Both readings from this week, Dreams from my Father and Rules for Radicals, are concerned with the organizer as an individual. What traits make a good organizer? What does the daily life of an organizer look like? What tactics should or shouldn’t they use? Each author, however, takes a different approach to educating his audience. Alinksy writes Rules for Radicals with the voice of an experienced organizer. His rules are prescriptive He lays down instructions for organizing, for talking about organizing, and for thinking about the ethics of certain organizing decisions with the perspective and wisdom of years.
In anticipation that some of his “rules” will be received with skepticism, he proves that his claims hold salt by offering ample examples of successful organizing from his own experience as well from international history. Alinsky breaks his lessons into a few categories: rules regarding the ethics of justifying a means by its ends, the importance of using certain words for organizing, and tactics for organizing.
Key features of his handbook for organizing include the following instructions: There is no objective right and wrong. The organizer, and the organizer’s beliefs must change to reflect the times. “Action is for mass salvation and not for the individual‘s personal salvation” A successful organizer must have many traits but cannot hope to succeed without an aptitude for communication. “Since one can communicate only through the experiences of others,…the organizer begins to develop an abnormally large body of experiences.” In order to organize, the organizer rnust agitate by attacking apathy and getting people to participate.
This can be done by finding easily solved issues and giving the community a taste of its own power. Once organizing, the organizer must aim to create actions that are inside the expected experiences of the community and outside the expected experiences of people in power.
Obama’s strategy is slightly different. Although he too uses narrative to dig into the experience of organizing, he tells his story chronologically. Through his writing, we view the organizing through the lens of a new, 22 year old organizer encountering the challenges of identifying issues, mobilizing communities, and sustaining actions for the first time. Obama uses the voice of his 22 year old self, taking us through his problem solving process as he arrives in a new City, situates himself within a community different from his own, builds relationships, first fails to mobilize community members and congregation leaders, and slowly learns how to organize effectively. Despite Obama’s narrative approach, much of what can be learned from his writing parallels Alinsky’s rules. Obama illustrates both Alinsky’s “means to an end” argument and his call for organizers to agitate their communities when he describes the way he ignited the spark under Will, Mary, and Mona by asking them to tell him what would become of the children throwing rocks outside one of their meetings.
He illustrates the importance of authentic communication by contrasting the way he is first perceived in Chicago, as a well-dress, well- intentioned, clueless outsider, to his increasing success with organizing only he gets to know the community and its issues by taking part in beer drinking, sports talking, and dancing. He shows the perils of actions that lie inside the authority figure’s experience and outside the community’s experience when he recounts the microphone tug-of—war press conference fiasco. Alinksy and Obama are of the same mind on many points. It seems likely, in fact, that as a recent college graduate during Alinsky’s hay—day, Obama was reading Rules for Radicals and applying them to the life that he presents to us in Dreams from my Father.