"...How to get Started in Community Organizing"

This page is a result of a COMM-ORG list-serv discussion. You can read the original query, and the responses listed by author.


Do you have advice about any first steps that a person might want to take in getting started in working in community organizing?

At age 33, I find myself just having gotten a Master of Social Work and, at almost the end of the program, having realized that I want to devote my work more to social change efforts, NOT to providing social services in ways that don't lead to social change. As an instructor put it pretty nakedly this spring, in social work one is faced with deciding whether to work toward social change or social control.

I'm still job searching, wanting to do whatever I can that will advance the long term goal of working as an organizer. I expect that, given the limited number of paid organizer positions, I will need to begin in some volunteer capacity. Moreover, I expect that I will need to reframe my accumulated experience, knowledge and skills so that organizations which might ultimately hire me will recognize what I do have so far in the way of qualifications for work related to organizing (e.g., experience in volunteer supervision, training volunteers and training trainers, and program management; Spanish speaking ability). If you have any thoughts about that, I'd appreciate those also. (If it's helpful to see my resume, I can e-mail that to you.)

By the way, I recommend a book I just finished, Bridging the class divide and other lessons for grassroots organizing by Linda Stout. Thanks for the input!

Brian Habit Durham NC

From: William A Treadwell <>

Early first steps--get practical experience:

1. Ask your local faculty what community organizations exist in your local area or research it yourself.

2. If there are any comm-orgs that are along your particular venue of interests, then participate; otherwise attempt to locate some people of similar interests and desires as yours and start a discussion group, which may evolve into a community group.

Bottom line - identify "your" community, then act or possibly react to the social change/control mechanisms you encounter within.

William A Treadwell School of Public Administration University of Southern California

From: B.Duguid-Siegel@uws.EDU.AU (Bonnie Duguid-Siegel)

I've now had two careers (?) vaguely surrounding community organizing and yet ended up doing it through the back door, so to speak.

The first was in the United States when I worked in Maine in special education. I found myself working with adolescents (well 11 to 14 year olds) in a school setting. (basement classroom, under resourced etc.) I found that to work effectively with the kids, I needed to work with the parents who were migrant fishermen, fruit pickers, lobstermen, cannery workers (largely the women), etc. I began by getting the parents into my classroom to talk to the kids about lobsters, habits of fish, etc. (I spent very little time in a traditional classroom teaching and lots of time on the beach picking up samples of stuff - with portable microscopes and magnifying glasses etc. This was far more relevant to my students and after all, teachers teach students not curriculum) Eventually I found that I was working with mother's groups, La Leche, etc. in the community as well as with teaching kids. I'm not sure if one would categorize this as community organization but I don't know what else to call it.

My second experience has been as an academic in Australia - I became interested in staff and student well being. This had led at first, to rather fleeting contacts with the Union movement in Australia. Gradually, as the welfare of colleagues and students became paramount to me - as opposed to constructing "ways of knowing" psychology in the classroom, I have gradually become far more active in the Union. I find that largely, I am doing community organizing with perhaps, those from a very diverse and often privileged background but suprisingly, not always so, and there have been real opportunities to make changes that have effected our system.

The question asked raised many interesting side issues for me. When we, of the educated classes speak of social change, we do so from a position of having choices available to us. Mainly, we can make the choice to fit in to society or to be deviant in some way. (maybe like me, or at least as how I see myself - and maybe I am deluded, we can do both at the same time) This for me was activated by the phrase "... in social work one is faced with deciding whether to work toward social change or social control." In working with those who are deviant (i.e. those who need social control) are we really working towards social control or giving those without choices, more options? I am reminded of a student of mine from that first group who when I first met him, had no options. My work with him may have been labelled as "social control" but today that young man is active with the social change movement.When he writes to me as he still does, I can see that he, like me, is doing both at the same time. (more radical freinds of mine from the '60's labelled this armchair politics) I'm not so sure if working from "the inside" is necessarily about social control or the giving of options to individuals.

