This paper is presented as part of the 1996-97 H-Urban Seminar on the History of Community Organizing and Community-Based Development. A related review of the most recent biography of Saul Alinsky, Sanford Horwitt's LET THEM CALL ME REBEL: THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF SAUL ALINSKY (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987) is available at This is available via a "link" if you are reading the WWW version of this paper, by aiming your WWW browser at or by sending e-mail to with the message: GET ALINSKY REVIEW

For additional information on the seminar, the WWW Home Page is located at or contact Wendy Plotkin at

Comments on the paper may be sent to for posting to COMM-ORG or directly to Randy Stoecker at the e-mail address below.


Randy Stoecker
Dept. of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work
University of Toledo
Toledo, OH 43606

Susan Stall
Department of Sociology
Northeastern Illinois University
5500 N. St. Louis Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625

This paper is adapted from presentations at the annual meetings of the Midwest Sociological Society, and the American Sociological Association.

Copyright (c) 1996 by Randy Stoecker and Susan Stall, all rights reserved. This work may be copied in whole or in part, with proper attribution, as long as the copying is not-for-profit "fair use" for research, commentary, study, or teaching. For other permission, please contact the authors.

Table of Contents (Click on one to move to that section, if you choose)

  6. NOTES


This paper looks at two strains of urban community organizing, distinguished by philosophy and often by gender: the well-known Alinsky model, which focuses on communities organizing for power, and what we call the women-centered model, which focuses on organizing relationships to build community. These models are rooted in somewhat distinct traditions and vary along eight dimensions: the conception of power; the theory of the polity; the separation/connection of public and private spheres; the view of cultural values; the role of conflict; the role of the organizer; the organizing process; and the role of the organization. We conclude that capitalist disinvestment, the increasing feminization of poverty, and the overall deterioration of community relationships makes each model, by itself, impractical, and successful community organizing requires drawing upon both models.


"Despite a rich and proud heritage of female organizers and movement leaders, the field of community organization, in both its teaching models and its major exponents, has been a male- dominated preserve, where, even though values are expressed in terms of participatory democracy, much of the focus within the dominant practice methods has been nonsupportive or antithetical to feminism. Strategies have largely been based on "macho-power" models, manipulativeness, and zero-sum gamesmanship" (Weil, l986, p. 192). "The WOMAN in woman organizer is important....It stands for a growing awareness of different tactics and techniques, and maybe even a growing awareness of unique goals" ( Education Center for Community Organizing [ECCO], 1989, p. 15).

Gender as a variable in social movements has only recently received much attention ( Bookman and Morgen, l988;Caldwell, 1994; McAdam, 1989;Stoecker, 1992; Thompson, l994; Tracy, l994; West and Blumberg, l990). The neglect of gender has been even more pronounced in the field of community organizing ( Weil, 1986, p. 192) --a particular form of social movement centered on place- based mobilizing within neighborhoods or other forms of localized communities. In the academic analyses of social protest the use of terms such as "organizer" without gender specification implicitly reinforces dominant notions that men are playing these roles (West and Blumberg, l990).

Recently, feminist researchers and organizers have argued for a theory of organizing that is feminist or "women-centered" ( Ackelsberg, l988; ECCO, 1989; Gutierrez and Lewis, 1992; Haywoode, l991a; Weil, l986; West and Blumberg, l990). They reexamine traditional assumptions, concepts, and definitions of organizing to include women's experiences. Using this perspective, our aim is to compare what we see as two of the most important strands of community organizing in the United States: the Alinsky model and the women-centered model.

In this paper we first briefly trace the historical roots of each tradition. Next, we explore the differences between the two approaches, drawing on U.S. examples across five decades. We then discuss the implications of each model and the potential for integrating them.


The very term "community organizing" is inextricably linked with the late Saul Alinsky, whose community organizing career began in the late 1930s. As part of his field research job, he was to develop a program to combat juvenile delinquency in Chicago's "Back of the Yards" neighborhood downwind of the Chicago Stockyards--a foul-smelling and crime-ridden slum of poor Poles, Lithuanians, and Slovaks. When Alinsky arrived the Congress of Industrial Organizations was organizing the stockyard workers living there. Expanding the CIO model beyond workplace issues, Alinsky organized the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) from local neighborhood groups, ethnic clubs, union locals, bowling leagues, and an American Legion Post. The success of BYNC in getting expanded city services and power started Alinsky off on a long career of organizing poor urban communities around the country ( Finks, 1984; Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987).

Alinsky's targets shot at him, threw him in jail, and linked him to Communists, organized crime, and other "undesirables." He saw how the "haves" blatantly took from the "have nots" and unashamedly manipulated the consciousness of the "have a little, want mores." Alinsky had little patience for the version of community organizing practiced by social workers, saying "they organize to get rid of four-legged rats and stop there; we organize to get rid of four-legged rats so we can get on to removing two-legged rats" (Alinsky, 1971, p. 68. ).

