Lessons From a Great Community Organizer

05/16/2015 11:08 am ET | Updated May 16, 2016

The death last month of Edward Chambers, one of the world's great community organizers, serves as a strong reminder of how the power of the grass-roots can be mobilized to make a huge difference in the lives of the neediest. He was a master of building groups that could last for the long haul, a skill not enough activists possess.

For 37 years, Mr. Chambers served as the national director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a network of community-based organizations that had been founded by his mentor Saul Alinsky, the iconic champion of "power organizing."

Mr. Alinsky came on the scene in the early 1940s, when working-class and low-income neighborhoods were being besieged by corporations, elite interests and unfriendly local governments that wanted to destroy their economies and way of life. He argued that community people could overcome this attack on their well-being only if they organized strong local organizations that could gain power and influence in their own neighborhoods. In his celebrated book, Reveille for Radicals, he outlined a grass-roots strategy to achieve this goal.

Mr. Chambers, a tough pragmatist, brought discipline and a penchant for rigorous training to the growing number of groups that joined together to put Mr. Alinsky's ideas into action. At its height, the network numbered over 50 groups, some clustered in states like California and Texas, where their joint efforts brought about major changes in housing, public education, and working conditions.

Mr. Alinsky had trouble building groups that were solid enough to keep operating for a long time, but Mr. Chambers believed that organizing efforts would never succeed unless they were buttressed and supported by enduring organizations.

To ensure more permanent success, he put a lot of effort into recruiting outstanding organizers, including some of America's first female community organizers. It was well known to observers that Industrial Areas Foundation organizers were the most talented and substantial organizers in the country. In boxing parlance, they were pound for pound the best in the business.

Mr. Chambers was one of the first grass-roots leaders who realized that reliable organizers had to have stability in their lives. It was therefore not surprising that he made sure his staff was paid much more than other organizers and gave them generous benefits and ample vacation time. His compensation policies set a standard that other organizing networks would soon follow. He continually stressed that organizing was not a haphazard calling but a professional career, one that was as worthy as working as a doctor, civil servant, or politician.

Under his guidance, members of the Industrial Area Foundation network started ventures that were not strictly organizing projects. Some groups began to sponsor education services and government reform efforts. A group called East Brooklyn Congregations began to develop affordable housing. Its owner-occupied houses were called Nehemiah Homes; some, 3,800 Nehemiah houses have now been built, one of the outstanding achievements of his stewardship of the network Mr. Alinsky founded.

The son of a farmworker who emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, Mr. Chambers flirted with the Catholic Church in his early days, studied for the priesthood but left the seminary over differences with church leaders, and became a volunteer in Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement. His early organizing efforts led to his fervent belief that power was the essential ingredient in social change. His book, Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action and Justice, reflects that philosophy.

As Ernesto Cortes, who now serves with Mike Gecan as co-national director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, told The New Yorker, "Ed had a spiritedness ... and a lot of straight talk about power. He said power is the most important thing to think about or else you're going to accomplish nothing." He added, " Ed taught us that people know how to lose. Our job is to teach them how to win."

Mr. Chambers was a huge bear of a man, somebody you didn't want to meet in a dark alley. His imposing physical presence added to his reputation as a tough and sometimes mean opponent, yet he was respected by his colleagues who did not mind his strong and, at times, gruff leadership.

Beneath that rough exterior, lay a warm, gentle man with a rollicking sense of humor. A few years ago, several of us who had worked for the Barrow Cadbury Trust, one of England's finest foundations, were at a small meeting in Ireland to honor Cadbury's outstanding executive director, Eric Adams, who was retiring from the foundation. Among us was Ed Chambers, whose organizing work in England, was sponsored by Cadbury.

Far from being the morose, tough organizer many of us had known, Ed delighted us with hours of storytelling, humorous anecdotes, warm camaraderie, and personal reflections. When he turned to the sad lives that had been lost in his fights for justice and empowerment, he became teary-eyed and downcast. He was grieving for those he and his colleagues had not been able to save.

His departure from the helm of the Industrial Areas Foundation left a big hole in the organization, which has now decentralized its governance. Ed held it together for many years with toughness and brilliance. His leadership is being missed by all of us. There are no other Ed Chamberses to fill the vacuum he left.

Pablo Eisenberg, a regular Chronicle of Philanthropy contributor, is a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. His email address is