to be too politically charged to ensure this energy will continue to flourish.
Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, in their book We Make the Road by Walking, discuss an idea which is very similar to Alinsky’s methods. Horton specifically mentions the concept of neutrality, something which Alinsky attempts to uphold in his organizations. To Horton, neutrality doesn’t mean impartial, but instead signifies that someone is “following the crowd” and “what the system asks us to be” (1990). There is no neutral ground on controversial topics like the ones Alinsky actively avoided. Take racism, for example. There is a clear divide of power between the majority and minority groups. While remaining neutral may seem like staying out of the way, it is actually actively allowing the majority to continue oppressing the minority. Unless you step in, you are complacent in what is happening. There is no stepping away from a system that is ingrained in our society. Neutrality in the face of controversy for the sake of gaining more members of an organization is not effective in making large-scale changes, even if it continues to allow many small achievements and a growth in number.
Ella Baker, on the other hand, was perhaps the polar opposite of Saul Alinsky, and held beliefs more similar to Horton and Freire. As an active member in well-known organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she built her organizations around the idea of a tight-knit community capable of learning and taking on big challenges. Her focus wasn’t on gaining the most members, but instead on educating the members she did have to be “self-sufficient” (Payne, 1989). She didn’t want organizations to be reliant on a single leader, but rather able to sustain itself on its own and support its own education. This way, the organization grows to be a strong and tight-knit community capable of many things. In Baker’s opinion, a larger organization is meaningless if the members don’t grow from their efforts, or in other words “[how] many people show up for a rally may matter less than how much the people who organize the rally learn from doing so” (Payne, 1989). In an Alinsky-sized organization, individuals may get lost or left behind. In her comparatively smaller organizations, Baker strives to ensure that all individuals in the collective are educated so that the organization can be self-sufficient, without a singular leader, and effectively help its own community.
Horton, M. & Friere, P. (1990). We Make the Road by Walking. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Martinson, M. & Su, C. (2012). Contrasting organizing approaches: The “Alinksky tradition” and Frierian organizing approaches. In Minkler, M. (Ed.), Community Organizing and Community Building for Heath and Welfare (59-77). Rutgers University Press.
Payne, C. (1989). Ella baker and models of social change. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 14(4), 885-899.