Alinsky in Japan

New Orleans   My friend and colleague in Japan, Ken Yamazaki, is a researcher and scholar in addition to being an advocate for community organizing.   Before, during, and after visiting Tokyo and speaking there at his invitation last fall, he often asked me if I had any information or proof that Saul Alinsky visited Japan.  My only answer was always that I knew from many visits and conversations with organizers in the Philippines and Korea that he had visited those countries, but that I had never heard that he visited Japan, though it seemed possible that he might have done so.

Recently Ken sent me several links to various documents more than 30 years old which he felt established that Alinsky had visited his country.   Reading them though, I’m still left with the same conclusion that it’s possible, but Ken still doesn’t have the evidence he’s looking to find.  We can get to the heart of the matter though, and I’ve emailed Denis Murphy, the real evangelist of community organizing in Asia, to get a definitive answer, but my last email to Denis bounced back, so until we can settle this once and for all, I’ll share what Dr. Yamazaki has unearthed, which is interesting in its own right.

Ken had found a reference to Alinsky visiting Asian countries in an article published by “Cross and Circle” in 1982 that referenced the 10-year anniversary report of  the Asian Committee for Peoples’ Organizations (ACPO) founded in 1971.  ACPO had first been ACCO with the “CO” standing for Community Organization.  The Urban Industrial Mission officials had met with the Jesuit Provincial in Asia and he had dispatched one of his priests, Denis Murphy from New York City, a Jesuit at the time based in the Philippines, to visit various Asian cities to evaluate the work within their network and to determine the interest of Catholic groups in those locations in participating in a wider organizing network.  In a meeting in Kyoto, Denis delivered a report on his visit that reaffirmed the initial proposition based on his travels, and subsequently ACPO was founded to support such community organizing initiatives in Asia.

Ken focuses on these two parts of the report, first, that a Japanese priest was appointed as the initial chair of the effort:  “ACPO was formed in March 1971, we had four officers, Masao Takenaka (Chairman), Oh Jae Shik from EACC-UIM and Denis Murphy and Jose Blanco from CASCO (Catholic Asian Committee on Community Organisation).”  And, then secondly, that early in ACPO’s history they invited Saul Alinsky to visit Asia:   “In fact ACPO invited Saul Alinsky to Asia. In 1971, he visited some of the urban community networks in Asia.”  This is the visit often mentioned by organizers in Manila and Seoul where “peoples’ organizations” did evolve with the hard work of Murphy and many others and the initial spark of Alinsky and follow-up by Herb White.  Who is to quibble?  The evidence produced still doesn’t say Alinsky went to Japan, and I’ve never heard that he did, but it still is logical that if he visited Seoul and Manila for certain, that he would have passed through Tokyo as well.

More interesting to me from the “Cross and Circle” story were the summary conclusions of the organizers after a debriefing session with Alinsky.

(1) In Asia so many countries are experiencing the closed society under strong government control, sometimes even under the military rule. This makes it very difficult to apply straightaway the CO method which is relevant to the open society where free democratic discussion and action are maintained. We have to seek to find the Asian way to organise people.

(2) One of the key concerns of organising people is to understand and utilise the local culture of the people. For instance, use of humour is a very important factor. This means understanding of Asian sensitivity and local language. Religious and social practices of the people are very vital factors in organising work.

(3) We cannot talk about Asia as one unified entity. In reality Asia has so many diversities and differences. Therefore, we would like to have at least one solid training programme in each Asian country. We are still striving to reach this goal. After all, the most significant characteristic of Asians is found in the people who embody Asian sensitivity and Asian spirit.

The realization by all involved that marginal political freedom would alter the organizing models developed in the United States, that local cultures were critical to the success, and that each country would pose different challenges and adaptations, seems right on the mark and challenges frequent critiques of community organizations being able to apply a “cookie cutter” approach.

Ken Yamazaki, having reviewed the literature more deeply, believes he has the answer for why community organizing did not develop from these encouraging beginnings in Japan in the 1970’s as well, regardless of whether Alinsky visited or not.

…I also found other papers explain the reason why community organizing diminished in Japan. It says Japan had a different tradition to save poor people especially homeless or day laborers. That activity is advanced and more developed. But I don’t support the idea. I think real reason is [that the organizing was] too close to the religious institutions. If the origin of the organization in Japan was closer to labor related organizations, I think [it would have been more successful].

