Review: “Occupation: Organizer” by Clément Petitjean

Review: “Occupation: Organizer” by Clément Petitjean

Occupation: Organizer by Clément Petitjean offers a comprehensive historical examination of the variety of contexts in which a century of community organizing has operated and evolved and how interest groups, political organizations, philanthropic organizations, and movements have shaped the practice and the process of its professionalization — with Chicago inevitably at the epicenter of his analysis.

“My goal in this book is to challenge these misconceptions and take community organizing as a serious object of critical analysis. In order to do so, we need to look at community organizers not so much as individuals, with their stories and backgrounds, but as the members of a particular social group, with its own values, norms, and material and symbolic interests, which exists as a relatively autonomous entity.”

These misconceptions that Clément Petitjean refers to in Occupation: Organizer: A Critical History of Community Organizing in America are of those on both the Right and Left that dismiss community organizing from having measurable worth, as well as its association as solely being a byproduct of the nonprofit industrial complex or philanthropic organizations. Petitjean also implores us to look beyond the celebritization of organizers—namely the Saul Alinskys and Barack Obamas of the world—and understand the actual function and evolution of community organizing with all of its contradictions, messiness, and tedious work considered all at once. The book is predominantly framed around the question and the process of the professionalization of the practice.

This framing, mostly by necessity and perhaps to the collective sigh of many socialist organizers, starts with the life of Saul Alinsky. Petitjean emphasizes that unpacking Alinsky’s legacy is done so in the book not so much to biographize and certainly not to elevate it, but rather to examine the “professionalization dynamics” that Alinsky contributed to the field of community organizing in an inarguably lasting way. This examination unravels into virtually every imaginable dimension of the Left ecosystem from the 1930s up through the last part of Alinsky’s life in the New Left movement in the 1960s and 1970s (he passed away in 1972). But it also takes note of how the Right has co-opted Alinsky’s work, by taking note of his tactics and giving them a conservative twist—a testament to a key component in Alinsky’s approach: stimulating civic participation using a universally applicable model which is also ideologically agnostic. Alinsky, in a 1959 letter to a social reform-minded priest named John O’Grady, essentially stated as such as part of his initial guiding practices:

“[create] a responsible area of authority which possesses the loyalty of the people by virtue of its active representation and implementation of the people’s hopes and desires.”

We also briefly learn how the academic and literary arguments for and the institutionalization of community organizing initially took place in the 1910s and 1920s to the chagrin of social workers — a practice that was professionalized decades earlier and was still in the process of defining itself as well. In fact, the professionalization of social work produced a culture in the field that rejected social and political reform as its components.

Prior to his engagement in community organizing, Alinsky studied in the first Sociology department in the U.S. at the University of Chicago under Ernest Burgess and Robert E. Park, both of whom had a lasting impact on his life work and instilled in Alinsky an “obsession with conflict and power.” They saw conflict as necessary to shaping the fabric of society in order for its power dynamics to be properly understood. The city of Chicago was where their vision was applied and theory of change was practiced. One of Alinsky’s first endeavors after college was the Chicago Area Project (CAP) which ran off of public and private funds (some from the Rockefeller Foundation). CAP was seen as “a direct application of the Progressive-Era belief that social surveys could be used as a tool for social reform.” CAP would send organizers into Chicago neighborhoods that they perceived as disorganized or prone to civic disorganization and would predominantly target youth, being that their goal was to spark a self-help project to provide social and educational services to the neighborhood. CAP was premised on the rejection of casework, seen as an “individualizing, psychoanalysis-inspired practice” (another highlight of the tension between social work and community organization) and government-driven social intervention. Alinksy’s vision, that being the pursuit of natural leaders by professional community outsiders, marked the initial development in practice of the theories of community organizing he developed under Burgess and Park.

One of Alinsky’s cornerstone projects came to be the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) which he founded with the help of Bishop Bernard Sheil in 1939 to organize existing organizations in the neighborhood around shared goals in spite of its ethnic divisions (that being western European immigrants of different ethnicities—interracial organizing that included Black residents was not on the table). One of BYNC’s first victories was putting pressure on Armour, the meatpacking company, to recognize their employees’ union and offer wage increases. BYNC was heralded as a model for civic democracy in the press throughout the early 1940s, and saw recognition from President Truman. Its success provided validation for Alinsky to continue his entrepreneurial project of community organization rather than settling for a relatively more stable career in social work or academia.

