COMMUNITY ORGANIZING AND BUILDING THE CIVIC CULTURE

AS I read Arnie Graf’s wonderful book, Lessons Learned: Stories from a Lifetime of Organizing (ACTA 2020), I was reminded of the years I spent working in the 1970s as a community organizer in Jackson, Mississippi; San Francisco, California; Boston, Massachusetts and several cities along the east coast. It underscored the philosophy I developed and to which I have hewed in the subsequent decades: The power of an organized citizenry focused on improving their communities is the linchpin of a successful democracy.


“While a good deal of blame for our weakening democracy is rightly placed on the outsized power of the market and political sectors, too little attention is focused on our fragmented civic sector,” Graf writes in the introduction to his book, which is both memoir and guide for anyone who might want to dive into community organizing.


“Many wounds to the civic sector have been self-inflicted: a penchant for the bureaucratic rather than relational approaches and a tendency to drift into partisan activities,” Graf continues. “The reality of these wounds leaves too much space for the unaccountable market and political players to operate in.”


While he makes no mention of the political turmoil in which the United States has found itself over the past five years, he certainly could have been providing a glimpse of the how the erosion has occurred. If President Joe Biden is interested in uniting the country, as he said he is, he can’t just focus on truth and reconciliation—although I have advocated that. It is imperative that there be an effort to strengthen the civic sector.



Graf’s book is a master course in how communities, disparate and sometimes apathetic, can be moved to act in their interests, together. Undoubtedly, achieving that goal requires organizing, real organizing, the kind in which he engaged for 40 years.



He began his journey in the field working with famed Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky, who, despite being deceased, remains the rock star of the industry. Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in 1940. Graf worked for the organization for more than four decades, travelling across the United States and parts of Europe.


The stories he highlights are dramatic, filled with interesting characters, tension, and enlightening denouement. Consider when Graf is asked by IAF’s then director, Ed Chambers, to leave Milwaukee to serve as lead organizer in San Antonio, Texas with the Committees Organized for Public Services (COPS). Graf was excited about the possibility. He was, however, rejected by the interview committee comprised of the organization’s leaders. They had become comfortable with Ernesto Cortes, who at that time was their lead organizer; Graf also seemed enamored of his, describing Cortes as brilliant.


Despite that initial unwelcoming encounter, Chambers insisted, asking Graf to submit himself for a second round of interviews. Maybe the second time was the charm. It’s not clear what Graf did that was different. COPS leaders may have simply resolved themselves to the fact that they were going to lose Cortes, who was being assigned a new venue where he could use his skills in developing civic leaders.


Graf and COPS bonded during an action against the executives at key corporations in San Antonio. They were part of the market sector, as he called them. They had completed a report that advocated keeping the city, which had a large Mexican and Spanish-speaking community, as a “low-wage.” Understandably that enraged COPS members and leaders.


It was on then. They set out to ensure that narrow, discriminatory posture did not take root. It was no easy feat, but eventually the citizen leaders, working with Graf, achieved victory.


In his book, he relays similar fights between citizens and their government or citizens and the business community that would ignore the community leaders or minimize their importance in a democracy. He talks about BUILD in Baltimore, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (which Mayor Thomas Menino would attempt to denigrate by calling it the Greater Boston Idiots Organization), the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) in Washington, DC—a place Graf was warned, erroneously, could not be organized, and the Labour Party in the UK.


Through each of those case studies, Graf takes readers through the ups and downs of organizing. He offers insight into the toughness organizers need and often possess. He makes clear that organizers are, in fact, teachers, helping citizens find and effectively use their voices and their power in the face of enormous challenges.


Equally important, Graf describes the process and sets the standards. For example, he notes that after every action, it is important for the organizers and civic leaders to meet immediately to determine what they didn’t do well and what they did correctly.


When I was a community organizer, I remember those late-night gatherings—sometimes attended by colleagues who offered critical unvarnished analysis of what I hadn’t done but should have done. Occasionally, there was a moment of levity, like the time my team left me locked in a school where our meeting had occurred. They thought everyone was out. They eventually came back for me.


Graf indicates his prime reason for writing his book wasn’t to boast his prowess as an organizer. He didn’t write it to dazzle readers with the interesting places where he worked. Rather he was, as most organizers are, moved by the “people and the leaders I worked who live on with me.”


What the IAF taught me more than anything is that relational power can trump dominant power, but it takes discipline and time and training and, most especially, the will to build it,” he says. “In building that power, I learned, hearts and minds can change."


It certainly was for me. During my years in organizing, I came to understand, as I am sure Graf did, there is more that unites us--peoples of the world--than divides us. That lesson is so critical to remember during these times.

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jonetta rose barras

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