Rereading Alinsky in Baltimore

Rereading Alinsky in Baltimore

Why broad-based organizing still matters in an age of hashtag activism.


On a Tuesday in August, a community organizer named Terrell Williams paced the floor of Zion Baptist Church in East Baltimore. It looked like every church basement: patterned linoleum below, fluorescent lights above, rows of chairs set up for a meeting. The room was cold, the AC working too hard, but sweat glinted on his clean bald head.

Williams and the people in the room were members of BUILD Baltimore, the city affiliate of the community organizing group Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). They were gathered for the weekly meeting of Turnaround Tuesday, a job training program for local residents. Two months earlier, the city’s mayor, Catherine Pugh, promised to pass a broad range of policies, from policing reforms to local hiring requirements for new building developments. That morning, Pugh stopped by to see the group in action, and Williams did not let her leave easy.

“Every relationship with every mayor has started off poorly,” remarked organizer Rob English, of BUILD’s four decades of work.

Williams stopped short in front of the mayor.

“Can I say this?” he said with a grin. “Our relationship wasn’t always the greatest, right, Mrs. Mayor?” Pugh stiffened in her seat and shook her head.

But, Williams went on, “we worked through it, didn’t we?” He was nodding, leading her.

He was offering her standing in the room, but only if she acknowledged her history with them and BUILD’s standing in the city. She dipped her head; the pressure eased. Mayor Pugh left early

Two months later, she adopted a top BUILD priority: The city would allow undocumented people and others to receive identification cards through the Archdiocese of Baltimore—a trusted institution for many immigrants.

Reflecting on IAF’s confrontational style of holding public officials to account, BUILD organizer Rachel Brooks quoted Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

In the 1930s, Saul Alinsky founded the IAF in Chicago’s meatpacking district to help working people gain political power by building institutional strength and social capital. This work, detailed in Alinsky’s book, “Rules for Radicals,” came to be known as “community organizing.” Back then, the communities in question were Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods, but as Alinsky’s successors noted, when one community gets power, it jeopardizes another, pitting neighbor against neighbor. So beginning in the 1970s, those who followed Alinsky committed the IAF to “broad-based” organizing, where one affiliate spans communities of many sorts with myriad interests within a city or region. Like most local groups, BUILD was formed by faith leaders and community members to address basic concerns like housing and eradicating rats. It is now a potent player in city politics.

Broad-based organizations keep their focus local—like the San Antonio affiliate that recently won a $15 minimum wage for city workers—and don’t engage with national leftist groups like the Democratic Socialists of America. Today’s groups include Faith in Action (formerly PICO); Gamaliel, where President Obama worked in Chicago; and DART. IAF is the largest, with 65 affiliates. It is also the least religious. No matter the city, the work of organizers remains the same. They instruct everyday people, often in nonwhite communities, in the workings of power: what it is, how to obtain it, and when to wield it. This, in turn, allows people to demand accountability from the public officials and institutions that govern their lives. Organizers aim to create networks of public relationships they can rely on in the political or social spheres. This approach requires slow, quiet work that rarely, if ever, trends on social media. And it has much to teach people who care about the common good about organizing that considers the dignity of every person.

But broad-based groups do not depend on relationships alone. IAF teaches organizers to work with institutions already established in a community: churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as unions, neighborhood groups, and schools. These are all places where friendships flourish and social bonds form outside the confines of the market. In practice, this means IAF groups are good at organizing low- and moderate-income workers, religious congregations and union shops. They are less adept at organizing breweries, CrossFit gyms, or vibrant communities in digital spaces where millennials and teens tend to congregate.

Still, institutions like churches have clout, particularly in the populations IAF attempts to empower: the working poor, racial minorities, and the politically disenfranchised. Try to organize East Baltimore without the black churches and their pastors, English said—far easier to separate wet from water. “See those men out there?” he pointed to young and not-so-young men sitting on stoops in front of dilapidated row houses or outside corner stores. Most of them are not church regulars, English said, “but go ask anyone on the corner who their pastor is, they’ll say Pastor Prentice.” The authority of Baltimore’s churches helped BUILD kick off a listening campaign four years ago, and what they heard was frustration with employment. Jobs were scarce, poorly paid and hard to keep. In response, they started Turnaround Tuesday—the site of the confrontation with Mayor Pugh. The initiative helps hard-up people find work, while integrating them into the organizing network. By the last count, 561 citizens have found jobs.

Like the churches on which they rely, IAF and organizations like it make no secret of their dependence on craft and structure. Organizers are paid professionals. They, in turn, seek out community leaders, who receive training in national workshops and return to their communities tasked with specific instructions on how to direct and advise their peers. This approach has led several IAF leaders to criticize movements like Occupy Wall Street as ineffective.

