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was active in pushing for health care reform, which was signed into law in March 2010 but now runs the risk of being repealed.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
Greg Galluzzo never met Alinsky, who died of a heart attack soon after Galluzzo arrived in Chicago. Stationing himself in Pilsen, Galluzzo took over the neighborhood’s then-bankrupt community council, established an annual Fiesta del Sol festival, rallied for the creation of a new high school, and formed a development corporation. He recalls those as the halcyon days of community organizing in Chicago, as citywide groups successfully banded together to oppose plans for the Crosstown Expressway and campaign against pollution. In time, Galluzzo and his wife, Mary, founded the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), which instantly became a key turbine of the school reform movement. This past November, UNO celebrated its 25th anniversary at a high-dollar soiree attended by Mayor Daley and Rahm Emanuel.
To this day, Pilsen serves as one of the biggest national success stories for community organizing: a neighborhood that has not only been able to mobilize for various local causes but also has withstood the torrent of white gentrification that has dislodged countless populations of minorities across the country. “When we moved into that neighborhood, you could buy a home for $5,000,” says Galluzzo, who still lives there. “You can’t touch a home now for less than $300,000, and the people in those homes own them, and they are all Mexicans.”
In 1981, Galluzzo—then working for UNO—hired Gerald Kellman, who, four years later, hired a Columbia University graduate named Barack Obama and put him in charge of the Developing Communities Project on Chicago’s South Side. Obama spent a total of three years in Chicago, principally focusing his efforts on the needs of poor residents in the Altgeld Gardens projects in Riverdale. Ultimately the young organizer produced modest results—for example, raising awareness about asbestos problems. In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Obama writes at length about the struggles and small successes of those efforts.
Galluzzo says that people idolized Obama, that some “just fell in love with him,” even though his success as an organizer was relatively slight. “If you would say at the heart of organizing is agitation, he wasn’t very good at it,” says Galluzzo. “He had no problem organizing a group of people to go downtown and protest. But agitation is what you apply to your own people, and you challenge them to accept responsibility. Alinsky was a cigar-smoking asshole who wanted to keep people at a distance from him so they would find their own feet.”
Obama left Chicago for Harvard Law School in 1988, and since then, the Developing Communities Project has had its ups and downs. The fact that it is still in existence—a rare feat of longevity in the community-organizing business—is perhaps its greatest accomplishment. The Reverend Alvin Love of Lilydale First Baptist Church, who worked with Obama and now serves on the Developing Communities Project board, says the organization seems to have found its way recently in the fight to extend the Red Line on the city’s Far South Side.
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In the years after Obama left, the organizing scene in Chicago grew increasingly territorial. Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), which decamped to New York in 1979, returned its headquarters to Chicago in 1994 at the inducement of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin—and somewhat to the consternation of those at Gamaliel Foundation.
“I think we came back at the right time,” says Michael Gecan, an IAF leader. “I think we are back stronger, with a clearer sense of what our role and mission should be.”
Gamaliel had become the main organizing force in the city during Harold Washington’s reign, and Galluzzo still wrinkles his nose at what IAF accomplished upon its return. “They were supposed to retake Chicago, and it didn’t work,” he says. “It’s been clear to me for about five years.”
What is true of both groups is that their focus has largely drifted from their home base. IAF now has about 60 affiliates around the country. In recent years, community organizing has sprouted up in Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In the UK, activists have launched a campaign, in connection with the 2012 London Olympics, to reform living-wage standards and worker benefits. In the Chicago area, organizing has seen a shift out of the urban center to DuPage and Lake Counties, where organizers have focused on the concerns of an expanding Latino population and a depressed industrial base.
Madeline Talbott, who until 2008 ran the Chicago office of ACORN—the now-defunct collection of community organizations that advocated for affordable housing and other social issues—says that despite the presence of IAF and Gamaliel, Chicago organizers have become less concerned with what umbrella group they are affiliated with and have dialed down the territorialism that ran rampant in previous decades. “I think it is healthier,” says Gecan. Local organizing “is not worried about [Chicago’s] identity as the birthplace of organizing, whatever that means. It is just dealing with the realities in front of people.”
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Meantime, though, the idea of community organizing has come under a withering barrage of attacks, as have some of its organizations. “There is this visceral hatred of Obama and anything that ‘spawned the devil,’” says Galluzzo. “And we spawned the devil.”
During her address at the 2008 Republican National Convention, the former Alaska governor Sarah Palin took a potshot at Obama’s organizing experience. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer,” she said, “except you have actual responsibilities.”
Palin’s jabs were gentle, however, compared with what followed, including the now-notorious ambush of ACORN. Already reeling from a scandal, ACORN was further humiliated after two conservative activists recorded undercover videos of ACORN employees providing advice about how illegal businesses could evade taxes. The videos found a launching pad on the website of the right-wing Internet provocateur Andrew Breitbart.
The Gamaliel Foundation also had a run-in with Breitbart in September 2009, when he posted a video on his website that he claimed showed organizers deifying Obama in prayer. Breitbart later backed off his charge.
“Attacks on [Obama] increased by a hundredfold the attacks on us,” Galluzzo says. “I always thought I was doing good work, noble work. Now, shit, I’m seen as a diabolical person.”
In January, Galluzzo stepped down as executive director of Gamaliel, which he had led since 1986. His departure follows the death last October of Shel Trapp, who trained numerous other organizers at the National Training and Information Center in Chicago, and the retirements of two other key Chicago-forged Alinskyites: John Baumann, founder of PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing), and Ed Chambers, who took over the IAF after Alinsky’s death. “All of us, we are all male, pale, and stale,” Galluzzo says, noting that his successor at Gamaliel, Ana Garcia-Ashley, is a black woman from the Dominican Republic. “I think it is time for a new generation to step up and reinvent this shit.”
Madeline Talbott—who left ACORN and founded a new group, Action Now, with some members of her old staff—thinks Obama has helped in this reinvention by spending the last two years advancing the virtues of community organizing. Whereas older Alinskyites refused to consider community organizing a concrete profession, Talbott says, “for the young people, it is a possibility, a way to spend your life that has a name.”
To that end, in December Talbott hired Hannah Joravsky, a 22-year-old former Obama campaign volunteer in Iowa (and the daughter of the Chicago Reader investigative reporter Ben Joravsky), to spearhead a new experiment: trying to organize in the southwest suburbs of Chicago and East Peoria—Tea Party country—focusing on a minimum-wage increase and providing a network of support for new teachers.
“I’m interested in how my skills are going to translate to those people,” Joravsky says, admitting to being a bit nervous at the outset. She had considered working for Organizing for America, the onetime Obama grass-roots campaign operation now under the imprimatur of the Democratic National Committee, but she ultimately decided it was “a little too mainstream." She would rather work with communities “to make an actual difference and not worry so much about politics."
She adds, “No matter what Obama does… he is always going to be a special president because he brought organizing into my life and illustrated why it works—even when you’re the underdog."