When Organizers Are Professionals

The transformation of community organizing into a “profession” is a barrier to radical political change.

looking4poetry / Flickr

In a recent piece, “All Worked Up and Nowhere to Go,” Amber A’Lee Frost offers a strident critique of the “self-appointed Trump Resistance.” Against the romanticism of protest for protest’s sake which pervades today’s radical, “self-sabotaging” left, Frost hammers home the need for dull, tedious organizing work where it is most needed: in the workplace, because that’s where the strategic power is.

Sounds good. But before throwing oneself into such organizing, one might want to figure out a lay of the land. Calls for people to follow Joe Hill’s old exhortation to stop mourning and organize are plenty these days, but what is meant by organizing exactly is hardly ever explained further; what organizing actually looks like today, even less so. We need an analysis of the landscape of organizing today.

In the United States, that includes not just the kind of workplace organizing Frost mentions, but community organizing. By examining such organizing in one city, Chicago, we can examine some of the current practices that are used in the kind of organizing Frost is calling for today. Such an examination shows that organizing has become a profession. To rebuild a radical, emancipatory class politics, we have to reckon with that professionalization.

The Legacy of Saul Alinsky

Where does the professionalized model of organizing come from? It can be traced in part to the legacy of community organizer Saul Alinsky.

A recent piece by Aaron Petcoff offers an overview of Alinsky’s legacy and argues against turning to him as “the standard go-to guide for building militant organization.” In a context of accumulated defeats and a loss of strategic perspectives, some of the appeal of Alinskyism — and of community organizing more generally — is its down-to-earth pragmatism, its hands-on voluntarism, and the desire to empower working-class people to improve their living conditions.

But according to Petcoff, this pragmatism is actually an obstacle to radical democratic politics, because it relies on a small group of full-time, highly trained “professional organizers” who are “the primary subjects” in Alinsky-style organizations rather than the worker or the community member they organize: “While [the professional organizer] discusses the importance of small victories to mobilize the community around a particular demand, she pays little attention to the development of rank-and-file political consciousness.”

It’s an important point. But taking Alinskyism as the sole focus of critique is insufficient to encompass the broader field of community organizing.

For one thing, the Alinsky model of organizing has long been criticized by organizers who came out of the movements of the sixties and seventies for its blindness to race, gender, and ideology, as well as its focus on “winnable campaigns.” Besides, the prevalence of the Alinsky model is highly dependent on regional and local political traditions and configurations: while Alinsky-style organizations are a powerful force in the Midwest and on the East Coast, they are much less so on the West Coast or in the South.

But however much other community organizing traditions might disagree with the Alinsky model, they all share one thing in common: the reliance on paid staff to run the organizations.

Petcoff paints a portrait of the Alinsky-style organizer as a bureaucrat, in the sense that the organizer’s income “depends primarily on the organization’s longevity — especially its ability to collect dues and raise money.” Alinsky’s ideas “developed out of his experience in the CIO bureaucracy. While he liked to present his ideas as ‘pragmatic’ and matter-of-fact, they rather reflect the common sense attitudes of the labor and social movement bureaucracy.”

There is no denying this. Most — if not all — community organizations in Chicago, for instance, rely on philanthropic foundations and private donors for resources and organizational survival rather than on dues paid by their members. Applying for grants, obeying the specific dictates of each grant, and reporting on how the grant was spent are all significant aspects of organizers’ work today. The higher up staffers go in the hierarchy of a community organization, the more likely they are to deal with money and fundraising, whether it’s writing grants, managing grant portfolios, or meeting with funders and donors.

With foundation grants come injunctions to goal-setting, quantification, measurable outcomes, and individual performance. “How many doors did you hit today?” “How many people attended this meeting?” “What are your next steps on this campaign?” — all these are questions that are always in the back of organizers’ minds.

These are important benchmarks for any collective project, of course. But as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor emphasizes in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, foundations change the way organizers go about their work, as well as the issues they choose to organize around.

“Perhaps the largest issue with the foundations and funders is that these organizations also attempt to politically shape the direction of the organizations they fund,” Taylor writes. “The Ford Foundation, like many other funders, offers grants, but also produces ‘white papers,’ seminars, and conferences where it puts forward political perspectives and strategies aimed at directing the organizations it is funding.”

