Community Organzing as Practiced in the United States- A Description With Examples By Rev. Paul Cromwell, October, 2004


I. Historical Roots and Uniqueness

Community organizing as practiced in the United States has as its roots the work of Saul Alinsky (1909 -1972).  Alinsky’s work, begun in Chicago and then moved to other American cities, can most simply be described as the transferring of concepts and strategies used in the American labor movement for greater worker justice, to poor and ethnically diverse large urban neighborhoods in order to improve city services and the quality of life in these residential neighborhoods.  Near the end of his life, Alinsky’s associates sought to institutionalize this work in the form of systematic trainings for community organization leaders and staff, and by creating an institutional structure that would help sustain and spread these efforts.  The legacy of Alinsky’s work can now be found in hundreds of American cities, towns, and rural areas through the work of individual membership-based organizations, as well as, organizations of organizations where religious congregations, labor unions, and others band together.

Community organizing differs significantly from the work of social service providers, single-issue social movements, and political parties.  While social service providers deliver needed services to persons in need, and who are often the victims of unjust social policies, community organizing works to empower people to change and hold accountable those institutions which often create the victims in the first place.  Unlike single-issue social movements often lead by charismatic leaders, community organizing is multi-issue oriented with a broad collective of leaders.  Community organizing is political work in the very broad sense of this term, meaning that it engages  people in the civic and political affairs of their communities.  Community organizations, however, are never affiliated with any political party, nor do they campaign for persons running for office.  Rather, they seek to hold accountable these and other civic leaders to the needs and visions of the entire community, especially its low and moderate-income residents.

II. Basic Values, Concepts, Strategies, and Characteristics of Community Organizing

A. Power and Values

Two basic values govern and guide the work of community organizing.  The first is that of democratic participating and broad inclusively.  All people have the right to actively participate in the civic decisions, which govern their individual and collective lives.  Community organizing embodies the value of democratic participation both internally, within the organization itself, and by engaging the organization with the broader community and decision-making processes.  The organization’s members are systematically listened to and actively engaged in the selection, research, and solving of  community problems.  The organization's leadership is democratically elected and its governing structures and decisions are held accountable by the membership to insure the will of the people is being followed. The organization then engages in the broader community and democratic procedures.  It negotiates with and for people who are often excluded from the political mainstream due to their lack of power on the basis of income level, or racial and ethnic composition.

The second governing value of community organizing is justice and compassion.  Community organizing works to see that all people and areas of the city are treated with dignity and respect, and that a degree of fairness is being lived out in a community’s distribution of goods and services.

Power is needed to see that values of fairness and compassion are implemented in the community.  In this regard, community organizing makes an important distinction between private and public relationships.  In our private relationships of family, friendships, and small voluntary associations, the individual can often exert the needed power and influence to see one’s needs are met and that one is treated fairly.  If not, the individual has a good deal of freedom to leave these relationships and select new ones.  In the public arena of involuntary relationships (i.e. with large institutional structures such as city hall, the police, banks, school system, and the like) the individual is more often than not powerless to negotiate one’s needs and interests.

Community organizing points out that power and influence are manifested in society in two major forms:  organized money and organized people.  When the millionaire developer wants something from city hall, they often get their way due to their organized money.  When individuals of modest income and wealth want change, however, they must band together to see that their interests are met.  In community organizing, power and influence are exercised in large public assemblies where elected officials and other civic leaders see that the threat of public embarrassment or the loss of prestige or votes in the next election are worse than responding positively to the needs and demands of the organization.

Community organizing follows three primary steps to achieve its purposes of citizen empowerment and community improvements.  The first step is to systematically listen to the needs and visions of the people involved, and to democratically prioritize them.  One example of this “listening process” will be subsequently described.  The second step is to conduct research to see what solutions can address these needs and visions, and what public or private institutions and leaders have the power and resources to carry out the needed solutions.  Third, a large public gathering is held to which the media and key civic leaders are invited.  The community problems are graphically described, the solutions are presented, and the agreement of civic leaders is sought in the form of specific steps they will take to address these problems.  Smaller negotiating meetings of the organization’s leadership with civic leaders take place before and after such public assemblies where the details of solutions can be fully developed. 