Alinsky often argued that a career as a community organizer had to come before all else, including family, and to enforce this he would keep his trainees up all hours of the night at meetings and discussions ( Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987, p. 10). Though he did not publicly discourage women from engaging in the work ( Alinsky, 1971), he was skeptical of women doing his kind of community organizing, fearing they were too delicate ( Finks, 1984). [1] Heather Booth, who went on to help found the Midwest Academy and Citizen Action, quit the Community Action Program of Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), believing that women received inadequate training from IAF and the IAF wasn't sensitive to women's issues.

Alinsky's approach has influenced an entire generation of organizers who adapted his principles, but retained a core of practices and assumptions we will explore later. The practice of the Alinsky model has built powerful organizations and produced visible victories across the country: Back of the Yards and TWO in Chicago, SECO in Baltimore, FIGHT in Rochester, MACO in Detroit, ACORN in Little Rock, ETCO in Toledo, and COPS in San Antonio, among others. These organizations have in some cases saved entire communities from destruction and produced influential leaders who have gone on to change the face of the public sphere.

Unlike the Alinsky model, the women-centered model of community organizing cannot be attributed to a single person or movement. Indeed, a wide diversity of women have mobilized around many different issues using many different methods. We are most interested in those mobilizations which fit the community organizing definition of being locale-based.

This model can be traced back to African-American women's efforts to sustain home and community under slavery . Bell Hooks (l990; also see Davis, l981) notes the historic importance for African- Americans of "homeplace" as a site to recognize and resist domination. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, African-American women involved in the Black Women's Clubs organized day-care centers, orphanages, and nursing homes. Others, such as Ida B. Wells, organized campaigns around such issues as lynching and rape ( Duster, 1970; Giddings, l984; Gutierrez & Lewis, l992).

Also important in understanding the historical roots of current urban organizing efforts are Anglo women's "municipal housekeeping" activities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. "Then public spirited women, in attempting to overcome disapproval of their public role...explain[ed] that they were only protecting their homes and families by extending their activities from the home into the public arena. Women claimed the right to be guardians of the neighborhood, just as they were acknowledged to be guardians of the family". Since then, women created numerous voluntary and benevolent associations to campaign for concrete reforms in local neighborhoods and broader reforms in municipal services, education, labor, housing, health care, and children's' rights (Haywoode, l991, p. 180; Tax, 1980; Berg 1978).

Perhaps the most famous of these activities were the settlement houses, founded primarily by college-educated white middle-class women who believed they should live in the neighborhood in which they worked ( Bryan and Davis, l990, p. 5). The most well-known settlement house organizer was Jane Addams, who with Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House on Chicago's west side in 1889. Their goal was to improve the social networks, social services, and community life in poverty-stricken immigrant slums. They succeeded in developing parks, playgrounds, expanded community services, and neighborhood plans. They were also involved in social reform movements promoting labor legislation for women and children, care of delinquents, and women's suffrage. But community organizers often saw them as engaging in charity work rather than adversarial social action ( Brandwein, l981; l987; Finks, 1984, pp.96-97), and clinical social workers saw them as violating the detached casework method that emphasized individual treatment over social reform and community development (Drew, l983; Lee, l937; Specht and Courtney, l994).

Today, women of color, low-income, and working class women create and sustain numerous protest efforts and organizations to alter living conditions or policies that threaten their families and communities (Bookman and Morgen, l988; Feldman and Stall, 1994; Garland, l988; Wilkes, l988; Gutierrez and Lewis, l992; Haywoode, l991; Leavitt, 1993; McCourt, l977; Hamilton, 1991). This women- centered model also carries a history of success different from the Alinsky model. The consciousness-raising groups of the radical branch of the 1970s women's movement allowed women to challenge both private and public arrangements in ways that would forever effect their relationships, housework, parenting practices, and career paths. The consequent changes in women's health care and women's knowledge of their own bodies, in cultural practices around dating and relationships, and the relationship between work and family are still reverberating through society. That these successes have not been better documented owes to the fact that struggles focused on the private sphere have been neither defined nor valued as important.


While some authors have examined and critiqued the Alinsky style of organizing (Lancourt, 1979; Sherrard and Murray, 1965; Stein, 1986 ), and a few authors have argued that there is a distinct way of women's organizing (ECCO, l989; Haywoode, l991; Oppenheim, l991; Weil, l986), no one has compared these two approaches. These "models" are ideal type constructs and, we suspect, do not occur as mutually exclusive in the real world. Indeed, many Alinsky organizations are reluctant to engage in public conflict (Lancourt, l979; Bailey, 1972), and Alinsky followers such as Fred Ross, Cesar Chavez, and Ed Chambers increasingly emphasized private sphere issues and family and community relationship building (Reitzes and Reitzes, l987; Industrial Areas Foundation, l978). Likewise, the women-centered model has to-date not been portrayed as a model and thus its practitioners, many of whom are trained in Alinsky-style organizing, are very diverse. Instead, our purpose is to show two strains of influence on community organizing.

