In Chicago’s municipal elections, nearly a dozen alderpeople indicated they had prior experience working as full-time “community organizers”—often wielding this title with pride and positioning this role as providing unique insight into the struggles and lives of everyday working people. But what does “community organizing,” as a term and as a profession, entail? How does “community organizing” as a full-time job simultaneously legitimize and complicate political change? In “Occupation: Organizer,” scholar and activist Clément Petitjean outlines the history of community organizing in Chicago from the city’s “professional radical” Saul Alinsky in the late 1930s forward to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. The result is a much-needed critical and historical analysis of a profession that is sure to define contemporary politics for years to come. We conducted this interview via email which has been edited for length and clarity.
Your book explores what you call a “contradictory hybrid” to organizing. On the one hand, community organizing is celebrated as an authentic path to social and political change by positioning marginalized voices front and center, but on the other hand, organizing could inadvertently obfuscate marginalized voices as it seeks to be legitimized as a profession. How should organizers and leaders navigate this duality?
In organizing lingo, the “leader” refers to the (volunteer) folks who come from the constituency that a given organization is trying to give voice to—local tenants, seniors, folks with disabilities and so on. The “organizer” is the (paid) person who identifies and trains those leaders to make sure they, and not staffers, are the ones who speak for and embody the organization.
While the relationship is asymmetrical—organizers organize leaders, not the other way around—it’s also hybrid and ambivalent. There’s an inbuilt tension between what Ella Jo Baker calls “spadework” (helping the oppressed and the marginalized engage in their own collective liberation) and Saul Alinsky’s legacy of management consulting, where what matters most is harnessing people’s motivations to organizational goals even if it entails manipulating them. In my book, I argue that there’s a mix between these two approaches, and that it’s a misconception to believe that the organizing relationship is fully horizontal and democratic or totally vertical and authoritarian. Instead, it’s more complicated than that and the hybridity never disappears.
Your writing combines historical analysis, ethnographic fieldwork and sociological concepts to illuminate this hybridity. How did you approach your research? Did you have any “aha!” moments along the way?
Research is always an uncertain process: Even when you know where you start, you never know where you’ll end up. I did have some research questions in mind such as what happened to the people who were active during the movements from the Sixties and Seventies? What did they do when the movements were over, in terms of their jobs, their politics, their lifestyles? But from there, my path was more of a meandering line than a straight thoroughfare.
Although I had several “aha!” moments along the way, I want to focus on my interview with Patrick who I describe in the Introduction. In the 1970s, Patrick had worked for Alinsky’s national organization, the Industrial Areas Foundation, before moving on to organizational development work in the private and nonprofit sectors. During our interview, he had two piles of books on his coffee table: one with books by and about Alinsky, and another with management books. At first, the connection made no sense to me. Then gradually I realized that this eyebrow-raising mismatch was a crucial part of the story.
You mention that Saul Alinsky was considered the Sigmund Freud of community organizing and that he was influenced by sociologists from the University of Chicago where he was a student in the 1920s. Who inspires your work?
It’s impossible to succinctly explain how the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work has influenced me, but I was drawn to his idea of not taking for granted what people say about what they do (particularly when it comes to issues of commitment) and looking instead at where they are speaking from and all the material and symbolic determinants that have shaped their trajectories.
I was also inspired by Mary Pattillo’s work on Black Chicago and her notion of the middleman, or intermediary, which she develops to look at tensions within the Black community around Black-led gentrification dynamics. Her argument that middlemen can be aligned with oppressed and exploited groups or with the ruling classes, that the alignment is never given once and for all, and that intermediaries always take something away from their positions as brokers, is something that has proved extremely useful.
Finally—and this might come as a surprise—the TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” has informed my thinking about professional work in deep, unexpected ways by looking at issues around training, skills and power; the shifting boundaries between the expert and lay people; and the creation of a collective entity that goes beyond these internal tensions. These are the key issues organizers have faced for decades.
We often hear that it’s important to learn history, so we don’t repeat the mistakes from the past. What do you imagine will be the future of community organizing?
I don’t think that my role should be to predict the future. However, we are still in the aftermath of the 2020 protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and being aware of that might help us, collectively. We can be keyed into understanding if community organizer positions will be filled by people who were politicized through participating in protests, or by people who already had a political background whose commitment deepened. What will they bring when they take up these positions, in terms of the tactics they learned in their movement participation, or in terms of their own politics?
Because you are based in Paris, can you share any insights Chicago organizers can incorporate into their practice from there and vice versa?
What can be learned from the French context, I would say, is the idea of convergence des luttes. It refers to different struggles converging toward one another against a multifaceted adversary, which has gained traction since the Yellow Vests movement of 2018 to 2019. Although it is easier said than done, what’s interesting is the plural of “struggles” (there’s not one struggle that would be more legitimate than others) encourages formal organizations to join forces. Struggles for emancipation in Chicago and elsewhere are plural and diverse and develop beyond formal channels, but the language used to describe them and give them a certain horizon could incorporate the dynamism that convergence des luttes implies—and the suggestion that they can borrow from one another to expand and consolidate.
Conversely, people in France can put the intentional focus on building relationships to good use, which is a core tenet to organizing work, while understanding that collective action by marginalized groups doesn’t happen spontaneously, that nurturing individual relationships to grow an organization is a crucial building block to extending a movement’s reach and democratizing its ranks.
“Occupation: Organizer, A Critical History of Community Organizing in America”
By Clément Petitjean
Haymarket Books, 311 pages, $22.95
The book launch for “Occupation: Organizer” will be held on April 30 at Haymarket House, 800 West Buena.