B. Strategies for Democratic Participation and Powerful Community Problem Solving

1. Why People Participate

When people acknowledge that the power they need to positively change their communities comes in the form of organized people, the challenge arises how to best mobilize them.  Community organizing works from the premise that people become involved in activities for one of two primary reasons.

First, people engage because they have a direct self-interest in something.  Human self-interest can revolve around many factors, ranging from self-survival to self-esteem.  One can witness in community organizing people’s involvement based upon the direct impact a community problem has on a person’s life and family (the most common), the offense to one’s values a community problem has (for example, a person may say, “I am not homeless, but I become involved because I believe that there should not be the conditions of homelessness in our city.”), or the satisfaction one gains from working closely with a diverse group of committed people.

The power of self-interest is captured well in the following quote from former American politician Mario Cuomo.

You cannot have been in politics as long as I have and be blind to the fact that for most of us, most of the time, self-interest is a powerful motivator – perhaps the most powerful one.  If we hope to reestablish our strength, confidence, and balance as a nation, we need to help one another see that our self-interest is not identical with our selfish interests, that self-interest is inextricably linked to the common good.  We need to understand that apart from the morality of recognizing an obligation to our brothers and sisters, common sense by itself should teach us that we are all in this thing together, interconnected and interdependent.   - Mario Cuomo, Reason To Believe, 1995


It is very important to point out, as Mr. Cuomo does, that self-interest is different than selfishness.  Wanting the best for one’s life, family, and community only becomes selfish when these desires are sought at the exclusion of others.  When they are sought in relationship and cooperation with others, when overlapping and common self-interests are recognized and affirmed, the nature of power to achieve them is transformed from an oppressive “power over” others to a liberating “power with” others.

The second primary reason people engage has to do with relationship of trust and goodwill one has with a person who invites them.  When asked, “Why did you attend this meeting?” or “How did you become involved in this group?”, it is very common to hear the response, “Because a friend invited me.”  Long-term involvement ultimately comes back to self-interest.  Relationships, however, often determine initial involvement.

One final note can be made regarding participation, especially regarding involvement in public and civic affairs.  Often people blame apathy for the lack of people’s civic involvement.  The word “apathy”, or “a-pathos”, implies a lack of passion and concern.  Very few people truly lack in passion or concern for themselves, their family, or their community; but they often do feel powerless to make a difference.  Community organizing awakens a realistic hope that things can change through one’s involvement with others.

2. One-On-One/Face-To-Face Visits

One of the most effective strategies used in American community organizing is the one-on-one or face-to-face visit. Its purpose is to discover a person’s self-interests and to initiate a relationship of trust and respect.  While it is very rare during a first visit that the person visited will be invited to participate or become involved in something, a foundation is laid to do so in the future.

A one-on-one visit is an intentional conversation, always arranged ahead of time, and lasts for approximately 30 to 45 minutes.  It begins with the person doing the visit establishing the reason for visiting.  The following example is typical within the context of a faith-based community organization where one lay person is visiting another from their own congregation.

"Thank you for taking the time and allowing me to visit.  As I mentioned when I called to arrange this visit, I am part of a team of twenty persons from our church who are each visiting five to ten other members as a way of strengthening the fellowship of the church and understanding our members concerns for the church, our neighborhood, and our city.  Before we talk about visions and concerns, however, I would enjoy getting to know you better. Please tell me more about yourself."

Visitors ask about the background, family, work, hobbies, and future aspirations of the person they are visiting.  Questions such as, “How did you choose your job and what do your really like about it?”, and “Were there any key people or events in the past that really helped shape who you are today?” lead the conversation to a deeper level.  Eventually the visitor will ask about the community and church with such questions as, “If there was one or two things that would make our church a better place than it already is, what would that be?”, and “What makes you angry and what would you like to see changed in your neighborhood or our city?”  The visit ends with the visitor saying something like this.

"Thank you for taking the time to visit and share.  Next month our church team will report back to the full congregation what we have found.  Then we will invite the membership to take part in developing strategies to address the visions and concerns we have heard.  I will call you when this occurs."

Persons conducting such one-on-one visits consistently report how rewarding they are, how it expands the number of people they know, and amazement at how much people are willing to share about themselves during an initial conversation.  Upon reflection, this final conclusion should not be surprising. It is a wonderful experience when someone truly listens to and takes a genuine interest in us, all the more so in our increasingly busy and impersonal culture.