  1. Power

    Alinsky believed that power is dichotomous and zero-sum. You either have more of it or less of it, and if you have less the only way to get more is to take it from someone else. Alinsky was adamant that real power could not be given, but only taken. However, he also the power structure as fractured. Elites, he maintained, were obsessed with power, even taking it from each other when they could. So the very social organization of elite power made it zero sum. Thus, a poor community could get power by picking a single elite target, isolating it from other elites, personalizing it, and polarizing it (Alinsky, 1971). From this perspective, engaging in a bootstraps model of community development to show that the community was "worthy" of greater elite support would not work, because it flew in the face of elite self-interest.

    The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) was one of Alinsky's most famous organizing projects in an African American neighborhood on Chicago's south side. When TWO was shut out of urban renewal planning for their neighborhood, they commissioned their own plan, and threatened to occupy Lake Shore Drive during rush hour unless their plan held sway. Not only did they get agreement on a number of their plan proposals, they also controlled a new committee to approve all future plans for their neighborhood, shifting control of urban planning from city hall to the neighborhood (Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987, p. 80, Finks, 1984, p. 153.

    In women-centered organizing, power is not conceptualized as zero-sum, but as limitless and collective. "Co-active power" is based on human interdependence and the development of all within the group or the community through collaboration (Follett, l940; see also Hartsock, l974). "[I]t belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together" (Arendt, l969:44). The goal of a women-centered organizing process is empowerment (ECCO, l989). Empowerment is a developmental process that includes building skills through repetitive cycles of action and reflection which evoke new skills and understandings, which in turn provoke new and more effective actions (Kieffer, l984). Empowerment includes the development of a more positive self- concept and self-confidence; a more critical world view; and the cultivation of individual and collective skills and resources for social and political action (Rappaport, l986; Van Den Bergh and Cooper, l986; Weil, l986).

    In the case of the Cedar Riverside Project Area Committee, an organization dedicated to planning resident-controlled redevelopment of a counter-culture Minneapolis neighborhood, tensions developed between those who emphasized building power as an outcome and empowering residents as a process. One woman organizer compares her approach to that of the lead organizer:

    "I disagree with Tim, but he's a very empowering person. Tim is more Alinsky. For me, the process, not the outcome, is the most important.... The empowerment of individuals is why I became involved.... I was a single mother looking for income, and was hired as a block worker for the dispute resolution board, and gained a real sense of empowerment."

  2. The Polity

    The Alinsky model assumes a pluralist polity. Alinsky believed that poor people could form their own interest group and access the polity just like any other interest group. They may have to make more of a fuss to be recognized initially, but once recognized, their interests would be represented just like anyone else's. Community organizing, for Alinsky, was bringing people together to practice democracy. Consequently, Alinsky did not see a need for dramatic structural adjustments. The system was, in fact, so good that it would protect and support the have-nots in organizing against those elites who had been taking unfair advantage (Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987, pp.17-18; Lancourt, 1979,pp.31-35, Alinsky, 1969). Alinsky organizations support government even while attacking office holders (Bailey, 1972, p. 136).

    When the IAF-trained Ernesto Cortez returned to San Antonio to help found Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), he began with the traditional strategy of escalating from negotiations to protests to achieve better city services for Latino communities. Soon after their initial successes, however, COPS turned to voter mobilization, eventually resulting in a slim win to change San Antonio's council from at-large to district representation. From there they were able to control half of the council's seats, bringing over half of the city's federal Community Development Block Grant funds to COPS projects from 1974-1981. Eventually COPS found that its political lobbying and voter mobilization tactics outpaced the effectiveness of confrontation and protest (Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987, pp.121- 123). Heather Booth's Citizen Action project has taken this pluralist organizing approach to its logical extreme, focusing her energies entirely on voter mobilization in cities and states around the country ( Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987, p. 153).

    The women-centered model begins from the experience of a matrix of domination along structural axes of gender, race, and social class. This matrix has historically excluded women from public sphere politics, and restricted them through the sexual division of labor to social reproduction activities centered in the home (Cockburn, l977; Kaplan, l982, p. 545). Thus, women have organized around issues that flow from their distinct histories, every day experiences, and perspectives ( ECCO, 1989; Ackelsberg, l988; Bookman & Morgan, l988; Haywoode, l991; Stall, 1991; West & Blumberg, l990; Wilson, l977). This produces a conception of the political sphere as not pluralist but structurally biased. Increasingly, women have politicized the private sphere as a means to combat exclusion from the public agenda (Kaplan, l982).

    Cynthia Hamilton (l99l), a community organizer in South Central Los Angeles, described a primarily women-directed organizing campaign to stop the solid waste incinerator planned for their community. These low income women, primarily African-American with no prior political experience, were motivated by the health threat to their homes and children. They built a loose, but effective organization, the Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, and were gradually joined by white, middle-class, and professional women from across the city. The activists began to recognize their shared gender oppression as they confronted the sarcasm and contempt of male political officials and industry representatives--who dismissed their human concerns as "irrational, uninformed, and disruptive" (p. 44)--and restrictions on their organizing created by their family's needs. Eventually they forced incinerator industry representatives to compromise and helped their families accept a new division of labor in the home to accommodate activists' increased public political participation.

