Radical Community Organizing

Michael Reisch. The Handbook of Community Practice. Editor: Marie Weil. Sage Publications. 2005.

The Meaning of Radical Community Organizing

In a society in which acquiescence to the status quo is treated as a virtue, and in which the individual, rather than the community, is celebrated, it could be argued that any form of community organizing is radical. Yet collective mobilization to address common problems, to seek the redress of grievances, or to advocate for a redistribution of power, resources, status, and opportunities has a long and glorious history in the United States (Bystydzienski & Schacht, 2001; Fisher, 1994; Myers, 1989; Pardun, 2001). What, then, distinguishes radical community organizing from other forms of community organizing? In particular, what are the distinctions among radical community organizing and other methods of progressive organizing, such as feminist organizing, multicultural organizing, and class-based or labor organizing?

In this chapter, radical community organizing encompasses a dynamic set of theories, goals, ideologies, values, and practices that are focused on the attainment of social justice and fundamental structural and institutional changes in communities and society. Radical community organizing pursues these goals through a combination of analysis of the root causes of existing societal conditions; the development of alternative economic, political, social, and ideological systems; and the use of nontraditional strategies and tactics. A structural theoretical approach underlies both the analysis and the development of practice strategies, with an emphasis on the replacement of oppressive institutions, conditions, systems, and practices with ones that reflect principles of justice, equity, and respect for human diversity.

As in other branches of social work, the concept of radical community organizing has been defined differently inside and outside the profession. Like other social work radicals, radical community organizers focus on “first causes of oppression or injustice” (De Maria, 1992, p. 237) and broad egalitarian goals. Radical views of organizing, however, may be less clearly articulated than those of organizers with other ideological perspectives or those that focus on pragmatic, less clearly ideological objectives. In general, radical organizing regards the market economy as the primary source of individual and social problems and favors both a major redistribution of resources and a fundamental restructuring of institutions to prevent or correct them.

Not all organizers who are labeled “radical,” however, support socialist solutions, especially those that require the creation of large, state-run industries. In fact, some radicals of an anarchist or quasi-anarchist inclination share the suspicions of conservatives about the role of government; others regard the state as the primary arena of political struggle and the primary instrument of social progress. Some radical organizers adhere to Marxist or neo-Marxist analyses and have been associated with communist or socialist parties. Others do not identify with a particular ideology or political organization—in fact, they often deliberately downplay their ideology—yet they share many of the causal explanations and goals of those groups on the political left (Aronowitz, 1996; Buhle, 1998; Cantor, 1978; Rorty, 1998; Rubin & Rubin, 2001; Stephens, 1998; Wood, 1997).

The Evolution of Radical Community Organizing in the United States

Organizing for radical causes has existed in the United States since the colonial period. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, radical groups attempted to mobilize support around such issues as slavery, women’s suffrage, the rights of workers, and the dangers of excessive government interference in people’s lives (Foner, 1976; Shor, 1997; Wood, 1997; Young, 1993). After the Civil War, radical organizing often took on a more explicitly anticapitalist tone. The tumultuous environment of the late 19th century had a significant influence on the emergence and initial development of social work (Fisher, 1994; Kraditor, 1981; Shor, 1997).

Prior to World War I, radical community organizing within the field took several forms. Radical social workers developed a multifaceted analysis of socioeconomic inequality and the ways in which industrialization was contributing to the breakdown of community in the United States. Radical organizers like Florence Kelley and Lillian Wald drew attention to the root causes of poverty, promoted alternative policies at the state and municipal levels, and created new community institutions. By speaking out in favor of new roles for women, workers’ rights, and racial justice, and by opposing militarism and imperialism, radical community organizers effectively linked people’s problems with broader systemic changes in the political-economic context (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). Although radical community organizing during this period was distinguished more by its perspective and goals than its methods, radical organizers were more likely to employ such tactics as strikes and boycotts and even to advocate the use of force when circumstances required (Bombyk, 1995; Fisher, 1994).

