Response by Dr. Robert Linthicum
1. What are the primary
theories of your field?
" My field is “community organizing”, which is a distinct
discipline from “community development”.
It is also sometimes called “broad-based organizing”,
“faith-based organizing” or “church-based organizing”.
Each is a particular discipline within the larger discipline of
“community organizing”. However,
all these disciplines have certain primary theories in common, as follows:
2. What are the
foundational books of community organizing?
Alinsky, Saul D., Reveille for Radicals (NY: Vintage Books, 1989)
Alinsky, Saul D., Rules for Radicals (NY: Vintage Books, 1972)
Bruggemann, Walter, Hope Within History (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1987)
Bruggemann, Walter, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978)
Chambers, Ed., Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action and Justice (London: Continuum Press, 2003)
Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (London: Continuum, 1984)
Freedman, Samuel G., Upon This Rock: The Miracle of a Black Church (NY: Simon and Collins, 1993)
Greider, William, Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1994)
Horwitt, Sanford, Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky – His Life and Legacy (NY: Alfred Knopf, 1989)
Jacobsen, Dennis, Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing (Phila.: Fortress Press, 2001)
Kraybill, Donald, The Upside-Down Kingdom, Revised Edition (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1990)
Linthicum, Robert C., Mike Miller, Marilyn Stranske, Building A People of Power: A Video Course (Colorado Springs, CO.: Crown Ministries International, 2000); 27 class sessions in 15 DVDs, a Student’s Workbook and a Facilitator’s Handbook (order from viaShalom, see Building A People of Power book below).
Linthicum, Robert C., Building a People of Power: Equipping Churches to Transform Their Communities (Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Press/World Vision, Press, 2006) (out of print; order from viaShalom at viaShalom@gmail.com or (951) 687-0557.
Linthicum, Robert C., Transforming Power: Biblical Strategies for Making A Difference in Your Community (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
Warren, Mark R., Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001)
Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (NY: Doubleday, 1998)
Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States (NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003)
3. Could you give me a general idea of the theological and/or biblical framework of the field of community organizing?
primary contributors to theological and biblical reflection on community
organizing are Bruggemann, Jacobsen and myself.
Wink has also contributed in his biblical research on the
principalities and powers as political, economic and religious entities in
the Roman Empire.
organizing is deeply embedded in biblical and theological tradition.
The Industrial Areas Foundation
(one of the major organizing networks within the USA) has concentrated on
working with organizing from a Thomistic perspective (the theological
tradition created around the work of Thomas Aquinas), primarily because so
much of their work has been done with the Roman Catholic Church; both
Bruggemann and I am currently contributing to IAF’s biblical work from
primarily a Reformed and evangelical perspective.
Direct Action and Research Training (DART)
has centered its biblical and theological work in the African-American
church tradition and in evangelicalism; I have played a major role in both
developing that work and in training their organizers to use it. People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO)
has done most of its theological reflection from a Jesuit perspective,
because it has Jesuit origins. A
final network, Gamaliel Foundation created a theological (and
to a lesser degree, biblical) forum for pastoral reflection; it has
particularly benefited from the contributions of Dennis Jacobsen, a
Lutheran Church pastor in Milwaukee deeply involved in Gamaliel’s MICAH
My biblical/theological framework for the field of community organization is most thoroughly addressed in my books Transforming Power and Building A People of Power (BPP is designed as a textbook on organizing which I used in my live and video courses; TP is written at a lay level with less organizing methodology and requiring less theological sophistication). It is impossible to summarize this theological work in the limitations of this paper. Suffice it to say that my biblical reflection works from scripture in tracing throughout the Bible the biblical vision of “the world as it should be”, a biblical social analysis of “the world as it is”, an exploration of the life, ministry and teachings of Jesus on empowerment, a biblical theology of salvation built around the theme of empowerment, the nature and mission of the church, the organizing strategy of Nehemiah, avoided biblical strategies for bringing about change, Jesus on building relationships through individual and house meetings (the discipleship band), Paul’s theology and practice of public life, exploring how Jesus and Moses both used confrontation as an essential tactic of liberation of God’s people, Jesus and many others on the building of leaders, how Nehemiah used organizing to work successfully for the transformation of Judah, and the spirituality of organizing: birthing God’s shalom community.
