Principles of Organizing

No matter what strategy for community organizing one uses, it can be an exhausting and discouraging process. It is an enormous task to recruit, motivate, educate, and mobilize a support base, and if progress is not soon evident the organizer’s supporters and their passion will atrophy. No matter how small a group, people are sure to have different reasons for their support, even among people who are committed to achieving the same goal. It is the role of the organizer to synthesize those different reasons for change into a comprehensive plan of action with an efficient team to behind it. Different organizers will go about this task in different ways.

For example, in Saul D. Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (1971) he states:

With very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons… The organizer should know and accept that the right reason is only introduced as a moral rationalization after the right end has been achieved although it may have been achieved for the wrong reason- therefore he should search for and use the wrong reasons to achieve the right goals. (p. 76)

In this context, the “right reason” can be read as the common good, while the “wrong reasons” are people’s own selfish interests. However, both of these reasons can motivate people to achieve the same “right thing/end/goal”- the change that will bring about both personal gain and consequentially also the common good. So this begs the question, is there a place for moral high ground in organizing and education, or are the ends so urgent and important that any means should been used to achieve them? The “ends” Alinsky emphasizes are simple, easy goals that essentially guarantee some level of change. However, this change is inherently of minimal long-term impact since it avoids the ideological issues behind the problem and the attitudes of the people implementing them. This approach has the advantage of small, definite steps forward, which are essential to keeping people engaged. However, one takes these steps forward while maintaining a system in which only small, temporary steps are possible.

On the other hand, Ella Baker provides an alternative philosophy of community organizing. Baker was known for choosing to organize the long way, with smaller groups of people who were truly committed to a cause. She left several organizations, including the NAACP, that did not align with her values of producing meaningful, long-term change. By relying on people who truly cared about the right reason, or the common good, Baker took part in movements that were fundamental to the civil rights cause and that implemented lasting change, such as the student sit-in movement of the 1960s (Payne, 1989, p. 890).

As we think about how to make meaningful, long-term changes in communities and their education systems, we must consider how to create activists who are allies committed to even changes that may involve their own personal disempowerment. A person who chooses to step down to stand with others who could not reach their position is infinitely more valuable than a person who tries to pull others up to a place where they will never fit. Even though the end goal is everyone standing on equal footing, the method used to achieve it makes all the difference.