During the Depression and through World War II, the principal proponents of radical community organizing were communists, socialists, and independent radicals like Saul Alinsky. Adopting a militant, neighborhood-based approach, they focused their efforts on developing councils of the unemployed in major cities, organizing tenants’ unions, promoting interracial cooperation, and protesting against the inequities and inadequacies of New Deal legislation (Betten & Austin, 1990; Fisher, 1994; Rubin & Rubin, 2001). Radical organizers played a key role in the burgeoning rank and file movement within social work, particularly in developing strategies that stressed the mutuality of worker-client concerns (Reisch & Andrews, 2001; Wagner, 1989; Wenocur & Reisch, 1989). By the outbreak of World War II, the impact of the Rank and File movement on community organizing within social work had all but disappeared, as a consequence of internal factional disputes and growing efforts to professionalize community organization practice (Reisch & Wenocur, 1986). However, the work of Alinsky, begun in the Back of the Yards movement, remains influential today.

During the postwar Red Scare, radical organizers were often persecuted, and the radical community organizations they created were replaced by conservative groups, particularly at the neighborhood level. Although their opponents often blurred the distinctions between them, radical organizing differed from reformist organizing in its fundamental antipathy toward the capitalist system, its willingness to form alliances with the Communist and Socialist Parties, and its goals of structural change. Most of the radical or reformist-oriented organizing that occurred between 1945 and the early 1960s, such as the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation created by Alinsky, occurred at the neighborhood level and addressed somewhat parochial concerns such as housing and adequate services. Broader social movements, such as the civil rights movement, emerged from sources with few or no direct connections to social work (Hamilton & Hamilton, 1997; Meier & Rudwick, 1975; Morris, 1984; Sitkoff, 1981).

Radical organizing remained a marginal activity within the social work field until the resurgence of social action in the 1960s and early 1970s. Inspired by developments in the civil rights movement and the fusion of radical social action and community change created by groups like the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society, and encouraged by the infusion of federal dollars through local community action programs, neighborhood organizations with a distinctly radical focus reemerged at the grassroots level. They pushed for the expansion of welfare rights and greater political participation by community residents with low incomes (Abramovitz, 1996; Bailis, 1974; Clark & Hopkins, 1969; Jackson, 1974; Piven & Cloward, 1979; Pope, 1989; Rose, 1972; West, 1981). For a time, this upheaval was so extensive—Harry Boyte (1980) later called it the “backyard revolution”—that it threatened to overturn traditional balances of political power in urban communities (Rose, 1972).

Although the recessions and government cutbacks of the 1970s and 1980s diminished the role of radical community organizing, groups with a distinctly radical or social justice approach continue to exist. Some, like the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), and the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO), have clear political goals, a well-tuned model of organizing, and a national network of community-based affiliates. Others, like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (better known as ACT-UP), have applied a radical analysis and radical tactics to the needs of gays and lesbians and people living with HIV/AIDS, although there is less connection among the local branches of the organization. Many groups have radical perspectives but limit their efforts to small-scale changes at the local level. Finally, some groups, such as the Kensington Welfare Rights Organization based in Philadelphia, employ a radical analysis with both national and local implications and have successfully used radical tactics, yet appear to lack a clear set of policy goals.

Distinguishing Characteristics of Radical Community Organizing

Radical community organizing can be distinguished from other forms of organizing by its analysis of structural arrangements and institutions; the issues it identifies as worthy of attention and action; the economic, political, and social goals it establishes; and the strategies and tactics it employs. Domhoff (1967) characterized this approach as encompassing “the 3 As”: analysis (the development of a comprehensive explanation for social problems), alternatives (the formulation of goals and objectives that would involve structural or systemic change), and action (the creation and implementation of strategies and tactics to achieve these goals and objectives).