4. What are the primary urban issues addressed by community organizing?
The primary urban issue addressed by organizing is the
powerlessness and disenfranchisement of urban people from the political
and economic decision-making of the United States and other powerful
countries. What organizing is
about is the empowering of people by building within them the capacity,
ability and willingness to act in productive ways that will gain power for
themselves, enable the people to become a vital part of the power equation
of a society (exchanges of power) and thus reshape society into a more
just and equitable system.
Issues are always determined by the people organized in a
particular neighborhood, church, community or city.
There are never a priori issues that community organizations
address! In a
very profound sense, any organizer is expected to be issueless!
That is, he or she is not to bring his or her personal agenda to
the table. Rather, the job of
the organizer is to call forth an articulation of the issues about which
the people are most concerned and for which they are motivated to take
action. Therefore, at the beginning of an organizing effort in a
city, it is impossible to guess what will be the issues the people will
choose to address. Thus,
organizing is intensely democratic in nature.
However, one can look across the spectrum of organizing going on in the 133 major cities of the United States today and throughout the world, and discern certain trends in the addressing of issues. Those trends can change at any moment. But at least at present, the issues that are being most often addressed by the organizing effort in the United States are as follows:
· Employment, job-retraining, and the receiving of just salaries and benefits from employers;
· Economic development, particularly the development of both small and larger businesses within poor communities and by the poor that will give them negotiable economic power;
· Public education concerns, especially parental participation in both the education process and the operation and decision-making of a local school, studying for learning and personal growth rather than studying for tests; quality of education in public schools, especially non-charter schools;
· Housing and homelessness, especially the creation of an adequate housing stock to accommodate the poor and working classes, affordable housing, rent controls and the restoration of the homeless;
· Health care, especially the adequate provision of public health care, the protection of seniors, the poor, immigrants and the most vulnerable; and a working alternative to the current insurance-based health care industry;
· Immigration issues, including legality of immigration, giving immigrants a “fair deal”, no specialized identification for immigrants, humane housing, adequate education for their children and safe and decent working standards;
· Racial issues, especially matters of racial and ethnic injustice, bridging communities and churches across racial lines and deepening multiracial collaboration;
· Crime, justice and policing, especially in regards to police brutality, and particularly in terms of national security;
· Community development, especially the building of infrastructures that enables the people to take charge of their own community and to participate in effective exchanges of power with the power-brokers of the city;
· Developing, acting on and campaigning for community-based policy initiatives;
· Leadership development, especially participation and authority in consensual democracies;
· Building statewide, regional and national power so that the people’s voice is heard and taken seriously (exchange of power at the state and national levels).
5. How do you define
social transformation within a community (social change)?
It was probably best put by Saul Alinsky, the “father” of community organizing, who wrote, “There can be no democracy unless it is a dynamic democracy. It is not a formula to be preserved like jelly. It is a process – a vibrant, living sweep of hope and progress which constantly strives for its objective in life: the search on the part of ordinary people for truth, justice and their dignity as men and women.” From my perspective, therefore, a community is not “socially transformed” simply because it has good schools, clean streets, decent homes and a working infrastructure. It is socially transformed when its people feel they are in charge of their own lives and of their community, when they feel they have dignity and are shown respect by those in power, when they feel they will be taken seriously by that power and will be seen as crucial players in the decisions that are made about their neighborhood or city. When people feel powerful, they will act powerfully – and their schools, streets, homes and infrastructure will evidence the impact of that deep sense of pride! Social transformation was perhaps best captured for me when, at the close of an action when we got major agreements from the mayor of our city, I said to Joe Brender, the community resident we had prepared to be the main spokesperson, “Didn’t we get great concessions from the mayor, Joe?” He replied, “Yes indeed. You know the mayor called me Mr. Brender!”
6. What are your main
indicators that change has occurred within a community?