  3. Public and Private Spheres: Separate or Connected

    Alinsky maintained a separation between the public and private spheres. Community organizing was not a job for family types, a position he reinforced by his own marital conflicts, by his demands on his trainees and by his own poverty. In fact, if anything, the main role of the private sphere was to support the organizer's public sphere work. In his Rules for Radicals, Alinsky (1971) remarked that:

    "The marriage record of organizers is with rare exception disastrous. Further, the tension, the hours, the home situation, and the opportunities, do not argue for fidelity. Also, with rare exception, I have not known really competent organizers who were concerned about celibacy. Here and there are wives and husbands or those in love relationships who understand and are committed to the work, and are real sources of strength to the organizer (p. 65)."

    His attitude toward which issues were important also illustrates his emphasis on the public sphere. While problems began in the private sphere, it was important to move the community to understand how those problems were connected to larger issues outside of the community. Thus, problems could not be solved within the community but by the community being represented better in the public sphere (Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987, pp.27-28).

    This is not to say that Alinsky avoided a focus on private sphere issues. His first successful organizing attempt, in Back of the Yards, produced a well-baby clinic, a credit union, and a hot lunch program ( Finks, 1984, p. 21). But these programs were accomplished through public sphere strategizing, not private relationships. In establishing and maintaining the hot lunch program, Alinsky pushed the organization to understand its relationship to the national hot lunch program and "In order to fight for their own Hot Lunch project they would have to fight for every Hot Lunch project in every part of the United States." (Alinsky, 1969, p. 168).

    According to the women-centered model, the traditional dichotomy between the public/private " an ineffective lens for conceptualizing such activities which do not fall smoothly into either category" (Tiano, l984, p. 21) and hides the significance of women's work in local settings. Women's emotional attachments to their families affect their everyday community commitments and their priorities about what are appropriate targets for local social change efforts (Colfer and Colfer, 1978; Genovese, 1980; Stoneall, 1983). Women-centered organizing "dissolve[s] the boundaries between public and private life, between household and civil society" and extends "the boundaries of the household to include the neighborhood" (Haywoode, l991, p. 175). Organizing to secure tenant rights, local daycares, and youth programs "define a sphere which is public, yet closer to home" (Haywoode, l991, p. 175) and demonstrates the importance of the interconnections between the spheres (Ackelsberg, l988; Petchesky, l979).

    The "Mothers of East Los Angeles" had a long history of working on issues that grew out of their responsibilities as parents, such as education and safety. Eventually these Mexican American activists began organizing against such state-supported projects as a prison and an incinerator, that they believed would negatively impact their community. Through these efforts, the activists expanded the traditional definition of "mother" to include militant political activism. One resident activist explained that "You know if one of your children's safety is jeopardized, the mother turns into a lioness.... We have to have a well-organized, strong group of mothers to protect the community and oppose things that are detrimental to us." (Pardo, 1990, p. 4).

  4. Human Nature

    Modern society, from Alinsky's perspective, is created out of compromise between self-interested individuals. Thus, organizing people requires appealing to their self-interest. People become involved because they think there is something in it for themselves (Alinsky, 1971, pp.53-59; 1969, pp.94-98). He did hope that as the community became organized, the process would bring out "innate altruism" and "affective commitment." But even that level of commitment was based on building victories through conflict with targets (Lancourt, 1979, p. 51; Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987 , p. 56; 1987b). Among all the tenets of the Alinsky model, the assumption of self-interest has the strongest continuing influence (Beckwith, n.d.). Alinsky's emphasis on self-interest was connected to his wariness of ideology. From his perspective, organizing people around abstract ideology leads to boredom at best and ideological disputes at worst. Alinsky also feared ideology becoming dogma and was adamant building a pragmatic organization should come before promoting any ideology.

    Alinsky relates the story of one organizer's initial effort to start a "people's organization" and how he used self-interest to achieve the desired result:

    "Mr. David was a businessman who . . . had avoided participation in any kind of social-betterment program or community group . . . another 'do-gooder' and as soon as I finished my song and dance he would give me a dollar or two and wish me well. I suddenly shifted from my talk on the children and began to point out indirectly the implications of his joining our organization . . . get better business relations than at this meeting." Then David turned to me and said "I'll be at that meeting tonight." Immediately after I left David I went across the street to Roger, who is in the same business, and I talked to him the same way. Roger had a doubled-barreled incentive for coming. First there was David's purpose and secondly Roger wanted to make sure that David would not take away any part of his business." (Alinsky, 1969, pp.95-97).

    Unlike the Alinsky model, women-centered organizing involvement does not emanate from self-interest but from an ethic of care maintained by relationships built on years of local volunteer work in community associations (Stall, 1991). "Women are taught to give; men are taught to take!" (ECCO, l989, p. 24). As part of female socialization, "women learn to nurture, a task with social as well as psychological effects" (Kaplan, l982, p. 546; see also Chodorow l978). "[W]omen, to a greater degree than men, and in different ways, initiate, pursue and support issues concerning...control over, responsibility for, and care of people and other natural resources" (Jonasdottir, l988, p. 42). Rather than a morality of rights separate from the individual, women learn a morality that is connected to relationships and based on "the universality of the need for compassion and care" (Gilligan, l977, p. 509). Women-centered organizers grasp the meaning of justice not as a compromise between self-interested individuals, but as a practical reciprocity in the network of relationships that make up the community (Ackelsberg, l988; Haywoode, 1991; Stall, 1991).