Analysis

Radical community organizing requires an analysis of the root causes of inequality, injustice, and oppression, with a particular emphasis on examining the fundamental distribution of resources and power. Radical organizing applies, therefore, a political-economic perspective to its analysis of community problems and issues, and it focuses on power dynamics within communities and among communities and the external forces with which they interact. It regards capitalism and its consequences as antithetical to the goals of social justice and empowerment, and it attributes people’s problems not to their own failings but to the fundamental operations of the market system (Blee, 1998; Galper, 1980; Hanna, 1994; Knoche, 1987; Rubin & Rubin, 2001; Shaw, 1996).

Alternatives

Focus on basic institutions. Radical community organizing is distinguished from other types of organizing in its core focus on economic issues, especially on how capitalism affects the ability of community members to gain access to the basic necessities: employment, food, shelter, health care, housing, education, and social services. Radical community organizers are also concerned with issues of political participation, especially at the local level, with a particular emphasis on how such participation or nonparticipation influences the distribution of goods, services, status, and opportunities. Although they promote greater democracy, they are skeptical about the ability of existing political institutions to ameliorate the effects of capitalism. In addition, in recent years, radical organizers have also infused into social work a concern over how dominant ideologies affect the distribution of resources and power, particularly through the presence or absence of cultural institutions in communities (Rivera & Erlich, 1998).

Action

Promoting fundamental structural and institutional change. Unlike organizers who focus on maintaining or reforming the status quo, radical organizers promote a redistribution of resources and power at the community and societal level (Gorz, 1977). This involves the restructuring of existing institutions, the reformulation of social goals, and the reordering of policy priorities—for example, away from militarism and toward greater investment in human and social capital (Prigoff, 2001; Van Soest, 1997). Some radical organizers also work on the creation of alternative institutions, such as producer-consumer cooperatives, ecovillages, and local neighborhood governments (Furlough & Strikwerda, 1999; Holmstrom, 1993; Kasmir, 1996; Silver, 1980). Underlying this work is the promotion of an alternative vision of society, often based on socialist or collectivist principles, and a value system that is juxtaposed to the individualistically oriented, materialistic culture that pervades much of U.S. society.

Theoretical Foundations of Radical Community Organizing

The Nature of Social Change

Radical community organizing is founded on a view of social change that emphasizes the basic humanity and equality of all people (Gil, 1998). It largely rejects the conservative view of society as the aggregation of individual self-interests, as well as pluralist theories of politics and social change (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1996; Cohen, 2002; Trotman, 2002). By viewing people instead as social beings, radical community organizers regard the community’s “well-being as a more complex construct made up of not only the aggregate of its members but the relationships among them as well” (Mullaly, 1997, p. 32).

The intellectual roots of radical community organizing are found in diverse sources. These include the secular and religious utopian ideas of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Marxism, non-Marxian (or evolutionary) socialism, the Social Gospel movement, radical trade unionism, anarchism, and “first wave” feminism. More recent influences include modern interpretations of social justice, such as that of John Rawls (1971); a variety of anti-oppression philosophies from around the world, including conscientization and animation; various theories of human liberation, both secular and religious; and Gandhian principles of nonviolence (Ackerman, 2000; Bruyn & Rayman, 1979; Epstein, 1991; Freire, 1971; Sharp, 1973). Among contemporary theories that most influence radical community organizing in the United States are neo-Marxism, structural theory, radical feminism, empowerment theory, and adaptations of conscientization, particularly as developed by Freire (1971) and applied first in Latin and Central America and later in Europe and North America.

Neo-Marxism. Neo-Marxists, whom George and Wilding (1994) divided into three groups (post-Marxists, analytical Marxists, and new structural Marxists), have modified classical Marxist theory in several important ways. Post-Marxists repudiate the notion that class divisions alone are central to social struggle and replace it with a model that combines “a multitude of interests emanating from various strata, groups, and social movements” (Chilcote & Chilcote, 1992, p. 90). This perspective suits those radical community practitioners who are seeking ways to build coalitions that transcend traditional boundaries marked by racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural identity.