As alluded to in the one-on-one example just cited, these visits often occur in the context of a “listening process”, an eight week period when a trained group of people  will each visit five to ten others.  After the visits are completed, the visitors will share with each other what they have heard, look for a pattern of repeated concerns and visions, and then report back to the membership their findings and preliminary recommendations for next steps.  Within a faith-based community organizations of thirty congregations working together, it is not uncommon for 2,000 people to be visited and listened to during this eight week period.  Each parish listening team, in addition to reporting back to their own membership, will also share the community concerns they heard at a meeting with listening teams from other congregations and parishes.  Such a joint listening process generates great energy, excitement, and hope that community problems will be effectively addressed.  What helps guarantee success, however, is that the listening teams can now invite the 2,000 people they visited to participate in the organization based upon the self-interests they have discovered and the relationships they have begun to establish.

3. From Unmanageable Problem to Solvable Issue

In addition to being able to mobilize large numbers of people as a means of exerting power on behalf of the values of fairness and compassion, community organizing helps people translate vast community problems into specific and winnable issues.  The quality of education, crime in neighborhoods, or the poor delivery of city services are vague and vast community problems.  Working to see that Lincoln High School implement an after-school reading tutorial program for 100 struggling readers by the start of the new school year is a specific and winnable issue.   Demanding that the police add extra patrols for three months to eliminate drug dealing in ten identified drug houses is concrete.  Requesting that the city fix the potholes on twenty named streets, transforms a vast community problem into something the organization can take to their public leaders. Community organizing trains citizens to demand from civic leaders precisely what they want and by when.
Such demands allow for concrete negotiations and specific accountability.  At large public meetings, civic leaders are asked questions such as, “Will you implement a tutorial program for one hundred struggling readers, beginning October 1st?”   Such questions require a “yes” or “no” answer from the public official.  Details of the final solution and needed modifications of the original request can be further developed in subsequent negotiations.  The specific nature of the request, however, will keep the negotiations on track and prevent civic leaders from diverting attention from peoples’ true concerns and visions.

C. Additional Characteristics

Three additional characteristics of community organizing help distinguish it from other forms of community and social work:  the nature of its financial income, leadership, and staff.  Community organizations need money for staff, leadership training, and basic office expenses.  This money comes from a variety of sources and, as much as possible from the membership.  Membership-raised money is important for two reasons.  First, people feel greater ownership over that which they personally pay for and invest in.  Second, membership raised money equals independence.  It is difficult to hold city hall accountable if a large portion of an organization’s budget comes from government sources.

The membership and leadership of community organizations are its most valuable asset.  Leaders in community organizations come with different styles and characteristics, but they hold in common that they are people with an identifiable following, and they are able to mobilize this following when the organization needs to exert its power.  Community organizations place great emphasis on training leaders with the skills they need to become effective players in the democratic public arena.  Formal leadership trainings include teaching specific skills on how to conduct one-on-one visits and productive meetings, how to research and tackle community issues, fundraising, and effective negotiating.  They also teach theoretical skills like how to understand power, the key differences between public and private relationships, and the importance of clearly understanding our own and other’s self-interests.  The real training of leaders, however, occurs “in the field” when these skills are put to use.

Finally, the staff of community organizations are paid professionals who play multiple roles.  Community organizers spend the majority of their time, especially in the beginning stages of building an organization, conducting hundreds and hundreds of one-on-one visits, drawing people together through the common self-interests he or she has heard from the people themselves.  The community organizer serves as leadership trainer in the context of formal trainings, meetings, and all aspects of the organization.  A final prominent role of the community organizer is that of agitator.  Often the organizer is an outsider who comes into a community asking, “Why do things need to be this way?”  He challenges people to act upon their stated beliefs and values.  As an outsider and in the role of facilitator, the organizer plays a behind the scenes role, never doing for others what they can do for themselves.  So it is the organization’s leadership, not staff, that run meetings, hold accountable and negotiate with civic leaders.  The organizer, however, helps prepare and reflect with the leadership how these actions can be most effective.

III. American Churches as Active Participants in Community Organizing

A recent study by “The Interfaith Funders” found that there are over 3,500 religious congregations in the United States that participate in community organizing.   These congregations contribute money in the form of membership dues, church space for meetings, and their pastors and members as the active participants of the organizations.  In addition, regional and national religious bodies have contributed millions of dollars of financial support to community organizing efforts.

