Credit: Miranda Ploss

In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama characterized his three years as a community organizer in Altgeld Gardens as “the best education I ever had.” From this talking point during the presidential campaign, community organizing stepped into the national spotlight.

Keeping it there was Sarah Palin. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer,” the Republican vice-presidential candidate noted, “except that you have actual responsibilities.”

No matter. In the end, he got elected, and she didn’t. But Palin did hit upon basic questions that have long plagued organizers and confused even some supporters: What do organizers do, exactly? What is community organizing all about?

Activist Gale Cincotta once put it simply: “You just have to have the will to change something.” A one-time Austin neighborhood resident and a national leader in the fight against redlining, Cincotta was interviewing Chicago journalist Studs Terkel in 1977. Simple on the surface, yes, but there is oh-so-much more. Cincotta’s “The will to change something” is the what. But where is the how?

An informative and engaging book published just this year, Occupation: Organizer by Clement Petitjean, tells the story of finding a key part of that how. Not the how-to, mind you, but the how-it-all-came-about. And, despite its snappy red-white-and-blue cover and workaday title, the book is not a high school career guide but, as the subtitle clarifies, A Critical History of Community Organizing in America. Appropriately, it’s published by Chicago’s Haymarket Books, which describes itself as “radical, independent, nonprofit.”

Much of the story of community organizing plays out in Chicago with Chicagoans in crucial roles. Early in his narrative, Petitjean describes Chicago’s place in community organizing today: “There is no equivalent in the rest of the U.S. to the tightly knit, highly self-conscious, dense institutional fabric that is the community organizing milieu in Chicago.”

During their conversation, Terkel and Cincotta lamented that the news media were ignoring the “community movement going on” at that time. She also issued a plea: “Community organizations need organizers, they need professional help.”

With the publication of Organizer, Petitjean, a French social science professor, addresses that plea, in part, by persistently making the case for organizing as a profession. His contention is that even though organizers have long behaved and performed as professionals, they still are not formally recognized the way lawyers, physicians, engineers, architects, and others are.

Why does that matter? For one thing, the pay is better. ( lists the median annual community organizer’s salary in Chicago as $58,060.) For another, the job itself is important in so many ways for so many reasons. As Organizer makes clear, organizing efforts are in fact critical to an America still struggling to maintain—even to fully realize—its promise of democracy. Organizing offers a way for individuals to effect change in their lives locally, where it matters most, as well as regionally and nationally. The ability of communities to organize themselves to identify and pursue common goals enables them to challenge much larger, more powerful entities and conditions.

Organizer is at its core a work of scholarship. But it’s not written as a scholarly work and doesn’t read that way. It is a detailed and well-documented recounting of how organizing developed from a vague and loosely defined function into a profession, albeit one at times misunderstood even by its practitioners and maligned by its critics.

During the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests in the 1960s, organizers were derisively, if not altogether incorrectly, called “outside agitators.” In 1967, yet another Chicagoan, Saul Alinsky, known as the “father of organizing,” was characterized by Newsweek magazine as “the veteran professional agitator who shows the poor how to fight City Hall.” At the time, he was negotiating with Stokely Carmichael (not a Chicagoan) to train organizers of Carmichael’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, “to give [SNCC’s] amateurs a touch of professionalism,” as Newsweek put it. Carmichael’s “Black power speech” the year before had made him a national figure at twenty-four, who rivaled “[Martin Luther] King as a media sensation.” It also made him a target. Petitjean wryly notes: “He was now at the top of the FBI’s Rabble Rouser Index.”

These details are characteristic not only of Petitjean’s diligent research but also of the straightforward way he tells the story, without academic jargon or terminology but with a light touch and at times a sense of humor. He provides context, presents new information, and offers perspectives that today’s organizers might use to work together, not just with supportive messaging but also with shared methods and assessments of which ones work and which do not.

Curiously, perhaps due to the French connection, this work calls to mind Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. That’s the classic account not of what made America great—not in 1835, anyway—but of what made America tick and the pitfalls it needed to avoid to keep on ticking. Both books explore different, though new-to-the-world American phenomena: democracy for Tocqueville and modern, professional community organizing for Petitjean. The two ideas are symbiotic in a way: democracy allows community organizing to do its work; community organizing supports a working democracy.

Tocqueville, in fact, described the fundamental idea of democracy as the “equality of condition.”  Way before its time Tocqueville identified equality as a principle that goes to the heart of what community organizing is all about.

Several publishing courtesies make this book accessible for casual readers. There is precious little academic language or terminology. Myriad footnote superscripts are barely noticeable, and the thirty-two pages of corresponding citations, explanations, and clarifications are tucked neatly away in the back. Meanwhile, the book’s many acronyms are listed and deciphered in the front. That’s important because acronyms are scattered throughout. And something you don’t often see: historical dollar amounts are consistently translated to contemporary equivalents, which goes a long way toward putting things into perspective. 

