Back Story: Alinsky on Hand-to-Hand Organizer Training

Ideas and Issues

It’s interesting how sometimes when you are searching for one thing, you can stumble on another, almost randomly, and then find yourself wondering if it was coincidence or maybe the hand of fate. I thought about this while flying to San Pedro Sula in Honduras for a meeting with ACORN International organizers recently, as I read a strange and interesting document called, “Conversations on Community Organization in Asia: Saul Alinsky Meets with Asian Committee on Community Organization in Manila, June 1971,” published from tape recordings in October 1972 by the Institute on the Church in Urban Industrial Society.

The paper fell into my hands as I was trying to help a colleague and friend in Japan, Ken Yamazaki, confirm whether or not Saul Alinsky had ever visited Japan. I suspected so, knowing for sure he had been in Korea and the Philippines. Ken thought he had found some hard evidence, so I “crowd sourced” the question, and Aaron Shutz, a professor at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, sent me this document and David Alinsky, Saul’s son, commented on my blog as well and confirmed that Tokyo was on the itinerary for a three-week trip his father had taken to Asia the year before he died. Mystery solved.

But I found myself intrigued about what Saul and other veteran organizers like the legendary Denis Murphy from Manila, Herb White, and others might havediscussed about organizing in Asian more than forty years ago. Having been in meetings with Alinsky in 1969-70, there were few surprises. It wasn’t pretty, because he never “suffered fools gladly,” but in other ways he was more culturally sensitive and subdued than his brusque reputation might have led the casual observer to expect. He took a number of roundhouses at funders, the churches, social workers, and the folks in the room whom he felt were being unrealistic and too expansive about their hopes for creating community organizations throughout Asia. From his visit he felt only the Philippines seem to be doing “real work,” and Japan because of its labor unions offered real prospects. He made a fascinating argument that the church folks tried to gloss over, that community organizing would only work where there was an “open society,” and elsewhere the need was not for community organizations but for revolutionary or guerrilla organizations. I’ve spent time with organizers and organizations in Asia and think Alinsky would be surprised, and pleased, at what developed in Korea and Indonesia, just as he would have beendisappointed at what still has not developed in Japan.

What resonated most for me as I read through the remarks were Alinsky’s comments on training, because I have given the subject more thought recently particularly when lobbied to do short-term training segments for organizers, most of which has always struck me as “tastes good, but not filling.”

“You’re looking for a mystical baptism conversion, or something where a guy goes through a period of exposureand becomes an organizer. And he isn’t….The way I see it he’s got to figure out what the hell am I doing wrong here? What am I doing wrong there? In every question and on everything we’ve been discussing whenever I’ve thrown something, I cansee the wheels in his mind going around, now how the hell is this going to fit over here, where does it go over here? And it’sa constant process of education. And he knows that….

Your subconscious mind, a lot of the stuff that you absorbed, is playing into the thing and he starts growing and developing and educating himself. There are certain things that can be done. Over and over again, well of course I haven’t been with you, because you just got here, but there are certain basic fundamentals — three weeks or so of real discussions, highly personalized, on certain central concepts, and then the guy or gal has to go out, and should be called back in from time to time and that body of experience, or whatever that person has done, should be talked over. Imagine how much more helpful it would have been…let’s say we had a chance to talk every three months… and you were telling me what you were doing, and I’d say, “How does this fit in here?” This is the advantage that I had with a guy like John L. Lewis or other people, from time to time in the work I was doing I was able to sit down and point out just what I was doing that was wrong, or how I could have done this better, or why did I do this and not that? It expedites it. It saves a lot of time that you have to spend by yourself, but there isn’t any magical formula.”


Later in more salty, less sensitive terms, Alinsky derides the notion of being able to move community organizers into Asia saying, “…to have c.o.s people over there, whether we have to import forty American “net-wit” idiots who can’t organize in Peoria, Illinois or anyplace else, but all of a sudden they’re c.o’s. They took three courses someplace and read a book. So, we’re going to put them over there, or we’re going to run people through so-called training that a….What the hell do they know?”

Saul knew it was probably his book they had read, but he – and the rest of us who do the work – knew that nothing substitutes for sharing the face-to-face, hand-to-hand process sharing the work and caring about whether results end up equalling organization with the chance of building real power.

Reprint from the current issue of Social Policy Magazine.  Check out Social Policy for more articles from this issue.