Report to the West Bank CDC: Communities, CDCs, and Community Organizing

Randy Stoecker

October, 2001



I. Types of Communities
A. Turf
B. Stability
C. Relations With the Outside World
II. CDCs and Community Organizing
A. Challenges
B. Models

I. Types of Communities

How do community organizers look at and assess the organizability of a community? The different models (power, development, information)(1) each make somewhat different judgments, but their judgments tend to fall along the community characteristics listed below. This section will discuss what kinds of models may fit easiest with different contexts. That doesn't mean that only those models that fit best should be used, only that using a model that doesn't easily fit may present special challenges. Table III summarizes how the models might fit under different circumstances.

A. Turf

There are two kinds of community turf--claimed and unclaimed. Claimed turf is already organized into one or more formal organizations. Unclaimed turf may have a variety of organizations operating on it, but they have not organized the residents of the area. Claimed turf presents great challenges for a new organizing effort, as the organizer needs to go up against not only the group that got there first, but also the residents who have pledged support to the first group. The only reason to even try organizing on that turf is if the original organization is not building community power.

Assessing the extent to which turf has been "claimed" involves more than looking at the number of organizations in a community. It involves looking at the involvement of residents in those organizations. There might be a lot of organizations, but little involvement of residents. That's still unclaimed turf.

The implication of this for the organizing models is that turf already organized or "claimed" by one organization makes any new organizing effort difficult. Turf claimed by multiple organizations may be ripe for a multi-organizational effort. This condition might be organizable by either the institution-based power model or any variation of the development model. Unclaimed turf, while it may be the most open to organizing, is challenging because it is important to know why it is unclaimed before deciding what kind of organizing to do. Unclaimed turf is potentially organizable by any model. The community characteristics below provide further assessment tools for deciding whether and how to organize.

B. Economic and Population Stability

Except in cases of a serious threat to a stable community, community organizing generally is generally used in communities that lack stability. There are two important ways that a community can lack stability. Economic instability is when people's incomes fluctuate. Population instability is when people move in and out of the community. There can be economic instability without population instability, especially in traditional working class communities. There can also be population instability without economic instability, but in a community organizing context that usually means the income is stably low.

In a community where the population changes frequently, relationship building can be very difficult. These communities often, however, have a variety of service organizations and even community-based organizations that can provide some stable base for a multiple-organization effort. Individual-based organizing in any model can be difficult to sustain in such contexts. When the individual model is used, however, if it works it can have the wonderful outcome of stabilizing the population. And this challenge may be greatest for the power model, because of its emphasis on organization-building. The development model in particular emphasizes programs more than organizations, so does not depend as much on a stable population. The information model, if it focuses just on the education or research organizing part of the process, can also fit in this context. Importantly, however, if the goal is to build a strong and unified community, rather than to just develop individuals or provide programs, then the challege of population instability will have to be met regardless.

In contexts where economic resources are unstable, but population is stable, any of the models might fit. The power model has a much easier time in this context. The main question to ask when using this model or the development model is whether to employ a variation that focuses on multiple organizations or individuals. Also in this context the different models may emphasize different goals. The power model can take a stable population and develop a strong community. The development model can develop a unified community whose members have increased their individual skills. The information model can build a community with a more complete sense of its identity.

C. Relations With the Outside World

Attempting to fit the models to different contexts based on relationships with the outside world is extremely challenging. The problem is that there is not any necessarily objective way to determine what the relations of a community and the outside world are. It may be that the community has important allies that want to give it lots of resources, but only for certain kinds of activities. Does that mean the community has important allies or that they are really enemies in disguise? So where the power model might call such relationships adversarial, the development model might see them as cooperative. The information model might be paralyzed as the analysis step of the process causes conflict between those who use a conflict theory of society and those who use an order theory of society.(2)

For the moment we will bypass this problem by assuming the community's sense of its relationship with the outside world is more important than anyone else's opinion. So if the community sees their relationship with the outside world as being more adversarial, and can identify targets doing bad things or withholding resources, the power model fits the best. In these situations the development model has a severe weakness. If external actors are refusing to cooperate, then the way to gain their cooperation is to give them something in return. Poor communities have nothing that powerholders want, however, except their acquiescence to the rules. If communities withhold that cooperation, which is one of the strategies of the power model, then they have a bargaining chip. The development model, because it is premised on a cooperative relationship, does not have that bargaining chip.(3)

On the other hand, if the community sees their relationship with the outside world as more cooperative, and can identify external resources that will serve their goals, then the development model may fit better. A confrontational style will only scare off outsiders with gifts. And proponents of the power model have been accused on occasion of using confrontation for confrontation's sake, losing rather than gaining strategic advantage.(4)

The information model is difficult to fit in this context. Most popular education organizers and participatory researchers use a conflict theory of society, and so are more comfortable with the power model. Popular education and participatory research are often done to understand the sources of a community's problems, and generally involve power structure analysis that focuses on policy or practices of the powerful that contribute to a community's problems. But there are some popular education and participatory research practices that maintain openness as to the cause, such looking at community members' lifestyle along with environmental contaminants in trying to understand the source of a cancer cluster.

II. CDCs and community organizing

Should CDCs get involved in community organizing? If so, what kind of organizing should they get involved with? How should they get involved? This section will address those questions.

