Community Organizing: Integrating a Woman’s Approach

“In closed or structured societies, it is the marginal or ‘inferior’ person . . . who often comes to symbolize . . . ‘communitas.’” —Victor Turner

group of women from tenant organization

765 Grand Street Tenant Association, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with author (at right), 1986

Good artists will first master traditional methods of painting before incorporating their own personalities and understandings of the world into a unique style. Similarly, as an organizer, I first mastered Saul Alinsky’s approach to neighborhood-based organizing by focusing on harnessing the power of large numbers of people like a cavalry charge to seize a goal. But over time I adapted an approach that speaks to the vast majority of those who come together in a community organizing campaign: women.

In my experience, it’s usually women who take the initiative to right a wrong in their neighborhoods. Even when they are employed full time, and regardless of race, age, education, or income level, women are intimately involved with what is inside and surrounding their four walls, from hallways and blocks and gardens, to schools (particularly if they have children or grandchildren) and shops and libraries. Although women are disproportionately absent from political, corporate, or religious leadership, community tends to be a woman’s realm.

Over my 32 years of community organizing, primarily in Brooklyn, New York, and Chicago’s northern suburbs, I would estimate that 90 percent of the time, it is a woman who has called me or come to my office to volunteer to fight a slumlord, promote housing for people with disabilities, or to change public school funding so all children—not just those in wealthy areas—obtain a quality education.

The images etched into my memory are those of a young white mother in an affluent suburb walking in to offer whatever support we needed against the organized bigotry of an exclusionary homeowners’ association; a frantic mother of a white police officer looking for a religious institution that would host a rally in support of her son and his brave colleagues who blew the whistle on their superiors’ racial profiling policies; and the two separate groups of women who wanted to stop Loyola University from selling a 17-acre suburban site that housed a historic building to a luxury housing developer. I recall the shop steward who lived with her sister and father in a run-down building in a working-class suburb, victims of both her employer, who owned the building and housed his mostly Mexican workforce there, and the city that wanted to vacate it. I think of an African-American member who got an order of protection against her next-door neighbors after they harassed her because of her race.

Rather than lead, in my capacity as an organizer I introduced those who contacted me to likeminded people. With a light touch, I facilitated their coming together as an organized, collective force. Certainly I built their trust through my content expertise —I knew fair housing and rental housing regulations and where I was less certain, I brought in colleagues—but also by listening, relating, and providing time and space for collective venting and strategizing.

Organizing Styles

There are two different community-organizing styles that I think of as associated traits that are traditionally considered masculine or feminine. Masculine-style organizing is comfortable with the organizer as a public figure whereas feminine-style organizing is behind the scenes, building the leadership of others. This is best exemplified in Ella Baker’s rejection of a charismatic approach to organizing the Black freedom movement in the 1960s in contrast with the male- and clergy-dominated Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Traditionally masculine-style organizing—and I am deliberate here in not attributing this only to men or to all men, considering the exceptional popular educator Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander School and an influence on Baker—is linear, more rigid, rights-based, hierarchical, obsessed with well-attended direct actions, and above all attached to an external goal, usually a doable “win.” It is territorial, an approach Ella Baker avoided. “I was never working for an organization,” she said, “I always tried to work for a cause.”

Traditionally feminine-style organizing revolves around strengthening relationships as an end as well as a means, taking in the “vibe” of a group, fostering broad and meaningful individual participation (that is, not just a number at a rally), exercising patience and flexibility, and moving toward an encompassing vision. From this perspective, a one-on-one meeting is for the purpose of actually getting to know the other person and inviting them into the group, rather than being limited to probing the interviewee’s social status for future mobilization purposes, as is common in pure Alinsky-style organizing.

Organizers of any gender need to pay attention to the community aspect of community organizing with the same seriousness with which they analyze power structures. The best community organizers synthesize these approaches.

A Hybrid Approach

My organizing approach is to forge friends from strangers, and to foster trust by being part of the campaign myself, sharing coffee, a meal, and the experience of going to court, a city council meeting, a bus tour, or a rally. Time to build relationships becomes a necessary part of the organizing process from this perspective.

This was my logic when I created a “Fair Housing Advocate Training” program that took place over three consecutive weeks (say, every Tuesday night) with the same 10 to 15 people from one community. With time together over multiple meetings or training sessions, we got to know one another, our interests, and our perspectives on the community’s needs and assets. Cohesion between people is defined by the extent to which people first know and respect one another and feel each other’s suffering and joys as their own. Having over time built a community as well as educating ourselves, we were able to uncover where there was consensus and craft a vision accordingly. Having a vision that is tied to the group is a prerequisite for a plan of action.

To begin an organizing campaign without allowing individuals to tell their stories and express their frustrations is disempowering and stifling. In the 1980s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an ex-marine whom I supervised impatiently bossed around tenants who were just getting organized, invariably all women, and they withdrew as a result. On the other hand, an organizer who moves away from a group before true cohesion takes place under the logic that “we have to stop holding their hands” is also misguided. While the latter may seem respectful, the sentiment behind both attitudes is condescension, creating an “us” and “them” dichotomy that puts the organizer in a parental role.

Effective groups balance the need for community and the need for each individual to flourish where she or he chooses within that framework. As an organizer, I see my role as helping to build that framework. When I worked with a group of tenants in an abandoned building, I helped the families—all led by women on public aid—to divide up the tasks for managing the building among them. We did not structure the work hierarchically into officer slots like “president” and the like, but into functional tasks for which they could volunteer, like rent-collector, hall captains, and beautification team. We also employed a legal strategy that was ultimately successful in wresting the building from the absentee landlord.

It may take longer and it may appear “messy,” sentimental, or akin to “woman’s work” to the outside world, but eliciting the involvement of as many people as possible and allowing them to take on tasks that interest them models mutual respect, whose lack is at the core of every societal problem. Going for the quick win with a handful of people does little to either advance a vision or build community. Detailing tactics in the more traditional organizing fashion must be part of group development, not precede it.

The organizer acts as an eternal flame, pointing out continuously that action must connect to a progressive vision of justice and appreciation for people in all their diversity. Otherwise, the group risks becoming exclusionary, a friendly but ineffectual coffee klatsch, or too focused on petty victories instead of keeping its eyes on the prize of justice.

The best community organizing synthesizes broad community building with a tactical road map. The fusion of these two approaches allows fully integrated human beings to come together and proceed with others as one strong voice.

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