It was 1970, and America was churning. People were in the streets protesting the ill-advised Vietnam war; Watergate was on the horizon though not yet upon us. The civil rights movement, wounded by the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was awash with violence across urban America in cities such as Newark, Detroit, and East Los Angeles.
At the same time, the Abrahamic religions were striving to become relevant in the wake of Vatican Council II as they sought ways to respond to the world of the flower children and the Free Speech Movement. Programs were founded in churches and communities around issues of race, education, green space, taxation, and other questions of justice and rights here at home.
As a Canadian, I was deeply affected by the signs of the times and began to search for a program I could join that was designed to prepare people for a society in crisis. My research led me to Chicago, where I enrolled in the Industrial Areas Foundation Saul Alinsky Training Institute.
Saul Alinsky made a profound impression on my life, an impression that remains with me today. He was always curious, always searching for meaning, and focused on action. He believed in equality and opportunity for everyone.
I sat in the IAF classroom one evening in 1970, and Alinsky was leading the class. I had a copy of his just released book, Rules for Radicals, on my desk. And I began to take notes.
For Alinsky, the organizing process begins with seeing world as it is and moves into creating the world as we would like it to be. He believed in intuition and visceral responses, and would say “the body trumps the mind.” He believed in the goodness of people and in their capacity to create a more just and equal society in which each person’s potential is realized.
The approach to organizing Alinsky developed included four principles.
· Listen to people to find out their concerns. He called this “organizing with your ears.”
· Examine the obstacles to a free and open society and take steps to transform them. This is a “disorganizing” phase.
· Recognize the areas of concern for a community that are not being responded to, and create new structures to resolve them.
· Combine the new structures with preexisting ones that are already in alignment, and prioritize issues of concern.
The process Alinsky developed is alive and vibrant today. In response to the current threats to our democracy, people in my community and across the country are gathering in living rooms and public places to listen to each other and share their concerns as neighbors. We seek to dissolve prejudices and to move forward with a vision that allows society to flourish with an enhanced sense of security and peace. Perhaps we can look to the legacy of Saul Alinsky for guidance as we sow seeds of hope and friendship for a better tomorrow.