I do not claim to be an expert in this area in any way - these are just random thoughts that might help.

Bonnie Duguid-Siegel

From: Stephen M Aigner <>


This is an age-old dialogue for social workers. Social services by themselves do not control, they meet basic needs. Poor program design and delivery may put people in positions of relating to recipients/citizens with incompetent skills that lead to less than empowering encounters. That has nothing to do with the profession, especially because the profession of social work deliberately educates BSW and MSW students with the purposes and values undergirding their curricula.

But there are mass movements which may also control and exploit people with low income. For example, centralized leaders such as Cloward, Piven, and Wiley were very powerful in the welfare rights movement and too often tactics were hatched at national headquarters by those leaders rather than by grassroots people.

Or, consider the work of Alinsky which proceeded in ways many of us thought and think were unethcial. The ends do not justify the means.

If your professor fails to alert you to the ancient roots of the control versus empowerment dialogue s/he has failed. It is, however, a dialogue you must engage and arrive at a personally developed stance. I recommend you read about Miles Horton and the Highlander Center. (The Long Haul by Horton and Highlander: No Ordinary School by John Glen.) The method and level of personal integration preesnted therein is often not presented in urban biased curricula of community work at Schools of Social Work. I also recommend you communicate with Robert Fisher at the School of Social Work University of Houston.

Finally, let me comment on the paucity of any curricula that addresses the issue you raise with the depth that even social work curricula do. You'll be hard pressed to find it any where else unless you went back in time to Miles Horton and the Highlander Folk School.


From: "Stanley Wenocur" <SWENOCUR@SSW2.AB.UMD.EDU>

Sounds to me like you could get a job in CO right now depending on the nature of the work you want to do. If you really want a good foundation, I would see about working with one of the regional or national intermediary groups like the IAF or PICO. Your ability to speak spanish may be helpful in the west and southwest especially. If you came up to Baltimore, I'm sure I could help you connect with an IAF national staffer based in this region, and he would be willing to explore possibilities with you and make some suggestions.

From: Southern Empowerment <>

In reply to Brian Habit of Durham, North Carolina

May I add some thoughts on where and how to begin to get work in community organizing?

First, your idea to connect with community groups on a volunteer basis is a good one. Not only will you find out what kind of jobs might be available there but it connects you to a number of groups. In the South, we don't have a large number of organizing groups and there are often close ties between them.

Spanish will become more and more of an asset in community work throughout the region. Few organizations are ready for the demographic transition that is already happening. If you are interested in working with Spanish-speaking populations, I suggest that you not take a hard line about organizing purity ("social change or social control"as you describe it). Working in services for Spanish-speaking communities can give people insight into the issues and establish relationships for future organizing.

Second, don't assume that social work education and experience is itself all you need. "Volunteer supervision" does not necessarily translate to leadership development and empowering members. Take organizing training and learn fundraising. (Southern Empowerment Project, for example, specializes in direct action community organizing training for work in the South and Appalachia. Our fundraising training for community organizing operates in clusters throughout the South -- drop us an email and we'll inform you of a planned upcoming Durham workshop.) If you are interested in institutional- based, church-based, unions, or other models of community organizing, there are good training programs in all of them. Often training programs offer a unique avenue to connecting with jobs.

Finally, if you are looking for community organizing jobs -- Southern Empowerment provides an up-to-date service of social justice and community organizing jobs in this region. For a free copy of Current Jobs, email us at "". If you prefer, you can write or phone us: Southern Empowerment Project, 343 Ellis Avenue, Maryville, Tennessee 37804, 423/984-6500.

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Recruiting and Training Community Organizers in the South and Appalachia
Southern Empowerment Project
343 Ellis Avenue
Maryville, Tennessee 37804

Just recently received a newsletter that included an email address for looking for/advertising any job in a nonprofit organization. It apparently sorts or lists by geography, salary, title, employer, etc. The address is I have not looked at it myself, but was recommended by Enterprise Foundation so I assume it may be useful ....Good luck!
Carla L. Lerman

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