Activists as „Alternative“ Science Communicators

Presentation PCST 2020 – Aberdeen (Public Communication Science and Technology)

Wolfgang Chr. Goede:


Activists as „Alternative“ Science Communicators

The Impact, Democratic Legitimacy, and Relevance of Community Organizing



One of the alternative political events in 2020 were the protests in the United States against the murder of George Floyd (“I can’t breathe”). It resulted in a broad-based reproach of racism, escalating throughout the country and culminated in the claim that racism was systemic. In the wake of demonstrations around “Black Lives Matter” (BLM), statues of allegedly racist politicians and academic leaders were pulled down by protesters, not only in the US, but also in the UK and other parts of the world. Renown universities and institutions removed monuments and names of questionable presidents1. As this went viral around the world a new period of rethinking and rewriting history and science in the light of colonial oppression was triggered, which short-circuited science and science communication. This raises the question of how other not so prominent grassroots movements have impacted society, science as well as its communication and how legitimate they are. I’d like to look into a well-established movement of 80 years history, community organizing (CO), and check on the above categories.

Keywords: Social Activism, Community Organizing, Power, Participation, Civil Society, NGO, Citizen Science, Community-based Research, Science Communication



Academic Impact of CO

While invented in the 1940s in Chicago and meanwhile well established in urban and rural US society, CO gained remarkable academic relevance in Germany. Since the 1990s, it had been introduced and promoted by the Forum Community Organizing foco. The method appealed mostly to German social workers. They were inspired by its social empowerment approach. This led them to critically review their own mission. Traditionally, German social work and welfare was geared towards helping the needy in a charitable manner. Influenced by CO methods, it changed towards instigating help for self-help. Or instead of feeding the needy fish, teach them to fish “and you feed him for a lifetime”2. Based on more than two decades of specific training, foco made in 2019 a significant step forward in reaching full academic recognition, shaping the curricula of prospective social workers’ and social pedagogues’ education. An agreement of collaboration was signed with the University of Applied Science Munich, “Katholische Stiftungshochschule München”3. Another collaboration with the Emden*Leer University in Northern Germany had already been in effect. The first batch of students specialized in community organizing techniques graduated in the very same year.

A quarter of a century before, in 1993, the foundation for these accomplishments had been laid. A group of German students had studied US American Community Organizing and graduated with the analysis of these long-established practices in the US. “Let’s Organize”4 was the foco wakeup call and started a series of training projects throughout Germany, evaluations and collaboration with existing institutions dedicated to social work and welfare. In 2006, Peter Szynka delivered a doctoral thesis around the theoretical and empirical principles of community organizing, focused on its founder Saul Alinsky5. The long-time foco president kicked off a broad-based reception of community organizing in German academic circles. And, finally, in 2014, the more popular Handbook Community Organizing6 completed the German literature on the topic. It brought together the genesis and history in both countries, USA and Germany, best practices, experiences and appealed to a wide range of experts, social workers, community leaders and citizens. This handbook also acknowledges and gives space to a second school of community organizing in Germany, which came directly over from the United States in the 1990s and is based on the Industrial Area Foundation IAF, originally founded by Saul Alinsky7. Traditionally, it is more church-based, and in line with US American social traditions, more practical in some ways, while foco is, very German-like, more into reflection and analysis.

In sum, this trilogy of publications, completed by many more studies, essays and papers listed on the foco website8, paved the entry of community organizing into the German academic world, now also into the curricula, and made community organizing a buzz word which attracts many people who engage in social change and transformation. The foco logo certainly contributes to this. It depicts a big fish with a wide-open mouth which is chased by a large swarm of small fish with an equally open mouth. It expresses the power of the organized many, the majority and more or less powerless, over the powerful few, the minority in the driving seats, and the impact of large people organizations on decision makers in financial, political and societal institutions. This has been quite catchy in terms of getting academic and public attention and has promoted the popular and scientific communication of the topic. Academicians are acting in a triple mission: doing the investigation, implementing and communicating it.


