Blog Archive

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Clinton, Obama, Alinsky and Me

Thanks to Alexander Russo at District 299 for linking to a fascinating Washington Post article that outlines Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's connections to Saul Alinsky, whose model of community organizing got its start here in Back of the Yards.

I have to say I think Alinsky would be rolling in his grave if he knew the state of community organizing in Back of the Yards today. The organization he founded here, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, is best known today for its van that takes seniors shopping and for its ballet folklorico ensemble, which are very nice programs but certainly aren't bringing hundreds of people to the aldermen's offices to get sidewalks and streets repaired, for example. There are rumors to the effect that previous leadership in the organization used its history and prestige to arrange various deals for personal advantage. I will say no more since I can't prove anything.

Meanwhile, though the Peace and Education Coalition has done a lot of good in its 10 years of existence, it's an organization of organizations, not a group that builds grassroots muscle directly.

Someone I know who used to work for the IAF told me bluntly that Alinsky wouldn't have much use for people like me. Activists, Alinsky would say, are useless--loners out doing their thing, not growing local leaders or generating power from the masses. They are just brief flashes in the pan, mostly about charity or a single issue, not about empowerment. But I don't know that one can say Alinsky's way left a great deal of impact here, if you look at where our neighborhood is now.

As for our Democratic presidential candidates:
Both Obama and Clinton admired Alinsky's appeal for small-d democracy but came to believe that social progress is best achieved by working within the political system, and on a national scale.

I'm not sure I buy that working inside the political system on any scale is the only alternative to Alinsky, or that Alinsky's way of doing community organizing is the only way. I don't know exactly what the Logan Square Neighborhood Association would say about how it views Alinsky, but I'd give my eyeteeth to have a group like that here.

Dawn's question to me a while back is still rolling around in my head: "What makes some things work and some things not work?" she asked. She said this in the context of having tried unsuccessfully to organize an after-school program at Big Picture that would draw kids from multiple schools.

I thought about two projects I was working on at the same time, one struggling, one going gangbusters, and said, "The two things I know help some things work are money and talented people."

But the really mysterious thing about making something work is generating the energy to get it done. Community organizing is partly about knowing what issues have enough inherent energy to mobilize people, and also about knowing which people have enough energy to mobilize to get the job done on an issue. I think project management is about energy, too--picking a project that is doable based on the energy (money, people) available, then managing the money and the people needed from beginning to end.

Here on the block, I try to pick projects I think I can do on my own or with just a little help from people or groups I feel very comfortable with: Medicine Man, Su Casa, Big Picture (though they are quite stretched). Without more Spanish-language skill, it's really hard to build a wider network. So I'll be going back to class later this month.

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