Town Hall Tirades -- Don't Call It "Community Organizing"

05/25/2011 01:50 pm ET

We've all seen the ugly images. Angry citizens shout down opposition, offer slogans not substance and bring debate to a screeching halt. But, hey, say their promoters, it's just "community organizing," taken right from the playbook of Lefties.

What's wrong with this picture? First, this is not "community organizing," and, second, it is anathema to freedom and democracy, whether done by the Left or Right.

FreedomWorks, a lobbying group headed up by former Republican congressman Dick Armey, is openly working behind the scenes to get anti-reform advocates to pack townhall meetings and community forums. Adam Brandon, a FreedomWorks spokesman claimed in April the group studied Saul Alinsky, widely viewed as the godfather of community organizing. Speaking of Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, Brandon says: "[E]verything that we've been trying to do here comes straight out of those pages."

Trouble is, Brandon misses Alinsky's core principle, and that of the many effective community organizing groups who are evolving Alinsky's legacy today: The point is to build the power of regular citizens to gain a seat at the negotiating table. That takes research, discipline, vision, training and courage.

It means coming up with real solutions yourself, so community organizing is the opposite of simple protest; and it's also distinct from "mobilizing" -- merely exhorting people to sign on to your pre-set agenda, as the Right is now doing.

Since Alinsky's death in 1972, the Industrial Areas Foundation, (IAF) with bipartisan networks of affiliates - religious congregations and unions and others -- in over sixty cities has been developing sophisticated strategies to achieve solutions. In Massachusetts, for example, IAF-affiliate Greater Boston Interfaith Organization played a key role in devising a compromise health care reform enabling this state to attain near universal coverage. In Texas, IAF affiliates have been key to school reform and, in San Antonio, to a job training program called QUEST that is so effective it's become a national model.


In a broader sense, of course, solutions-oriented "community organizing" has been essential to social advances protecting civil rights and the environment, or bringing abusive priests to justice, and so much more.

And note the beautiful irony. On the campaign trail, Far Right heroine Sarah Palin sneered that Barack Obama was merely a community organizer. But now that "community organizing" has gotten a makeover in Republican circles, FreedomWorks brags of a "grassroots juggernaut capable of going toe-to-toe with the unions, extreme enviros, and the's of the world."

Sadly for our democracy, the Far Right has also stooped to distorting community organizing strategies associated with progressives. Take an August 6th editorial in Investor's Business Daily which noted that "President Obama spoke then as the community organizer he was -- a true disciple of Saul Alinsky who worked with and for ACORN in the days when they were storming banks and government meetings to force them to ditch creditworthiness as a criteria and forcing them to issue loans to those who couldn't afford them."

In fact, ACORN -- a network of roughly 300,000 low-income Americans independent of the IAF and other such congregation-based groups -- worked diligently for years with citizens to counsel them about responsible homeownership and to fight predatory lending practices.

Letting the Far Right malign community organizing is a setback for democracy. So I was dismayed when, in a recent interview New Yorker staff writer Ryan Lizza agreed with NPR host Bob Garfield that Alinksy was "Machiavellian," and said "he would go into a public meeting with an official and would not think twice about humiliating them or staging a very loud angry protest. He had no empathy for the public official. The idea was to gain some attention for your cause."

In fact, the legacy of Alinsky is quite the opposite. Today, through the IAF, citizens learn why it's smart to "make no permanent enemies" for, of course, you may someday need that very same person on your side. At the foundation of IAF's philosophy is the building of "public relationships," often through one-on-one meetings where citizens learn to listen for the values and interests of others; and that approach extends to building relationships with public officials.

Sure, Alinsky-inspired organizers have staged public actions they consider "polarizing." For example, an Alinsky-style community group in Chicago staged a "bank-in" in 1971 in which activists showed up to make withdrawals in pennies or tried to deposit pennies, as recounted in Credit to the Community by Dan Immergluck. But their goal was not to stop the bank from operating. It was to get enough attention so that the bank's board of directors would negotiate community lending practices. They succeeded in getting to the table and the bank pledged to make its policies fairer.

What a contrast to today's flooding of meetings and wailing about the loss of "their America," without specifying what one has lost and what positively can be done to fix the problem of health care.

Real community organizing is a central tool of democracy. We need not less but much more of it: organizing that encourages and trains us to engage in our own research-based, spirited and disciplined dialogue that leads not to shout-downs but to real solutions.

Frances Moore Lappé, of the Cambridge-based Small Planet Institute, is the author or co-author of seventeen books, including Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage in a World Gone Mad.