Roots and Genesis of CO

CO methods were developed by Saul Alinsky in the 1940s in Chicago. They revolve around the question of power and how to generate it. With this he appealed to the lower class, Afro-Americans and minorities and the so-called losers of the American dream, who were highly insufficiently represented in the political system of the United States, not so say cut off its democratic means. Neither political theory nor debate was going to change this, but only action instigated change was Alinsky’s strong belief, a graduated sociologist and criminologist. In “Rules for Radicals”9 he summarized his organizing philosophy and provided a “pragmatic primer” for these people left out of power and his country. His work was very much inspired by labor unions, the principles of which he transferred to urban neighborhoods. Saul Alinsky’s art of organizing was not just demonstrations and protests, as we know them, but always zeroing in on single decision makers, raise demands and put social pressure on them in order to meet the demands. An issue, was his mission and that of his followers, “must be immediate, realizable and winnable”. Only the victory, as insignificant as it may be, i.e. winning a stop sign at a dangerous intersection is what counts and makes people without power realize their peoples’ power versus the institutional “clout”. On the way, these people are educated, learn how to run meetings, develop strategies, conduct public meetings, confront officials, negotiate with them, settle for compromises, build organizations, form coalitions and networks throughout their region, raise money to finance their operations, set out for bigger issues like corruption in city governments, poor schools and educational systems, deteriorating neighborhoods, unequal taxes, discriminating policies of insurances and lending institutions and many more. To make common people leaders, teach them leadership skills, and develop them in real political life is on top of the CO agenda. The organizer strictly remains in the background, is recruiter, trainer – catalyst. In other words, it was a whole new approach of tackling social problems. Alinsky was deeply committed to the grassroots and their concerns, not his own or anyone else’s. It’s not false to call him one of the forefathers of Non-Government Organizations NGOs and direct democracy.

Saul Alinsky’s books, teaching and legacy have led to different schools, not only in Germany, but above all in the United States. As of the 1970’s, community organizing had almost become a mass movement and by now there are almost innumerable entities, branches, networks. They principally share the same values, but differ in specifics, compete for the money of foundations and sometimes fight about overlapping boundaries. In recent years, the tea party and the prospering right movement have tried to copy the methods and give them another political twist10. Which is not to say that CO is leftist. It basically has tried to stay apart from partisan and electoral politics and was always keen to defend its independence and autonomy. And, additionally, it principally lines up with the traditional US American community spirit. Which is to say the attitude of the pioneers to stand together and to help each other, as first observed, described and analyzed by Alexis de Tocqueville. This deeply engrained cultural element in CO has been established by Robert T. Gannett Jr, Harvard graduate, Tocqueville scholar and life-time community organizer, executive director of the Institute Community Empowerment, ICE, Chicago11. In lectures, throughout Tocqueville Societies in the US and abroad, Gannett is promoting CO as a modern Tocqueville approach and thus also acts as an acknowledged science communicator.


Current status of CO

As outlined, CO has shaped a whole array of different schools of community participation. They work with very practical tools, expose conflicts and apply confrontational tactics in the strive to gain profile and become a respected civic stakeholder. This is controversial in itself and generates conflict. But conflict, again, is the principal ingredient of the democratic debate, for example between government and opposition. In account of this quite disparate while overall harmonious picture it’s difficult to assess CO’s actual state of the art. But an outstanding example to pinpoint pros and contra is Barack Obama, former US president. He is a former community organizer from the Chicago’s black Southside, before he went to law school and became a politician. His first election campaign in 2008 was engineered with many CO tools, i.e. door knocking and house meetings to promote his candidacy. Some of his advisers, campaign managers and folks working the streets were community organizers.

