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Saul Alinsky: the 'vocation' of organizing


Sanford D. Horwitt. Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1989. Pp. 595 with notes and index. $29.95 (cloth).

Harry C. Boyte. Commonwealth: A Return to Citizen Politics. New York: The Free Press. 1989. Pp. 221 with notes and index. $22.95 (cloth).

"We the people will work out our own destiny" is the official motto of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, started in Chicago in 1939 and still active today. The two books reviewed here describe important elements of maintaining the popular democratic ideal of people "working out their own destiny." They also help us understand the personal dimension of community organizing and empowerment the "vocation" of the organizer.

I never met Saul Alinsky, although I've heard Alinsky stories from Msgr. John (Jack) Egan ever since I was a young boy. That deficiency in my education has now been corrected, as much as possible. Sanford Horwitt's book brought this man and his life's work vividly to life for me; it was quite literally the next best thing to being there. The 238 people who were interviewed as part of this eight-year project are listed on pages 549 and 550. and they provide the book's pedigree. They include Alinsky's second wife Jean and his son David Alinsky, sociologist Herbert Bulmer. Msgr, John J. Egan (Chicago priest-activist), Andrew Greeley (Chicago priest, sociologist and novelist), T. George Harris (first editor of Psychology Today), Phillip Hauser (University of Chicago demographer), longshoreman and philosopher Eric Hoffer, Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.), Tribune columnist Mike Royko and Harvard's Paul Ylvasaker (the dean of American urban observers).

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These interviews provide the backbone of this definitive treatment. There's no one left to talk to and nothing left to say.

Alinsky, while he probably would have disowned the description, had a "vocation," as James Gustafson, ethics professor from the University of Chicago, defines it: There were no boundaries between his life and his work. Good doctors, scientists, priests, cops and others frequently display, this characteristic. In the first chapter, "Sarah's Son." Horwitt describes Alinsky's teenage mother as "an extremist, a brassy scourge who was not always interested in taking prisoners." She was a "troublemaker" who was extremely protective of young "Sollie," and her strength and passion were carried into his adult life and profession by her son.

The genius of this book is that it blends who Alinsky was with what he did and gives us a better idea of how he was able to effect social and political changes. Horwitt's telling of the story of Nick von Hoffman getting Jack Egan and the archdiocese to take on Julian Levi and the University of Chicago over the Hyde Park-Kenwood Plan while Alinsky was away for six weeks is a masterful example of his art. When Alinsky returned to headlines describing the battle, he called von Hoffman, Egan and Lou Silverman, who had been handling the newspapers, to dinner at the Palmer House Grill and opened with "What the 9#$% are you doing, you *&%$#9s?" As von Hoffman describes it, "While he was away his little mice had blown up the city."

In Common Wealth, Harry Boyte argues that while Alinsky's style of organizing "did much to keep alive and adapt older populist themes of organizing for power in the twentieth century," it "lacked a larger, framing visionary perspective" and thus "produced local power but not much broader change." Although Boyte's writing style is less clear and direct than Horwitt's, the issues he raises in this provocative book provide an excellent complement to Horwitt's work.

He describes the way Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) adapted and incorporated concerns for the public and private dimensions of life, making students in the program aware that their personal issues and characters were part of their public actions as organizers. He uses examples from the IAF-created Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) to illustrate how organizing works in more contemporary pluralistic situations.

Using a quote from Rev. Doug Miles,

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he portrays the personal power that comes once an organizer begins to understand how his or her personal life and professional life are merged: "Preachers historically have problems in their personal lives at home because they're so busy in 'public' taking care of everybody else. When I figured out what priorities I had been living by, I sat there and cried. My wife was fourteenth, after the NAACP. For the first time it dawned on me just how neglectful I was being. It also altered my view of the ministry. The church had been functioning so that if the pastor was not involved, the program did not go. I began to see the fallacy of that. The ministry was not something I was responsible for. I began to see the need to share responsibility, not to be afraid of training people to become leaders." Miles says that this experience "altered my view of the ministry." Organizing is indeed a vocation, which is probably why organizers and the clergy have traditionally been allies in so many instances.

Clearly, successful organizing today is a blend of Alinsky's 'let's get it done' energy with Boyte's advice to focus on information
The thesis of Boyte's book is that "effective citizen action in our times is possible if and only if citizens develop the abilities to gain access to information of all kinds (from data about the roads and sewers to educational, environmental and economic patterns) and the skills to put such information to effective use." He is, in my opinion, too pessimistic about the results achieved by "Alinsky-style" organizing.

Clearly, successful organizing today is a blend of Alinsky's "let's get it done" energy with Boyte's advice to focus on information. After reading both books, I was left wishing that Alinsky were still around to help show us how to do it.

William C. McCready is associate director of the Public Opinion Laboratory and associate professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University.

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