Volume 15, 2009

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A Critique of John McKnight & John Kretzmann's "Community Organizing in the Eighties: Toward a Post-Alinsky Agenda"

(Original written March, 1996, revised 2009 and 2011; postscript 2009)

Mike Miller


McKnight's Exception
Author Note
About the Authors
Reader Comments (opens in new window)


John McKnight has an idea. It is that the "helping professions" don't help. Instead, they create dependency and, in so doing, generate jobs for themselves and a huge support bureaucracy, which also creates jobs. To justify this apparatus, these professions label people by their problems. The problems are then defined as resistant to change, particularly change that might be brought about by the action of those who themselves experience the problems. Given this recalcitrance to change, research must be done to better understand the problems, professionals must be trained to "treat" the problems, service delivery systems must be organized to make sure that the problems are studied, treatment is delivered and evaluation is performed. McKnight's idea is an important one. It sheds light on the growth of the helping professions and the persistence of the problems they claim to address.p>

The remedy to the "problems" approach, McKnight and his associates argue, is an "assets" view of people in low-income communities. Instead of looking at discreet problems, look at individuals' and groups' strengths, ideas, talents, relationships, values and all the other uncredentialed assets they have that can be marshaled to help neighbors and friends who might otherwise become dependent on "helping" professionals. This is also a good and important idea.

The problem with McKnight is that he has blown a good idea into a social theory and political program. The result is that he throws the baby out with the bath water, implying that there is almost nothing trained professionals can do to help other than get out of the way. He further argues, though with a very important modification, that communities should solve their own problems without relying on external resources that might be obtained from the mega-institutions of government or business. Instead, through community development corporations and other means they should develop their own, and here he uses the term in a slightly different sense, assets so that they can produce goods, services and jobs. In a chapter in his recent book, The Careless Society, McKnight and an associate, John Kretzmann, apply their theory to the work and social analysis of Saul Alinsky. The following is a critique of this chapter.

"Post Alinskyism"

I start out with a skeptical reaction to "Post..." anything in the title of an article. What does it mean? The '96 Volkswagon is "Post" the '95, and the '94, ' 93, '92, '91 and '90 models are "Post '80s..." Obviously time provides the opportunity for more experience, the development of new technology and evaluation of past performance. In this sense the later model ought to be better than the earlier (though it ain't necessarily so--we all know about planned obsolescence) But '96 and the '90s are "post '80s" in another sense. The environment changes, and with the changing environment there may be need for adaptation: increased concern for the environment might lead to changes in cars that otherwise wouldn't happen. There is also an invidious meaning. What might have been ok in the last period is now passť, old fogie, old hat, no longer relevant. When I worked for Saul Alinsky in Kansas City, Homer Wadsworth, then the Executive Director of a major Kansas City establishment foundation, said that "Alinsky has the smell of the '30s." The implication was that we were in a post-confrontation era and that Alinsky just couldn't adapt to it. (Alinsky loved it, and promptly accused Wadsworth of having the perfumed odors of executive suites.) The "post..." idea also has the advantage of allowing the commentator to claim that he builds upon, but goes beyond, that of which he is "post." Since the writer is assumed to be appreciative of that upon which he builds, the reader tends to believe that he can rely on the accuracy of what is presented as the "pre." Lastly, there is the peculiarly American infatuation with fads, progress, "new and improved." No one is more guilty of fadism than foundations upon whom proponents of so-called "new models" are dependent for money. Thus there is sometimes a clear institutional interest and conscious or unconscious motive in claiming to be "post" or "new."

The McKnight-Kretzmann essay shares a bit of each of these aspects of "postism". Alinsky is called a "community-organizing giant." But current organizers "work in communities as if the master's most basic assumptions about the nature of neighborhoods and the logic of organizing strategies were more or less immutable." Then come the changing environment and new model approaches: "...first, the structure of poor and working-class urban neighborhoods has changed...(and) given these changes...a number of the classic Alinsky strategies and tactics are in need of critical revision."