Yet, despite of this Obama does not receive good marks. “Good leader, bad organizer”, as Jim Capraro summarizes his performance. He is a former community organizer himself, who put together the Chicago Metropolitan Housing Alliance MAHA, was the long-time director of the Southwest Development Corporation, became a national as well as world-wide trainer in community development and fundraising12. Charisma is essential for leaders, but more important is the knowhow, the will and determination to use their power. Which Obama missed out on, for example in carrying through with the full health reform, which he would have had the political power during his first term. Gerhard Letzing13, US-American German, former community organizer and Executive Director Emeritus of Washington State Association for Justice, campaigned for Obama in Seattle and also misses a convincing political performance, not only in terms of the health reform but also dealing with powerful financial institutions and Wall Street. Which may prove that organizers should stay away from electoral politics. Nevertheless both, Capraro and Letzing, argue that CO provides a broad-based education to become a player in the public field. In Chicago, Letzing’s organizing efforts in the Northwest neighborhoods exposed corruption in the legendary democratic political machine of the city and contributed to the conviction and imprisonment of leading politicians. He and his neighborhood residents, recruited by street canvassing and door knocking, won with applying a whole spectrum of different and above all creative tactics to increase the pressure on corrupt machine politicians. One of Alinsky’s favorites was to have the community talk to the minister, priest, congregation which a CO target person belongs to.

Besides of talking to these former organizers I also interviewed George Goehl, the executive director of People’s Action PA14, a national network of 41 community organizations in 28 US States. The network was established by late organizers Shel Trapp and Gale Cincotta, the first originally a Methodist minister who changed to community organizing as a means to provide more social justice, the latter a housewife till she first got involved in CO and rapidly became an outspoken leader. The organization held annual rallies in Washington, D.C. and was respected, if not feared by legislators for its drive and action-oriented course. One of its accomplishments was the banning of red-lining, discriminatory practices of lending institutions, which resulted in the deterioration of neighborhoods and generated slums15. Some of foco’s trainers came from this school of organizing and the organization just recently published a Trapp Organizing Manual in German16. PA’s philosophy has not changed over the decades. “Bringing the crisis of neighborhoods to the ones who caused it”, George says. Deteriorating housing remains a nation-wide issue. New on the agenda are medicare for everyone and a drive for free college. Also climate change is being addressed as well as systemic racism, prompted by the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. “We need to transform our system”, George explains, “with a history built around slavery and big money interests” and on the way “reshape democracy”, he adds17.



In recent years, social movement such as #MeToo, Fridays for Future and, most recently, BLM have demonstrated deficits in our society, science and democracy. Social activists, largely consisting of women and school children, now non-white citizens have made us aware of this. A forerunner and inventor of social activism is community organizing. The presented history indicates that CO is broad-based, internationally accepted and academically well established, so there is no lack of either impact or democratic legitimacy. We might go even further and state that this type of activism has gone beyond its original limits and triggered citizen science, community-based research, in mental health newly forming tandems between patients and academic experts18. In other words, participation platforms make use and channel the valuable expertise of lay people. In light of political, economic, health and environmental issues the global community is dealing with, in light of the entire spectrum of different approaches and methods, not only in community organizing, but also pertaining to the highly diverse NGO community – in addition to competing ideas of political theory: Wouldn’t we need a Unification Theory, as Einstein once suggested, not only in physics and natural sciences, but including all scientific branches?


I know this is visionary, although science is perhaps mankind’s most visionary tool. But perhaps we can settle for a step more realistic for now to provide more relevance to social activism and its apparently powerful impacts. The founders of the age of enlightenment were Rousseau, Locke, Kant. As the German physicist and former co-chair of the Club of Rome, Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker claims: This enlightenment despite all progress has created many of our current problems. So he demands a profound paradigm shift and what he has branded a “Neo Enlightenment”19. 21st century innovators, activists, lay experts – please step forward, present your cause!




1 Nature News (13. Aug. 2020). Universities scrub names of racist leaders – students say it’s a first step. URL: (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).
2 Many times attributed to Jesus and the bible, but with many claims, especially perhaps rooted in the Chinese culture. URL: (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).

3 Forum Community Organizing foco Newsletter (Foco Rundbrief ) Nr. 18 (April 2020). URL:, (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020). Academic breakdown of CO curriculum (CO an Hochschulen, Lothar Stock u. Carsten Müller, 30. Jan. 2017). URL: (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).

4 Mohrlock, M; Neubauer, M; Neubauer, R; Schönfelder, W. (1993). Let’s Organize. Gemeinwesenarbeit und Community. Organization im Vergleich. Neu-Ulm. Germany. AG SPAK Bücher.

