The Alinsky organising tradition and questions of interest and identity
Speech delivered to Citizens UK Guild of Organisers on 1 March 2022
For nine years I worked with the global community organising network called the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), as the instigator and Lead Organiser of the Sydney Alliance. I was attracted to the IAF for its bigness. It had a big history reaching back 80 years to the work of Saul Alinsky. It’s website promoted its massive 10 day national training in all things organising. It made big claims about its method — contending to have identified ‘universals’ of organising.
Of course the irony is that for all this bigness, the IAF actually pursues a politics that relishes the power of smallness, particularly the kind of connection and change that is found in the relational meeting. But I don’t want to start there, I want to look at some of the big work first.
Let’s start with training. Every single one of the 98 IAF or IAF inspired urban broad-based organisations that flourished across the predominantly western world encourages community leaders to attend an intensive program of community organising training. Initiated by Ed Chambers and Dick Harmon in the 1960s at the end of Alinsky’s time, the IAF residential training sought to teach big ideas to leaders from churches, schools and other institutions involved in broad-based alliances.
The IAF training is a remarkable beast. Go to London, Sydney, Los Angeles, Berlin — and the content is virtually identical. Of course each place has its own twist. In Sydney we played with the session on broad-based organising to include coalition-building more broadly. The organising cycle looks different in London these days. But from place to place it’s not *that* different. Training begins with the unsettling, Melian dialogue role play. Then, a series of big concepts are taught arising out of that social experiment — power over and power with, public and private, the relational meeting, the role of organisation and broad-based organising, action and reaction. The network came to this approach in the same way that they build power in a city — as gatherers. None of these ideas were invented by the IAF. What is special about broad-based organising is how it organised these concepts by drawing on a wide variety of historical, sociological, philosophical and theological sources.