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Community Organizing

Tim Svoboda

North West Graduate School

Community Organizing

Submitted by Tim Svoboda for PRM 715 Community Development in World Class Cities. Instructor: Richard Townsell


I.                     Introduction

Though I have lived in the city of Chennai since 1983 my involvement on a local basis was limited due to the demands of building the foundations of my organization Youth With A Mission. In 1996 I gave over the National leadership to an Indian leader and my travelling and moving around the country slowed down to some degree. It was then that I started to focus on the city of Chennai. Youth With A Mission already had some work going on in the city but as I began to set aside my national focus my attention turned to the needs of this city of  8 million people that I was living in. I began a journey in understanding what it would take to see the church and the mission I serve with mobilized in effective ministry that would result in lasting change to the city.

I began to dream how YWAM as a mission could reach the city of Chennai. We went into an aggressive decentralization mode of making sure our ministries were not under one roof but were located in various sections of the city amongst the people we were endeavoring to reach. To this day we have ministries amongst lepers, HIV and AIDS victims, slum dwellers, potential suicide victims, street children, gypsies, university students and the urban middle class. This in itself was a radical change from being in one location with a primary focus on training Christian young people. However it did not take long to come to the conclusion that one mission would never have a major impact on a city of  8 million people no matter how diverse we became.

It was at this same time that two other leaders, from the body of Christ in Chennai, and myself started a movement called Chennai Network. Chennai, at that time in 1996 had 1500 churches located throughout the entire metropolitan area. Chennai Christians are about eight to ten percent of the total population. As we looked at the size of the city and the amount of congregations we decided to divide the city into 12 sections and mobilize the church to reach the city. Days and hours were spent moving about the city meeting with key leaders and giving them a vision for their section of the city. Envisioning meetings were held in various locations and several areas began to come together for the transformation of their area.

I have also been involved not only in Chennai but in many cities across India motivating pastors and leaders to dream, pray, and work together for their city. In most of these cities our efforts were rewarded as pastors and leaders covenanted together to meet and pray on a regular basis for their city. Often united fronts were formed consisting of leaders from various denominations. Prayer Summits, which are three day retreats outside the city for key leaders across denominations, have also successfully been held in many cities bringing key leaders together. Those who have organized the summits are keenly interested in knowing how to take it from just prayer into action. However very little movement from prayer to action has taken place. Each city and their leadership teams are at various different stages of development. In my discussions with most key leaders in city transformation the work of Industrial Areas Foundation, other such movements or the methodologies used are virtually unknown. This initially led me to think that perhaps IAF and similar organizations were anarchists or some underground communist movement! To my surprise I found congregations at the core of their activity and it made me begin to see that my circle of relationships was confined to one camp of thinking.

Sadly, some of these movements that I have worked with have gotten stuck at the level of just prayer. While I do not mean to belittle the role of prayer and unity I would have to admit that the local pastors have had difficulty translating prayer into action. Part of this I believe is due to several reasons. The first reason for getting stuck at just prayer is because that is often what is conveyed to the pastors through such dramatic presentations like the Transformation Video. The message it conveys is one of when God’s people are united and in prayer then God comes and changes the city. While I believe that is still true I have always known there is much more to it than just some magical formula that results in change. Yet I lacked a model movement that could demonstrate action on issues through local churches.  A second reason is the sacred and secular division of thinking that is inside us as Christian leaders. We somehow do not want to engage on issues that are outside of religion. I can remember trying to help one section of our city churches mobilize on a garbage cleaning program but again it got stuck on personal piety and cleaning up our own internal garbage first. A third reason why things have got stuck at the level of prayer is because there are not visible models of churches that can be seen who are working on local issues. What we have mainly seen is the Fiji model of repentance, unity, and confession which has led to the healing of the land. IAF and such models seem to be hidden gems that need further exposure to urban practitioners.

Not all has failed through our efforts here in India. Pastors are much more engaged in their sermons and prayers about the need to reach their cities. There are many local movements of people who are gathering together to pray for their cities. Unity amongst denominations is building. Yet there is lack of engagement in actual key plans that engage transformational work in areas of housing, crime, poverty, garbage, and many other areas that the church is desperately needed to address in the urban environment. My involvement in NWGS and the section on Community Organizing in some ways has come about 8 years too late. With the new roles I have taken on I am not sure how I can take what I am now learning and reapply it to the local situation here. So this paper will be more of a reflection and an overview of Community Organizing in the hope that I can find a way to apply it in the future. I am gathering leaders in the city together to watch The Democratic Promise; The Legacy of Saul Alinsky and am in a dialog with them about how it can be implemented. I am praying that I will get another opportunity perhaps in this city or in another city to implement what I am now learning. However at this time it is not possible due to other involvements and my remaining three years in India.

