What’s community organising anyhow?

Community organising is relatively new in the UK. In the States, it is a well-developed
professional field with many different networks and traditions. It is also
represented in Canada, the Philippines, Germany, Kenya, France, India, Korea, and many other countries and the main body doing organising in the UK is Citizens UK. They are widely known for their campaigns on the Living Wage, on street safety for teenagers and calling for an amnesty for undocumented workers. Citizens UK started in East London as The East London Community Organisation (TELCO) which soon established chapters in South and West London. More recently Citizens UK has formed chapters in North London and  Milton Keynes with several others on their way. Other UK organisations involved in community organising include Church Action on Poverty and the RE:generate Trust.

 Origins with Saul Alinsky

The origins of community organising are normally firmly associated with Saul Alinsky, a maverick community worker in Chicago. In the 1940s, Alinsky made a break with his mentors and set about building a democratic community organisation in a notorious slum area of Chicago called Back of the Yards. He took his inspiration from several sources but in essence he was trying to organise the community as the workers were being organised in the workplace. He created a coalition of local agencies that were able through their shared planning and common goals to change the Back of the Yards for good. Alinsky went on particularly in the 1960s to use the same approach to build a people’s organisation in several other communities in Chicago and in cities across the US.

 Different routes to the same goal

Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation as an umbrella body to link together the
different initiatives and the IAF continues today to provide a network for community
organising in this tradition, including Citizens UK. Alongside the IAF has
grown up a range of other organising networks that link up organisations from
other traditions of Alinsky-inspired action. They include the Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART), the PICO National Network, the Gamaliel Foundation and most well-known (but closed in 2010) ACORN. They all share a commitment to challenging the power of the Haves by organising the power of the Have-nots but their methods vary in significant ways.

Creating relationships of trust

All organising starts by listening. By prioritising listening to the hopes and fears of
citizens, organisers are able to achieve two key things: to find out what is
most pressing on the minds and hearts of the local community and to uncover
citizen-leaders who have the energy and following to take a lead in making
things happen. The purpose of the listening campaign is to form meaningful
relationships that have the capacity to carry into the public realm. The power
of people’s organisations is built on public relationships, where trust and
loyalty are developed organically.

Taking the movement forward

From the listening – which continues in cycles and bursts throughout any organising – a
group of citizen-leaders is convened to take forward what what the community is telling them. These are folk who can work together to discern what the key issues are, what power is at play and how they might best be tackled. This process of uncovering the route toward a common good requires a good mix of different people of all ages, races, income and perceptions. In the end, whilst the process moves through debate, discussion and discernment, the decisions are all made democratically.

Combining two forces

The issues that leaders prioritise need to address two aspects of the situation. They must have a place for everyone to play a part and they must build the power of the
organisation. The choice of issue is a subtle combination of finding the
concern that truly engages many parts of the community with a method that will
bring success and help the organisation’s members to feel more competent and
stronger together. Issues that are divisive are often shelved in favour of
those that gain the greatest sense of shared commitment.

Citizens’ alliance for change

So the essence of organising is two-fold. It is about recalibrating the relationship between the community and the powerful who run our lives. It is also about building a
broad-based alliance of interests in the community who can work together to
determine our shared future. The energy of community organising is all about
developing strong ‘people’s organisations’ that have the capacity and will to
stand up for their community in face of powerful organised forces of money and

Saul Alinsky (1989) Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals Vintage Books: Random House

These reflections on community organising are offered in Alinsky’s characteristic style toward the end of his career. The rules remain a vital source of inspiration and debate amongst activists today.

Ed Chambers (2004) Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action and Justice Continuum

Alinsky’s successor as leader of the Industrial Areas Foundation, Ed Chambers offers an
updated and much transformed account of organising with many of the elements of
IAF organising developed after Alinsky’s time. This is a more sympathetic and
modern understanding of collective power, relationships and the role of

Michael Gecan (2004) Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action Anchor Books

This is a small and well formed introduction to modern community organising in the IAF

Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall and Steve Max (2001) Organizing for Social Change: Midwest Academy Manual for Activists (3rd Edition) – has gone through three editions as the standard organising text on activism

Joan Minieri and Paul Getsos Tools for Radical Democracy: How to Organize for Power in your Community (2007) is a practical guide to organising built on the author’s experience in New York

Lee Staples Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing (2004) – explores the ACORN tradition of organising in some depth but also practically orientated.


Does this explanation of community organising make sense to you?

Do you have any experience of organising in the UK to share? Do you disagree with this approach and if so, why?

If community organising were to become a real force in the UK, what would be good about that and what would be a problem or bad?

In the UK, organising is often conflated with community development. There is an overlap but I hope to explore these different community building approaches in a future post. Let me know what you think of this outline and where you feel I need to add more detail.

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