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Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing, in 1966 on Chicago’s South Side
It has now been more than four years since Barack Obama threw an arm around Gregory Galluzzo in Iowa and confided that whenever anybody asked how his presidential campaign had so quickly assembled its grass-roots operation, he would credit Galluzzo’s mentorship. A former Jesuit priest who’d been drawn to Chicago by the work of Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing, Galluzzo had good reason to feel proud: He was indirectly responsible for bringing young Barack Obama to Chicago to be an organizer. Obama’s subsequent election was “like a son winning an office,” says Galluzzo.
But a little more than halfway through the first term of the man dubbed the organizer in chief, the business of community organizing finds itself in a state of flux. Galluzzo and several other Alinsky torchbearers have retired or departed the scene. Chicago was once the acknowledged headquarters of community organizing, but the movement has fragmented and spread into the suburbs, across the country, and around the world. And recently, paradoxically, the techniques of community organizing—once rooted in the left—have been adopted by elements of the right. Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, his 1971 primer, has become an unofficial reference manual of the Tea Party movement, even as some community-organizing operations have come under siege from conservative critics.
So far, the Obama presidency has been a mixed bag of accomplishments in the community-organizing model. Galluzzo’s group, the Gamaliel Foundation, was active in pushing for health care reform, which was signed into law in March 2010 but now runs the risk of being repealed. But it also rallied for immigration reform, which quickly moved down the list of the administration’s priorities. Galluzzo and others see Obama as at times being too conciliatory, having deviated from Alinsky’s model of stirring the pot. Obama “knew it, he was taught it, but he never embraced it,” says Galluzzo.
Gerald Kellman, the person who actually hired Obama while working with Galluzzo, puts it more directly. “It is clear that Barack as president left behind community-organizing techniques that got him elected,” says Kellman, currently Gamaliel’s director of organizing. “And [the White House has] been grappling with how to restore some of those, with mixed success.”
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The Chicago-born Alinsky began his project in social agitation during the 1930s, when he organized packinghouse workers in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. A first-generation American, born of Russian Jewish parents, Alinsky studied criminology at the University of Chicago. He was a disciple (and later a biographer) of the labor leader John L. Lewis. Alinsky did not think of community organizing as an occupation or a profession. Instead, he viewed his efforts to elevate the rights of working-class citizens as an extension of Thomas Paine’s pamphleteering and Sam Adams’s call to revolution. But Alinsky was fiercely pragmatic and saw great social potential in his work.
“While you might say the cowboy-and-Indian [civil rights for blacks] drama was going on in the South, Alinsky believed the real battle was in the North,” says Nicholas von Hoffman, the journalist and onetime 60 Minutes commentator who spent a decade with Alinsky before starting his newspaper career. Alinsky, von Hoffman continues, thought that it was in cities like Chicago where the struggle would be “won or lost, and equality would be gained or wouldn’t.”
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Photograph: AP photo