The rules of community organizing

Neighborhoods are composed of homes, businesses, schools, people, families, local government, and institutions.  When these components are effectively marshalled, a strong and healthy community is the result.  Lately I have been thinking about the role grassroots community organizing plays in this process of building strong neighborhoods.

Grassroots community organizing is defined as movement driven by the constituents of a community to build power and bring about system change.   The term community organizing conjures up images of picket signs, exposing flaws, challenging injustices in the “system” and heated arguments. Organizing terms tend to be very militaristic, using terms such as targets, tactics, attacks campaigns and direct action. 

Saul Alinsky is recognized as an iconic figure in community organizing. Alinsky created the following the rules based on lessons learned from many successful campaigns where he helped poor people fighting power and privilege. 

 Alinksy’s Rules:

Rule 1: Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have.

Rule 2: Never go outside the experience of your people. The result is confusion, fear, and retreat.

Rule 3: Whenever possible, go outside the experience of an opponent. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.
Rule 4: Make opponents live up to their own book of rules.
Rule 5: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.
Rule 6: A good tactic is one your people enjoy. “If your people aren’t having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.”
Rule 7: A tactic that drags on for too long becomes a drag. Commitment may become ritualistic as people turn to other issues.
Rule 8: Keep the pressure on. Use different tactics and actions and use all events of the period for your purpose.

Rule 9: The threat is more terrifying than the thing itself. When Alinsky leaked word that large numbers of poor people were going to tie up the washrooms of O’Hare Airport, Chicago city authorities quickly agreed to act on a longstanding commitment to the community. They imagined the mayhem as thousands of passengers poured off airplanes to discover every washroom occupied. Then they imagined the international embarrassment and the damage to the city’s reputation.
Rule 10: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.

Rule 11: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.

While some of these rules may not apply in these current times, in my mind the principle behind most of them still hold true.  To me, the most relevant are rules 2, 4, 6 and especially 8. 

Take another look Alinksy’s rules.  Think about the challenges and opportunities faced by our community.  Now ask yourself are these rules still relevant?

Click here to hear a few words about the relevance of organizing from a former Chicago organizer: