And without further ado, let’s dive into Chapter Four: The Education of an Organizer.
The Education of an Organizer
Alinsky opens the chapter by discussing his experience in training others to become organizers, and what he has learned from his own failures and successes, as well as in watching those organizers in the field. He concludes that there are innate qualities that make someone a successful organizer.
The qualities we were trying to develop in organizers in the years of attempting to train them included some qualities that in all probability cannot be taught. They either had them, or could get them only through a miracle from above or below. Other qualities they might have as potentials that could be developed. Sometimes the development of one quality triggered off unsuspected others. I learned to check against the list and spot the negatives; and if it was impossible to develop that quality, at least I could be aware and on guard to try to diminish its negative effect upon the work.
Here is the list of the ideal elements of an organizer – the items one looks for in identifying potential organizers and in appraising the future possibilities of new organizers, and the pivot points of any kind of educational curricula for organizers. Certainly it is an idealized list – I doubt that such qualities, in such intensity, ever come together in one man or woman; yet the best of organizers should have them all, to a strong extent, and any organizer needs at least a degree of each.
The organizer becomes a carrier of the contagion of curiosity, for a people asking “why” are beginning to rebel.
Organizers are the kind of people who question authority and seek answers to questions that others don’t see or are too afraid to ask.
To the questioner nothing is sacred. He detests dogma, defies any finite definition of morality, rebels against any repression of a free, open search for ideas no matter where they may lead.
Alinsky discusses this paradox: organizers are irreverent when it comes to “the way things are” but highly reverent of the right of people to self-determination.
There was a time when I believed that the basic quality that an organizer needed was a deep sense of anger against injustice and that this was the prime motivation that kept him going. I now know that it is something else: this abnormal imagination that sweeps him into a close identification with mankind and projects him into its plight.
Alinsky provides a great quote from Clarence Darrow on how this kind of imagination manifests itself in some lives.
“I had a vivid imagination. Not only could I put myself in the other person’s place, but I could not avoid doing so. My sympathies always went out to the weak, the suffering, and the poor. Realizing their sorrows I tried to relieve them in order that I myself might be relieved.”
A Sense of Humor
Humor is essential to a successful tactician, for the most potent weapons known to mankind are satire and ridicule.
Alinsky observes that the degree of detachment an organizer needs to keep with the people and groups s/he is organizing lends itself to accepting the irrational with equanimity, moving on from a setback by turning it into a humorous anecdote, and so on.
A Bit of a Blurred Version of a Better World
It is as though as an artist he is painting a tiny leaf. It is inevitable that sooner or later he will react with “What am I doing spending my whole life just painting one little leaf? The hell with it, I quit.”
Because the work itself is tedious and repetitive, organizers must be able to see the big picture and how today’s activity plugs into the overall strategy. Kind of like Georges Seurat painting tens of thousands of dots of color to create A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
An Organized Personality
With very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons. It is futile to demand that men do the right thing for the right reason - this is a fight with a windmill.
In order to build effective and impactful coalitions, the organizer must be able to circulate among a wide variety of people, each with their own issues. It requires an organized mind to keep track of all these individual realities and interact with each of them accordingly, while holding on to the overarching vision of the goal.
This need also contributes to the need for an organizer to maintain an observer’s detached perspective and not get too deeply involved.
A Well-Integrated Political Schizoid
What I am saying is that the organizer must be able to split himself into two parts one part in the arena of action where he polarizes the issue to 100 to nothing, and helps to lead his forces into conflict, while the other part knows that when the time comes for negotiations that it really is only a 10 per cent difference and yet both parts have to live comfortably with each other.
There’s a need to polarize people into action toward big goals, while being mindful that results will likely be incremental. The organizer must be able to integrate these conflicting realities.
An organizer must accept, without fear or worry, that the odds are always against him. Having this kind of ego, he is a doer and does.
There’s a level of self-confidence in an organizer that believes all things are possible, tempered with the intelligence to understand that even if the goal proves to be impossible, it must be attempted anyway.
A Free and Open Mind, and Political Relativity
This is the basic difference between the leader and the organizer. The leader goes on to build power to fulfill his desires, to hold and wield the power for purposes both social and personal. He wants power himself. The organizer finds his goal in creation of power for others to use.
An organizer lives in the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Outcomes are never absolutes: progress can only be measured by how much matters improve, not against perfect outcomes. Relatively speaking, have we moved closer to the goal? Then we’ve progressed.
Curiosity, irreverence, imagination, sense of humor, a free and open mind, an acceptance of the relativity of values and of the uncertainty of life, all inevitably fuse into the kind of person whose greatest joy is creation. He conceives of creation as the very essence of the meaning of life.
Alinsky observes that the organizer is an artist. Along the way he notes that the life of an organizer can be hard on relationships. There’s no off switch for the work and it dominates the organizer’s world to the detriment of one’s personal life.
Here’s a look inside the head of one artist, Georges Seurat, courtesy of another great one, Stephen Sondheim.
Alinsky has little positive to say about labor unions and the organizers they turn out. Keeping in mind that this was written about 50 years ago, and based on your contemporary observation and/or participation in the labor movement, are they doing a better job today?
Looking at this list of qualities Alinsky seeks in an organizer, which do you feel are mostly innate, and which do you think are trainable to some degree?
What experiences have you had with training as a community organizer or politcal volunteer? What key lessons have you learned?