The argument opens with a misstatement of basic Alinsky. "For Alinsky and his disciples, the city was reducible to two basic units: the neighborhood and the 'enemy' outside the neighborhood... (E)xternal decision-makers controlled the internal distribution of services and goods...Alinsky's approach argued for the building of the first modern consumer organizations--in this case defined by geography."

The misstatement continues: "Two further assumptions...shaped...strategy. First, the neighborhood contained within it a number of vital organizations...particularly important (were) churches, ethnic groups, political organizations, and labor unions. The organizer's task was to forge a coalition of leaders from these groups. Their constituencies would then follow... (O)rganizers could concentrate on pulling together...leaders, a very small percentage of the neighborhood's residents, and could plausibly claim representative community status. The second set of assumptions concerned the enemy, or target (which was) the strategically defined embodiment of the causes of neighborhood problems (and) was thought to be visible,... local,...and capable (possessing the resources and authority to correct the problem)."

Giving "the master" his due, we are told "For many years, this model of Alinsky-type organizing both reflected accurately the nature of city neighborhoods and, more important, got results." But, of course, it is now a thing of the past: "Today, however, conditions have changed dramatically..."

McKnight and Kretzmann then tell us the changes that have taken place: decline in participation in local political party structures; shrinkage, centralization and bureaucratization of the old industrial labor unions; dispersion of people and loss of ethnic identity. Other changes are noted as well: residential and job mobility; more women (thus less volunteer time) in the labor market; separation of workplace from residence.

The targets, we are told, have changed as well. They aren't visible because they aren't there. They aren't local, but are absentee owned. Those that do remain are publicly funded service agencies "least capable of producing results no matter how hard community organization confronts them." The examples used are schools and police. "Therefore," the authors continue, "today's community organizers cannot assume that either their assumptions about local structures or the tactics handed down from earlier generations are appropriate to the neighborhoods in which they work today." And, of course, then the prelude to the "new models:" "What is needed is a heightened commitment to exploration and invention at the neighborhood level--experiments that adapt the classic Alinsky model to drastically changed conditions."

Here's what Alinsky wrote on one dimension of this argument in the 1969 "Afterward to the Vintage Edition" of his 1946 classic, Reveille for Radicals."

In the world as it is, one must begin from where one is. A political idiot knows that most major issues are national, and in some cases international, in scope. They cannot be coped with on the local community level. The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council at the zenith of its power could not deal with its most pressing problems of its time, the issue of widespread unemployment, until our whole economy boomed as a result of world developments. Until the people of the East and West and other parts of the country had the money to buy meat there would be unemployment in the Back of the Yards regardless of anything the Back of the Yards Council could do. This is obvious. However, it is just as clear that in order to create a national movement one must first build the parts to put together. The building of the parts is a tough, tedious, time-consuming, often monotonous and frequently frustrating job. There is no detour to avoid this means to the end of building a national movement. To organize the automobile industry each part of General Motors [Chevrolet, Cadillack, suppliers, etc].had to be organized and then put together, and then General Motors was organized. The same process had to be followed with Chrysler.and then Ford.and now the bigger parts were ready to be put together and there was a nation-wide automobile workers union. [There is an important omission from this analysis: all this organizing created locals that were affiliated from the start with what became the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). However, this omission should not distract us from the major point: Alinsky recognized the interdependence of the economic system and political structure from the very beginning of his work.].The fundamental issue is how we go about building a national movement.

But this isn't an Alinsky afterthought, a need to clarify what was obscure in the 1946 original of Reville for Radicals. Here's what he said then:

It requires nothing more than common sense to realize that many of the problems in a local community which seemingly have their roots in the neighborhood in reality stem from sources far removed from the community. To a considerable extent these problems are the result of vast destructive forces which pervade the entire social scene. It is when these forces impinge on the local community that they give rise to a definite community problem. It should, thus, always be remembered that many local problems are in reality malignant microcosms of vast conflicts, pressures, stresses and strains of the entire social order. The recognition of the functional relationship between a community and the society of which it is a part seems much too obvious to be fortified by illustration.