    Leavitt (l993) describes how concern for their children's welfare led a group of African-American women in Los Angeles to focus on rehabbing the existing tot lots in their public housing development, Nickerson Gardens. The campaign of this all-women tot-lot committee ignited them to testify at housing authority hearings, conduct a community survey, and eventually secure funds and participate in the design and the construction of two play areas in their low-income community. They did not manipulate self-interest but built a cooperative consensus.

  5. The Role of Conflict

    Since Alinsky saw society as a compromise between competing self- interested individuals, conflict was inevitable, and a pluralist polity was the means by which compromise was reached. Since poor people are at an initial disadvantage in that polity, the organizer's job is to prepare citizens to engage in the level of conflict necessary for them to be included in the compromise process ( Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987). Alinsky contended that the only way to overcome the inertia that exists in most communities ( Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987, p. 70) was to "rub raw the resentments of the people in the community" (Alinsky, 1971, p. 116). In order to engage in the level of battle necessary to win, "the rank and file and the smaller leaders of the organizations must be whipped up to a fighting pitch" (Alinsky, 1969, p. 151). Alinsky would engage small-scale conflicts within communities against unscrupulous merchants, realtors, and even entrenched community organizations, to build victories and a sense of power ( Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987, p. 54, 65).

    Alinsky's involvement with the FIGHT organization's struggle to pressure Kodak to support an affirmative hiring and jobs program, is illustrative. FIGHT began with a drawn-out negotiation process, and then Alinsky escalated to confrontational rhetoric and pickets. When Kodak reneged on a signed agreement, Alinsky and FIGHT organized a proxy campaign for Kodak's annual meeting. Forty members of FIGHT and Friends of FIGHT attended the meeting, demanded that Kodak reinstate its original agreement by 2pm, and then walked out to 800 supporters in the street. They came back at 2pm and were told Kodak would not reverse its position. The FIGHT leadership came out and told the crowd: "Racial War has been declared on black communities by Kodak. If it's war they want, war they'll get." Threats of a major demonstration in July and further escalation of the conflict produced a behind the scenes agreement at the eleventh hour (Finks, 1984:213-221).

    Within the women-centered model, the maintenance and development of social cohesion--personal connections with others that provide a safe environment for people to develop, change and grow--is more immediately important than conflict to gain institutional power (Kaplan, l982). For women, community relationships include the social fabric created through routine activities, such as childcare, housekeeping, and shopping (DeVault, l984), as well as through social arrangements they make to protect, enhance, and preserve the cultural experience of community members (Bernard, l981, Stoneall, l983). Historically, women have relied on community networks to feed, clothe, and shelter their families ( Sacks, 1988a, p. 21; also see Collins, l990). Particularly for women, communal structures can serve as "free spaces" offering arenas outside of the family where women can develop a "growing sense that they [have] the right to work -- first in behalf of others, then in behalf of themselves" (Evans & Boyte, l981, p. 61; Evans & Boyte, l986).

    Women residents of the Wentworth Gardens public housing project in Chicago created and manage their own laundromat, which provides both on-site laundry facilities and a community space that serves as a primary recruitment ground for community activists. The ongoing volunteer work of women residents over three decades has assured the laundromat's continued success, and has helped numerous women develop skills and self-confidence to further develop the community through the construction of a community playground and other improvements to their housing. A Resident Service Committee, made up of laundromat volunteers, meets monthly to resolve problems and allocate laundromat profits to annual community festivals, scholarship funds, and other activities.(Feldman and Stall, 1994)

  6. The Role of the Organizer

    For Alinsky, the organizer is a consultant from outside the community whose job is to get people to adopt a delegitimizing frame (Gamson et al., 1982; Ferree and Miller, 1985) that breaks the power structure's hold over them (Bailey, 1972, pp.46-7). Advocates of the Alinsky approach contend that organizing is a very complex task requiring professional-level training and experience (Bailey, 1972, p. 137; Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987, p. 53). In many cases organizers must "disorganize" or reorganizing the community since so many communities are organized for apathy Alinsky, 1971, p. 116; Bailey, 1972, p. 50). The Alinsky model also maintains a strict role separation between outside organizers and the indigenous leaders that organizers are responsible for locating and supporting (Lancourt, 1979; Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987b). New leaders have to be developed, often outside of the community's institutionally-appointed leadership structure. The focus is not on those individuals, however, but on building a strong organization and getting material concessions from elites. Organizers have influence, but only through their relationships with indigenous leaders (Lancourt, 1979).

    It is curious why Alinsky did not emphasize building indigenous organizers, especially since the lack of indigenous organizing expertise often led to organizational decline after the pros left (Lancourt, 1979) [2]. Tom Gaudette, an Alinsky-trained organizer who helped build the Organization for a Better Austin (OBA) in Chicago, explicitly discouraged his organizers from living in the neighborhood, arguing they had to be able to view the community dispassionately in order to be effective at their job (Bailey, 1972, p. 80).