As we talk more about community organization’s future in Japan, all of these insights are invaluable.

Alinsky in Japan Audio Blog

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Organizing “War” Stories Are Critical History

ACORN Canada Staff

Boston      Since the ACORN Canada Year End/Year Begin staff meeting was in Boston this year, we have taken advantage of the location to invite some of the old hands of organizing to share their stories and perspectives from decades of experience in the work.  We started with Bill Pastreich and Mike Gallagher for a fascinating couple of hours at the SEIU Local 615 hall near Boston Commons.   I wish I could write all of what they shared, and luckily within the next week it will be on ACORN International’s YouTube channel, but for now here are some golden nuggets from this dialogue.

After a fashion I could say that Bill Pastreich was the only organizer I ever worked for, even if it was only for six months and across the state in Springfield, where I organized for Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO) and he was the head organizer for the whole shebang based in Cambridge.   Bill shared his organizing trajectory from the New York City social worker to Peace Corps in Peru, where his job was to organize unions there, to the United Farm Workers where he worked on the New York City boycott, to graduate school in Syracuse University in an amazing organizer training program the likes of which is unimaginable today .

At Syracuse they had an OEO grant to train organizers and brought in the legendary Fred Ross and Saul Alinsky as the “professors” along with Warren Haggstrom, one of the great theorists of community organizing.  The students were involved in various organizing experiments of sorts in the lower income neighborhoods.  In one pilot they stumbled into the fact that welfare recipients wanted spring clothing for Easter and there might have been some precedent for such allowances.  To their surprise the response was huge with hundreds of people suddenly responding and joining to sit-in at the welfare office where to their even greater shock, they won and left with a promise of Easter clothing.  All of which prompted hundreds more to seek out the fledgling organizing project to demand that for themselves and more.  This was in 1965.  The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) wasn’t founded until June 30, 1966 by Dr. George Wiley pulling together disparate welfare advocates and groups from around the country.  Wiley had been a professor of chemistry at Syracuse in addition to the leader of CORE there and then nationally.  Bill brought that experience to building welfare rights in Boston and elsewhere in 1968 riding the tide of a movement there that sustained him for more than 40 years in the work much of which was in the labor movement in Boston initially then on Cape Cod with a hospital and health care local and more recently here and there with the AFL-CIO, including a stint working with me on our Walmart organizing project in Florida some years ago.

Michael Gallagher’s route was also circuitous beginning with the Contract Buyers’ League in Chicago, a little known effort today, but an interesting organizing program started by a priest there on consumer ripoff issues for the poor in the late 1960’s where Mike Gecan, now with the IAF, started, and our old comrade and friend, Mark Splain, also worked.  Mike worked for an SEIU local in Rhode Island briefly then back to school then with Massachusetts Fair Share in the early mid-1970’s, a multi-issued effort started by Barbara Bowen and Mark, with some different twists than ACORN, but an earlier adapter of what was then the revolutionary “canvass” methodology devised by Marc Anderson and CBE out of Chicago which fueled the organizations growth quickly throughout Massachusetts, until internal tensions separated the organization, its mission, and founders, and we all ended up working on the Jobs with Justice Campaign and organizing projects among low waged workers.

Mike led the Canadian organizers through the roots of the work with the Household Workers Organizing Committee I tried with domestic workers in New Orleans in 1978 to win more compliance with their coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act for the first time, and how he, Mark, and others stumbled onto women doing similar work in Boston who turned out to have check pickup and jumped to join the nascent independent unions we were then forming.  That organizing drive and later strike at Suburban Homecare led to us expanding the work into Chicago and the story hasn’t stopped yet after 400,000 homecare workers have become union members in the decades since in the single largest success in labor growth for our generation of organizers.   Mike’s story of work in Los Angeles and the outrageousness he, Kirk Adams, and other organizers felt at working with Mark on an outrageous goal of signing up 15,000 home care members in that County in 90 days and with a 1500 person convention to launch the organizing drive that a decade later ended in the largest union election (74,000 workers) since the heydays of the CIO drives of the 1940’s.

We could have gone all night with these true stories and in fact they lasted lifetimes!

Bill Pastreich
Michael Gallagher
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