Again, Alinsky says it well: “A community has truly changed when its people have hope, when they have power, when they feel they have a future now – they know where they’re going and they know they are going to keep building more and more power. They know how to do it now; they know how to function as citizens in the democratic process.” Significant improvement in schools, housing, health care, more sensitive policing, reduction in crime, more and better employment for all are all indices of the transformation of a community. But the true indicator is a transformation in the people – in their perspective of themselves, their appreciation for and commitment to each other, and their sense that they can really affect change in their city.
7. How would you evaluate the work you’ve done/your contribution to a community? What methodologies or tools would you use (i.e., exit interviews, case studies, etc.)?
The methodologies one would use to determine the effectiveness of
the organizing work done in a community would be the methodologies of
evaluation and group reflection.
Evaluation and reflection is done relentlessly – after every
action, every research action, every house meeting, every planning
meeting, every group activity – and done by the people who have led
those meetings, those who have been participant/observers of that meeting
and by the professional organizers. What
organizing is seeking to avoid are two things: unreflective action
destined to make the same mistakes over and over again, or using academic
or technical tools (surveys, exit interviews, etc.) that turn the process
into a client-professional arrangement and thus truncate relationships.
As Alinsky once said to a young worker in a civil rights
organization, “You young men are nothing more than a pile of undigested
actions” because they were only
concerned about the next action, and not interested in learning from their
8. What is
contribution to urban
The role of a professional organizer is profoundly different than
that of a pastor or of the people participating in the community
organization. The role of the
people is to lead the organization; it is their organization – not the
organizer’s. The people are
to lead; their responsibility is to both share and to encourage each
other’s pain and anger over the injustice they have experienced, to
build relationships of trust and mutual support in the organizing effort
with each other, to identify the issues around which they will organize
and how they will “cut” those issues, to identify the “targets”
who have the legal, logistic or moral capacity to resolve those issues, to
plan together the “campaign” they will wage together to enable the
“target” to resolve the issue, and to provide the primary leadership
to the community organization. The
role of the pastor in community organizing is twofold: (1) to be one of
the “people” and thus participate in the organization in the ways
delineated for the people; (2) to personalize and stand behind the
organizing effort in his/her congregation; to help discern, call forth and
build congregational leadership in the organizing effort; and to be a
public spokesperson for that organizing effort.
The role of the organizer, therefore, is not to lead nor to personalize the organizing effort. In fact, the organizer should be very much in the background in any house meeting, research action or action (that’s the people’s responsibility, not the organizer’s responsibility). The role of the organizer is to conduct individual meetings in order to build and maintain relationships, not only with those involved in the organizing effort, but also leaders in the community and those who could potentially become involved in the community organization. The organizer is to discern, call forth and train leadership. He/she is to provide guidance for the organizing effort both within the community organization and within each of the congregations that are members of the organization. Finally, the job of the organizer is to conduct training for leadership development; such training is both formal and informal, is done in each congregation as leadership skills of the laity are honed throughout the life and ministry of that church (not just in the organizing effort), and is done in the community organization and within that organizing network (for example, IAF conducts ten-day trainings four times a year in different regions of the country, with usually 150-200 leaders from the community organizations in that region in attendance). The informal training is as important as the formal training; for example, when I was learning community organizing theory and practice while pastoring a church in Chicago in the 1970s, the organizer and I met over coffee after every single meeting I led – from committee and task force meetings to actions with between 1,000 and 5,000 in attendance – to evaluate what occurred and to hone my skills. And that organizer held similar meetings after each action or meeting with every other leader in that community organization.
9. Within the scope of your field, how do you determine the needs of a community? What are your major problem assessment tools?
The major problem assessment tool, obviously, is the individual
meeting. When we do an
individual meeting, we will ask questions that will tend to lead to more
penetrating questions and to more profound answers.
For example, if I’ve not met the person before, I will start off
asking a question like, “How long have you lived within this
community?” There are only
two ways the person can answer that question: “I’ve lived here a short
time” or “I’ve lived here a long time”.
If the answer is “a short time”, I’ll follow it up with a
question like, “What caused you to select this neighborhood to move
into?” If it’s a long
time, I’ll ask “How have you seen this community change over the
years?” Their response to
either question will give me a sense of their priorities.
I will then begin to hone in on those priorities to discover the
issues that most agitate and disturb them.