What is needed is a revolution in the thinking patterns of the laity and church leaders. Transformation has been a hot topic with little results. Perhaps I can place some hope in the words of Saul Alinsky who says, “A reformation means that masses of our people have reached the point of disillusionment with past ways and values. They don’t know what will work but they do know that the prevailing system is self-defeating, frustrating, and hopeless. They won’t act for change but won’t strongly oppose those who do. The time is then ripe for revolution.”[1] Our failure in our past efforts is perhaps stirring us to find a different way while coupling it with some of the good from the old. Prayer is essential. But prayer should lead us to action and our actions must be strategic. I am inspired by the theory of Community Organizing. The stories I have heard and read about seem to verify its effectiveness. I hope I can be involved in the years to come. 


II.          History of Community Organization.

Before describing community organization I would like to briefly touch on the history of it. Though this history is not complete the following will be helpful. Robert Fisher and Peter Romanofsky, the editors of Community Organization for Social Change, grouped CO activities and perspectives into four historical periods:

1890 - 1920. The heyday of neighborhood organizing before 1960. Liberals and progressives sought to meet the challenge of industrialization - the bigness of cities and their chaotic social disorganization - by organizing immigrant neighborhoods into "efficient, democratic, and, of course, enlightened units within the metropolis." Since the emphasis of the reformers was mostly on building community through settlement houses and other service mechanisms, the dominant approach was social work.

1920 - 1940. Community organization became a professional sub-discipline within the social work field. Little was written about decentralized neighborhood organizing efforts throughout the Great Depression. Most organizations had a national orientation because the economic problems the nation faced did not seem soluble at the neighborhood level.

1940 - 1960. A new interest in CO from the social work perspective. This development dovetailed with the emergence of the distinctive approach of Saul Alinsky. Federal involvement in reshaping cities and their neighborhoods through the post-World War II urban renewal programs abetted this unique alignment. (Note: more information on Alinsky is included over the next few pages.)

1960 - 1980. Neighborhood organizing became widespread beginning in the 1960s. Literature analyzing events at the grassroots during this period is extensive. Experience with federal anti-poverty programs and the upheavals in the cities produced a thoughtful response among activists and theorists in the early 1970s that has informed activities, organizations, strategies and movements through the end of the century, though many major changes in CO have occurred since 1980. [2]

Though there could be many starting places and people who were key in starting community organizing no discussion on the topic can be complete if it does not cover Saul Alinsky. Larry Parachini and Sally Covington note, It was Alinsky who drew the roots of CO together in the late 1930s - roots first planted in the American Revolution and later sprouting in the populist movement of the 1890s, the political radicalism of the 1920s and 1930s that focused on organizing tenant unions, unemployed councils and other organizations to protest the horrible conditions of the period, and industrial union organizing of the 1930s.

The Alinsky-inspired approach to CO catalyzed the creation of many organizations while he was still alive. He learned from his experiences in city after city, and spearheaded efforts to modify organizing methods and strategies for maximum effectiveness. Many current CO groups that trace their own history to Alinsky combine the best of Alinsky with fundamental modifications they have made to forge the approaches they now employ.[3] Much could be said also about Gandhi as he was a highly successful community organizer in India in establishing freedom. However his efforts were singular in focus on obtaining independence from the British instead of broad based as Saul Alinsky’s were. For the purpose of this paper I will focus on broad based community organizing.


III.         What is community Organization?

As I studied community organizing I found there were three types of organizing that could be categorized. Larry Parachini and Sally Covington give the following three categories.


1.      Direct or individual membership groups that are typically small and geographically-based efforts to organize individual low- and moderate-income people. The members may be broadly focused on improving their neighborhood or working on a specific issue like workers' rights or environmental degradation. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now's (ACORN) individual groups are among those that fit this category.


2.      Issue-based coalitions that mobilize public interest groups, unions and other already established groups to affect a public policy or to address a common concern, such as a crisis in the public school system. The Campaign for a Sustainable Milwaukee and the Interfaith Coalition for Workers' Rights are two such coalitions.


