There was all this talk about change and community organizing surrounding Obama’s campaign, but let’s get beyond the rhetoric and take a look at what that will really mean. Obama’s success translating his community organizing experience and message into unprecedented forms of popular participation indicates a powerful opportunity. To understand the origin and future of community organizing in this country, this essay examines its “founder” and influence on Obama, Saul Alinsky (left) and his organization, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). As demonstrated by ZP founder Roshi Bernie’s (right) success in Yonkers, his Zen House model offers a promising contribution that parallels and expands upon the power of Alinsky’s approach. A series of classes with Roshi Bernie’s daughter Alisa Glassman, who is an organizer in an affiliate of the IAF, inspired this essay. I am in no way affiliated with the IAF. I write out of the sheer joy of being a nerd and weaving together various ideas as I understand them.
Alinsky subtitled his second book "a pragmatic primer for realistic radicals" to sound a wake-up call to the Weathermen and Yippies and encourage them to cut their hair, drop their joints and quit whining about Utopian fatasies. According to their webpage, while still non-partisan and non-ideological, the IAF today:
“has a radical belief in the potential of the vast majority of people to grow and develop as leaders, to be full members of the body politic, to speak and act with others on their own behalf”This is achieved by creating interest-based organizations that create power for marginalized people to make demands and create solutions.
Obama internalized the skills and ethos of organizing while working for an affiliate of the IAF for three years during the 1980's. He taught Alinsky's methods (left). He told the Chicago Reader in 1995:
"What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?”During the 2008 campaign, Obama’s field organizer told Rolling Stone:
“We didn’t want to train volunteers, we wanted to train organizers.”Conservatives argued that Obama’s association with Alinsky proves his hidden socialist motives while liberals already accuse that Obama’s campaign practiced astroturfing (faking grassroots).
Hillary Clinton turned down a job offer from Alinsky, about whom she wrote her undergraduate honors thesis, in order to go to law school. After the limits of community organizing frustrated him, Obama entered the legal system himself.
Nonetheless, as Obama reiterated his core message in his 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention accepting the nomination as presidential candidate:
“Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves…Yes, we must provide more ladders to success for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair. But we must also admit that programs alone can't replace parents…Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility - that's the essence of America's promise.”Both sons of Easern European Jews, Roshi Bernie and Alinsky developed innovative methods for empowering the urban poor without relying on government. Born 30 years earlier, Alinsky made a name for himself organizing in Chicago in 1936 and founded the Industrial Areas Foundation there three years later. He eventually served as a mentor to the activists of the 1960’s and died in 1972.
Alinsky left the study of criminology to jump from city to city training organizers to confront the establishment. Bernie left engineering to train in Zen and eventually led his own Zen students to create the Greyston Bakery in 1982, innovating in social enterprise to create a dignified path off welfare. The bakery expanded into a network of organizations that serve Yonkers, NY called the Greyston Foundation. Committed to development on the community level, Greyston thrives and is studied in business schools.
In 1969, with the help of a big grant and at the age of 60, Alinsky established a formal AIF organizer training program. Turning 70 in January, Roshi Bernie is developing the Maezumi Institute with successor Paul Genki Kahn to train ministers and spread the model developed in Yonkers by creating Zen Houses. Alinsky warned that
“to assume that a political revolution can survive without the supporting base of a popular reformation is to ask for the impossible in politics” (xxi).For reasons that will be further explored in future posts, now is the perfect time for the Zen House movement to seize this unique historical moment and assist that reformation. The hope for change must be facilitated by proper institutions. In the same Chicago Reader article, Obama said:
"The biggest failure of the civil rights movement was in failing to translate this energy, this moral fervor, into creating lasting institutions and organizational structures...It's time for politicians and other leaders to take the next step and to see voters, residents, or citizens as producers of this change. The thrust of our organizing must be on how to make them productive, how to make them employable, how to build our human capital, how to create businesses, institutions, banks, safe public spaces--the whole agenda of creating productive communities. That is where our future lies... We've got some hard nuts-and-bolts organizing and planning to do. We've got communities to build."It is time for us to carve out a new path that neither relies too heavily on the free market nor looks to government to fix everything. The Zen House movement will not succeed if others are not inspired to support us. I encourage you to:
- Apply to the ministry training
- Donate money
- Volunteer in the Zen Houses
- Notify others of these opportunities
- Keep reading this blog
- Check out the links on this page
Coming Soon: :A post will explore compare/contrast the approaches of Roshi Bernie/ZP & Saul Alinsky/IAF in detail.
De Zutter, Hank. "What Makes Obama Run?"
Dickinson, Tim. "The Machinery of Hope." Rolling Stone 1048. 20 March, 2008.
The Industria Areas Foundation Homepage “Who Are We?” About IAF. 16 December 2008. Industrial Areas Foundation