He went on to form the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in 1940 and continued to build upon the concept of professional community organizing, and had still managed to avoid any association of his work with anti-communism throughout the first couple years of its founding. But as time went on, Alinsky’s original intentions unraveled differently. Returning to the aforementioned letter from priest John O’Grady to one of the most powerful Vatican officers in 1959, Cardinal Secretary of State Domenico Tardini, O’Grady highlighted Alinsky’s work as not having direct roots in the faith tradition but still serving as a model to fight apathy and demoralization that communism was not equipped to address. Alinksy went on to validate this with O’Grady after the correspondence took place. Petitjean goes on to elaborate as to how Alinsky used professionalization as its own version of anti-communism, and how Alinsky’s self-styled hard-headedness and pragmatism paved a path for him to show how his “radical” approach made him stand apart from other professional organizations, to the extent that he would attempt to set himself apart from “establishment” or “sell-out” liberals. Ironically, IAF organizers out in the field were sent out to parts of the country they had no familiarity with and would report back to their supervisors or Alinksy himself of the low wages, long hours, and work overload as a result of staffing shortages. Sexism also produced deep resentments and lack of opportunity in Alinksy’s IAF. Alinksy’s biographer, Sanford Horwitt, noted that “Alinsky’s attitude toward women (which changed somewhat by the end of his life) was typical of the male world of Chicago politics and especially of the CIO subculture.”

In spite of the trouble behind the scenes at the IAF, the media continued to praise Alinsky’s work as a polished and technicalized approach throughout the 1950s and more so into the 1960s. This revealed itself to be a crucial time in which Alinsky’s so-called radicalism began to be put to the test. The Economist published “Plato on the Barricades” in 1967 to argue that Alinsky’s strategy proved more effective in organizing the Black population than Stokey Carmichael’s or Martin Luther King’s—perhaps not a surprising expression from The Economist in the 1960s, but an audacious and racist assertion nonetheless. Petitjean illustrates:

“A month before the Economist piece on Alinsky, Martin Luther King delivered his famous Riverside Church speech, where he took a strong public stance against the war in Vietnam and connected the civil rights movement with a broader fight against US imperialism. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and other dominant newspapers all lambasted King’s speech. Instead, Alinsky’s ‘radicalism,’ which contained no anti-imperialist element, no support for the anticolonial revolutions underway in the third world, and defined politics in technical terms (‘we’re just technicians trying to organize the people’), was a much more suitable candidate for the media’s patriotic defense of the social order and the status quo.”

What’s further telling of the depoliticized nature of Alinsky’s ground game was the last decade of his life, in which he resorted to consulting large corporations. Although he suggested to his peers that the attention he received from the corporate scene wouldn’t compromise or adversely affect his underlying cause, he played directly into the emerging trend at the time of corporate social responsibility. It became all the more clearer that omitting an ideological approach was a key fixture to Alinksy’s work so that it “could be pitched to basically any group that sought to implement ‘change,’” and in Alinsky’s own words, “as long as the clients adhered to core Judeo-Christian moral values.” We see in returning to how the IAF was run in addition to how he communicated his theory of change towards the end of his life that his intentions were very individualistic from the onset, and his successor’s insistence on the mere existence of the “Alinsky method” cemented the idea of the professionalization of the field was valid and effective as an organizational model to be carried forth.

The second half of the book examines the development of community organizing in the latter part of the 20th century by first examining the reaction of organizations and individual organizers to the Alinsky method and the tensions during the civil rights movement that were seen in overlapping organizing networks of the time. Petitjean looks at the emergence of local community networks during the 1960s which favored “the development of oppressed people’s collective leadership to achieve emancipatory structural change,” and was often deliberately anti-institutional, and described by Petitjean as “spadework.” Petitjean looks at four specific examples that invoked the spadeworker tradition: “SNCC’s activity in the Deep South; the attempt by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to build an ‘interracial movement of the poor’; the creation of politicizing positions and vehicles by war on poverty legislation; and the Black power movement’s emphasis on organizing at the local level.” 

They practiced a bottom-up approach that rejected the boundaries established by the professionalization of organizing, with no distinct individual or organization that constituted the center of it to amass social capital in the way that Alinsky did. In spite of concerted attempts to disassociate with the professionalization of community organizing and even in cases where local residents themselves were recruited for their respective organizing efforts, the attachment of a specific agenda to their work clouded their mission, especially given that residents weren’t necessarily conscious of any given organizer’s political agenda, of which there certainly was one.

A notable event in which the Alinksy and New Left worlds collided was in the summer of 1964 when IAF board member Ralph Helstein attempted to train SDS members in the proto-Alinsky method. The meeting was not successful: Alinksy saw SDS organizers as naive, and SDS saw Alinsky’s approach as too liberal and absent a political vision. Although SDS organizers were clearly onto something in identifying Alinsky’s shortfalls, they ironically ended up reproducing efforts of Alinsky’s anyway, such as the use of social surveys to perform political work. Petitjean points out the similarities in the Alinsky and spadeworker tradition: ethnographic community immersion, leadership identification and attempting to let the people speak for themselves, and the development of specific goals removed from abstraction. And as it perfectly fits into ongoing debates of the educational backgrounds of leftists today, spadeworker development was almost always fueled by student movements or the college-educated. The Black Panther Party’s development likely would not have come to be without its college-educated core.