[Alinsky then goes on to provide an illustration, and then continues.]

The example is used because it gives a sharply focused picture of the dynamic interrelationship between a community and the general social scene. In other words, the people of the community fully understand that teir own welfare and the welfare of their community is dependent upon conditions west and east of their town. To a very significant extent this interdependence obtains for all other communities. [Emphasis added.]. The dynamic character of a People's Organization is such that its members recognize the functional relationships that exist between issues, and between their community and the general social structure. They know that their problems are not peculiar to themselves and that their communities do not comprise little isolated worlds.They recognize that only through engaging in a national organizational program can they ever hope to break loose from their shackles and hteir misery. They know that people everywhere are the same kind of people, their problems are the same, their needs, their hopes, and their aspirations are the same. A people's program is therefore predicated upon the thesis that only through the combined strength of many organizations such as their own can they ever hope to cope effectively with those major destructive forces which pervade the entire social order and converge upon their communities and themselves to establish the blight that afflicts both the neighborhood and their lives.

It astonishes me, writing 50 years later, how these extensive remarks have been ignored, both by Alinsky critics and supporters. What Alinsky did not then anticipate was the power of cooptation: maximum feasible citizen participation, community development corporations, programs for this-and-that, the endless proliferation of "community-based nonprofits," each perhaps offering a good program but none part of an effort to build real people power. Indeed, as we shall see, Kretzman and McKnight are themselves part of this problem.

Having created a straw man, the authors proceed to demolish him. "(I)t becomes less and less likely that strategies stressing either the consolidation of existing associations or the confronting of an outside enemy make much sense. Socially atomized and increasingly cut off from centralized, unresponsive mainstream economic institutions, these neighborhoods...present a new challenge." And then the remedy, which flows logically from the (erroneous) analysis: "(N)ew strategies must stress an organizing process that enhances and builds community, and that focuses on developing the neighborhood's own capacities to do for itself what outsiders will or can no longer do...building social, political, and economic structures at the local level that re-create a space for these people to act and decide."

The shift, McKnight and Kretzmann tell us, involves a "reconceptualization of neighborhood as a locus of production as well as consumption...With this shift comes a parallel reorientation of strategy--from organizing confrontation over service distribution issues to organizing confrontation over production and the resources necessary to produce."

"Experimenting with this new agenda for community building (focuses) on three different centers of activity: the local neighborhood, the public sector, and the private sector." Before going on, ask yourself if this is any different from the "centers of activity" focused on by the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council--Alinsky's first "mass-based organization"? They were local merchants, the packinghouse industry, the political machine and larger political authorities. Doesn't sound very different, does it?

The authors then elaborate what this new agenda looks like. "Within the neighborhood itself...: (1) continue pushing local development corporations; (2) expand cooperative, neighborhood-owned, worker-owned and joint-venture enterprises for the production of exportable and locally useful goods; (3) explore further community-based and -owned enterprises in the services and communications areas." In the public sector, "(1) shift public dollars from traditional transfer and maintenance functions toward investment approaches; (2) direct public resources to neighborhood development groups; (3) (create) neighborhood-based forms of governance carrying significant local authority." In the private sector, "devise ways to reroot business, to insert locality into the equations by which businesses make decisions...(W)ithout the successful pursuit of such an agenda, any movement toward building local productive capacities will remain peripheral to the ever-increasing mobility of both producers and capital. The directions in which this agenda might move...embrace two connected strategies: (a) 'corporate accountability' accounts that would provide a variety of incentives and penalties related to the needs of communities for jobs and location commitments as well as local representation on boards or regulatory bodies...(which could be) modeled on the organizational groundwork laid by the Community Reinvestment Act...; and (b) 'community banking' designed to define the obligations of financial institutions for local credit allocation."

"Taken together, these initial suggestions define the emerging shape of a post-Alinsky agenda for urban neighborhoods. They argue for an organizing approach aimed at building community through the restoration of localized political economies."

In conclusion, the authors tell us "effective organizers are learning quickly that restoring the practice of an economics in which place matters, and in which production builds rather than destroys community, involves a major political challenge. We can only imagine that if Alinsky himself were still around to growl his advice at us, he would admonish us to take up that challenge while we still have neighborhoods left to build." (Again the writers are the presumed bearers of the legacy.)

One of the political problems of our time is the loss of a sense of continuity, tradition, passing on the torch. American infatuation with the new serves the market economy well. We are always in search of the new product. The market economy is also well served by our uncritical acceptance of continuing "progress" as a goal. "Progress" supplants preservation, maintenance, enhancing what we know to be good. In the name of progress we bulldozed neighborhoods rather than rebuilding and restoring them; we uncritically adopted new technologies whether or not people or the environment benefited. If investors thought it would be profitable, that seemed to be enough. The consequences for local institutions, families and neighborhoods were either ignored or dismissed with such famous phrases as that of Robert Moses who said of his freeway program's disruptions in New York, "you can't have an omelet without breaking eggs." Poor and working class people were the eggs; their presumed betters ate the omelet.

The nonprofit-service-public interest-foundation industry creates a similar dynamic. It is also generated by the infatuation with progress. But in this case, it is expressed in the continuous quest for "new models." Perpetual innovation leads to the creation of a continuous stream of new programs or even new agencies. Since they can only be funded for three years (the typical life span of a foundation grant), they rarely become institutionalized. The "new models" have the additional benefit of providing grantors--staff, boards, expert consultants and benefactors--cocktail party insider talk. They are at the "cutting edge" of whatever new cloth needs to be sewn. Those who fail to keep up with the latest trends are traditionalists, purists, antiquated, passť, inflexible, narrow, obstacles to progress and a host of other dismissals.

Against this dominant trend are organizers who are trying to establish a tradition of independent, membership funded, democratically controlled community organizations. They build on the now almost 60-year old practice and theory developed by Saul Alinsky, who, in turn, built on: (1) the work of the industrial union movement; (2) organizations initiated by the political left of tenants, the unemployed and others at the margins of society ; (3) over one hundred years of Catholic social and economic justice teachings and the turn of the century "social gospel" of American Protestantism; (4) a deep appreciation of the particularities of different ethnic, racial, religious and cultural groups who together comprised the mosaic of American pluralism, and; (5) currents of American sociological, political and economic thought that examined social problems in the context of broader forces in society that created and perpetuated poverty. It is only recently, forty years after the McCarthy era effectively silenced left criticism in America and twenty-five years after Alinsky's death, that we can begin to confidently say that a tradition of independent community organizing is stable enough to make a continuing contribution to American democracy. Which brings us back to the work of McKnight and Kretzmann.

Some of what these authors present as new isn't new at all. It is good but not new. Some of what the authors present is wrong, but has been uncritically accepted because criticisms of it are easily dismissed as "traditional." Some of what the authors present is new and good, but builds on exactly what good traditional organizing is about. If we are to build a powerful tradition rather than be permanently beholden to benefactors who, unwittingly or otherwise, perpetuate fads that marginalize social change we need to be able to build on strong platforms rather than start brand new structures. Endless innovation becomes, interestingly enough, a tactic of cooptation, and undermines significant change.