There are three primary reasons for this extensive church participation and support for community organizing.  One reason is that community organizing fits the values of justice and compassion found in the Judeo-Christian tradition and scriptures.  Second, community organizing offers churches an effective mission strategy to powerfully address community concerns directly impacting their membership, neighborhoods, and city; a strategy that goes beyond more traditional church charity or social service approaches.

Finally, community organizing serves the institutional self-interests of pastors and their congregations.  One-on-one listening processes help foster fellowship within the church and is often used to reach out to inactive or potential new members.  Listening processes are also often used by congregations and parishes to clarify their own internal programming and ministries.  Pastors and lay leaders also learn valuable skills that help their own church run more effectively.  For example, church leaders often learn in the context of community organizing how to run effective and efficient meetings, and then bring these strategies back to church committee and ministry meetings.



Thus far, we have spoken of the basic concepts and strategies of community organizing.  We turn now to some concrete examples in order to paint a fuller picture of community organizing in practice.  While many examples could be selected, I will draw from my own experiences since they are ones with which I am most familiar.  Examples will be given of the process used in building a new faith-based organization of organizations; work done in selecting, researching, and solving two community problems; and the day-to-day work of a community organizer.  I begin, however, with a brief self-description.

Since there are no schools that formally train community organizers, the question is often asked, “How does one become involved in this profession?”  The personal stories I have heard which answer this question are as varied as the number of community organizers I have met.  In my own case, it was a combination of influences that lead me into organizing.  Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio during the times of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, I was made aware of the power of citizen activism in shaping public policy.  My upbringing in the church helped connect these struggles for justice to the values of the Christian faith.  I remember at the age of fifteen  feeling a call into the ministry or politics as a way of contributing to these efforts for greater societal fairness and compassion, but feeling unsure how to connect them.  It was during my university studies that I was introduced to people doing a range of organizing activities.

My first professional experience as an organizer began in 1979 with the Southern Woodcutters Assistance Project, working with predominately African-American pulpwood cutters in rural Mississippi.  Our work combined a self-help, social service approach with organizing.  The woodcutters formed local chapters of a buyers’ cooperative (allowing them to purchase saw and truck parts at a wholesale price) and credit union (helping to break the credit trap many of them were in with the those who purchased their wood).  These services also formed the backbone of the organization.  Attention was then turned to organizing for a state law establishing a fair process for measuring their wood when sold to buyers and getting a higher price for their labor.

After completing my Seminary studies and being ordained a minister in the United Church of Christ, I worked for an individual membership based organization in Duluth, Minnesota that focussed on neighborhood improvements and fair lending practices of area banks.  My work evolved in Duluth to that of building an organization of organizations consisting of churches, labor unions, and an assortment of women’s, senior citizen’s, and tenant organizations.  Seven years in Minnesota was followed by four in St. Petersburg building a faith-based organization before serving as the Head Organizer of the Interchurch for Coalition for Action, Reconciliation, and Reconciliation (ICARE) in Jacksonville, Florida.  The following concrete examples will be drawn from my nine years with ICARE; an organization of 35 churches dedicated to powerfully addressing the needs of low and moderate-income residents. 

I. Building an Organization

A. Sponsoring Committee 1993 – 1995

Prior to my work in Jacksonville, an organizer from the Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART) spent one to two days a month for two years building a Sponsoring Committee.  DART is a twenty year old network of twenty five community organizations in Florida, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Virginia.  They have three full- time staff persons, provide leadership trainings twice a year, organize an annual three-day meeting of pastors, and provide monthly consultant visits to each organization that is part of the DART network.  During the past three years they have systematically recruited recent university and seminary graduates for a twelve-week organizing internship, and the twelve DART-affiliated organizations in Florida have worked together and won common issues at a statewide level.

The Sponsoring Committee in Jacksonville, built between 1993 and 1995, had fifteen church leaders (Bishops, District Superintendents, etc.) representing seven different faith traditions.  During these two years they learned about community organizing, raised seed money, and then hired a full-time community organizer.

