organizing and social movements

colist at colist at
Sat Jun 21 10:02:51 CDT 2003

[ed:  Rob is responding to Doug's May 23 post.  A bit from me 

From:    r.kleidman at

A belated response to a discussion about organizing and social 
movements. Robert Fisher, in Let the People Decide, says that 
local organizing can exist without a movement but will not thrive for 
long; when a movement develops, however, CO often rides the 
wave. I'm not sure I agree completely, but I do think there can be 
complementary relationships. I think organizing benefits from 
movement activism in many ways. I also think organizing can 
establish a basis for the emergence of movement activism. Some 
organizers remain dismissive of movements, but I think that is a 
mistake. I don't know of any systematic research on community 
organizing and social movements, however.

The message to which I am responding was posted by Doug Hess 
on May 23. Doug said:

How are community organizers and social movements related? Is 
there value in comparing them? I tend to think they are not so 
much related. Granted, there are people behind social movements 
using some co tools, but I think of them more as activists. Of 
course, occaisionally a network of organizers might ride the wave 
of a social movement to win somethings worthwile or garner more 
organization, but I generally don't see organizing as social 
movement work as many analyst do. To do so, I think, leads to the 
oh-so-common complaint from academics that co lacks umph 
because it doesn't measure up to the labor movement victories 
around the new deal, etc. Besides which "social movement" does 
organizing belong to?  

Rob Kleidman
Associate Professor
Department of Sociology
Rhodes Tower 1725
Cleveland State University
Cleveland OH 44114
(216)687-9203; Fax: (216)687-9314
e-mail: r.kleidman at


[ed:  I am glad that Rob is engaging us in this discussion.  To me, 
this is an important practical question.  So many of us worry that 
the victories of community organizing are too few and too small, 
and we cannot resist comparing the small wins of community 
organizing to the big wins of the past labor and civil rights 
movements.  But I think it is interesting that those movements in 
particular, which produced the biggest victories of recent social 
movements, also look the most like community organizing.  Other 
less successful national movements, such as the women's 
movement, were much less local in their approach.  In many ways, 
I see the civil rights movement as the textbook example of using 
local community organizing to win national level victories.  Think of 
the Montgomery bus boycott--this was a local action organized by 
local groups, and it produced a tidal wave of desegregation.  

Most interesting, the critiques against the global justice movement 
focus on its lack of community organizing.  The critics charge 
activists with showing up for the demonstrations and then leaving 
when the action is over, without attempting to build local 
organizations that can take on global justice issues.  I worry that 
the lack of community organizing in the global justice movement 
will doom it to failure.

So, from my reading of history, the most successful social 
movements are the ones that take a community organizing 
approach to broad-scale change.  I see community organizing as a 
method of movement-building, in contrast to the activist approach 
that Rob cites as typical of movement-building.  The community 
organizing approach is about building local organizations that can 
take on a broad set of issues defined by the people in the 
organization.  The activist approach is about taking on a single 
issue defined by the activist.  There are times when these 
approaches combine, however, such as in the campaign to win the 
Community Reinvestment Act.  National People's Action approach 
to the struggle for CRA was to build a coalition of local 
organizations, who were already struggling against disinvestment 
and its accompanying redlining, and focus them on a national 

I think our chances for success will be enhanced if we once again 
combine community organizing approaches with social movement 
level action.]

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