“Alinsky tactics” and Obama

I think people have picked up the term “Alinsky tactics”, and they toss it around, but don’t really know what it means.  I don’t prefer his tactics, as they’re too “in your face” for my taste, but they’re NOT about “divide and conquer”.


Lots of poor and powerless people live their lives in misery, never speaking up or doing anything to change their fate.  They feel isolated and disempowered.


Alinksy spearheaded “conflict organizing”, which is the traditional form of community organizing.  He helped the people understand that they don’t have to live in misery, that they have rights, and that if they form a group with each other, they have more power than being alone.  Makes sense, right?


They would then use this community power to fight for better schools, to keep a waste dump from being put in their neighborhood, to get better wages, etc.  He brought those people together, he most definitely didn’t “divide” them, or seek to “conquer” them.


The criticisms in the community organizing field of the Alinsky method is that he frames things in the traditional way, that of “us vs. them” – meaning the little people vs. the big people.  The result is that gains that are won cause further animosity between the haves and have-nots – bridges are burned, further “collaboration” is not likely.  It’s in this way that I believe the “us vs. them” technique isn’t of long-term benefit.


So, Alinksy is not about “divide and conquer” (although I realize that’s what’s commonly said lately by people who haven’t studied community organizing).  Alinsky meant well, but many people, myself included, feel his methods aren’t best.  I think of his methods as “wining a battle, but losing the war”. 


When you use his method, you may win, but it’s a short-term, uni-faceted win.  Sort of like the mortgage loans they won for lower-income residents.  They forced their agenda and “won”, but now down the road those people are losing their homes.  It was a good idea to want more people to be homeowners, but you still have to take basic facts into account – such as, can they afford it!  So these tactics were only a short-term win. 


So, there are pros and cons to the Alinsky method, but it’s NOT about divide and conquer.  It IS about fostering an “us against them” mentality, in order to get poor people to feel empowered and try to do something for THEMSELVES, instead of complaining that no one ever HELPS them.


A more collaborative form of community organizing would have helped some poor people get homes, but only those who could afford the terms.  So the Alinsky method got a lot of people short-term “wins”, but a different method would get fewer people wins, but they’d be lasting, REAL wins.


There are more peaceful, collaborative ways to organize communities so that they can have ongoing negotiations between the community and the powers that be in that same community, so that future issues can be worked on collaboratively.  One of those ways is “consensus organizing”.  The “little people” and the “big people” are brought together, and they work together to find consensus.  It’s somewhat analogous to mediation, I’d say.  But everyone is working together to find a compromise in which enough of each side’s needs are met.  These people, because of the nature of their problem solving, can work together again in the future when new issues come up.  I guess you could say that it empowers BOTH sides, in their ability to work for their own interests while at the same time being empowered to work WITH each other.


In short, Alinsky tactics aren’t something “evil”.  It’s a way to empower the poor to fight for themselves.  I don’t feel it’s the best way to organize people, but I thought I should point out that it’s really misunderstood on the blogs. 


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