B. Head Organizer’s First Nine Months in Jacksonville 9/1995 - 5/1996

I began my work as the Head Organizer in Jacksonville in September, 1995.  For the first six months my primary task was to visit with area pastors, mostly in one-on-one meetings.  During these visits I was building relationships, listening to the pastors’ visions and concerns for their congregations and the broader community, and explaining the purpose and strategies of community organizing.  In February and March of 1996, 35 of the 120 pastors I had visited met together for three meetings and made plans and commitments to build a faith-based organization with their congregations.  The also began to introduce me to lay leaders in their churches.  I met with these church members individually and in small groups.  Then on a Friday night and Saturday morning in late May, 1996 we held a joint training.  125 persons from 25 churches came and learned what faith-based organizations had accomplished in other communities, potential strategies that would build an organization in Jacksonville, and became acquainted with one-on-one visits.  They were then asked to spend the next month recruiting other members of their church to a training on how to do one-on-one visits.

C. One-On-One Listening Process 6/1996 - 9/1996

In late June, 1996 ICARE held a three-hour training for 200 lay people from 20 Churches on how to do effective one-on-one visits and to plan a visiting process in their congregations.  During July and August these 200 persons conducted 1,300 visits and returned to a meeting in September, which we called an “Issues Assembly.”  Each church reported how many visits they had completed and what three community problems their members most wanted ICARE to work on.  Ten community problems were identified, but a vote by the persons at the Issues Assembly selected public education, drug and crime problems, and infrastructure improvements as the three priorities ICARE would address during the coming two years. 

D. Issues Research 10/1996 - 12/1996

Three weeks after the Issues Assembly ICARE held an Issues Training attended by 95 persons.  We discussed how these three priority community problems could be researched and approached, and asked these 95 persons to volunteer to be part of one of the three Issue Committees.  Between October and December, 1996 these Issue Committees conducted research and developed potential solutions and recommendations.  Also during this time the Sponsoring Committee developed organizational by-laws and a list of nominees to serve on the newly created Board of Directors.

E. Convention 1/1997

250 people attended the Founding Convention of ICARE in January, 1998.  They voted to approve the new by-laws, they elected a new Board, and they received the reports and recommendations of the three Issue Committees.  They also approved plans to hold ICARE’s first Public Meeting one month later, and made commitments to bring others from their churches to this Public Meeting.

F. Public Meeting 2/1997

On February 6, 1997 ICARE held its first Public Meeting.  Nearly 1,000 people and the media attended.  ICARE pastors and leaders from each Issue Committee explained the three community problems and then asked key public officials if they would work with ICARE to solve these problems.  The School Superintendent and Police Chief both attended the meeting and responded, “Yes, I will work with you to solve these problems.”  The Mayor, however, did not attend but instead sent a representative who could not speak on his behalf.  The next morning the Mayor called ICARE pastors and apologized for not coming.  He also told TV and newspaper reporters that it was a big mistake that he did not attend.  Three weeks later the Mayor came to a meeting of 125 ICARE members.   He brought his 18 top government leaders and said he would work with the organization.

G. Negotiating Solutions 3/1997 - 5/1998

Between March and May, 1997 ICARE leaders met with the Mayor, Police Chief, and Superintendent of Schools.  The Mayor committed to make 125 infrastructure improvements presented to him by ICARE including street and sewer repairs, the tearing down of abandoned buildings, cleaning up of neglected parks, and installing new street lights in areas where crime was occurring at night.  The Sheriff ordered new police patrols in areas of high crime and arrested known drug dealers.  The School Superintendent agreed to set up a new “In-School Suspension Program” for misbehaving students that would keep them in school rather than send them home to unsupervised environments, and would help them with their homework so they would not fall behind in their school work. The pledges of all three leaders were fulfilled.

H. The Work of ICARE Continues 6/1998 – Present

During the two or three years ICARE was beginning, some of the pastors and lay leaders asked why we were taking so much time before we began to work on community problems.  Later they saw that this work was necessary.  Without this initial groundwork, ICARE would not have been able to bring a thousand people together, and it was this large Public Meeting that made the political leaders positively respond to the community problems.  The preparation work also allowed the pastors and members of the different and diverse churches to understand, respect, and trust one another.  Finally, the preparation work allowed us to build a multi-issue and long-term organization that would not die after the first or second issue was solved.