    Women-centered organizers are rooted in local networks, rather than being outsiders, and often act as mentors or facilitators of the empowerment process[3]. Organizers find they need to deal with women's sense of powerlessness and low self-esteem (Miller, l986)--before they can effectively involve them in sustained organizing efforts. Mentoring others as they learn the organizing process is premised on the belief that all have the capacity to be leaders/organizers. Rather than individual leaders, women- centered organizers seek to develop "group centered" leadership ( Payne, l989) that "embraces the participation of many as opposed to creating competition over the elevation of only a few" (ECCO, l989, p. 16). Rather than moving people and directing events, this is a conception of leadership as teaching (Payne, l989) [4]. Analyses of women-centered organizing efforts also underline the importance of "centerpersons" who connect people with similar concerns and heighten consciousness of shared issues, using existing networks (Sacks, l988b). At times centerpersons can transform social networks into a political force, thereby directly politicizing them.

    The description of a centerperson in the Wentworth Gardens public housing development in Chicago, which successfully organized to establish community-controlled services such as a laundromat and grocery story, and fought back planned demolition to accommodate the new Comiskey Park stadium, shows the importance of a centerperson.

    "She's [Mrs. Amey's] the type of person who can bring a lot of good ideas to the community....And she's always there to help. And she's always here; she's always doing things. And she's always pulling you, she's pushing you, and she's calling you, "We've got to do this!" She makes sure you don't forget what you have to do. Early in the morning she's on the phone, "Mrs. Harris, what time you coming out?'' That was to say, "you gonna do it without me having to ask, or you giving me an excuse?" (Stall, 1991)

  7. The Organizing Process

    Within the Alinsky model the organizing process centers on identifying and confronting "issues." Door knocking is the initial strategy for identifying issues. Those issues then become the means of recruitment to the organizing effort. The organization bills itself as the best, if not only, means of resolving those issues. The "mass meeting" is the means for framing issues and celebrating gains. Important to the process of building up to the mass meeting are cumulative victories-- beginning with an easily winnable issue, and using the energy generated by that win to build to bigger and bigger issues. The mass march, the public rally, the explicit confrontation, the celebrated win, are all part of building a strong organization that can publicly represent the community's interests.

    The annual convention is the culmination of the Alinsky organizing process. The first annual convention of the East Toledo Community Organization was preceded by flyers emphasizing the neglect of the east side of Toledo by city government, broken promises from officials, the victories of initial organizing, and the unity developing in the community. ETCO mailed packets across East Toledo that produced 500 registrants for the meeting. At the meeting itself the 500-1000 people gathered passed 13 resolutions covering dangerous rail crossings, park maintenance, utility complaints, service shortages, truck traffic, and many other issues (Stoecker, 1991).

    Essential to the women-centered organizing process is the creation of a safe and nurturing space where women can identify and discuss issues impinging on their daily lives (Gutierrez, l990). This model uses the small group to establish trust, and build "informality, respect, [and] tolerance of spontaneity" ( Hamilton, l991, p. 44). The civil rights organizer, Ella Baker, was dubious about the long-term value of mass meetings, lobbying and demonstrations. Instead, she advocated organizing people in small groups so that they could understand their potential power and how best to use it (Britton, l968; Payne, l989). Small groups create an atmosphere that affirms that each participant's contribution, provides the time for individuals to share, and makes it possible for participants to listen carefully to each other (Stall, 1993). In developing a feminist perspective on organizing with women of color, Gutierrez and Lewis (l992, p. 126) affirm that, "The small group provides the ideal environment for exploring the social and political aspects of `personal' problems and for developing strategies for work toward social change". Moreover, smaller group settings create and sustain the relationship building and sense of significance and solidarity so integral to community[5].

    The work of Women in Organizing, an urban-based project with a program to organize twelve teenage mothers to gain self- sufficiency and political empowerment, shows this emphasis. One of the organizing staff described this effort:

    "Our work is about connecting women with each other, about transforming their experience in terms of working with mixed groups of people of different races, about building the confidence of individual women and building the strengths of groups....All of our work is really about leadership development of women, of learning more of how consciousness develops, of how we can collectively change the world" (Stall, 1993).

  8. The Role of the Organization

    For the Alinsky model, the organizer isn't there just to win a few issues, but to build an enduring organization that can continue to claim power and resources for the community--to represent the community in a pluralist polity. The organizer shouldn't start from scratch but from the community's pre-existing organizational base of churches, service organizations, clubs, etc. In many cases, the community organizations created also spawn community- based services such as credit unions, daycare, etc. This is not a process to be taken lightly or with few resources. Alinsky often insisted that, before he would work with a community, they had to raise $150,000 to cover three years of expenses (Lancourt, 1979). When Ed Chambers took over the Industrial Areas Foundation from Alinsky, he required $160,000 just to cover startup costs for a serious organizing project (Industrial Areas Foundation, 1978).

    For Alinsky, the organization itself was part of the tactical repertoire of community organizing. Dave Beckwith, an Alinsky- style organizer with the Center for Community Change, also argues for the centrality of the organization.