“The problem on the left is that we confuse the beneficial aspects of structure with the detrimental aspects of hierarchy,” says Katie Horvath, a former Gamaliel organizer in Detroit. Amorphous groups spawn “unnamed hierarchies,” Horvath said, citing a principle detailed by sociologist Jo Freeman in “The Tyranny of Structureless,” a critique of the “leaderless, structureless groups” that made up the women’s-liberation movement of the 1970s. The movement, Freeman wrote, needed to “disabuse itself of some of its prejudices about organization and structure.” But in the next breath, Freeman says that suspicion of structures is understandable, as they are often “misused.” Organizations calcify. Leaders abuse their power. Structure becomes an unaccountable hierarchy.

Organizers know this. IAF teaches them to “dis-organize” institutions that are no longer functional, to reset and restart the hard work of building up a network. Freeman’s remark, however, signals a more a pressing problem: some of the institutions upon which IAF depends perpetuate unhealthy systems and relationships. Examples are close to hand. Group leaders are often church pastors, and in many Christian denominations, women remain underrepresented in the pulpit—or are barred entirely from leadership roles. Horvath recalled a Gamaliel meeting where leaders discussed manifestations of “God’s commonwealth” without a single mention of gender; Molly Sweeney, another Detroit organizer, described the group as shot through by a male-dominated, aggressive, “agitation” approach. “Hierarchy was emphasized,” she said, “and there was a great deal of emphasis on agitation often without establishing a relationship of trust.”

Sweeney now runs the education-organizing group 482Forward, which she co-founded with Jamila Martin, another Gamaliel alum. They set out to do things differently—to emphasize community members and students, not professional organizers, consensus-building over arbitrary orders. 482Forward fought Betsy DeVos’s school privatization efforts, later organizing students and parents to oppose her nomination as education secretary—an effort that made national news. Sweeney aims to be caring—and obtain results. “We have created much more space for individual goal setting,” she said, “self-care, and support rather than agitation.”

Alinsky instructs organizers to focus energy and effort in “the world as it is,” with all of its shortcomings, rather than in an imagined future, in a “world as it should be.” Organizing begins in the flawed present.

This pragmatism carries with it a certain restraint. Overturning global capitalism is not a reasonable or useful goal, per his philosophy. Better to gather unions, churches, and working people for the United States’ first living-wage law, as BUILD Baltimore did in the 1990s. “We want to win,” said Joe Chrastil, Northwest IAF’s regional organizer. “That’s the bottom line. We want measurable impacts for our communities. We don’t want to take a principled stand and lose.”

This clear-eyed attitude accounts for much of broad-based organizing’s value. Its successes improve the lives of citizens in tangible ways—a bigger paycheck in Baltimore, affordable housing in East Brooklyn, billions of dollars for water infrastructure in the Rio Grande Valley.

It also provokes critics from the left, such as Aaron Petcoff in Jacobin, to call the Alinsky style bureaucratic and anti-radical. Previously, Groups like Asset Based Community Development have spent decades urging organizers to revise their approach to a changing society. An attendant criticism comes from organizers who see the “world as it is” ethos as tolerant of relationships and social arrangements that should be named and opposed.

Sweeney recalls that her organizer training lacked “any analysis of the greater forces of white supremacy and capitalism that shape our world.” “The ‘world as it is’ was articulated in my training void of any analysis of how the world became that way,” she added.

This is no idle critique. IAF claims to work with and for the destitute, the chronically unemployed, and the disenfranchised. If our economic system habitually creates an underclass of working poor, if our public and financial institutions prove unable to rein in the power of capital or correct its inequities, it stands to reason that IAF is duty-bound to side with its members against these systems and not simply their manifestations. IAF organizers respond that while individuals alone are powerless against these dominant forces—such as the market that did not pay Baltimore workers enough to live—as organized collectives they are strong. “You have to meet people where they are,” said English, the Baltimore organizer. “We know that the only way we can create systemic change is if we build the power needed to win.”

Here, English uses another Alinsky phrase—to meet people “where they are,” at the point of their immediate concerns, instead of imposing a cause or ideology. Yet this principle again requires broad-based groups to define how they can best serve their communities, which are often majority African American, Latinx, or Asian. Over more than 20 interviews with organizers, leaders and members, race emerged as a major complication—with racial justice as a fundamental part of the world as it should be, a world that remains beyond the horizon, far away as ever.

As with other structural issues, IAF argues that it must work on race from below, up from the cares of ordinary citizens such as Regina Hammond, an East Baltimore resident for more than three decades. She first connected with an organizer five years ago over a seemingly mundane problem. “For me, it was as simple as being able to come home in the evening after work and not have kids bang on my windows’ cause they had nothing else to do,” she said.