ICARE has a Convention every two years.  Before this Convention, ICARE member churches conduct the “community issue listening process” during which they have listened to between 1,300 to 2,300 persons on each occasion.  Issue priorities and the twenty-five member Board of Directors are selected and elected at the Convention.  The Board meets monthly to direct and coordinate the work of ICARE.  New Issue Committees are formed after each Convention to address the three or four issues selected at the Convention.  During the past nine years these issues have included education, drugs and crime, infrastructure improvements, youth activities, health care, public transportation, affordable housing, and health care.  At least one time a year, ICARE holds a large Public Meeting with important government and other community leaders in order to solve community problems. 

II. Solving Community Issues

A. Example #1: Public Transportation for Low-Income Workers

As was stated earlier in this report, community organizing follows three basic steps in solving community problems:  democratically selecting the community problems to be addressed, research, and negotiating with public officials.  During ICARE’s second “community issues listening process” conducted in the Fall of 1998 many of its members complained that public transportation for low-income workers was inadequate.  A typical bus ride took as long as three hours from Jacksonville’s Northside residential areas (where unemployment was the highest in the city) to the Southside industrial and commercial parks (where job growth was most prominent).

            ICARE leaders learned that efforts in other parts of the country had successfully addressed this issue through a variety of strategies.  ICARE invited staff from the national Center for Community Change to Jacksonville to conduct a 50 person training  to see which of these strategies might work.  The approach used elsewhere that seemed most appropriate for Jacksonville was the creation of a bus hub in the Northside that would gather bus riders at one central location and then transfer them to an express bus line to the Southside.  ICARE leaders had learned from conducting local research visits with area business and governmental leaders, as well as with residents,  that the ideal location for such a hub would be the Gateway Mall.  Gateway had been built as Jacksonville’s first suburban shopping mall in the 1950’s but had fallen on hard times as the neighborhood transitioned from middle to low-income residents.  A bus hub at this location would bring potential customers back into this area and assist in its economic revitalization.

ICARE leaders and staff prepared a seven-page report of its research findings and recommendations.  25 ICARE leaders met with officials of the Jacksonville Transit Authority (JTA) to present the report and begin a dialogue.  Two weeks later, ICARE held a meeting of 600 of its members, explaining the findings of its report, presenting testimonials of bus riders who wanted solutions, and asking the JTA President to act upon ICARE’s recommendations.  The JTA President agreed to all of the recommendations.  Within two months the bus hub was established at the Gateway Mall, direct bus lines were established to the Southside, and transit time was reduced from three hours to fifty minutes.  Within a year, the Gateway Mall began attracting new businesses and has now become a flourishing shopping and service center in Jacksonville’s Northside.

ICARE’s work on this issue continued in two primary ways during subsequent years.  ICARE continued its relationship with the JTA, providing citizen input for future transit reforms, and helping JTA receive three separate one million-dollar grants from the Federal government to establish additional bus lines for low-income workers in other parts of the city.  Ridership on all of these new lines has been successful enough to allow the JTA to profitably continue them beyond the initial seed funding provided by the Federal government.  ICARE leaders also became active in the Transportation Equity Network, a special project of the national Center for Community Change that gathers leaders from community organizations from around the United States in order to share strategies and help shape Federal government policies and spending on transportation issues.

B. Example #2: Early Literacy Education in the Public Schools

If ICARE’s work on public transportation serves as an example of a truly cooperative partnership between grassroots citizens and public officials, ICARE’s work on early literacy education in the public schools illustrates its efforts with an entrenched bureaucracy, resistant to change.

The history of public education in Jacksonville, Florida is one of low quality and numerous struggles. During the 1960’s Jacksonville’s public school system was dis-accredited due to its poor quality.  During the 1970’s many white students left for private schools as the public schools were forced by court order to integrate African-Americans.  Twenty years of struggle over integration still left many low-income and African-American students in substandard classrooms and receiving a poor-quality education. 