5 Szynka, P. (2006). Theoretische und empirische Grundlagen des Community Organizing bei Saul D. Alinsky (1909-1972) : [eine Rekonstruktion] Bremen. Germany. Akademie für Arbeit und Politik der Universität Bremen. See also the detailed biography of Saul Alinsky: Horwitt, S.D. (1989). Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky: His Life and Legacy. Knopf, New York. USA.

6 Forum für Community Organizing e.V. foco, Stiftung Mitarbeit (Hrsg.) in Kooperation mit DICO (2014): Handbuch Community Organizing. Theorie und Praxis in Deutschland. Bonn, Germany. Verlag Stiftung Mitarbeit.

(retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).

7 Penta, L., Hrsg. (2007). Menschen verändern ihre Stadt. Hamburg. Germany. Edition Körber Stiftung.

8 Forum Community Organizing foco e.V., Literatur. URL: (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).

9 Alinsky, S.D. (1971). Rules for Radicals. A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York. USA. Random House.

10 Leahy, MP; Loudon, G., Editors (2009). Rules for Conservative Radicals: Lessons from Saul Alinsky, the Tea Party Movement, and the Apostle Paul in the Age of Collaborative Technologies. C-Rad Press. URL: (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).

11 Gannett, R.T. Jr. (2003). Tocqueville unveiled. The Historian and His Sources for the Old Regime and the Revolution. Chicago. USA. University of Chicago Press. See also Institute for Community Empowerment ICE. URL: (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).

12 (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).

13 (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).

14 (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).

15 Westgate, M.; Vick-Westgate, A. (2011). Gale Force – Gale Cincotta: The Battles for Disclosure and Community Reinvestment. Cambridge, Mass. USA. Harvard Bookstore.

16 Trapp, S. (2019). Dynamiken des Organizing. Menschen ermutigen – Die innere Haltung stärken – Macht aufbauen. München. Germany. Jane Addams Zentrum e.V. (jaz) & Forum Community Organizing (FOCO). URL: (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).

17 When PA director George Goehl talks about reshaping US democracy he also refers to wide-spread violence of law enforcement officers against African American and people of coloured skin as reported by Deutsche Welle and other international media: (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).; many US citizens who were raised in the 1950s and 1960s like Jim Capraro still remember that they learned in school the 3/5 clause of the original US constitution which counted black African Americans, then former slaves and negroes, only three fifth of a person: (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).; the PA website also refers to the country’s and the current administration’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic with US America a global hotspot with 180.000 deaths in five months’ time. In many people’s minds concerned about increasing social and financial inequality in the United States, most blatant cases of racial discrimination and police brutality the pandemic is a wakeup call for in-depth reforms and rethinking of US American democracy, as University of British Columbia anthropologist and National Geographic Society explorer Wade Davis has demanded: (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).

18 Goede, W. C. (2020). Tandems of lay experts and academic experts: How new civil societal collaboration models enhance societal transformation. (Opuscula, 136). Berlin: Maecenata Institut für Philanthropie und Zivilgesellschaft. URL: (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).

19 Hochschule für Wirtschaft und Umwelt Nürtingen-Geislingen (2019). Höchste Zeit für eine neue Aufklärung. URL; (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).

20 During the 1970s, Action Reconciliation/Peace Service had sent German volunteers into Community Organizing. In October 2018, the organization celebrated its 50th anniversary in New York City. For this occasion, the organization published a special anniversary edition, for which the author of this essay had compiled the experience of former volunteers: (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).; some of his publications on community organizing and how it also relates to science and research can be found at the following sites: (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020). (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020). (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020). (retrieved 31 Aug. 2020).



Wolfgang Chr. Goede, MA political and communication science (LMU Munich), science journalist, science facilitator, author. He had been a former community organizer in Chicago and San Francisco, recruited as an Action Reconciliation volunteer by US American partner organizations20. The author has published broadly on Community Organizing. His experience and knowledge paved his interest for overall participation studies and the civil society agenda, including citizen science and community-based research. Community Organizing had been accepted for a PCST 2020 Aberdeen roundtable on social activism, which unfortunately had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The result is this commenting essay.