Organizing as Work and Mission

ACORN Community Organizing Organizing Social Policy Journal Wade's World

            Calgary           I first heard about Clement Pettijean, a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, when I got a notice of a dialogue between him and Alex Han, the new editor of In These Times.  I know Alex from his time years ago as an organizer for Local 880 SEIU, our old ULU sister organization.  They were inviting me to hear a discussion about Pettijean’s book, Occupation Organizer:  A Critical History of Community Organizing in America.  I was intrigued, signed up as a Zoom participant, but then got caught in a conflict that Sunday afternoon and missed it.  No worries, I read the book on my Kindle and arranged to talk to Pettijean directly on Wade’s World.

It’s an interesting book.  We’re doing a short excerpt in the coming issue of Social Policy.  For me, as a lifelong organizer, it’s mandatory reading, but I’m not sure that it will find a broad audience.  That’s not because it advertises as a “critical history.”  Most books that deal with community organizing could attach a warning along those lines.  In fact, Pettijean’s book isn’t a trashy ideological smear job.  In many ways he’s pretty even-handed in handling the history pieces, including about ACORN, even though his focus was more Chicago-based and really more about Saul Alinksy and the development of the IAF, the Industrial Areas Foundation.  The “critical” part is mainly that he is asking questions about the occupation of community organizer per se. 

After much struggle, he concludes that this should be paid work, rather than just volunteer activism, but he’s uncomfortable with that conclusion when it comes with professionalism and pride in the craft.  The reader is left unsure where to go finally with this two-handed approach and from talking to Pettijean, I think he is as well.  I’m just not sure if there are a huge number of people who even care about the question, or whether it has a resolution.  Organizing is not like wanting to be a truck driver or a coder or something.  This isn’t work that in and of itself makes the DOL list of employment categories and occupations, after all.

Which is not to say that Pettijean doesn’t score some points and make some real contributions, because he does.  Trolling in the IAF archives, he shares some facts and figures from Alinsky’s paystubs to proposals for funding the IAF from foundations and others, including surprisingly SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee.  When he converts those totals to 2022 figures from the mid-60’s and early-1970s, they are staggering at a million here and a million or more there, and Saul pulling down over $200k a year personally.  In our talk, he credits his editor at Haymarket for suggesting he include the current values, and they did him and the rest of us a favor, even if I have to admit, that’s even more inside baseball without enough people filling the grandstands.

So, he got some stuff right and some stuff wrong, ok?  Historians are human, too. There are a few mistakes, but no sign of malice.  I enjoyed our conversation and look forward to continuing them next time I’m in Paris.  He has taken the work of community organization seriously and makes the case that the history of community organization as part of social change is important.  We need more of that, so he has my thanks.  If he makes anyone’s shoes fit too tightly, that’s OK, too.  We need to hear serious questions, think them through, and reply with serious answers when we make our lives about empowering people and organizations to make change.  I have often said that Alinsky’s primary contribution was his evangelism about organizing.  Even though he didn’t believe it, he told to audiences all over the country that they could – and should – all become organizers.  It moved some people when they heard it.  I was in that number.  Pettijean’s book title alone – Occupation Organizer – might find an audience as well, just as Alinksy’s lectures did.  We need more organizers, so that would be a great thing.

We can argue later about the details.