ICARE’s membership continued to select the quality of public education as its highest priority issue during the organization’s successive biennial listening processes.  The education issue most important to ICARE’s membership was the quality of literacy education.  ICARE’s members knew from their own experiences what research has continually found to be true – that the key to a student’s ongoing academic success begins with their learning to read fluently during their first three years of school.  Research and years of poor test scores have also shown that low-income children are far less likely to become successful readers.  The challenge for educators is that low-income children often have less literacy training in their homes than their middle and upper-income peers.  Whether it is that their parents have less time to read to their children, or that their parents themselves are illiterate, many low-income children are in need of more foundational reading and communication skills at the beginning of their formal schooling.  Public education, however, too often uses the same teaching strategies and curriculum materials with these low-income children as they do with middle and upper-income children who often begin school already knowing how to read. 

A typical “social service” approach to this issue of early literacy education, and one used by a number of ICARE member congregations, is that of setting up after-school tutorial programs for struggling students.  The limitations of this approach, however, are numerous.  In particular, an ambitious tutorial program may assist fifteen to thirty students, whereas in the city of a million people like Jacksonville, thousands of children fall behind every year. 

ICARE learned through its initial research that there were teaching strategies and curriculums that took into account these significant differences in the literacy backgrounds of children.  In April of 1997, eighteen ICARE leaders traveled to a low-income, inner-city school in Columbus, Ohio that was using these alternative teaching strategies and were amazed with what they saw.  Low-income and African-American children were reading fluently and with great self-confidence by the end of first grade.  The vast majority of students at all grade levels were outperforming their middle and upper-income peers in other parts of the city.  The curriculum used by this school started with foundational literacy skills in the early years, like phonemic awareness and lots of repetition, before then moving the students into more complex critical thinking skills.  For ICARE members who had seen their own and so many other children in their neighborhoods struggle academically, seeing with their own eyes children like their own succeeding at such high levels was a revelation.  They became determined to bring these strategies back to Jacksonville. 

ICARE asked the Jacksonville School Superintendent to send principals from the city’s low-income schools to Columbus, Ohio.  He agreed to send five, and ICARE paid for seven other principals with whom the organization has begun to build relationships through research visits.  Twelve of the thirteen principals who traveled to this school reported back to the Superintendent that if they were given permission and support from the School District, they would begin using these teaching strategies immediately.  Two months after this visit, ICARE held a 700-person meeting and a series of workshops involving 150 community leaders.  Four outside educators were invited to speak about their alternative teaching strategies.  At the 700-person assembly, the Associate Superintendent agreed to begin developing a play to implement these strategies.  Three months later, in February of 1998, ICARE members packed the Jacksonville School Board room to witness final approval of a three year pilot program involving twelve schools, the creation of a District trainer, and allocation of $ 1.5 million in order to hire an outside consulting firm to provide teacher training and to buy curriculum materials.

Little did ICARE realize at the time that this initial victory was to be only the beginning of a long battle to maintain these efforts.  One month (August, 1998) before the 12 schools began implementing the new reading strategy, the School District hired a new Superintendent who was determined to implement new reforms that left no room for anything he did not see as a priority.  ICARE and an outside evaluator hired by the District both gathered test scores and conducted stakeholder satisfaction surveys from educators, parents, and students.  Despite test scores improving dramatically and overwhelming satisfaction from all persons directly involved, the Superintendent and high level administrators used numerous behind the scene and public tactics to undercut these reform efforts.  Speculation regarding this administrative resistance ranged from the controlling ego of the Superintendent, to the resistance of the education bureaucracy in general to change suggested from the outside.  ICARE continued its support of these reforms in numerous ways.  ICARE raised money to pay for over 100 teachers, parents, and community leaders to visits model schools that were successfully utilizing these alternative strategies.  ICARE held numerous large public meetings, press conferences, and wrote two major reports documenting successes. 

ICARE’s efforts, like the debate over and attempts to reform American public education, are not over.  The organization and its members, however, have taken deep satisfaction over the thousands of children who have thus far benefited from its efforts.

III. The Role of the Community Organizer

A. Building Relationships

Community organizers perform many tasks, but first and foremost they are relationship builders.  Especially in the early stages of an organization, the majority of an organizer’s time is spent visiting one-on-one with potential members and leaders of the organization.  It is not uncommon for an organizer to conduct twenty to thirty one-on-one visits a week.  Through these visits an organizer is becoming familiar with the community’s passions, concerns, and visions, as well as, looking for persons willing to act on these concerns and the talents they can bring to the organization’s efforts. 

