Together for the Common Good has for some time been watching the field of Community Organising. This practice of community empowerment, pioneered by Saul Alinsky with Catholic parishes in 1930’s Chicago has been active ecumenically in the UK since the late 1980’s. Organising builds coalitions of  community groups to seek goods in common. Most recently, Organising has been attracting interest as a method of social change from new constituencies in the charitable sector. Stephen Sichel reflects on this development, on the nature of the church as an assembling community, and on the loss to both Community Organising and the churches when assembling communities are overlooked.

The people Saul Alinsky and his friend Joseph Megan first networked into a community organisation in Chicago in 1939 were uprooted Catholics from central and eastern Europe. They worked in the meat packing plants and lived in rickety shacks in what is now called New City, but which then was called ‘The Back of the Yards’.[i] As Catholics, they were no longer living in societies in which their faith was woven into the social fabric, and they had little experience of self-governance. Religiously they would have been conscious of being a more distinct people, assembling in their churches for worship, and a bit at odds with the broader culture in which they now lived. What Alinsky and Megan achieved, was to build on this experience to create a political community that stood up to defend and promote local living conditions. The new alliance was mainly created from the diverse ethnic parishes of the area, yet it also drew in union branches, and other groups in which people spent their time outside of work. The organisation created a local political community with its own council, engaging with but was not beholden to the City’s Democratic Party machine. For the churches of the area, this development can be seen as a new association between the parishes and a grass roots form of local democracy. An insight we might take from Megan and Alinsky’s creation of the Back of the Yards Neighbourhood Council, is that church communities can provide a good basis for putting down roots and building up a sense of community solidarity.

A report published in December 2022 by the Civic Power Fund [ii], an US-Anglo philanthropic foundation, assesses the value of Community Organising to ‘Big charities’ in energising their support bases to further justice for marginalised groups and communities in society. The report explores the use of Organising in response to a softening it detects in challenging the status quo, and in promoting agendas for change as a consequence of the sector receiving more state funding for its services. Frank about the prospects and dangers, it concludes generally positively in its assessment of Organising’s potential to sharpen charitable agendas that shifts in funding might have dulled.

Organising is described as a practice that ‘brings people who share a problem or an interest together to apply pressure on their institutions to act…It focusses on forging relationships and developing leaders as a route to building a sustainable base of people power that is both accountable to the community and can toe to toe with positional power.’ [iii] At one level The Power Fund’s report is a measure of the respect that Community Organising now enjoys as an approach to social change and organisational development since its arrival in the UK in the late 1980’s. 

Supporters of Together for the Common Good might be interested in the report for many will have heard of Community Organising and the churches’ involvement in it, and some may even have had personal experience of it: hundreds of churches and faith communities, as well as trades union branches and other agencies in pursuit of the common good have been the people-base through which Organising has acquired its current reputation.

How is Community Organising being interpreted?

It’s a concise report, informed by charity workers and community organisers, with examples of its use, and honest in its exploration of the tensions that can arise around ownership and accountability when empowered support bases question charitable directions in organisations, grown perhaps more distant from the people and issues their work was originally inspired to champion.

Its primary audience is the larger charitable sector, yet it is here that a change is apparent in how Community Organising is being understood as a social phenomenon. Such a change merits some reflection from the churches and other communities that have been the primary participants in its work.

In the report, Organising is presented as an approach to energising support bases which are described as ‘communities of place’ where ‘local people come together to win change that matters to them’, and as ‘communities of experience’, which are ‘communities united by their identity’ who build collective power ‘to shift the structures that contribute to this oppression’. A key question is raised: Is it genuine Community Organising that is being proposed to these communities of ‘place’ or of ‘experience’? Yet the question is not explored in sufficient depth. This is so because Organising is being seen by the report as a practical method for use in markedly different communities from those that have constituted Organising’s origins, history, and present standing. The report thus reflects a significant shift in how Community Organising is being understood as a form of civic renewal.

Communities of assembly

The communities that have made up the core of Organising’s networks, and which have built its present prestige over the near century of its existence in the United States and the UK, have predominantly been communities of faith, and to a lesser extent of labour. What distinguishes  communities of faith, as the main source of Organising’s networks, is their regular practice of assembly. Communities that assemble is the keydifference between thecommunities that have hither to made up Community Organising’s networks, and the newer ‘communities’ proposed for Organising in the thinking of the report.

To anyone acquainted with the history of Community Organising, the omission of assembling communities from a discussion of Organising’s identity as an approach to social change is telling regarding the kind of society that charitable agencies now consider themselves to be serving. However, by omitting assembling communities from their definitions of what Community Organising has been as a social phenomenon, the achievements of these communities are discredited and opportunities are lost for reflection on what assembling communities might have to teach about building durable movements for the common good.