    "If an organization doesn't grow, it will die...People naturally fade in and out of involvement as their own life's rhythms dictate--people move, kids take on baseball for the spring, they get involved with Lamaze classes, whatever. If there are not new people coming in, the shrinkage can be fatal. New issues and continuous outreach are the only protection against this natural process." (Beckwith, n.d., p. 13).

    In the women-centered model, a continuing organization is not as central in initial organizing. In place of the focus on organization building are "modest struggles" ----"small, fragmented, and sometimes contradictory efforts by people to change their lives" (Krauss, l983, p. 54). These short-lived collective actions (e.g., planting a community garden, opening a daycare) are often begun by loosely organized groups. The organizing efforts of the African-American women in South Central Los Angeles, described earlier, functioned for a year and a half without any formal leadership structure. Their model depended on a rotating chair, stymieing the media's hunger for a "spokesperson" (Hamilton, l991, p. 44; see also Ferguson, l984). If empowerment is "a process aimed at consolidating, maintaining, or changing the nature and distribution of power in a particular cultural context" (Bookman & Morgen, l988, p. 4), modest struggles are a significant factor in this process. Engagement in modest resistance allows women to immediately alter their community and gain a sense of control over their lives. Attention to these struggles is necessary in order to understand the more elusive process of resistance that takes place beneath the surface and outside of what have conventionally been defined as community organizing, social protest, or social movements (Feldman and Stall, 1994).

    A quote from Payne (l989, pp. 892-893) about Ella Baker's views shows the distinct position of the women-centered model on the role of the organization.

    "How many people show up for a rally may matter less than how much the people who organize the rally learn from doing so. If the attempt to organize the rally taught them anything about the mechanics of organizing, if the mere act of trying caused them to grow in self-confidence, if the organizers developed stronger bonds among themselves from striving together, then the rally may have been a success even if no one showed up for it. As she said, 'You're organizing people to be self-sufficient rather than to be dependent upon the charismatic leader.'" (Britton, 1968:37)


To the extent that these two models are different, and to the extent that practitioners emphasize one model over the other, can we say they are gendered? We believe these models reflect the differences between socially constructed masculine and feminine personalities. Clearly the emphasis on conflict, opposition, separation, and winning in the Alinsky model reflects masculine character. Men receive systematic training against sensitivity and trust and for aggressiveness and competition, and are prepared to handle confrontations with often hostile forces. And just as clearly the emphasis on nurturance, connectedness, and relationship-building in the women-centered model reflects feminine character. The focus of the women-centered model on individuals and relationships between individuals is much stronger than for the Alinsky model. It is possible that the socialization of girls and women to be empathetic, sensitive, nurturant, and supportive produces a greater interpersonal sensitivity that is important to organizing, especially where people are fearful and distrustful (Haywoode, 1991). The fact that for a long time the Alinsky model was the preserve of male organizers, and training in the Alinsky model was controlled by men for even longer, while the women-centered model developed in private sphere settings often among groups of women, probably has influenced the development of these differences (Stall, 1991; ECCO 1989).

And just like the strict separation of genders between women and men creates incomplete individuals, each model by itself provides for an incomplete organizing strategy. Imagine trying to employ the Alinsky model organizing young women with children who are socially isolated; exhausted from the daily grind of trying to scrape up food, clothing, and shelter, and parent; and with no resources to spare. Masculine socialization and behavior may be disabling for certain grass-roots organizing efforts, "particularly in domains where women are a necessary constituency" (Lawson and Barton, l990, p. 49). The deemphasis on relationship building in the Alinsky model will mean that the community can engage the battle but not sustain it, especially today where neighborhoods are less and less communities, and the people in them are less and less empowered. Large organizations may in fact inhibit empowerment because they are not "likely to offer the kind of nurturing of individual growth that smaller ones can provide, and may be especially off-putting to members of low-income communities, where the predominant style of relating to individuals is still prebureaucratic" (Payne, 1989, p. 894). Consequently, internal power struggles threaten many Alinsky- style organizations.

The women-centered model also has weaknesses which, if not addressed, can cause an organizing effort to fail. First is the risk that postponing public sphere confrontation with a white patriarchal capitalist elite will maintain the vulnerability of at-risk communities, because white patriarchal capitalists don't play fair. While women-centered organizers are concentrating on personal empowerment--a process which cannot be rushed for expediency's sake--the bulldozers could be coming. One criticism of consciousness-raising in the women's movement is that it doesn't translate into action very effectively (Ferree and Hess, 1985, p. 64-67; Cassell, 1989, p. 55; Freeman, 1975). Indeed, those risks appeared very pronounced in the Young Moms program described above. When the program was threatened with a funding cut-off, organized resistance was difficult to mobilize. But they also appeared in the Wentworth Gardens case where the problems of maintaining the grocery store were exacerbated as warehouses refused to deliver to a "dangerous" neighborhood, and in Cedar-Riverside as a community clinic saw its funding cut and had to reduce services. Both communities shifted away from confrontational, Alinsky-style tactics to meet these issues and were consequently unable to establish effective campaigns against these threats. The maintenance of community in the face of forces which continually seek to destroy it through whatever means (neglect, disinvestment, disdain) is an act of resistance-- it is a blow against the power structure just to survive (Collins, l991; Hooks, l990). But the model may not work when outside forces threaten to destroy the community through any means available. There is also a danger that the women-centered model may degenerate into a social service program, reducing participants to clients. This tendency is what the settlement house movement, and the subsequent "social work" version of community organizing has been criticized for [6].