Analytical Marxists maintain a materialist conception of history, although they largely eschew the Marxist formulation of class structure under capitalism and the idea of class consciousness. They define class action as the aggregation of self-interested, rational, individual choices—a perspective that is eerily similar to classic liberal and current neoliberal theories. By contrast, new structural Marxists accept many of the premises of classic Marxism, particularly the role of the environment in shaping human behavior. Like post-Marxists, however, they attempt to expand the traditional Marxist notion of social struggle beyond the parameters of class to encompass issues of gender, race, and ecology as coequal forces underlying political and social conflict (George & Wilding, 1994).

Structural theory. Structural theory, best articulated in recent years by Canadian scholars such as Carniol (1992), Moreau (1990), and Mullaly (1997), integrates into its conceptual framework elements of socialist ideology, critical social theory, conflict perspectives, dialectical analysis, a focus on all forms of oppression, and an emphasis on social transformation and emancipation (Mullaly, 1997, p. 99). It assumes that in spite of the contradictory position in which radical organizers find themselves, their values and goals are more consistent with those of socialism than of capitalism. Structural theory and critical theory, along with other aspects of radical community organizing, propose action to effect emancipating changes in society, particularly among marginalized populations (Leonard, 1990). Like conflict theorists since Marx, proponents of structural theory reject the status quo and desire radical change. By analyzing community issues from a conflict perspective, radical organizers can clarify the relationship between current institutional arrangements and the distribution of resources and power. Based on this perspective, they focus their work on the attainment of greater democracy and equality through the transformation of the structures that create inequality and oppression and on helping people overcome the damage produced by alienation and exploitation (Mullaly, 1997).

Radical feminism. Radical feminism emphasizes the critical role of gender in maintaining patriarchal institutions and cultural norms that oppress women. Although radical feminists acknowledge the impact of class and race, they assert that patriarchy, rather than capitalism per se, is primarily responsible for the persistence of social inequality. The major contributions of radical feminists to radical community organizing have been their elucidation of the dynamics of patriarchy, their emphasis on women’s issues (such as reproductive rights, protection from violence, and workplace inequalities), their attention to process in community work, and their focus on the need for consciousness raising and nonhierarchical processes of decision making within community organizations (Blee, 1998; Crow, 2000; Gutiérrez & Lewis, 1998; Naples, 1998; Thompson, 2001; Ziarek, 2001). Radical feminism is linked to other aspects of radical organizing theory in its emphasis on the relationship between the personal and the political and through transformational politics, which “seeks individual liberation through collective activity [and] … the dismantling of all permanent power hierarchies” (Morell, 1987, pp. 147-148).

Empowerment theory. Although the concept of empowerment has deep roots within the fields of social work and radical community organizing, it was not until the 1970s—through the influence of the feminist and civil rights movements—that the term was first used in the social work field (Simon, 1994; Solomon, 1976). For organizers, empowerment theory focuses on the integration of a community’s material, emotional, and psychological needs by fusing political-economic and psychosocial perspectives (Reisch, Wenocur, & Sherman, 1981). It provides a means for people to develop an awareness of their own capacities to change their environments as they address their basic needs. In sum, empowerment theory is “the tool through which ordinary people collectively combat the mobilization of bias” (Rubin & Rubin, 2001, p. 77).

Empowerment theory is closely related to several other key features of radical community organizing. As a process that emphasizes mutuality among people and between organizers and the community, it reflects the tradition of self-help and mutual aid that dates back to the 19th century (Goldman, 1910; Kropotkin, 1960). By focusing on the political-economic context of communities, it is consistent with classical and contemporary Marxism and both critical and structural theory (Delgado & Stefanic, 2000). Through the integration of people’s material and psychosocial needs, it underscores the relationship between the personal and the political. Finally, like conscientization and radical feminism, it stresses the importance of consciousness raising in change-inducing and change-sustaining processes.