If, for example, their answer has to do with education (e.g., for
“a short time”, “I selected this community because it has such a
high reputation for the quality of its schools”), I will follow up with
questions that will evoke answers that will give me a sense of how that
person actually feels about that community’s public education.
The same discernment will be followed for “long time” answers.
I will then move to getting this person to tell stories.
I’ll ask questions like, “Can you give me an example of how
your children have responded to the education provided here?” or
“Would you share an incident when you felt your children were treated
unfairly in school?” What I
am after is not simply getting into the “head” of this person, but
into her “heart” and “soul” as well – to find out what makes her
tick, what is really important to her, and what will agitate her into
action. I am seeking to build
a relationship with this person – not simply gather data about her –
and that means being willing to call forth her pain, her joy, her
victories and her defeats. It
also means a willingness to share myself with that person – to connect
with her, to identify with her concerns, to tell stories about myself, to
share with her my pain, my joy, my victories and my defeats.
What I am seeking to do is to build a relationship – not to
conduct an interview!
If I feel there is real leadership potential in this person, I will likely have a series of meetings with her – meetings that will disclose to me her history, her passion, her relationships with others, whom she identifies as gatekeepers, caretakers, flak-catchers and brokers in the community, and whether she has a “fire in her belly” for reform and justice. All those indices will tell me if this is a person who can provide solid leadership to this organizing effort, and whether this is a person with whom I want to build a public relationship!
10. What is the difference between community organizing and community development?
There are four ways humanity can respond to human need. They can provide social services. They can advocate on behalf of those unfortunate.
They can undertake community or economic development.
Or they organize the people to create their own destiny.
In my opinion, community organizing must be the foundation upon
which development, advocacy or social services must be built.
If it is not built on an organizing foundation, I believe the work
that will be done in any of these fields will be seriously – even
fatally – flawed, because it operates on an inadequate conceptual base.
Each of these disciplines is committed, eventually, to the
empowerment of the people they serve.
At its best, community development and economic development seek to
involve the people they are seeking to service in the deliberative and
planning process of development, the choice of projects, the building of
strategy, and the implementation of that strategy.
Advocacy seeks to stand for the people and to defend them before
the ”principalities and powers” because the people apparently don’t
have sufficient power to stand on their own.
Social services provide ministries of mercy to the people – food,
clothing, shelter, health care, education – in hopes that the people
will learn to eventually stand on their own feet.
But all three fields have a fatal flaw at the heart of their
mobilizing work. That flaw is
the assumption that the problem essentially lies with the people – that
in a profound way, these people are unable to provide for themselves what
they need in order to survive this situation, and therefore an outside
agency needs to come in to build up the capacity of the people and make
them capable of being competitive in the real world.
From the perspective of these three fields, the problem essentially
lies with the people!
Community organizing analyzes the situation in a profoundly
different way. To any
community organizer, the problem doesn’t lie with the people; the
problem lies with the systems of power in that city and country.
The way the political, economic, educational, social, cultural and
religious systems of any society are organized, some hold the power and
others seek that power or are victims of that power.
Those who hold the power have “stacked the deck” to guarantee
that they – the elite – remain in power and others exist to serve that
power base. As Frederick Douglass, the escaped African-American former
slave who had experienced much of his life what he later taught, wrote,
”Power concedes nothing without a demand.
It never did and it never will.
Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found the
exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and
these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or
with both. The limits of
the systems are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
The poor aren’t incompetent! They are powerless! That they have survived for thousands of years under the oppression of political, economic and social tyrants is testimony to their resiliency and their extreme competence in coping. Our task is not so much to teach them how to compete in a world still controlled by those already in control and for the sake of those in control. Nor is our task finally to provide the charity they need to help them struggle to stay alive. The task must be that of working with them to build the significant power they already have at their fingertips but which society has never identified as power – the power of each other or relational power – and to develop their skills and capacities to use that power so that the systems realize they must make room for them and take seriously their concerns. Then, in that context of an empowered people, that community can make use of the principles and practices of economic development or community development or even advocacy and social services to help build the power of that community and make it truly powerful in the power equation of that city or state"
 Industrial Areas
Foundation (IAF), 220 W. Kinzie St., Chicago, IL. 60610; (312)