Alinsky was never about "consumer" organizing. He was about the effective, democratic participation of citizens in the decision-making processes which affected their lives. His first organization, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, brought together the political left and the Packinghouse Workers Union, the Catholic Church from the Cardinal and Auxiliary Bishop down to local parishioners, and a multitude of local civic, ethnic, small business and other voluntary associations. Hardly the irreducible "neighborhood" described by the authors. The local political machine was explicitly excluded from this formation. Leaders were pulled together because they had followers. But the dynamic organizing process changed both the relationship of leaders and followers and leaders and leaders. Catholic clergy and laity stood together with the Packinghouse Workers Union and its talented Communist Party organizer to win a strike. Feuding, and at times warring, ethnic groups and language/nationality parishes began to cooperate with one another. Passive lay people became the active co-creators of programs in their neighborhood. Thirty years later, in The Woodlawn Organization, African-American churches and existing neighborhood groups were first pulled together, then joined by newly organized welfare recipient, tenant and other associations to form a powerful voice in the struggle against the University of Chicago's plan to eliminate their neighborhood so it could create a racial and class "cordon sanitaire" around the campus. With the assistance of an independent planner, they created a neighborhood-designed renewal plan. That they ultimately lost more than they gained and became a neighborhood development corporation rather than a broadly-based citizen action organization is testimony to the power of the Democratic Machine, its determination to destroy or tame TWO as an independent voice and to the very strategies of community economic development then advocated as the "new model"--and now supported by McKnight and Kretzmann--namely "community development."

By the 1930s, and indeed by the 1870s, it was clear that the fate of neighborhoods and local communities was influenced, shaped and at times decided by a functional interconnection of local, national and in-between decision-making bodies. The New Deal radically shifted political power from local governments to the Federal government. The packinghouse industry, while situated in the Back of the Yards, was hardly a cottage industry. Nor, for that matter, were any of the industries which were the major employers of the emerging urban working class. Targets thus were visible and invisible, local and national, capable and incapable. The organizing art is to make visible the invisible and determine what is within the capacity of local decision-makers--even if that is no more than to recommend something to more distant authority. It is indeed ironic that McKnight and Kretzmann choose credit red-lining as their model of the new. It is precisely out of old community organizing that the analysis of red-lining emerged. It was these organizations that made visible the combination of block-busting realtors and credit-denying insurers and financing institutions, sometimes in cahoots with such public authorities as zoning boards, urban renewal authorities and others--a combination that was destroying stable neighborhoods. From the work of these organizations two strategies emerged. The first, "greenlining," gathered together individual and institutional depositors and used their economic clout to force lenders to make credit (capital) available for local homeowners, merchants and institutions so that they would have the financial wherewithal to creatively develop their neighborhoods. The second strategy, a legislative and regulatory one, led to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act and the Community Reinvestment Act, cited by the authors as the models for "new" organizing.

The growing atomization, isolation, anomie and alienation of poor and working-class neighborhoods is an indisputable fact of modernity--in fact of "progress." But it was against these nascent forces that community organizing placed itself, seeking to shift powerless and passive people into active roles of citizenship. It is also no doubt true that the inner-life of neighborhoods and voluntary associations was far more vibrant 60 years ago than it is today. But this fact should not blind us to the tearing of the fabric of neighborhood life that was going on then nor to the fact that some of the fabric remains today. This fabric has always been a concern of community organizing. Today's organizers spend more intentional time on re-weaving it than they did then. That is an adaptation to the changing environment--something that any living tradition must do.

Too great an emphasis on the mobility of financial and plant capital leads the authors to ignore the fact that there remain within actionable distance of any low-income or working-class neighborhood corporate and other business targets that can be made visible and actionable, and to whom proposals within their capacity to respond can be made. This emphasis also leads to a strategic emphasis on self-help institutions, that is on community- and economic-development organizations which, almost without exception across the country, are dependent on external funding and run by experts without long-standing roots in the communities which are the intended beneficiaries of their projects. The reports of these projects describe in glowing terms the hundreds of housing units they build or rehabilitate and, when they are good, the hundreds of jobs they create. They say nothing of the thousands of housing units that are lost or of the thousands of well-paying jobs that have disappeared. Note that I say "a strategic emphasis," rather than a tactical one. In part, many community organizations lost whatever capacity they might have had to define a national agenda on affordable housing and decent jobs precisely because they got seduced by government, foundation and suburban do-gooder funding for local "development."