Given the weaknesses in each model, it seems appropriate to ask whether they should and can be mixed. Indeed, we believe they can and should be mixed, though not always in the same proportions or the same ways. Julian Rappaport (1981) describes the "paradox of empowerment" as the need to organize simultaneously at the personal and structural levels. True communities (with strong networks, culture, mutual support systems, etc.) under siege from identifiable sources need to engage in confrontation campaigns to defend themselves, and will probably benefit most from emphasizing the Alinsky model. Communities that really are not communities--that lack the networks, culture, support systems and other qualities--require first the foundation that the women- centered model can provide to prevent self-destructive oligarchies. But in both cases the other model cannot be neglected. The tension created by the Alinsky model challenges the strongest community bonds and requires compensating strategies of relationship building and personal empowerment. And as much as a strong community provides the foundation for a strong defense, when a threat presents itself the community has to be able to respond with effective strategies and tactics.

This integration of the models also must be done very carefully. You can't just add together an Alinsky organizing process with a women-centered public-private linkage, for example. Rather, integration needs to occur across each principle so that the models are combined. The lack of integration within principles seems to plague Alinsky-style organizations as they shift into providing social services or doing development (Stoecker, 1995). Ella Baker's comments that "real organizing" is working in small groups with people so that they can discover their competencies, and then "parlaying those into larger groups" (Britton, l968, p. 67) is an example of bringing together the organizing process components of the Alinsky and women-centered models.

There may also be times in history when one model will be more viable than the other. Robert Fisher's (1984) work on neighborhood organizing shows a see-sawing between more militant and more community-building periods of community organizing which seem to correspond to progressive and reactionary periods in history. The transformation of Alinsky-style community organizing efforts in the Reagan 1980s into community development efforts, and the "discovery" of women-centered organizing during that same period, may also support the contention that the two types of organizing may be more effective under different conditions. Reactionary periods such as the 1980s force social movements into "abeyance" (Taylor, 1989) where the maintenance of community bonds and the provision of emotional support become paramount, since public sphere action seems ineffectual. In these periods, the women-centered model sustains the possibility for future public sphere action. Certainly, in the wake of the deindustrialization and devastation of inner city communities there is a tremendous need to rebuild communities of place. Mary Pardo (1990, p. 6) notes that "The issues traditionally addressed by women--health, housing, sanitation, and the urban environment- -have moved to center stage as capitalist urbanization progresses." As we move into the next century, however, aspects of the Alinsky model may again become applicable. Some social workers are trying to resurrect the profession's community organizing roots (Specht and Courtney, 1994) and are calling for a return to the empowerment model ala Piven and Cloward (1979). And the successes of women-centered organizing in rebuilding both social relationships and physical neighborhoods may provide for a new round of social movement activity.


[1] Alinsky, along with Fred Ross, were instrumental in organizing "educationals" in California that used a popular education process to support the organizing process. These educationals produced the first woman organizer hired by Alinsky, and the first organizing effort targeting women specifically (Finks, 1984:68-71).

[2] Sometimes, indigenous organizers did develop. Fred Ross's work in the Southwest, for example, produced an indigenous organizer by the name of Cesar Chavez (Reitzes and Reitzes, 1987).

[3] Fish (l986) distinguishes the Hull House mentoring model from the traditional mentor model based on an unequal distribution of power between an older gatekeeper or instructor and an apprentice. The mentor model at Hull House, rather than a dyad, included a larger support system characterized by a network of egalitarian relationships and shared visibility that provided both public and private supports for the women involved.

[4] The Civil Rights leader, Ella Jo Baker, throughout her life modeled group-centered leadership, stating that, "Strong people don't need strong leaders," (Cantarow and O'Malley, l980:53). At one point Ms. Baker shared, "I have always thought what is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people (Baker, l973:352).

[5] Tom Gaudette, in rebuilding the Alinsky-style Organization for a Better Austin, started by creating small groups, but for the purpose of targeting issues and building a larger organization (Bailey, 1972:66), rather than to empower individuals as the women-centered model does.

[6] To the extent that service provision can be organized through indigenous leaders, or "centerwomen", and the goal of empowerment maintained, this tendency can be countered. The young moms organizer explains "I think social service programs for the African American community are really extended families that you are now getting paid to be [part of]. So if you look at it like that, it's really not about the numbers....It's aobut being there when the people need you." Gilkes (l988) discusses how women social service workers who live and work in Black communities are fashioning new organizational structures and practices and transforming old ones--rebel against the traditional human service practices (e.g. impersonal, instrumental, bureaucratice) and restructure their organizational settings to make them "Black-oriented" (56).


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