Conscientization. Conscientization is a version of consciousness raising developed by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and subsequently applied in educational and service settings by Latin American, European, and North American social workers. Its theories resemble the idea of radical praxis first articulated by Marx, the focus on the role of intragroup dialogue that emerged with the modern feminist movement, and the goals of liberation theology. Freire’s (1971) model assumes that the environment is not a fixed reality but represents, instead, a problem to be defined, worked on, and solved collectively through critical thinking and action. It also focuses on creating community among organizers and the people by engaging in a process of demythologizing reality as a first step toward concerted political action. For community practitioners, conscientization provides a theoretical basis “for professional commitment to radical social change through a process that promotes self-awareness of the deprived, that fosters their appreciation of their oppressed state and evidences a willingness to join with them in their revolutionary struggle for self-realization” (Lewis, 1973, p. 32).

Transformative Dynamics: Underlying Principles of Radical Organizing

In addition to an emphasis on the structural causes of injustice and oppression, radical community organizing is also informed by several overarching principles. One, derived from the feminist movement, is the linkage of the personal with the political. For radical community organizers, this now-popular adage goes beyond the liberal approach of connecting private troubles with public issues to an examination of how oppression and privilege are manifest in all societal institutions and in all aspects of social interaction. It reflects a structural analysis of society as well as a conflict orientation, and it attempts to help “people … relate their personal experience with oppression to a broader political understanding” (Mullaly, 1997, p. 115).

A second principle of radical community organizing is the importance of self-help and mutual aid as integral aspects of community development and change. The theoretical and historical roots of this principle can be found in anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist philosophy; the cooperative movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; radical trade unionism; feminist and empowerment theory; and the experiences of such marginalized groups as people of color, immigrants, and refugees. Perhaps the best articulation of the principles of mutual aid in social work can be found in the writings of Bertha Reynolds (1951), whose ideas have found a receptive audience among radical community organizers.

A third principle involves the redefinition of the relationship between the individual and the community, the society, and the state. Radical organizers consider the community critical in the development of self-identity and group solidarity and in the formulation of efforts to resist external domination and oppression (Mullaly, 1997). Strongly influenced in recent years by radical feminists and organizers from communities of color and the gay and lesbian community, they view group specificity as of equal importance to the promotion of the idea of a universal humanity (Rivera & Erlich, 1998). Recognizing the significance of difference in people’s lives helps organizers “encourage and support group-specific organizations and groups or the establishment of new ones” (Mullaly, 1997, p. 159). Although many radical community organizers echo Marx in their view of the state as an instrument of the ruling class (or as a manifestation of patriarchy or white supremacy), they also acknowledge the importance of organizers becoming involved inside the political system (Brecher & Costello, 1990; Naples, 1998; Russell, 1990). Increasingly linked to new social movement theory, this aspect of radical community organizing regards the state, however flawed, as an appropriate arena for political struggle (Fisher & Karger, 1997).

Radical Strategies

The strategies of radical community organizers differ from their nonradical counterparts in several ways. First, although like other organizers they use a community’s definition of its problems as a point of departure, they seek to link these problems throughout the organizing process with a structural analysis of their origins. The goals of radical organizing, therefore, are not merely the amelioration or even the elimination of specific community problems. Instead, radical organizers focus on the redistribution of power and resources, the dismantling of oppressive systems, and the creation of viable alternative institutional arrangements. Although most radical organizers profess revolutionary goals, they remain cognizant of the limited potential of revolutionary activism in the United States. Even as they filter their radical agenda through a reformist lens, they distinguish between what Gorz termed “reformist reform” and “non-reformist reform” (1977).