The obsession with “hard numbers,” the insistence that organizers should only focus on “winnable” issues and campaigns, had been developed by Alinsky long before relying on foundation money became a structural characteristic of community organizing as a field of practice. But the spectacular growth of philanthropy in the 1970s and 1980s has reinforced that tenet and spread it beyond the confines of Alinsky-style organizations.

This stands in stark contrast to other organizing models, such as the one explored by Charles Payne in his magisterial I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. In the 1960s, the “slow and respectful” organizing efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the Mississippi Delta that Payne documents were not framed in terms of whether or not the right to vote was “winnable,” but in a broader commitment to transforming members and the society-wide struggle for civil rights.

But reducing organizers to bureaucrats whose power within community organizations hampers internal democracy and radical rank-and-file politics misses part of the broader picture: organizers are not just bureaucrats — they’re professionals.

Organizing Metropolis

Distinguishing between bureaucrats and professionals is not hair-splitting. Professionalism implies formalized practices, institutionalized trainings, work ethics, professionalism, symbolic conflicts over the legitimate definition and norms of an activity, and more. The concept of “bureaucratization” cannot accurately account for those dynamics.

That community organizing has become a profession, a career, is no secret. As former organizer and organizing trainer Rinku Sen puts it in Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy, “since World War II, community organizing has grown into a profession, with its own body of literature, standards, and training institutes.”

What is at stake, however, is not just that organizers have real material interests in the survival of their organizations and that those interests can be at odds with its members’, but the existence of an organizing profession and the sense of professionalism that entails a tendency to dismiss non-professional organizers and forms of protest that do not fit within the professional organizers’ framework.

Because Chicago has long been at the heart of the historical development of community organizing, looking at the city’s “organizing scene” offers insights about the “profession” of organizing and the challenges for radical politics from below.

Chicago is a city with the longest history and the densest network of professional organizers. It is where Alinsky developed his model and formalized community organizing as a distinct, specific organizing practice. And it is home to several national organizing networks — the Industrial Areas Foundation, National People’s Action, the Gamaliel Foundation — whose local affiliates are important players in the field.

It is also home to powerful, unaffiliated community-based organizations. These organizations bring together thousands of working-class and lower-middle-class members; they employ in total one hundred or so paid organizing staff in Chicago. The tightly knit community of community organizers is significantly bigger than in any other major US city, including New York and Los Angeles.

Chicago is also where one of the leading organizing training institutes in the country is located. Since it was founded in 1973 by Heather Booth, a leading figure in the women’s movement in Chicago and nationally, the Midwest Academy has trained thousands of organizers.

The Academy’s original goal was to pass on tools and lessons learned from the sixties movements to the next generation of organizers — of women organizers, in particular. Today, the Academy’s five-day “organizing training session” is a passage obligé for most community organizers in Chicago, especially when they’re new to the job.

Over the course of these sessions, trainees learn the “tools of the trade”: how to recruit new people to their organizations, effective organizing techniques, how to “build power.” But in the process, trainees not only learn a specific expertise, based on a pragmatic, managerial approach towards mobilization building. They also incorporate a sense of group identity as organizers — as professionals.

This sense of professionalism is captured in an interview with Tom Reid (a pseudonym, as all names here are), the director of organizing at one of the bigger city-wide community organizations in Chicago, that I conducted in March 2017. Talking about the political situation on the ground since Trump was elected, Reid said:

A lot of what’s going on today reminds me of the activism I experienced in the late sixties. The difference between community organizing and activism is similar to the difference between a professional electrician and a handyman doing electrical work.

There was a big march the night after Trump was elected. Two thousand people — it was organized on Facebook. They marched to Trump tower. It was mostly white college kids. It’s great, I’m glad they did it, but there’s no demands. Once you kick the door open, what do you want? And then, are you prepared to negotiate for what you want? That’s why I was so frustrated. It was a march, but what did the march do? Was there a purpose behind it?

Like other professions, organizing is built through the separation from and dissociation with amateurs: in Reid’s words, the difference between “a professional electrician and a handy man doing electrical work.” Professionals often look down upon amateurs: they lack the necessary, legitimate skills, they lack work ethics and a sense of professionalism.