The organizer then brings these people together, assisting them in creating an agenda and leading a meeting, which will allow common concerns to be shared, and for new relationships to be formed.  Preparing for a meeting of thirty people, for example,  requires that the organizer revisits key persons individually, a small group planning meeting, issuing invitations, and doing reminder calls a day or two in advance of the meeting.  A well-run meeting will conclude with clear follow-up steps and an understanding of who will do what in order to move the organization and work forward.  Building relationships with face-to-face visits is an ongoing task of the organizer if the organization is to continue to grow and be vital.

B. Training Leaders

Community organizers are constantly training leaders and members of the organization in skills required to make the organization effective.  One key area is in training organization members in doing one-on-one visits so that it is not simply staff creating the network of relationships vital to the organization, but many others doing the same.  Organization members get their first “training” in one-on-one visits through the visit the organizer has done with them.  Formal trainings then occur in workshops where members learn new skills and practice with each other.  Then, like all skills one learns, members practice and get better by doing. 

Through formal trainings and the process of doing and evaluating, organizers train members in many other practical skills.  Members learn to lead meetings that start and end on time, have a clear sense of purpose, and accomplish intended tasks with carefully planned agendas and effective group facilitating skills.  Members learn how to take large community problems and translate them into manageable and winnable issues.  They learn research skills and then how to negotiate with public officials.  For many persons, being able to speak confidently with public officials and other powerful people is a passage to a new and transforming self-esteem.  Witnessing this empowerment process is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a community organizer.  Members also learn how to raise money.  In doing so they learn to speak effectively about the organization and how to ask for funds with confidence.  Fundraising by members not only accomplishes the obvious goal of bringing in money, it also provides leaders with new self-esteem and a feeling of ownership over “their” organization.

The community organizer also helps train members in new ways of thinking that reinforces the practical skills they are learning.  Reflecting with members upon how political power operates, and how our behavior in the public arena needs to differ from our behavior in the private arena in order to be effective, gives leaders new understandings of themselves and their communities.  In faith-based organizing, trainings often devote time to a scriptural and theological foundation for doing justice, which allows members to see their actions in the context of their heartfelt beliefs and values.

The organizer plays the role of trainer in formal workshops, during meetings, and through reflecting with individual members.  The organizer insists that every meeting and action taken by the organization is evaluated.  Not only does evaluation help us reflect upon and learn from what we have just done, it also allows the organization’s members to plan what needs to be done next.

C. Two Other Primary Tasks

Community organizers assist the leadership of the organization in doing strategic planning.  This planning may be long-term in nature.  ICARE, for example, conducts Summer leadership retreats proceeded by one or two monthly Board Meetings where overall goals and an organizational timeline for the coming year are discussed and ratified.  This provides an overall context within which particular meetings and activities are seen as part of a larger plan, as well as, allowing for the coordination of different issue work and other functions of the organization.  Again as with all other aspects of the organization’s work, the organizer carefully listens to and discusses strategic options with individuals and small groups of primary leaders before larger groups discuss and decide upon key strategic directions.  Strategic planning is also necessary for every meeting and action along the way, seeking to answer questions such as, “What do we hope to accomplish with this meeting or action?  Who needs to do what?  What will be the necessary follow-up steps?”

Every organization requires raising money and conducting administrative tasks like preparing mailings, maintaining databases, and paying bills.  Most grant writing is done by organizational staff, but all other fundraising involves significant member participation.  In ICARE this takes the form of members seeing that their congregation pay their annual dues, and conducting visits during an annual fundraiser, seeking the financial support of individuals and business leaders.  A Finance Committee of the Board, with the help of the organizer, develops and monitors the organization’s budget.  For all other administrative tasks, the organizer seeks volunteers or part-time staff to carry out these functions so that the organizer can keep focussed on the primary job of organizing. 

D. Qualities of an Organizer

A community organizer must have a talent for relating to and fundamentally respecting a wide-range of people from diverse backgrounds.  An organizer must have a passion for fairness and democratic processes, and willingness to work hard to undo the injustices of a community. He or she must be a good listener, carefully discovering the visions and passions of the people. An organizer needs a strong ego, capable of suggesting strong direction but without needing to be front-and-center. An organizer must be willing to take calculated risks, as well as, be able to give and receive criticism.  An organizer must be curious about people, institutions, and the political process. Finally, an organizer needs a sense of humor and ability to laugh at oneself.