Key Principles

Below, you will find a statement on the principles of organizing and education, an excerpt from a paper I wrote early on in the semester, entitled, “On Effective Community Organizers and the Ethics of Their Outreach.” In order to better understand the components at the heart of education and organizing, I compared community organizing approaches as outlined by Ella Baker and Saul D. Alinsky, and used the examples of Obama and Trump in order to reflect on these approaches in practice.

(It is important to note that the modern leaders are not meant to stand in for Baker or Alinsky, but rather provide a framework through which to discuss their ideas.)

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In considering Obama and Trump, who could not be more unlike in their morals and methods, one must wonder, what makes an effective community organizer? What should be his or her role, and how should he or she effect change? Finally, does the organizer have any obligation to remain ethical in his or her beliefs and practices, or might ethics and organizing be completely severed from one another? The juxtaposition of the two leaders demonstrates the great variance in populist approaches to community organizing and illustrates that the morality of the organizer is secondary to (or perhaps even removed entirely from) his or her ability to mobilize a community.

Ella Baker’s childhood, a world of “family socialism,” had a great influence on her methodology as one of the most important figures in Afro-American activism (Payne, 1989). Values from her upbringing became the basic tenants of her thought surrounding community organizing—resources are to be shared, all people are equal, and leadership should be decentralized in nature. “I have always thought,” wrote Baker, “that what is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people” (as cited in Payne, 1989, p. 892). She was skeptical of leaders who desired honor and recognition from society, and Baker instead promoted leadership as teaching with a focus on personal transformation and the quality of relationships between activists. From her perspective, “the very idea of leading people to freedom is a contradiction,” for people must realize their own social position and ability to make change in order to be free. “Strong people,” she concluded in one interview, “don’t need strong leaders” (as cited in Payne, 1989, p. 893).

According to Saul D. Alinsky, an effective community organizer should ideally come from outside of the community in need of organizing, and act as a teacher or guide who recruits and campaigns in order to build a “mass power base” (Martinson and Su, 2012). The mobilization of the communit­­y requires top-down organization, not bottom-up, as Ella Baker would argue, and Alinsky (1971) is clear that it is the responsibility of the organizer “to give the people the feeling that they can do something” (p. 113). In achieving this principal objective, the appropriate selection of a campaign target and “community disorganization” are central (Alinsky, 1971, p. 116). The organizer should choose a “winnable issue,” one that is specific and realistic, for small “battles that can be won rather quickly…give the community a sense of confidence and achievement” (Martinson and Su, 2012, p. 61). He or she should then “rub raw the resents of the people of the community,” agitating the people in order to motivate and unite them (Alinsky, 1971, p. 116). Although Alinsky claims that there is no prescribed methodology for community organizing because circumstance dictates strategy, there is no question that his organizer must be able, all-knowing, and in full control.

While Alinsky champions the external growth of the activist organization, Baker concentrates on the internal growth of the activists. Alinsky’s emphasis on mass mobilization in community organization disregards the transformation of individuals and development of deep relationships with human beings that Baker argues must come first. Moreover, Alinsky is unmoved by this interpersonal component of community organizing, and offers an outlook on “the ethics of means and ends” that Baker would find appalling (Martinson and Su, 2012, p. 61). “You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments,” he writes in Rules for Radicals, because “the ends can justify the means, depending on whose side you are on, how passionate you feel about the issue, and how close you are to defeat” (as cited in Martinson and Su, 2012, p. 61). In other words, Alinsky’s organizer seems to operate outside of the moral universe as we know it, held to a unique set of moral expectations, or perhaps none at all. He or she has been granted extensive ethical flexibility that must be taken advantage of in order to effectively organize the community.

What is the relationship, then, between ethics and community organizing? Are our most sacred values and our greatest leaders irrevocably intertwined, or mutually exclusive? In returning to the cases of our two most recent presidents, it is evident that organizers may be effective even if their beliefs and practices are unethical. Alinsky might not take issue with Trump’s campaign, but Baker certainly would. She is hardly concerned with the outcome of organizing—it is the process that makes a leader effective, and despite his election, Trump failed miserably in promoting equality among all people and forging genuine connections between his supporters. Ultimately, the question of ethics as it relates to community organization is contingent on the focus of the organizer and/or movement. If, as Alinsky asserts, it is the ends that matter most, ethics are impertinent to the efficacy of the organizer. But if an effective organizer is measured according to Baker, by the means through which the ends are achieved, ethics both guide and inspire the organization of a community.