For example, the authors describe Community Organising’s most high-profile campaign to date, one which sealed its reputation, the Campaign for a Living Wage, ‘as emerging from Community Organising’. Yet its ‘success’ is said ‘to have depended’ on the work of a DNC (Direct Network Campaign) which is shorthand for a nationally centred agency in the charitable sector, probably meaning the Living Wage Foundation. This was certainly a factor in the later stages of the campaign’s achievements, but to attribute the campaign’s success to the work of a more conventional charity is to put the cart before the horse. It is to ignore the genesis of the movement in London amongst assembling church and union members, and the thousands of voluntary hours of participation and leadership in actions large and small that followed over pay and conditions, and over years, by multi-ethnic, multi-faith, and  largely low-income members of assembling communities.

Yet it might be said, isn’t the report being realistic? Hasn’t society changed? So much so that for charities to recognise previous channels for social change is rather old hat. After all, assembling communities, in the case of the churches, are in such decline; with some exceptions, existing marginally on the edges of civic life and surely no longer credible as agencies for civic renewal?

Sport, entertainment, and social media communities are the main gatherings today it might be said, and in the places and communities where the report is considering Organising might be applicable, there just aren’t communities of the older kind attracting people, and charities are in need of them in new social conditions. All the report is doing, the authors might continue, is simply assessing Organising for these looser, more self-determined and virtually tethered communities that are succeeding the older forms of community in which face-to-face assembly was a key characteristic.

There would be some truth in such a response. But then again, if society is so fundamentally changed, how on earth did Community Organising, to the envy of many in the charitable sector, craft the Living Wage and other impressive campaigns around jobs, housing, immigrant welfare, and community safety, in the towns and cities of the early 21st century, and out of such old-fashioned materials?

The need for roots

There are dangers in a change of direction for Community Organising itself. One is that if its practices are to be detached and deployed for use in the new and looser communities, the assembling communities that have until now constituted its work might conclude that they were simply a ladder for Community Organising to climb, only to be cast aside when acceptance had been reached at the laptop levels of the charitable sector. Relationships of trust built with assembling communities on the ground are in danger of being lost here. And perhaps a more profound and strategic loss would be a precious source of legitimacy for Community Organising. Assembling communities have provided Organising with representation from known local institutions such as churches, mosques, and schools. It has been in large part a recognition of the standing of such communities which has given credibility to Organising’s networks and granted access to meetings with positional power in the public realm. It has also ensured that the testimony, argument, and conduct of the meetings that followed, and which frequently led to further conversations, were civil and took place in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Genuine Community Organising, for all its fanfare and power-talk, has been a civilised, peaceful, and disciplined approach to civic renewal. Virtues, which have flowed from the communities that have cultivated them, filled its networks, and from which its campaigns have greatly benefitted.

In ignoring Organising’s history, the report encourages rather than countervails an anti-institutional attitude. Such a change in the application of Organising is also occurring at a time when many influential thinkers are affirming, in the face of the multiple and overlapping challenges of the present, the importance of institutions, and the knowledge, wisdom, and experience of historic communities of faith.[iv]

Older communities are seen by some today as slow, oppressive, and generally antiquated, which they can be if they lack movements of renewal within them. The formal leadership and structures of institutions, and the communities in which they operate, are also often seen as suspect by newer types of community.

Yet this is to lose sight of the value of older kinds of community.  At their best, communities of assembly are structured for the longevity of their assembling forms of life ; they are strategic, inclusive of all manner of human strength and frailty beyond self-determined identity, and are places where people learn together to be attentive, get to be known, mature, become skilled, pass on knowledge, and within which human uniqueness and worth is recognised communally.

There will likely be few saints or prophets in the newer communities, for such judgements are best reached when people are known in the round. The conception of community which the report has in mind for Organising brings to mind the warning of the seed that fell on rocky ground: because it had no soil, when the sun rose it was scorched and withered away because it had no roots. (Mt. 13, 5-6)

An ancient gift renewed

If the collective life of societies in the West is to be rewoven to counter the deracinating powers that have prevailed under forty years of neoliberalism – decades in which an emphasis on production and consumption and the sovereign individual have eclipsed the view of our interdependence as persons and of the common world we live in – we will need communities of assembly. We will need them to be faithful, for fresh conversations to be had, for collective imaginations to be re-kindled, and we will need them to struggle for and sustain active projects for the common good beyond single issue agendas and fickle sources of statutory and charitable funding.