It is, in fact, those community organizations that retained the old model of making visible and targeting local decision-makers who have done some of the best community development work in the country. But they treat development as a tactic, one trick in a bag of many, all of which are dependent on building the same old independent, member-financed, democratically controlled, confrontational community organizations. It is these organizations, not the community development corporations that are dependent on foundation, government or wealthy suburban grants, gifts or markets, that are developing the capacity to do exactly the "re-rooting" of business into local communities that McKnight and Kretzmann call for. It is these organizations, with a possibly renewed labor movement, that have a ghost of a chance of developing the "national, even international, policy agenda" that could develop either the corporate accountability or community banking legislation or directly negotiated agreements that are the core of what these authors think "any serious approach to community-building must (emphasis in original) devise." It is they that are, or could be, capable of combining economic action (boycotts, greenlining, corporate campaigns, organizing unorganized workers), political action (voter registration, education and get-out-the-vote), legislative action (politician and public administrator accountability sessions, legislative and administrative reform), and direct action (public shaming and disruption of the status quo so that unjust systems cannot continue business as usual).

In 1992, in his unsuccessful bid for nomination as the Democratic Party's candidate for President, Congressman Dick Gebhardt raised some of the important issues of corporate accountability and economic justice. He was unfortunately too wed to welfare state solutions, and part of a Party too wed to internationally-oriented capital, to make much of a dent. In 1996, Pat Buchanan raised some of the same issues. He is unfortunately too wed to blaming immigrants and welfare recipients, and part of a Party too wed to something called the "free market" to make much of dent. But in varying ways, in regional, statewide and national decision-making forums, ACORN, Citizen Action, National Peoples Action, Western Organization of Resource Councils, Industrial Areas Foundation, Pacific Institute for Community Organizing, Gamaliel Foundation and Direct Action Research & Training, are beginning to raise exactly the issues that McKnight and Kretzmann say must be raised.

McKnight and Kretzmann are right in seeking "localized political economies," in seeking to join politics and economics, in telling us that adaptation to changing circumstances and avoiding "reigning orthodoxies" are all among the things we must do. All the more too bad that their history is inaccurate, their analysis inadequate and their strategic emphasis on development rather than organizing misplaced.

McKnight's Exception

McKnight and Kretzmann are clear that not everything can be done by neighborhoods themselves. They conclude their chapter with a new target: national and international capital.

The authors say, "those who plan a neighborhood future based upon public support and private reindustrialization actually sentence most low-income clients to an ever growing poverty." One of the successful measures of community organization, its ability to deliver financial benefits to a constituency, was seriously threatened in a period characterized by cutbacks in public spending. This point is part of the larger argument McKnight makes against confronting local power structures. As McKnight says, "In the kinds of (low-income) neighborhoods we are concerned about, it becomes less and less likely that strategies stressing...confronting of an outside enemy make much sense." McKnight is enthusiastic about self-help, mutual aid and community development, and often accurate in his critique of many social workers and social planners. But he's not so accurate in either his description of what community organizing was all about or in his prescription for the ills afflicting the urban poor. Alinsky's reason for organizing extended beyond the mere leveraging of additional goods and services. More fundamentally, it was about building organizations of poor and working class people that could challenge the existing relations of power so that the organization's members could negotiate with "the power structure" in their own behalf. McKnight and Kretzmann miss exactly this point in their characterization of Alinsky organizing, saying he was essentially about leveraging goods and services. Later in their essay, and contradictorily, the two authors advocate coalitions that can act nationally to hold institutions accountable. How the power is to be built to do this without beginning locally is not clear; nor is it clear how organizations that don't learn how to deal with power by dealing with smaller issues will somehow come together in national coalitions that have the power to deal with larger issues. The particular problem that the authors address is the flight of capital that now takes place in the global economy. Surely we will not get a handle on issues of this magnitude if we can't get city councils, boards of supervisors, members of the House of Representatives, the Conference of Mayors and others on our side. And we won't learn how to do that if we don't first learn to hammer out respectful power relationships with them at the local level.

