In his assessment of the basic principles of organizing, Barack Obama acts as a kind of bridge between activists Ella Baker and Saul Alinsky. Like Baker, Obama (2012) calls for “broadly based indigenous leadership—and not one or two charismatic leaders,” to lead local grassroots efforts, but he also thinks like Alinsky about the “power” that organizers can inject into the community and the concrete results that an empowered group can reach for (p. 29). In his writing, more so than either Carol Mueller’s biography of Baker or Alinsky’s own work, Obama gives life to the individuals that are at the center of all organizing. He calls for organizers to “recruit and train their small but growing core of leadership—mothers on welfare, postal workers, CTA drivers and school teachers, all of whom have a vision and memories of what communities can be” (Obama, 2012, p. 31).
In addressing these two styles of organizing, I do not mean to claim one mode is necessarily better than the other, but to demonstrate how different leaders’ strategies produce organized communities with distinctly different kinds of agendas and ways of operating. In Alinsky’s style, the public organizes around goals, accessible objectives that offer a tangible improvement to lives within a community. A hierarchical leadership structure lends itself well to the goal-oriented communities that Alinsky calls for. A clear chain of command headed by a knowledgeable and charismatic organizer allows for fast action, such as the kind Alinsky (1989) and his fellow activists executed when they stormed a Chicago Infant Welfare Services office to demand a resumption of medical care (p. 115). Baker’s leadership style is not as conducive to rapid action but is instead based in, as Mueller (2004) writes, the “commitment to social change through organizing people to act on their own behalf” (p. 82). This strategy puts far more reliance on the community individual than Alinsky’s leader-centric approach and it allows these individuals, the ones at the core of the movement, to maintain their independence from outside forces or leaders who lose focus in the limelight. The success of this strategy was apparent in the rise of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization of university students for which Baker served as an adviser. In 1960, Baker (2004) praised movements like the SNCC for their “inclination toward group-centered leadership” and resistance to “anything that smacked of manipulation or domination” from concerned and interested adults (p. 89). Baker’s grassroots organizing doesn’t aim for fast results. Instead, it looks to build thoughtful and resilient community members who can think for themselves, rally on large scales, and who work closely and amicably with others to bring about change.
Regardless of the means they pursue and the kinds of communities they ultimately build, neither Baker nor Alinsky forgets that it is these people for whom they organize. When Baker (2004) mandates that all leaders must “start where the people are” and Alinsky (1989) writes that “a successful organizer has learned emotionally as well as intellectually to respect the dignity of the people with whom he is working,” they are saying the same thing (p. 84, p.123). They are mandating that, to build effective communities, all kinds of organizers may never forget the needs and experiences of the people they are fighting for.
Alinsky, S. (1989) Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Random House.
Mueller, C. (2004). Ella Baker and the Origins of “Participatory Democracy.” In J. Bobo (Ed.), The Black Studies Reader (pp. 79-90). New York: Routledge.
Obama, B. (2012). Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City. In M. Minkler (Ed.), Community Organizing and Community Building for Health and Welfare (pp. 27-31). New Brunswick: Rutgers UP.