Hammond became president of Rebuild Johnston Square, an effort to revitalize her neighborhood and encourage healthy economic development. It has led to moderately priced housing, recreation programs, and public park funding. This work contributes to a larger BUILD Baltimore effort that takes on four connected issues in the majority-black city—jobs, public safety, youth opportunity, and education—in order to challenge systemic racism that manifests in violence and low wages. “You get to it through the issues,” Williams said. “We haven’t done the best job on educating people on race, but there are strands of it in every issue we deal with.”

Confronting this fact can complicate the building of broad, multiethnic networks. Doran Schrantz, director of the Minnesota Faith in Action affiliate, credits her group’s explicit work on structural racism for bringing in diverse churches and strengthening the network. It also makes some people—particularly white people—nervous. “We have had two very large, second-ring suburban congregations permanently leave the organization over our work on racial justice,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Here lies a split between IAF and Faith in Action: Over the past decade, the latter has consciously shifted towards openly addressing national politics, with this dynamic only increasing under the Trump administration. Her group exemplifies this shift, seeking to combine relational organizing with electoral politics. It took a stand opposing a proposed voter ID-law in 2012 and did 37,000 one-on-one, organizing-style meetings with voters. The amendment failed. “Broad-based organizing does need to have a conversation about race, about democracy, and about white supremacy,” Schrantz said.

In Baltimore, many of BUILD’s initiatives, explicitly or not, regard Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police in 2015 not exclusively as a matter of violent policing, but of economic and political marginalization of many kinds. “You’ve got to know me,” said Williams. “I’m a black man in America. I carry all that around in my body.”

Then there’s the issue of race within the group itself. The broad-based organizations often send organizers, many of whom are young, white, idealistic, and educated, into communities of color across the country. This doesn’t always go as planned; black-community leaders describe a certain type of organizer who grates at them: well-meaning, but with set political assumptions and little stomach for confronting race with honesty and humility.

“White folks with good intentions, I love ’em to death, but they’re scared to talk about race,” Williams said. “I don’t have sympathy for your discomfort.” The Rev. Lionel Edmunds of Mt. Lebanon Baptist, co-founder of the Washington, DC, IAF affiliate, described a recurring superficiality. “Sometimes the young white organizers have to fabricate their anger,” he said. “They have to work themselves up to get mad. It’s organic with black folk.” He called out young organizers of all races for not knowing “the roots of black protest” grounded in the church or the history of black organizing that preceded Alinsky. Edmunds compared it to to listening to Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky,” without realizing that West samples Curtis Mayfield’s famous horn line.

Presented with these critiques, white IAF organizers admit the tangled issue. Chrastil, the Seattle organizer, said he pays particular attention to how “privileged” organizers handle relational meetings. “Do they work to learn and listen and probe for stories that help them understand the experiences of others?” he said. “We work very hard to find organizers whose experiences can help them effectively relate to their communities, which at the heart are people with less voice, facing systemic injustices.”

For Edmunds, Williams, and other internal critics, what redeems broad-based organizing is its capacity to teach historically disenfranchised communities to create power, and use it. “I didn’t know how to do it, but I knew I wanted it,” said Hammond, the BUILD Baltimore member. “Even the concept of building power was new, ‘cause I was focused on raising my children, working nine-to-five, doing all those things.” Before joining BUILD, Hammond never felt political power was something available to her and her East Baltimore neighbors. “Not in that community,” she said. “But put BUILD’s name next to your name and you’re getting a response, and I’ve seen that happen.”
I asked Joanne Stanton, another BUILD member, whether people like her who devote enormous amounts of time and energy to organizing should be paid. Her answer was a hard no: Stanton feels responsible for the situation of her neighbors and her community. As a member of a group with power, she does not let herself off the hook. “You can’t rely on politicians. You can’t rely on your neighbors,” Stanton said. “If the issue is that important to you, you have to be willing to step in.”

Sister Mary Beth Larkin, organizer for IAF northwest, defined citizens as “people who take seriously their role and their community.” Joanne Stanton is such a person. So is Regina Hammond. Social action begins here, as IAF sees it, at the level of an individual who holds herself accountable. And with that task comes self-respect. Broad-based groups seek to build citizens who can look with clear eyes at social, cultural or economic powers without submitting to them.
“They are not deferential,” Sister Larkin said.

At a time when political change at the national level seems impossible, broad-based organizing suggests an imperfect but important way of doing politics on the left. It is not the only way and need not be. But its importance can be seen in the self-regard of its members. Without losing sight of the systematic nature of society’s ills, these groups keep focus not only local but on the individual, the capacity of each citizen to continually become more excellent versions of themselves.

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