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columbus represent

Monday, March 26, 2007

Interesting Influences

The Washington Post did an article this weekend linking together the backgrounds of Obama and Clinton through one man: Saul Alinsky. For those of you unfamiliar with the guy, there is a brief narrative of his life included in the article. I never realized that both had this connection, and how deeply his influence continues to run through our society even today.

I fell into Alinsky style organizing after coming back from tramping around the world in college. My heart had been broken as I saw the extreme change that needs to happen at every turn, and was at a loss on how to make those changes happen, and even unsure if they could happen at all. I had packed my idealism away in the back of some closet of my heart, and tried to make it day by day. Marla was always there, poking and prodding: What are you working on? Why don't you start some radical organization? Organize a protest and just...just...I didn't have the energy to argue with her much about it, but to sum it up, I didn't do those things because I didn't think it would work. I lived in Ohio, she in San Fransisco. Ohio would never get it. So I took various jobs as temps, answering phones, doing data entry, feeling less and less like my dreams had led me to believe I would always feel. Then it happened.

I had finally packed up my dreams, and put them away for a career as an interpreter. At least I would be facilitating communication between people, bringing folks together to understand each other, even if it didn't mean changing much. I accepted my space in the interpreter program at a local community college, and resigned myself. A couple of weeks before classes were to start, I got a random email from an organization that trained organizers in congregation based settings. "Huh" I thought, "this might be interesting, I'll go ahead and drop my hat in the ring." By the end of that week, I had gone through multiple interviews, and bam, I was in training to organize. First book on our reading list: Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky.
Ah ha! I thought (and apparently so did Clinton and Obama) here is a way to be idealistic, but realistic at the same time! Ohioans could be moved by their self-interests, not slogans, empathy, or street theater. My pragmatism felt validated. As Clinton noted:

Much of Alinsky's agenda, she wrote after interviewing him three times, "does not sound 'radical.' " Even his tactics, she concluded, were often "non-radical, even 'anti-radical.' His are the words used in our schools and churches, by our parents and their friends, by our peers. The difference is that Alinsky really believes in them and recognizes the necessity of changing the present structures of our lives in order to realize them."

I tried to explain this to Marla, involve her in serious and lengthy debates over ideas. She never really responded to my arguments, just let me know, as always, that she supported me and was so glad that I was finally happy. Well, I wasn't happy, but I was moving forward and after having been so stuck for what felt like forever, that felt almost as good, if not better. Of course in the mean time, Marla was out with her own brand of organizing, "the Marla Model" of organizing, and we all know how amazing that turned out to be. I don't know why I ever tried to push her in any other direction, she was not made for the Alinksy mold. Hind-sight.

Last week I was giving a "community organizing" training to some staff at my place of employment. These are all organizers, but none had been trained in community organizing per se. They were surprised by the ideas of self-interest, one to ones, power, and the like. I was amazed at how helpful they felt it was to have a basic understanding of these things in order to get people to act (their goal, and the reason I was asked to perform the training).

Then today I went to lunch with someone from my job who I have not had the chance to really get to know. I sneakily thought: I need to do a 1-1 with her, and see what makes her tick. We asked each other the normal softening up questions. She asked the same questions I asked. It turns out that even though we are about 20 years apart in age, we both started out being trained in the "Alinksy Style" of organizing. And like Obama and Clinton, we both ended up working the system a bit differently than we maybe had initially imagined.

I could fill up a whole blog with what' s wrong with Alinksy, with community organizing, with organizing in general. But in the end, I couldn't imagine a better foundation of skills on which to build in order to change the world.

Is this guy so prevalent in your lives too?


Anonymous Rose said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:15 PM

Anonymous rose said...

wow--i never made the connection before that you and i both got our start in congregation-based organizing and Alinsky's Rules. That was my first organizing internship, my first "meaningful" job. and we both ended up with Unions. The language and tactics of Alinsky still stick with me, too.

9:21 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

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10:42 AM


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