A. Challenges

There are some very important challenges to CDCs becoming involved in community organizing. The most important challenges relate to the CDC's resource base. Interestingly, it seems as if the CDC may be in a no-win situation when it comes to the relationship between community organizing and its resource base. On the one hand, many people are concerned that when the CDC is dependent on external resources for its development projects it cannot act independently. That can severely hinder community organizing, especially the power model of community organizing that might target those external power holders the CDC depends on for its development projects. But the "independently wealthy" CDC, whose income comes from its development projects, is often seen as a suspect promoter of community organizer since it controls the purse strings. It's kind of like the landlord organizing the tenants.

Another challenge to CDCs is in the importance community organizing places on participatory democracy. Community organizing is about building an organization, increasing membership and participation. If a CDC is not prepared to embrace that greater participation in its own work, then community organizing could create enough internal conflict to destroy the CDC. This is especially problematic in CDCs who do not democratically elect their own boards, as we have discovered in Toledo. The Lagrange Development Corporation, with a democratically elected board, weathered the increased demands for participation caused by its community organizing practice far better than Organized Neighbors Yielding Excellence (ONYX), who do not have democratic board elections.(5) My interviews with coordinators of the Massachusetts Association of CDCs Ricanne Hadrian Initiative for Community Organizing show similar findings there.

A third important challenge to CDCs that want to do community organizing is their level of commitment to the concept. It is one thing to want to support community organizing. It is something else to actually support it, especially the controversial power model of community organizing. We know, from both the Massachusetts experiment and the Toledo experiment, that CDCs can do good community organizing, even the power model variety. We are also coming to learn that CDCs can do that when they emphasize democracy in their own organizing and when the board and staff are committed to, and knowledgeable about, community organizing. When the going gets tough, and the organizing loses a battle, or when an external funder threatens to cut off funding because the CDCs organizing group is getting too uppity, the CDC weathers the storm because its board and stuff know enough about organizing strategy to turn defeat into victory and call the bluffs of external funders. Weak CDCs, whose own decision-making structure is unstable, and whose board and staff provide only uninformed lukewarm support for community organizing, are the most at risk of trying organizing and failing, and blaming the organizing rather than their own infrastructure. We have learned from the Massachusetts and Toledo programs that the board and staff need to understand the different organizing models, know enough to supervise the community organizer (and know enough to trust the community organizer and not try to micromanage him/her), and know enough to support the organizing even when it becomes controversial

Here are some questions that need to be answered if a CDC is to successfully manage these challenges:

The initial assessment, then should not be simply an external assessment of the CDC's readiness to do community organizing. It should also be an internal assessment of whether the CDC is ready to create a community-based and democratically-elected governing committee for the community organizing effort, and whether it is ready to insulate the community organizing effort from attempts by the CDC to control it.

The best case situation to expand a CDC's activities into community organizing are when the CDC has a board of directors democratically elected through a community-wide process, and an executive director and at least one respected board member with community organizing knowledge and experience.

B. Models

In thinking about the challenges above, it is clear that the three models present varying opportunities.

The development model is clearly the best fit with a CDC, since it is the least controversial, least threatening, and least conflict-producing. The drawback is that this model may also produce the least benefit. It is based suited to developing social services, which are always in danger of creating "clients" rather than "participants".

The power model may seem to be the worst fit with the CDC, since it emphasizes an adversarial approach to organization-building and requires the CDC itself to have somewhat of an adversarial approach to support it. But this can also build some of the strongest relationships as neighbors who go into battle together learn to protect and support each other under sometimes threatening circumstances.

The information model is the most difficult to determine how it will work with the CDC. Because information model organizing is often pre-organizational, it is often unclear at the outset of the process whether it will lead to power model organizing or development organizing. For example, a community who does a self-study to determine why so many of its members are getting cancer may find out it is because of the factory upwind in the neighborhood and decide to organize to clean it up, which points to power model organizing. On the other hand, they may find out it is because there is a high incidence of smoking in the community, and may decide to engage in a non-controversial health education campaign.

For CDCs that lack the knowledge or unity to fully guide a community organizing effort, there is another possibility. Back in the early days of community organizing, begun by Saul Alinsky, he started a process called a "sponsoring committee." The job of the sponsoring committee was to gather up the resources to support an organizer. Sponsoring committees typically consisted of the local churches, philanthropic groups, and other individuals or groups with money. Each threw some money into the pot until they had enough to support a community organizer for a year. By the end of that year, or sooner, the organizer was supposed to build an independent democratic community organization who would take over the budget and responsibility for directing the community organizing effort. Sometimes the sponsoring committee would continue as a shadow support organization, helping to raise funds. Being part of a sponsoring committee can serve two purposes. First, it can help insulate the CDC from some of the controversy that especially the power model brings. Second, it can avoid turf wars in the neighborhood by bringing together those who may have already have claimed turf and see any new effort as competition.


1.  See Randy Stoecker, Report to the West Bank CDC: Primer on Community Organizing, September 2001

 2.  See Randy Stoecker, "Crossing the Development-Organizing Divide: A Report on the Toledo Community Organizing Training and Technical Assistance Program." 2001. 

3. see Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker, "Community Organizing or Organizing Community? Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment." Gender and Society, 1998, Vol. 12, pp. 729-756.

 4.  See Michael Eichler. 1998. Organizing's Past, Present, and Future. Shelterforce Online. 

 5. see Randy Stoecker, "Crossing the Development-Organizing Divide: A Report on the Toledo Community Organizing Training and Technical Assistance Program." 2001.