But the figure of the amateur helps the group of professionals define themselves and share some common ground. The deep-seated distinction between organizing and activism thus plays a paramount role in shaping and defining community organizers’ activities and sense of belonging to a distinctive group of professionals.

Activists are often portrayed by organizers as idealists who read radical books and magazines and attend protests but lack any real social base that they can mobilize. Organizers are “cynical” realists who painstakingly build a membership base through door-knocking, regular face-to-face interactions, one-on-one interviews, and follow-up calls with the organization’s members and community residents.

While activists do not necessarily have demands, as Tom Reid insists, one of the cornerstones of community organizing is to develop demands from community input — realistic demands that can be won through building concrete courses of actions, or “strategies.”

The organizing/activism distinction has direct, tangible consequences when social movements emerge. When I met her in the spring of 2016, Louise Young, the organizing director at another important citywide community organization and a former full-time canvasser during the 2003 anti–Iraq War movement, remarked that the 2011 Occupy movement — a symbol of volunteer activism rather than paid organizing — “pissed off a lot of us career organizers.” By not engaging in what Young and her fellow organizers perceive as legitimate activity (they did not go door-knocking, for instance) and by refusing to have “demands,” Occupy activists challenged the norm of political activity which organizers abide by.

Because she is a professional and saw organizing as a trade, Young couldn’t grasp the political significance of Occupy as it happened. Occupy did not fit organizing criteria: there was no strategic plan, no formal organization, no “community input,” no possibility to get funding for staff. Occupy addressed key issues of wealth redistribution and taxation which many community organizations in Chicago also campaign for. But because the movement was not carried out by the professionalized organizing world, organizers like Louise Young played little to no part in it.

Of course, Louise Young and her fellow community organizers are right to want to build campaigns that can turn into real political change and improvements in people’s living conditions in their lifetimes. In that sense, the “pragmatism” that professional organizers advocate is a good remedy to the Left’s “self-sabotaging” tendencies: it “meets people where they’re at,” as the phrase goes, and takes into account the concrete issues people are struggling with in order to build collective power.

But there’s a flipside. Professionalized organizing is actually so obsessed with a narrow vision of social change that it often ends up not being pragmatic at all, in that it is unable to adapt to shifts in politics and power relations or to see the value and necessity of other forms of non-professional forms of political activity.

Professional organizing has failed to grasp how movements like Occupy can transform the broader political climate — and produce a more favorable terrain for organizers like her.

Not a Regular Job

Saying that community organizing has become a profession does not mean that it is a nine-to-five job or a road to riches. Field organizers work long hours, usually earning between $30,000 and $40,000 a year (in 2015, the median personal income was around $30,000). The work is usually both dull and difficult, both physically and mentally.

To say that community organizers are professionals of a certain type, and to highlight the social conditions shaping their careers, in no way means that their work should be disparaged or dismissed.

In Chicago, there are dozens of organizers working every day for living wages and access to health care, against gentrification and evictions, waging campaigns against the criminalization of the poor and the privatization of public education, and much more. They often win important victories on these issues. And in any case, this sense of being “professionals” might not hold as firmly elsewhere as it does in Chicago, where, for historical reasons, community organizing is clearly identified and recognized as a specific area within the broader “social-justice world.”

But the very fact that many organizers in Chicago see themselves as professionals and claim that label has impacts beyond the city’s borders — all the more so since the sense of group identity is spread across the country by people moving to different cities and by training institutes like the Midwest Academy.

Still, there is no denying that the professionalization of organizing poses challenges to the possibility of radical democratic politics from below. Again, the role of foundations in this process is critical. According to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “foundation money also ‘professionalizes’ movements in a way that promotes careerism and the expectation that activism will be externally funded. In fact, most activism is volunteer-based, with fundraising a collective effort of the participants, not the particular expertise of grant writers.” And the expertise is not just about fundraising: it transforms the practice of organizing as a whole, often in less politically transformative directions.

Amber A’Lee Frost is probably right to argue that tedious, day-to-day organizing is necessary to refresh and rebuild the Left and the left-wing counter-institutions that are so desperately missing to wage the war we are currently in. But in a context in which so much of organizing is done by professionals, operating under a professionalist logic that is starkly at odds with democratic politics about ends and means, we have to be careful about the kind of organizing we’re jumping into.