Beyond Magical Thinking: How to Really Make Change Happen
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For a first-hand view of Alinsky organizing – though it’s never named as such – by a trained and seasoned practitioner, see Barack Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father (Three Rivers Press, 1995 and 2004). In the middle section of the book, “Chicago,” Obama describes his three years organizing on the streets and housing projects of South Chicago. He beautifully invokes his motives – improving young people's lives – but at the same time draws a murky picture of organizing. Questions abound: Who trained him? What was his training? Who paid him? What is the guiding ideology? What is his relationship to the people he calls “my leaders?” Are they above him or are they manipulated by him? Who are calling whose shots? What are the long-term consequences? It's a great piece to start a discussion with young organizers.
While reading I've Got the Light of Freedom, I realized that much of what we had practiced in SDS was derived from SNCC and this developmental organizing tradition, up to and including the vision of “participatory democracy,” which was incorporated in the 1962 SDS founding document, “The Port Huron Statement." Columbia SDS's work was patient, strategic, base-building, using both confrontation and education. I, myself, had been nurtured and developed into a leadership position through years of close friendship with older organizers.
However, my clique's downfall came post-1968, when, under the spell of the illusion of revolution, we abandoned organizing, first for militant confrontation (Weatherman and the Days of Rage, Oct. 1969) and then armed urban guerilla warfare (the Weather Underground, 1970-1976). We had, in effect, moved backward from organizing to self-expression, believing, ridiculously, that that would build the movement. At the moment when more organizing was needed to build a permanent anti-imperialist mass movement, we abandoned organizing.
This is the story I tell in my book, Underground. It's about good organizing (Columbia), leading to worse (Weatherman), leading to horrible (the Weather Underground). I hope it's useful to contemporary organizers, as they contemplate how to build the coming mass movement(s).