Saul David Alinsky (1909 – 1972)

By Pierre869856 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
By Pierre869856 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

American political theorist Saul David Alinsky (January 30, 1909 – June 12, 1972) was also a community activist. He became famous and well-known across the country for his work with the Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation, which assisted underprivileged communities in organizing to make demands of landlords, officials, bankers, and business leaders. In response to the impatience of a New Left generation of activists in the 1960s, Alinsky defended the arts of conflict and compromise involved in community organizing as crucial to the fight for social justice in his widely referenced Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer (1971).

Saul Alinsky's name has received more attention recently than ever before, and several new books highlight his contributions. This is largely because former US President Barack Obama frequently cites him as an influence. Obama is not alone in his respect for Alinsky; Hillary Clinton wrote about him in her senior thesis, and  former UK Prime Minister David Cameron cited him to support the notion of the "Big Society" on a theoretical level. What kind of motivation can this Saul Alinsky provide, and who is he?

Early Life

Alinsky was raised in a strict, orthodox Jewish family and was born in a deprived neighborhood of Chicago in 1909, indicating a strong emphasis on education, employment, and religion. Hull House was founded by Jane Addams in Chicago, but there are other similarities between their two bodies of work. Alinsky doesn't seem to have had social activism as a goal. Despite having a degree in archaeology, the Great Depression made it nearly hard for him to get employment in that sector.

Alinsky became involved in community organizing in the slums of Chicago.

As an alternative, Alinsky was active in community organizing in the Chicago slums, influenced by his engagement with the industrial action of mine workers as well as the Chicago School and its urban sociologists Robert Ezra Park and Ernest Burgess. His first significant participation was with Back of the Yards, a destitute neighborhood close to a meatpacking plant in the Union Stock Yards in the city's north. Later, his focus switched to the Woodlawn neighborhood, which is located south of the city center. He developed a skill at what he did. So effective that he began touring the country to aid community organizing campaigns.

Alinsky established the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in 1940.

The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a network of regional community- or faith-based initiatives, was founded by Alinsky in 1940. It served as a model for other networks of a similar nature, such as John Baumann's 1972-founded Pacific Institute for Community Organization. A few years after the IAF's founding, in 1946, Alinsky released Reveille for Radicals, his first book for community organizers. Rules for radicals was released in 1971 to complement this. Both have been published repeatedly, and the IAF is still in operation today.

Alinsky can rightly be described as the founding father of community organizing

Alinsky is appropriately referred to as the father of community organizing, both for his personal deeds and writings as well as for the inspiration he provided to others. He said,  “to hell with charity. The only thing you get is what you are strong enough to get — so you had better organize.” Alinsky constantly emphasized that community organization was about grassroots engagement and giving the weak and disadvantaged access to resources to bring about social change. It was definitely not about pushing people toward a specific objective, but rather about motivating them and assisting them in learning how to effect change on their own. Not becoming the voice of the underprivileged and downtrodden is not the goal of community organization.

In addition, Alinsky will be remembered for the innovative actions he organized (or threatened to organize), including a rent strike against slum landlords, a sit-in at the mayor's office, a piss-in at O'Hare Airport (where all restrooms would be permanently occupied until talks were opened), and a fart-in at a concert, where participants would consume a substantial meal of baked beans beforehand.



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