3.      Institution-based organizing (or congregation-based or faith-based organizing) that is rooted in and brings together local religious (and most often other) institutions to work on behalf of a community. The IAF pioneered this approach with Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio, Texas. [4]

Further there are other differences that I noted in this short study. First of all, community organizing is not about advocacy. In advocacy someone is speaking on behalf of another person or group of persons. Parachini and Covington point out the difference. “Advocacy often involves mobilizing people to take part. For its public policy work, CO groups require something very different, more difficult and essential. Advocacy, in their view, needs to be informed and carried out as much as possible by the people for whom the benefits are sought. Rather than mobilizing people to back efforts designed by the few for what they perceive as the common good, CO organizes people to design and work for the policies that they believe are best. [5]

Secondly, community Organization also goes outside the realm of political entities. Michael Gecan in referring to community organizing says, “And they operate in an area of society that many Americans either doubt the existence or can’t name. Management guru Peter Drucker called it simply ‘the third sector.’ It’s the large and growing sector of voluntary organizations-of congregations, associations, sports leagues, and service groups. It’s a sector that figures out how to do what the market or state has either shown no interest in doing or have failed to do well.”[6] I thought this was an interesting insight. Most churches here in India would not see that they have a role to play in crime, environment, poverty, and a host of other urban problems. Most of the church here in India have resigned themselves to focus on evangelism, church growth, pastoral care of their members, and maintaining the status quo of their churches. Perhaps this is because of the heavy socialism that we have been used to. We depend on the government to implement a program that deals with these problems even though those programs are ineffective.

Ed Chambers points out the third difference that I noted between service agencies and community organizing. He says, “By contrast, service and maintenance organizations in health care, education, and religion are aimed not at justice but rather at service and mercy. The effect of their work is to ameliorate the status quo. They tend to ignore power.” [7] While the para-church and the church are doing some remarkable service here in India amongst the poor most of it has not touched on community organizing. We do live in a democracy and the service the church has rendered could easily be converted into building community organization. The church is seen as having a concern for the poor and needy but is also without the type of power that community organizing talks about.

These are the three differences I found between community organizing and other efforts that seem similar to it. There are also some distinct methodologies that community organizing utilizes. For instance, community organizing focuses on what the people have decided are the issues. It is not about an outsider coming in and telling the people what is wrong and then mobilizing to fix that problem. Allowing the people to start solving their own problems builds their self-respect and dignity.In describing this Robert Linthicum says, “Community organization is that process by which the people. . .organize themselves to 'take charge' of their situation and thus develop a sense of being a community together. It is a particularly effective tool for the poor and powerless as they determine for themselves the actions they will take to deal with the essential forces that are destroying their community and consequently causing them to be powerless.”[8]

The Industrial Areas Foundation has what is called the Iron Rule which is “Never do for others what they can do for themselves.”[9] Therefore there is a firm belief that the people must solve their own problem in their own way. Community organizing is about empowerment and leadership development. It is about getting the local people organized so they can take up the issues themselves, for themselves and by themselves. We as a church in India have so much to learn from this. The laity are not mobilized. Life revolves around the activities of the church rather than the problems of the neighborhoods. If people want to get involved the most they can aspire to is to lead a cell group if their church has such a program. Otherwise they may be able to do some evangelism and at best join full time Christian service in some organization.

Alinsky said in further commenting about mobilizing the people, “We learn, when we respect the dignity of the people, that they cannot be denied the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems. Self-respect arises only out of people who play an active role in solving their own crisis and who are not helpless, passive, puppet-like recipients of private or public services.” [10] Not only does the church have much to learn from this but also the para church ministries that are working in many of the urban slums and amongst the poor. We tend to be program oriented. It is our programs from the para church that we are trying to implement without it being driven by leaders from within the communities we are working in.

Successful community organizing is built upon local leadership rather than importing outside leaders. Outside leadership will not serve the purpose of building a true people’s organization. Saul Alinsky says about the outside organizer, “He can lead in the laying down of the foundations-but only the people and their own leaders can build a People’s Organization.” [11] I can think back to one of our projects in Chennai and how it was started in the right way. We wanted to work in a slum community. After going door to door and listening to the people’s problems we discovered that the biggest problem was the lack of a drinking water connection from the city corporation to the slum. It had been promised and sanctioned but was not being implemented. Our project leader, after hearing the common concern, organized the people of the slum to squat on one of the main roads of the city blocking traffic. Traffic was blocked until the police came out and heard the complaint of the masses of people demanding that they would not leave until the officials assured a connection of the water pipe.

