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What is Community Organizing?

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 Author's note: The term "community organizing"- has become part of the political discussion because of Barack Obama's  past experience as an organizer. However, the role of the community organizer is not well-known to the general public. Just what does a community organizer do? I used to teach a course in community organizing in the Urban Studies department at Georgia State University and I have prepared this article to shed some light on this topic. What I describe below is the classic model of community organizing which is similar to the approach used by Obama in South Chicago.

What is Community Organizing?

Community organizing is a long-term approach where the people affected by an issue are supported in identifying problems and taking action to achieve solutions. The organizer challenges those he or she works with to change the way things are--it is a means of achieving social change through collective action by changing the balance of power. The tactics and strategies employed by the organizer are similar to the processes of leadership including timing the issue, deliberate planning, getting the attention of the populace, framing the issue in terms of the desired solution, and shaping the terms of the decision-making process.  

Community organizing helps to bring out many voices to add collective power and strength to an issue. Community organizing is a key part of an overall strategy to confront issues that are widely felt in a community, and that reflect the wishes of the people who are directly affected by community problems. This requires the organizer to not only listen and be responsive to the community, but also to help community residents develop the skills necessary to address their own issues in an ongoing way.

Individual vs. Collective Action

Community organizing looks at collective solutions--large numbers of people who engage in solutions that impact even more people. These people usually live in the same neighborhood, town or block.

Many traditional agency responses look at individual solutions. Agencies tend to focus on the individual as a means to solve problems so that the system can be left intact. Community organizing changes the balance of power and creates new power bases.

The skills of a community organizer

 The skills of the community organizer are crucial to the organizing process. Community organizers think strategically about their work while always keeping the final goal in mind and continually making contributions to the goal. This is especially important in community organizing campaigns to enact or change policies. Qualities of a good community organizer include:

"-  Imagination
"-  Sense of Humor
"-  A vision of a better world
"-  An organized personality
"-  Strong ego/sense of oneself
"-  A free, open mind, and political savy
"-  Ability to create the new out of the old

Principles of Organizing

Experienced organizers know that the process of organizing is seldom "tidy"--it doesn't always happen in neat, predictable steps. It can be thought of as a process guided by principles that repeat in a cyclic, rather than linear, way. Understanding this helps in planning effective organizing for community action.

The six stages of effective community organizing are:

  • Assess the community
  • Create an action team
  • Develop an action plan
  • Mobilize to action
  • Implement
  • Evaluate 

  1. Assess the Community

It's extremely important that you get to know the community you will be working in, and the history of the issue you will address. Allow two to three months to become familiar with the community, its history, make-up, demographics, geography and political leadership. Continue to learn about the community by going "doorknocking" and conducting  "one-on-ones." This will help you learn about the concerns of the community and develop personal relationships.

One-on-ones are an important part of community organizing, as they lay the foundation for all the work that comes afterwards. The main goal of the one-on-one is to listen and gather information. The organizer must learn what community members' concerns are, and find out what they identify as problems, not tell the community what the problem is. That is why an organizer meets first with people individually, rather than try to meet everyone in a group.

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Joe Parko is a retired college professor who taught for 28 years in the School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. He is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and serves on the steering committee of Cumberland (more...)
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