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

190 Meserole tenant leader and her daughter, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1986. Photo by Mal Schechter.

190 Meserole tenant leader and her daughter, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1986. Photo by Mal Schechter.

Good artists will first master traditional methods of painting before incorporating their own personalities and understandings of the world into a unique style. Similarly, I adapted Saul Alinsky’s brand of neighborhood-based organizing, focused like a cavalry charge on harnessing the power of large numbers of people to seize a goal, to one that prioritizes the development process of the group. It is an approach that speaks to the vast majority of those who come together through community organizing: women.

The truth is that it is almost always 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 women’s realm.

Over my 32 years of community organizing, primarily in Brooklyn, NY 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 “do something” to fight a slumlord or to promote housing for people with disabilities or to change public school funding such that all children and 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 in Wilmette, one that initially met on their children’s soccer field and the other that I helped pull together, wanting for different reasons to stop Loyola University in Chicago from selling a 17-acre tree-filled site with an 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, and the city which wanted to vacate it; and I think of the older women’s swim group at the Evanston/North Shore YWCA that circled the wagons around an African American member who challenged racist next door neighbors.

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.

765 Grand Street Tenants Association, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1986. Author at right.

765 Grand Street Tenants Association, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1986. Author at right.

Masculine and Feminine

Community organizing styles can be thought of as 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 and her 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 led, no less, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Masculine-style organizing – and I am deliberate here in not attributing this only to men, considering the exceptional popular educator Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander School and a colleague of Baker – is linear, structured, 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.”

Female-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. “Relational” from a woman’s perspective is for the purpose of actually getting to know the other person and inviting them into the group, rather than the manipulative “one-on-one” interview of organizer-speak whose underlying motivation is to probe the interviewee’s social status for future mobilization purposes.

Organizers, male and female alike, 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. 

Wilmette Cares, IL, 2014.

Wilmette Cares, IL, 2014.

A Hybrid Approach

My organizing approach is to forge friends from strangers: to foster trust by being part of the campaign myself, share coffee, a meal and the experience of going to court, a city council meeting, a bus tour, or a rally. In so doing, time itself becomes part of the organizing process. This was my logic in creating a “Fair Housing Advocate Training” that would necessarily take place over three consecutive weeks (say, a Tuesday night) with the same ten to fifteen people from one community. With time together over multiple meetings or training sessions, we get to know one another, our interests and perspectives on the community’s needs and assets. Then, having over time built a community as well as educating ourselves, we reveal where there is consensus and craft a vision accordingly. That vision must be tied to the developed group as the prerequisite for a plan of action. 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.

To begin an organizing campaign without allowing individuals to tell their stories and express their frustrations is disempowering and stifling. In the 1980’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an ex-marine I supervised impatiently bossed around tenants just getting organized, invariably all women, and they withdrew as a result. Conversely, an organizer, under the logic that “we have to stop holding their hand,” is misguided in moving away from the group before true cohesion takes place. While this 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 themselves. We did not structure the work hierarchically into officer slots like “president” and the like but into functional tasks in 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" or sentimental or “woman’s work” to observers, but eliciting the involvement of as many people as possible and allowing them to take on those tasks which 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. The business of detailing tactics in the more traditional organizing fashion must be part of group development, not precede it.

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

The best community organizing synthesizes community-building at the horizontal level with a tactical road map at the vertical level. Often seen as female and male respectively, their fusion is the fully integrated human being able to proceed with others as one strong voice.