Radical Tactics

The definition of radical organizing tactics constantly evolves in response to changes in the political and cultural context. At one time, strikes, boycotts, and sit-ins were regarded as radical tactics. Now they are accepted tools in political struggle by groups at all points on the ideological spectrum. As a result, they have frequently lost the critical element of surprise that originally made them effective. Radical organizers, therefore, are always searching for ways to push the edges of the tactical envelope by going outside the experiences and expectations of their opponents (Alinsky, 1971). In general, although radical organizers do not eschew the use of consensus tactics, they are more comfortable using conflict strategies in their work. One of the most effective groups in this regard in recent years has been ACT-UP, whose members risked alienating potential supporters in their use of tactics (such as blocking traffic on key arteries during rush hour) that brought the group’s issues public exposure that less radical tactics may have failed to do. The worldwide protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) are another example of the use of conflict-laden radical organizing tactics.

Significant differences exist among radical community organizers, however, about which tactics are appropriate and effective in the current political context. To some extent, these differences revolve around the classic “means/ends” debate presented so vividly by Alinsky (1971). The most salient areas of disagreement involve the following issues:

Whether an organizer’s values should be imposed on the community, particularly in regard to the degree that community residents might be put at risk.

Whether organizers should focus their efforts inside or outside of existing (i.e., legitimate) political channels. On the one side are “radical pragmatists” who maintain that abandoning mainstream politics merely creates a political vacuum that more conservative forces will fill. They argue that the gains of social movements over the past century have resulted from the use of a combination of organizing tactics, particularly those which are deemed “acceptable” within the political culture of the period (Gamson, 1975). In this view, participation in electoral politics, for example, does not preclude the use of more radical, nonmainstream tactics as part of an “inside/outside” approach. On the other side are those radicals who warn that participation inside the political system inevitably leads to co-optation because of the intrinsically corrupt nature of democracy under capitalism. They assert that it is only by pushing on the margins of the system that the political center moves in the direction of progressive solutions to society’s problems (Blee, 1998; Bystydzienski & Schacht, 2001; Knoche, 1987; Oberschall, 1993).

Whether violence is an acceptable tactic. Although nearly all radical organizers support the occasional use of illegal tactics such as nonviolent civil disobedience, the majority reject the use of violent tactics including the destruction of property (Ackerman, 2000; Bruyn & Rayman, 1979; Epstein, 1991; Sharp, 1973). Some radicals, like Gil (1998), argue that the use of violence effectively undermines the values and goals radicals profess. Others distinguish between the use of force—for example, in self-defense—and the deliberate, unprovoked use of violence, particularly against other people (Mooney, 1995; Shaw, 1996; Stock, 1996). In the absence of a genuinely revolutionary situation in the United States, these arguments have been largely confined to armchair debates, although recently they have surfaced over the anti-WTO protests and in the aftermath of terrorist attacks (Prigoff, 2001).

Ethical and Legal Issues

In addition to such ongoing value conflicts, ethical dilemmas for radical community organizers can emerge from several sources. As for other community practitioners, they appear when ethical principles come into conflict or when the factors that shape a particular situation are unclear or lack sufficient time to be analyzed and resolved (Reamer, 1999). Given the focus of radical community organizing, ethical dilemmas often arise when community groups are faced with a compulsory choice between equally unsatisfactory alternatives. A primary example of such a situation occurs when decisions have to be made about the allocation of scarce resources. Because of the strategies and tactics used by radical organizers, conflicts sometimes arise between the maintenance of ethical principles and the satisfaction of legal mandates. Radical community organizers, in particular, have to ask themselves “under what conditions should [they] separate themselves from unethical working arrangements or [from institutions] whose ideology and values differ markedly from their own?” (Reisch & Lowe, 2000, p. 31).

For example, radical community organizers confronting seemingly intractable power imbalances in their work, such as those that occur in protests against major utilities or other large multinational corporations, may be tempted to abandon the ethics of truth telling or confidentiality in pursuit of a higher purpose, such as the attainment of a redistributive goal. The constant pressures of community work and the desire to work for social justice may tempt radical community organizers to adopt paternalistic postures in their work with low-income and low-power communities and implicitly deny constituents their right to self-determination (Reisch & Rivera, 1999). Perhaps the classic ethical dilemma for radical organizers is the enduring conflict between means and ends, best articulated by Alinsky in Rules for Radicals (1971). The marginal status of radicals in U.S. society further exacerbates these ethical dilemmas.