Community Organising, which in its early years in the UK was sometimes met with some suspicion and incomprehension by the churches, still has an important contribution to make in its relationship with them, and with other assembling communities, which it would be disappointing to lose.

This is especially so when Community Organising is understood by church communities, not as some  strange political method, but rather as a way to reprise an ancient mode of life which continues to be the basis of their own social existence as churches. Assembly is probably the oldest and most universal form of collective life, foundational to the people of the Hebrew Bible and to those first named ecclesia: ‘To the ecclesia of Godin Corinth’ (1 Corinthians 1:2).

The ancient Greek political ecclesia was a common struggle to live authentically, in accordance with the truth in a place, but it was the way of life that was critical in revealing the truth of where they lived. The same ethos was adopted to name the assembling life of the church in the Greek culture in which it first grew. For God’s ecclesia, the common struggle took place in the truth of the resurrected Christ, and what that entailed for howthey lived their lives together. Assembling for the eucharistic meal included making arrangements for how they might live together as a community. [v]

In its relationship with churches, at its best, the practices of Community Organising can be a means to perceive and practice this dimension of a once more immediate and integral aspect of their own histories. Traditional Community Organising is an assembling politics, prioritising a personal mode of small and large group meetings, and engagement with local agencies on issues affecting the lives of members of the community. In the churches there has been an historic decline in the awareness and practice of this aspect of ecclesial life.

This loss is an element in the process of hollowing out, or ‘excarnation[vi] as Charles Taylor termed it in his study of secularisation. In excarnation, according to Taylor, religious life is transferred outside of bodily forms of worship, ritual, and practice, and comes to reside increasingly ‘in the head’.[vii] In this process there has been, I suggest, a corresponding decline in ecclesial attentiveness, relationship with, and responsiveness towards immediate and local matters of care and concern.

The modern period sees this aspect of the common life of worshipping communities atrophy, as members of church communities increasingly see themselves in the context of the more objective structures and services of societies in modern nation states. Local forms of parochial care and political life wither, and the struggle for a common life comes to be seen as a matter for the state, both local and national, and of the political parties within them. Religion and politics come to be seen as distinct domains of life in the objective space of society, when historically they have been known by the ecclesia as more integral to the local struggle for personal and truthful existence.

The original practice of Community Organising can be recognised by the churches as a means by which to extend ecclesial practice beyond the devotional, evangelising, or more narrowly pastoral activities to which they have become accustomed. Church members of community organising networks in the UK found themselves engaging with representatives of agencies in the contemporary market and state, yet in doing so they were being faithful to their ecclesial mode of life as the assembling people of God. The answer to the question raised in the report: Is it genuine Community Organising? is therefore “Not as we have known it”.

For the churches, Community Organising might best be thought of as a minor, yet prophetic current of resistance to excarnation, and as a means to reconnect with a dimension of church life which in other times and places has been more at home within their own assembling horizons. A gift renewed.

If the direction signalled by the report suggests that the networks and funders who promote Community Organising are now beginning to see assembling communities as no longer relevant to the future of social change, there is a good case to be made for an ecumenical project to be created to promote Community Organising for the assembling communities that continue, and the new ones that might join them. Such communities might then be supported and promoted to play their part in future contributions to the common good.

Stephen Sichel

[i] Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky (Nation Books 2010, Nicholas von Hoffman) pp. 28-30

[ii] Power Up: Community Organising and Big Charities, The Civic Power Fund Dec 2022

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] There are many fine thinkers at present reflecting on where we have been socially and politically, and where we might go as societies in the West. They are usually supportive of traditional institutions of knowledge and experience, and of communities of faith in our facing of the challenges upon us. See recently, for example, Bruno Latour and Nikolaj Shultz, On the Emergence of an Ecological Class – a Memo (Polity Press) 2022, P.51.

[v] My interpretation of the ethos of ecclesia is indebted to the argument made by the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras. For his thoughts on the reconstruction of the parish as the political project of the church see The Freedom of Morality (St Vladimir’s Press, 1984) pp.223-229.

[vii] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007) pp. 613-617. 

Revd Dr Stephen Sichel is Vicar of St Matthews’s Brixton in the Diocese of Southwark and is a former trustee of London Citizens, 2001-2013.

This article was featured in T4CG’s Lent 2023 Newsletter. You can subscribe to our newsletter here

Together for the Common Good is totally dependent on the generosity of its donors. If you enjoyed this article, you might consider making a donation to support us in our work. Anything you can give, no matter how small, would be greatly appreciated. Click here to donate now