Organizing is simple--but not easy. Its bottom line is building democratic power to change unjust systems. At the bottom of that bottom line are increasing numbers of organized and engaged people who are willing to challenge the status quo: a determined 10 can get a stop sign at a dangerous neighborhood intersection; 100 parents can get a local elementary school principal to respectfully engage with them to shape a school program that better meets the needs of their children--or get the school board to assign a principal who will; 1,000 residents can get a zoning board to stop the location of a toxic waste dump in their area or make the issue hot enough for elected officials to intervene; 10,000 determined citizens could put enough pressure on most local governments to get them to negotiate a job development and community investment program that offered real opportunities for jobs and economic development in lower-income neighborhoods; 100,000 people marching, boycotting and demonstrating could get almost any corporation to change its hiring practices or a bank to change its lending practices; 1,000,000 organized people could begin to shape public policy in the largest states in the union, and 10,000,000 of them could affect national policy or replace the politicians who won't. The independent Solidarity union did just that in the much more difficult circumstance of Communist rule in Poland. Our challenge in the United States is to build our own version of Solidarity. No doubt that community development corporations and the recognition of neighborhood's assets are all among the necessary tools for our 21st Century democratic revolution, but they are just that: tools that allow us to more effectively struggle toward a more just and democratic society, and that build democratic practices and values within themselves in the course of the struggle.

And here's a very important caveat: if you don't begin with something that is equivalent to the proverbial organizer's stop sign, then you don't teach people at the base of your organization how to effectively engage and hold accountable institutional decision-makers. Starting with "immediate, specific and winnable" issues is how you do that. And when people do that, they go home and tell their neighbors about their success. That makes it possible to shift the skeptics from critical commentary to active participation. That how you begin the process that builds people power.

It is ironic that McKnight's new argument has won widespread support from conservatives. If the assets are all there in the community, then nothing in the existing economic or political structure needs to be changed. The only exception is that the welfare state needs to be dismantled, and the professions reformed. The conservatives, of course, conveniently omit what McKnight and Kretzmann have to say about international capital. But these two authors, in their single-mindedness about "assets" as a social theory invite the omission.

Postscript, October, 2009

Almost 15 years ago, when I wrote this critique, few anticipated the deep recession we are now in. Nor was corporate power so brazen in its claims and demands for privilege. As financial institutions are considered "too big to fail," foreclosures run rampant despite the fact that lenders are responsible for the unconscionable loans in the first place, interest rates are usurious, global capital seeks the most exploitable sources of labor, union-busting is a common business practice, and the private health care industry reveals that profits certainly do come before patients, it is clearer than ever that democratically-constituted mechanisms for the exercise of people power are desperately needed.

It is no accident that the banking industry and Republicans are seeking to destroy ACORN which, whatever its imperfections, is such an expression. Nor should we be surprised that so many Democrats have joined in the enterprise. Whether your chosen expression is "direct membership," "institution/value-based" or "coalition" community organizing (I happen to favor melding the three), it appears to me it is Alinsky-tradition community organizing that is the best shot we’ve got these days for keeping President Obama from further drifting to the center-right and for getting a handle on now-uncontrolled corporate wealth and power.

A legislative agenda that includes breaking up corporate power (when it is "too large to allow to fail" it is too large to exist), nationalization, strong regulation (the weakest of the controls on corporate power because the regulated soon come to regulate the regulators), steeply progressive taxation, support for cooperatives and worker-ownership, restoring neighborhoods and small-to-medium size business requires strong, independent, people power.

Author Note

I wrote the draft of this article in 1996, and didn’t do much with it until there recently began to be inquiries in the organizing world about the McKnight/Kretzman thesis. I sent what’s above (pre-posrtscript) to Randy Stoecker at the community organizer internet site COMM-ORG and asked him what he thought. He said "you’ve got a great case." That led me to dusting off this piece, and writing a brief postscript. Comments are welcome at

About the Author

Mike Miller is director of the San Francisco-based ORGANIZE Training Center, and author of the recently published A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco (Heyday Books, September 2009). Visit for more information.