What is Community Organizing?

I’ve been co-teaching a class this semester, Introduction to Civic Studies: Theories for a Better World. Today, we began discussing Saul Alinsky, and more broadly, community organizing.

But what is community organizing?

Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge, describes community organizing as: “a process where people who live in proximity to each other come together into an organization that acts in their shared self-interest.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but I find that entirely unhelpful. So, let’s move past the dictionary definition. Stories are more effective anyway.

I wouldn’t consider myself a community organizer, but I have been organized as part of my community. In that process, I’ve attended one-on-one trainings, strategized about issues, organized and attended rallies, protests, and speak out events.

I am, it would be said, a “leader” with Somerville Community Corporation’s Jobs for Somerville. I don’t know that I’d call myself a leader – I’m not a big fan of that phraseology – but that’s what it’s called when I’ve been organized sufficiently to organize.

That is to say – we’re all leaders. Not in an annoying, everyone wins a prize for showing up kind of way. We’re leaders because we’ve been drawn to an issue we care about. We’ve been trained in some skills, but, more critically, we’ve realized the skills we already have.

We’ve discovered the power of our own stories as well as power of hearing others’ stories. We’ve learned that we have a voice. We’ve learned that when we speak up, others will listen – and if they don’t, we’ll just speak up louder. We’ve learned that power isn’t something intractably bestowed upon a few, but something that is ours for the taking. With our voices and our stories, we build power.

I remember the first time an organizer invited me for a one on one.

I was surprised to get her call asking me to coffee. I’d met up with friends for coffee, but I’d only met this woman once. I didn’t understand why she wanted to talk with me.

I wasn’t anybody special.

Perhaps more surprisingly, when we met…she seemed genuinely interested in learning about me. It wasn’t a brief bout of small talk followed by a here’s what you can do for me pitch. She asked where I was from. She asked about my family. She asked if it was hard being so far away. She asked what I was passionate about. She asked why I cared. She shared some of her own story, her travels and tribulations.

We talked for an hour. I don’t even think there was an ask at the end. Isn’t there always supposed to be an ask at the end?

She said it was really nice to get to know me and that she looked forward to talking with me more.

She made me feel special. To her, I was special.

And thus I was organized, as I so gracelessly put it. And since then, I’ve learned to ask others out for coffee. To ask them their stories and learn from their experience. To treat them as special – not because that’s what nice people do, but simply because…they are special.

So what is community organizing?

I guess I would say – it means recognizing that every single one of us has power. It’s spread unequally and leveraged unfairly, but every person has power. Community organizing means recognizing your own power, supporting others in recognizing their own power, and doing everything, everything, within your power to share that power equitably.


2 thoughts on “What is Community Organizing?

  1. Margaret

    Sarah, what a great post. When I looked up the word community, one of the definitions I found is “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals”

    When you consider that definition, community organizing… is a type of organizing that can’t be done without this fellowship. If that is the case then there is no ask without fellowship and common attitudes first. When this happens for example over coffee and the exchange of stories as you suggested, the ask doesn’t seem like an ask at all, but instead an obligation.


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