Case Examples

Radical Organizing Successes

Most examples of successful radical organizing in the United States have occurred outside the social work field and have generally been linked to long-term social movements (Buhle, 1998; Fisher, 1994; Oberschall, 1993; Shor, 1997; Young, 1993). However, owing to the conservative nature of U.S. politics and culture, radical goals have often been diluted in the interest of pragmatic compromise. Although the victories of radical organizers in such areas as suffrage, reproductive choice, and labor rights have improved the lives of people, they have largely failed to alter the fundamental structure of U.S. capitalism and have made only modest changes in societal patterns of institutional racism and sexism.

Although modest in scope and limited in impact because of the overarching power of national and international political-economic forces, radical organizing in the United States has probably been more effective at the local level. Radical organizers in urban areas have enabled communities to acquire greater control over their schools, health care, and social services. They have helped community residents resist the encroachment of unchecked development and enhanced the power of constituents in local institutions. Groups like CTWO have attacked the sources of environmental racism, and living wage campaigns have attempted to address the growing disparity in income levels among U.S. workers. In rural areas, radical organizers have mobilized farm communities against power companies and the takeover of family farms by powerful agribusinesses (Mooney, 1995; Stock, 1996; Wellstone, 1978). It is often difficult, however, to distinguish radical and reformist organizing efforts at the neighborhood level (Medoff & Sklar, 1994; Rubin & Rubin, 2001).

Probably the best examples of radical organizing in the late 20th century have occurred outside the United States and were associated with radical or revolutionary movements in the developing world. These include the work of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Frente Farabundo Marti Para La Liberacion Nacional in El Salvador, the African National Congress in South Africa, and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. On a smaller scale, successful radical organizing has occurred among women in the barrios of Lima, Peru, and Santiago, Chile; among the landless indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico; and in the formation of producer-consumer cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain (Campfens, 1988; Finn, 1999; Kasmir, 1996).

Failures and Limitations of Radical Community Organizing

Radical community organizing in the United States is severely constrained by a number of structural and cultural factors. One major barrier is the absence of broad-based social movements or political institutions (e.g., parties) that could supply the resources and legitimacy for radical organizing. Another serious impediment is the ahistorical popular and political culture within the United States regarding perspectives on social policy and the lack of a systematic critique of the structural causes of inequality and injustice. These are most dramatically demonstrated by the nature of public discourse in the media and political arenas. Another barrier is the persistence of an individualistically oriented, materialistic culture (Bellah et al., 1996; Epstein, 1991). Finally, the sectarian schisms among radical groups and radical intellectuals in the United States undermine efforts to forge a unified radical perspective that could become the basis for local and national action.

Implications of Radical Community Organizing for 21st-Century Social Work

Practice and Research

Throughout its history, “not charity, but justice” has been the clarion call of radical community organizers in the United States. The revised Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (1996) makes the pursuit of social justice an ethical imperative for all social workers, and the latest Curriculum Policy Statement of the Council on Social Work Education (2001) requires all social work students to be taught how to work for social and economic justice. Nevertheless, there are few extant examples of radical community organizing practice in the United States today. There are several striking reasons why this is so.

First, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, socialist ideology has been widely discredited as an alternative paradigm. Second, it is difficult to translate the ideal of social justice into specific goals and objectives, particularly when there is little immediate likelihood of transforming the basic economic and political structure of society. In addition, policy devolution, political decentralization, and the fragmentation of social movements have promoted the rise of narrow local organizing efforts that have limited potential for effecting changes in the institutional framework of society.