Another methodology of community organizing is to build power for the powerless. Mike Miller comments on the two things that community organizing results in. He says, “Organizing does two central things to seek to rectify the problem of power imbalance - it builds a permanent base of people power so that dominant financial and institutional power can be challenged and held accountable to values of greater social, environmental and economic justice; and, it transforms individuals and communities, making them mutually respectful co-creators of public life rather than passive objects of decisions made by others.”[12] As pointed out above community organizing is about building power. Community organizing is bringing together those that are “have nots” to demand from those that have. The one thing that the “have nots” have is a mass number of people. Gandhi understood this principle in his effort to establish freedom with the British. The British had the guns, money, and power but Gandhi had the sheer masses of people. Once the people were organized the Empire fell and the people were not only recognized but their demands were fulfilled.

Saul Alinsky says, “A People’s organization is a conflict group. . . . Its sole reason for coming into being is to wage war against all evils which cause suffering and unhappiness. A People’s organization is the banding together of large numbers of men and women to fight for those rights which insure a decent way of life.”[13] Perhaps this is another reason why the church shies away from community organizing. Community Organizing is organizing for conflict. The church tends to focus on reconciliation, peace, unity and harmony. But Alinsky was clear in understanding how to effect change. He says, “Change can only be affected through power, and power means organization.”[14] Gecan says about power, “It’s a sector that succeeds because its leaders have learned how to manufacture and manage power-the ability to act-consistently and effectively. Not the power to abuse others back. Not the power to dominate. Not the power to replace the last bully with a new bully. Not the power to keep other from entering. But the power to demand recognition and reciprocity and respect, the power to create and sustain meaningful public relationships.” [15]

Gecan goes on about building power and says, That’s why, when we are called by the neighborhood or religious leaders of a city, we tell them that we won’t come to solve a housing problem or an education problem or a low-wage problem. No, we say we’ll try to help them solve a more fundamental problem-a power problem. No matter how terrible the conditions may be and no matter how intense the current crisis, we will spend a year or two or three with them not addressing these immediate and important issues and concerns. We’ll use that time to build the organization and to develop a firm base of power, so that the group will someday have the punch and impact needed to instigate and preserve lasting change. [16]

They do not start with large problems. They start with winnable issues. They do this to build confidence and to amass more numbers of people who will join them. The mass amount of people united together on an issue in a democracy means power to effect change. Chambers notes this by saying, “Our strategies and actions are designed to get the powers that be to give and to capitulate; that requires massive numbers of organized people aimed at the right targets at the right time.[17] The organizer’s job is to begin to build confidence and hope in the idea of organization and thus in the people themselves: to win limited victories, each of which will build confidence and the feeling that ‘if we can do so much with what we have now just think what we will be able to do when we get big and strong.’ ” [18] In expanding on this idea Chambers says, “The research preceding an action begins with an internal power analysis. Do we have a winnable issue (not a problem) here? Do we have sufficient numbers of leaders with followers who feel the issues are in their interest? Will they mobilize their supporters? Is it immediate enough? What are the turnout quotas for each group in order to win? Will the action build our organization? Answers to these questions will determine whether or not it is feasible and timely to proceed.” [19]

So effective community organizing is not just selecting an issue. It is selecting the issues that are negatively affecting the local people and issues that are winnable and definable. Alinsky says, “Organization can be built only around issues which are specific, immediate, and realizable.”[20] For the church in India we need to start building grass root movements that involve the local people and understand their day to day problems. We may hear about their problems and share in the same problems with them but our eyes need to be opened to how the church can become a reference point to build a mass movement of people united together to solve their problems. We tend to get overwhelmed with the problems because they are so large and retreat into “spirituality.” We feel there is nothing we can do other than be better disciples, make our cell groups grow a bit more, and lead a godly life.

The problem therefore is therefore knowing how to convert problems into issues. Problems are things that cannot be solved. But issues are things that make people angry and that anger must be converted into mass movements that then effect change. Issues are controversial. Problems are depressing. Chambers says, “Actions are aimed toward something you can do something about. It’s called an issue. Some things are so large as to overwhelm action efforts. These we term, ‘problems,’ something you can do nothing about. The number of children living in poverty in America is a problem; training for single mothers with children is a possible issue for an organization with some power.”[21]

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