The organizing culture from the 1970s to the end of the century gradually became more of an effort to capture populist sensibilities in the context of practicing hyperlocal politics—and attitudes that shaped these practices were often seeded in a deep mistrust of government in general, also serving as an interesting backdrop to the early years of the development of neoliberalism. “Grassroots” political action was coined and developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s, driven not only by consultants of some of the most well-funded electoral campaigns of the time but also the advocacy organizations that now constitute our modern non-profit industrial complex. This caused the concept of community organizing to expand beyond unforeseen levels of reach and influence. To add to it, philanthropic donations went on to triple from the 1970s to the late 2010s.

Throughout now-Mayor Brandon Johnson’s campaign it has been easy to catch Chicago organizers and advocates for Johnson, rightfully so, comparing his campaign and tactics with that of Harold Washington: emphasis on the intention to place input from neighborhood groups into motion and listen to (and eventually employ) professional organizers. As this developed during Washington’s term, community organizing also managed to find its way into conservative and reactionary tendencies as exemplified by the founding of Save Our Neighborhoods, Save Our City (SON-SOC). Petitjean notes the context in which SON-SOC developed:

“Both organizations were started by IAF-trained organizers in the 1970s in neighborhoods where white ethnics responded to the arrival of African American and Hispanic families with reactionary language and methods. In these neighborhoods, the dog-whistle rhetoric used by people like Republican mayoral candidate Bernard Epton and alderman Ed Vrdolyak, the leader of the anti-Washington faction during the infamous ‘Council Wars,’ resonated widely. During SON-SOC’s first convention in 1984, the 750 delegates issued a ‘Declaration of Neighborhood Independence,’ soon nicknamed the ‘white ethnic agenda,’ centered on neighborhood preservation and opposition to racial integration.”

This served as one of many examples alongside the quickly changing landscape of nonprofits, volunteer organizations, philanthropic organizations, labor unions, and political campaigns that produced a vast array of competing interests with the ascension of neoliberalism as its backdrop. It contributes to the murkiness of the concept of community organizing itself: is it inherently liberal, conservative, reactionary, radical, local, or political? Any of these descriptors could be assigned to community organizing throughout its development. It’s on this basis that Petitjean dismisses any notion that community organizers are either homogeneous or exist in a social vacuum. He concludes that community organizers do inhabit a “subaltern position” in the political ecosystem, although it may also be fair to critique how subaltern their position actually is considering the current political moment in Chicago and the influence that community organizers had on Mayor Johnson’s successful campaign.

Petitjean also concludes with looking at professionalization dynamics through a “prism” to see what type of work is done and how. In examining professionalization, he neither concludes that unpaid volunteer work should be put on a pedestal or romanticized, nor does he conclude that a wide network of paid professionals is sufficient to sustain itself. He argues that lulls in movements provide the most difficult scenarios to advocate for deprofessionalization, “since defending the group’s dwindling resources can appear as a more reachable and desirable goal”—with philanthropists contributing to the dialectic of constraining organizing work while at the same time keeping it financially afloat.

Petitjean frames three approaches to effective and sustainable community organizing to consider:

  • Continue offering community organizers paid roles, but in a way that is removed from any sense of academic or professional superiority
  • Interrogate organizational dynamics themselves: their structure, how volunteers and paid staff relate to one another and identify sources of conflict and address them, and how roles are specialized
  • Making organizer roles deliberately temporary, allowing many people to practice them over time to produce a longer term act of knowledge-sharing that is closer to Ella Baker’s idea of “group-centered leadership”

There are a myriad of factors to consider for not only developing a self-sustaining strategy of community organizing for the modern Left, but to also avoid running in circles. What does it really mean to produce an environment in an organization where its paid organizers aren’t naive young adults fresh out of college and falling into a self-righteous modus operandi? How easily can conflict and task division be predicted and addressed in a substantial way that doesn’t have a problematic director or broader leadership team serving as a bottleneck? Are horizontal organizing tactics always doomed to failure, or is it possible for an organically self-reproducing culture in an organization possible in establishing long-term goals? Alinsky provided us procedures absent a democratically-minded politics and painted the organizer as a hero, while the New Left and many segments of the modern Left exhibit deep convictions of democracy at their core, while having an historic propensity to dissolve or burn out. How do we survive?

Occupation: Organizer is a must-read for activists, activists-becoming-organizers, and of course organizers themselves whether their area of focus be politics, labor, or running a neighborhood block club. The way forward is not remarkably clear after reading, but the historical lessons the book provides are critical to shaping our understanding of the organizing world as it is, and what we’re at an advantage to avoid.

Occupation: Organizer was released on Haymarket Books on April 18, 2023. The author and Executive Director of In These Times magazine, Alex Han, recently held a conversation about the book at Haymarket House in Chicago which can be viewed here.