Saul Alinsky, for instance, made a pretty penny. Though he grew up poor, for the most part, he was not the popularized picture of a downtrodden, cause-inspired social justice organizer. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1930, Alinsky did much of his pioneering work in and for Chicago causes, but he later enjoyed national reach and was sought after to do what today would be called management consulting. He was the author of the touchstone book Reveille for Radicals, published in 1946. In 1947, he was paid a salary of $15,000 by the Industrial Areas Foundation, which he helped to found, or $195,000 in 2021 dollars. He was also a pioneering beneficiary of the civic, academic, and entertainment professional-speaking circuit, a classic example of doing well by doing good. Alinsky’s career arc supports author Petitjean’s contention that community organizing became a profession quite some time ago and ought to be recognized as one now. 

On the other hand, Petitjean keeps the flip side in play: many, if not most, community organizers in the 1960s and afterward were downtrodden and cause inspired. “Panic Point. Bank balance $4.09” read a sign posted in “the dining room of [a] Cleveland ‘project house’” for young SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] organizers in 1963, reported one journalist. “Newark project workers have to call ‘friends in the suburbs’ for $5 or $10 [for the] necessities of life . . . The kids are the very antithesis of paid organizers of the unions or political parties.” 

For Petitjean in this book, community organizing began with Alinsky and his initial organizing work in the early 1930s. That’s when community organizing began to define itself and be taken more seriously. That perspective might also account for the otherwise surprising omission, without explanation, of the impacts of at least two earlier significant organizing movements in America, both powered by women. One was responsible for Prohibition and the other for establishing voting rights for women. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, known for her anti-lynching efforts in the South, also helped Black men find work and housing after she moved to Chicago in 1894. Petitjean also ignores the much more recent Black Lives Matter movement. Each deserves consideration. They executed grassroots, organizing efforts, if in different ways, with specific goals for change and “equality of condition.” The book also ignores social media. Although social media is mainly a tool, Petitjean might have at least reflected on its impact on organizing innovations, such as flash mobs. He can be forgiven for not contemplating artificial intelligence, which has only recently entered the public consciousness. 

Despite these oversights, Organizer offers rich insight into the topics it does explore. Especially impressive, but not immediately apparent, is the scope of the work done by Alinsky, Cinnota, and other organizing leaders. Over decades, they organized not only thousands of individuals for local causes but also brought together hundreds of organizations for common purposes nationally. The book also takes pains to explain the basics of organizing philosophy (mainly, Alinsky’s). The idea was that identifying and achieving a goal must come from the community itself, not from some outside force. The method was to identify communities that might warrant support—public housing projects, for instance—and then for Alinsky organizers to live in those communities as residents.

Over time, these on-the-ground organizers learned about gut-level issues face-to-face, developed trust as “curbstone counselors,” and identified “natural leaders,” who then did the hands-on leading with their support. The leaders spoke at public meetings, for instance, and the organizers worked behind the scenes. They might choreograph approaches at public meetings about specific issues down to who sat where, who said what, and what might happen in the aftermath. In other words, things didn’t just happen. What might be labeled “inside agitators” were responsible. Alinsky also advocated for more confrontational ways to push buttons, which other organizers first challenged and then developed alternative approaches. 

Petitjean breaks the history into three eras. Alinsky came first with “militant liberalism” in the 1930s, forties, and fifties. Next came the “Long Sixties” (late 1950s to early 1970s). That period saw organizing’s newer leadership—Ella Baker, SDS, SNCC, and others—reshaping the role of an organizer from “human resources management consultant” to “radical spade worker.” Spade workers were not so much oriented to projects as to “social movements and collective struggles.” Finally, overlapping with Alinsky’s death in 1972, a “burgeoning community organization movement” challenged the organizer’s role as one of “an outside, detached, manipulating expert” and criticized Alinsky for overlooking “central issues of race, gender, and ideology.”

If all of this seems a little messy that’s because it is. But as a social scientist and historian Petitjean does a conscientious, even-handed job of sorting through the elements of community organizing, including theories, events, and their roles in its evolution.  

Who might want to read this book or even benefit from reading it? Casual readers trying to make sense of “how we got here”—to such a “condition of inequality,” that is—and the nearly century of efforts to prevent it. Chicago history aficionados, especially those delighting in “nuggets” (Saul Alinsky’s dissertation research led him to the Chicago mob). Serious researchers requiring an accurate and detailed accounting of resources and accompanying elaboration. And, of course, community organizers themselves looking to understand how their profession developed and how its history affects the way they operate now and into the future. 

And let’s not forget Sarah Palin. Occupation: Organizer might well clarify that small-town mayors and community organizers both have “actual” responsibilities—sometimes overlapping—and that meeting those responsibilities is more difficult, and more important, than ever before.

Clement Petitjean, Occupation: Organizer. A Critical History of Community Organizing in America. Paperback $22.95. Haymarket Books, 2023. 340 pages.

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Scott Pemberton is the public meetings editor at the Weekly.

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1 Comment

  1. This is a terrific review. I’ve heard Saul Alinksy’s name thrown around for years without having any idea of who he was and why he is often cited, negatively, by conservative pundits.

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