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In recent years the name of Saul Alinsky (1909-1972) has achieved a higher profile than ever and a number of new books highlight his work, largely thanks to President Barack Obama mentioning him regularly as a source of inspiration. Obama isn’t alone in his admiration; Hillary Clinton wrote her senior thesis about Alinsky, and UK`s Prime Minister Cameron used his name to add theoretical weight to the idea of the `Big Society`. So who is this Saul Alinsky, and what kind of inspiration does he have to offer?
Alinsky was born in 1909 in a poor area of Chicago and grew up in a strict orthodox Jewish family which implies plenty of focus on study, work and religion. Chicago is also the city where Jane Addams established Hull House, and that isn’t the only parallel in their work. Alinsky doesn’t seem to have set out to become a social activist. He graduated in archaeology, but the Great Depression meant that it was almost impossible to find a job in that field.
As an alternative and influenced by his involvement with the industrial action of mine workers as well as the Chicago School and its urban sociologists Robert Ezra Park and Ernest Burgess, Alinsky became involved in community organizing in the slums of Chicago. His first major involvement was with Back of the Yards, a poor neighbourhood next to the meat packing industry in the Union Stock Yards in the north of the city. Some time later, his work shifted towards the Woodlawn neighbourhood south of the city centre. He became good at what he did. So good that he started traveling around the USA to support community organizing initiatives.
In 1940, Alinsky established the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a network of local faith- or community-based initiatives. It became an example for similar networks, such as the Pacific Institute for Community Organization launched by John Baumann in 1972. Some years after the launch of IAF, in 1946, Alinsky published his first manual for community organizers, Reveille for radicals. This was complemented in 1971 by Rules for radicals. Both have been reprinted numerous times and the IAF is still active today.
Alinsky can rightly be described as the founding father of community organizing, both through his own actions and publications as well as through the inspiration he was for others. Community organizing was the way to improve living conditions, hence his expression: “to hell with charity. The only thing you get is what you are strong enough to get — so you had better organize.” Alinsky always stressed community organization was about grass roots activity, about offering the poor and powerless the tools to achieve social change. It was absolutely not about getting people to a certain goal, but about encouraging them and helping them develop techniques to bring about change themselves. Community organizing is about giving the poor and oppressed the power to speak, not about being their voice.
Alinsky will also be remembered for the creativity in the actions he initiated (or threatened to initiate), such as a rent strike against landlords of slums, a sit-in at the office of the mayor, a piss-in at O’Hare Airport (where all toilets would be permanently occupied until talks were opened) and a fart-in at a concert, for which participants would consume a large meal of baked beans in advance.
This text was written by Jan Steyaert
Date of first publication: 06-2013
Date of latest revision: 06-2019