HKS Authors

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Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Organizing, and Civil Society


On 3 September 2008, the Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin made “community organizing” part of mainstream political discourse in the United States when she mocked Barack Obama’s experience. Comparing her record to his, she said: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.” From 1985 to 1988, Obama had served as an organizer for the Developing Communities Project, a faith-based Chicago initiative, working with inner-city residents to develop job training, tutoring and housing programs in the tradition of the organizer Saul Alinsky. For many Americans, Palin’s comment was the first they had heard of such a thing. It shone a spotlight on the work of community organizers for the first time since the 1960s. The efforts of civil rights leaders, organizing in the “social movement” style of the Montgomery bus boycott, overlapped with those workers schooled in the Alinsky challenge to mainstream social work – to persuade the architects of the “war on poverty” to require “maximum participation of the poor” in that last, great effort at urban reform. Tackling poverty demanded going beyond service provision or social engineering to taking on the power asymmetry responsible for the social imbalance in the first place. And this required collective action by the poor themselves.


Ganz, Marshall. "We Can Be Actors, Not Just Spectators." New Statesman, 141.5114, July 11, 2012, 52-54.