Community Organizing

2021 Type: Glossary

Community organizing is about the systematic and most sustainable possible organization of less-privileged people, about building power from below, about shifting power relations in the process and asserting individual concerns. Its objectives are to bring about tangible improvement in living conditions and to reinforce a substantially democratic society, or to fundamentally transform society toward the abolition of oppressive and exploitative conditions.
Chicago sociologist Saul D. Alinsky is seen as the founder of this movement. His influential books Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals can be read as pragmatic manuals for a social revolution. In Alinsky’s words: “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.” (Alinsky 2010 [1971], 3).
Central terms used in community organizing are “power,” as the ability to act jointly with others; “community,” as a spatially defined, dynamic network of relationships, organizations, and institutions that, in a mobile and modern urban society, are not primarily defined by physical or ethnic attributes, but via shared interests; and “organizing,” as bringing together people, building viable relationships, mobilizing, developing a strategic, planned procedure, and establishing sustainable and grassroots democratic structures.
The heart of the organizational process and its starting point are hundreds of discussions in the community, at people’s front doors, at residents’ meetings and neighborhood gatherings, or with actors and stakeholders from local associations and institutions. These discussions explore and identify problems that affect or outrage many, and that are tied to individual interests that can be addressed collectively; they must be amenable to change; that is, they should be specific and manageable. Of central importance is that the professional organizers are able to win over and empower key figures (local leaders). Extensive research, mapping, and charting (incl. power analyses, willingness to become involved, individual resources) ensue, and based on this, the work continues with meticulously orchestrated large-scale gatherings, the establishment of organizational structures, and systematic development of strategies and their implementation in diverse, direct activities ranging from block parties to boycotts. Also emphasized at all times is the importance of subsequent joint reflection and celebrating successes along the way. Partying and organizing are not opposites—quite the opposite is true!

Dr Sabine Stövesand, neighborhood activist (e.g. Park Fiction, Initiative Esso Häuser, “StoP”), professor of social work at HAW Hamburg.