To overcome these formidable obstacles, radical community organizers might consider the following steps:

  • Emphasize the educational function of organizing to create greater awareness of the relationship between local issues and their structural causes and to forge connections among groups that have common purposes but currently disparate agendas (Gutiérrez, 1997).
  • Emphasize praxis in their training and community development efforts (i.e., ongoing reflection on the dynamic relationship between theory and action).
  • Develop creative approaches to stimulate the involvement and mobilization of groups—particularly young people—that are often excluded from the organizing process. The Minority Apprenticeship Program run by CTWO is an excellent example of such efforts. More extensive application of interactive technologies through the Internet and the use of cultural activities as vehicles for community development and change are just two other tactical steps that radical organizers could adopt (Reisch & Jarman-Rohde, 1999).
  • Engage in the difficult but essential task of forging and sustaining multiracial and multicultural coalitions at the local level (Chesler, 2001). This would require outreach to neighborhood groups, such as churches, whose ideology and style might be difficult for some radical organizers to accept (Cnaan, Wineburg, & Boddie, 1999).
  • Establish small-scale, community-based action research projects that would analyze community problems within a structural framework and generate ideas for local solutions. Such projects would help bring down the artificial separation of practice and research and provide the basis for greater collaboration between organizers and constituents (Coulton, 1995).
  • Create ongoing mechanisms of support—formal and informal—to enable radical organizers to maintain the stamina necessary for long-term, often arduous work.

Education and Training

Radical organizing skills are infrequently taught in schools of social work today, although many schools identify social justice and empowerment as part of their educational missions (Hardina, 1997). If social work is to retain its longstanding commitment to social justice and the elimination of oppression, the social workers of the future will have to be prepared to work in communities whose economic plight and social tensions will be exacerbated by changes in national and international economics and politics. Minimally, to educate students for community practice in this environment, social work educators need to take the following steps:

  • Provide students with a basic understanding of microeconomics and macroeconomics, with a particular emphasis on how the global economy affects the daily lives and self-concepts of the community residents with whom they work.
  • Emphasize the growing, yet often overlooked significance of social class, without being drawn into divisive debates over which form of oppression is paramount in our society.
  • Pay more attention to the changing nature of work and the socioeconomic, psychological, and cultural effects of this change at the community level.
  • Stress the significance of the political-economic context in the development of new conceptual frameworks and intervention strategies.
  • Make explicit the connections between politics and social work, particularly as they are manifested at the community level.
  • Teach skills in community-based action research, coalition building, and advocacy to all students.
  • Consider rethinking what constitutes a suitable field placement so that students may have the opportunity to work with groups that reflect radical organizing principles and methods.
  • Use field instructors who are committed to radical goals and models of field supervision that recognize the different realities of organizations that use radical strategies and tactics.

Finally, one of the key features of radical community organizing is the conscious integration of values into the process of community change (Graf, 1979). Social work educators need to incorporate an ongoing discussion of the ethics of radical organizing in their classes and informal contacts with students. They will also have to examine the meaning of social justice and empowerment carefully in a rapidly changing, multicultural environment. This will involve framing new inquiries about the function of community organizing in a context “that increasingly restricts the choices available to people in need and those who work with them” (Reisch & Rivera, 1999, p. 53).

The Future of Radical Community Organizing

Given the pervasive influence of capitalist values in U.S. society and the ongoing pressure on social workers to retain their precarious professional status, it is unlikely that radical community organizing will acquire dramatically increased prominence among social workers in the foreseeable future. The adoption of the theories and methods that underlie radical organizing would require a transformation in which few social workers would be willing or able to engage. Nevertheless, there are substantial numbers of students and practitioners who are receptive to radical theoretical perspectives and to the application of a critical analysis of capitalism in their community work (Andrews & Reisch, 2002). The development of collaborative, community-based research and training projects that link faculty, students, practitioners, and community residents may be one means of promoting a radical vision of community organizing in the future (Delgado, 1994; Wenocur & Soifer, 1997). As socioeconomic inequality increases and social tensions intensify, such collaborative relationships could provide a small-scale model of the type that radical community organizers have been seeking to create for over a century.