Alinskyian Organizing
Ecumenical opportunity or interfaith hazard?

By Stephanie Block

The dream of organizing of religious institutions into an ecumenical political power-base is nothing new. What’s new is the widespread acceptance such organizing has gained.

As of late 1995, Albuquerque Interfaith had 28 organizational members, all of them religious communities. Eleven were Catholic, four Presbyterian, five Lutheran, and the rest from an assortment of “faith traditions.”

Albuquerque Interfaith is one of approximately 60 local affiliates around the United States. Each of these local affiliates is organized under the national umbrella of the Industrial Areas Foundation. The Industrial Areas Foundation [known simply as the IAF] sends its professional organizers to train and engage people in each of these locations. The organizer’s job is to bring these denominations into a “relationship” which will enable them to act together on civic issues.

Saul Alinsky founded the IAF in 1940. Alinsky, who died in the 70s, wrote two books: Reveille for Radicals, and Rules for Radicals. In Reveille for Radicals, Alinsky writes about the effectiveness of what he called “popular participation,” the civic actions of ordinary people through a “People’s Organization,” like Albuquerque Interfaith.

A critical study of the extent of popular participation in People’s Organizations was made, and the findings differed so radically from the prevalent assumptions that the original study was repeatedly checked. Each checkup corroborated the original findings. Conclusions showed that in the most powerful and deeply rooted People’s Organizations known in this country the degree of popular participation reached a point of between 5 and 7 per cent! This in spite of the fact that those making the study fully recognized that the organizations being evaluated were so much stronger and included so many more people who actually participate than all the other organizations proclaiming “100 per cent participation…” [p 181]

The assumption that Alinsky is debunking in this passage is that an effective organization requires most of its membership to participate. It doesn’t. A small, well-organized core of people can accomplish a lot of good – or do a lot of damage.

Consider what a small percentage Alinsky is describing: 5-7%. Five-seven percent of a congregation of 5000 is just 250-350 people. Each participating parish requires only a small, committed core of active, involved people to transform it. If Alinsky is correct then, similarly, a relatively small number of strategically situated, networked IAF locals across the country can have a strong influence on federal policy.

How does the Industrial Areas Foundation function? How does it operate and organize?

At Ascension parish in Albuquerque, the IAF-trained pastor wanted his Catholic parish to become an Interfaith member. He began “one-on-ones:” private meetings between him and various high profile people in the congregation. His goal was to identify those who would become an IAF “leadership team” for the congregation. These handpicked “leaders” were chosen for their influence in the community and for their personal openness to social activism.

The parish leadership team then began training sessions to run organizational “house-meetings” in the parish. House-meetings are designed to expand awareness about the local IAF and to establish credibility among parishioners. They encourage parishioners to be active and supportive of the IAF organization and stimulate a controlled line of questioning, asking about the social and economic needs of the community. Leaders are trained to guide the discussion along specific channels; the IAF will not, for example, directly confront the issue of abortion.

The leadership team is not only trained to run meetings, but as its support in the congregation grows, it is taught to research and plan public actions and to evaluate the success of these actions. Public actions around Albuquerque have included ritualized and tightly controlled meetings with government officials and with school administrators.

Each member congregation in the local IAF pays dues. In Albuquerque, member congregations pay 1.5% of their income to the Albuquerque Interfaith. This helps to pay the professional organizer a middle-class salary, benefits, office and travel expenses. Albuquerque Interfaith, in turn, pays the IAF $30,000 yearly. This money helps to pay the corporate-level salaries of the eight regional IAF directors who travel and network extensively.

What does the Industrial Areas Foundation do? What are the changes it is mobilizing member congregations around the country to bring about?

The goals of the IAF exist on two levels. The first is to seek the self-interest of their membership, that is, to identify issues of concern to all parties. If a street corner needs a traffic light, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and Protestants ought to be able to work together to get one in place.

To achieve this requires research: what does it take to have a traffic light installed? What are the costs involved? Is the money there? Is the need urgent? Who does one approach about it? How do we pressure them if they don’t agree with us? How do we involve the media, if necessary? How do we build public support for our issue? These are the questions that form part of the citizen education in which the IAF trains the participating individuals from its member congregations.

The goals of the IAF exist on another level, though. The IAF has not only local goals, tailored to the self-interest of local people, but its own organizational goals. Ernesto Cortes, the southwestern regional IAF director writes: “[The organizer’s] issue gets dealt with last. If you want your issue to be dealt with first, you’ll never build anything. So you lead with other people’s issues, and you teach them how to act on their issues. Then you model what is to be reciprocal, you model what it is to have a long-term vision.” [Ernesto Cortes, “Organizing the Community: The Industrial Areas Foundation organizer speaks to farmers and farm activists,” The Texas Observer - A Journal of Free Voice, July 11, 1986.]

To obtain a power-base that will support the organizer’s issues, the IAF must build a constituency that trusts it. Working through the churches, using sympathetic clergy, the IAF develops those relationships of trust within member congregations and dioceses. The IAF hands-on, citizen education that teaches people how to get a traffic light installed has the additional advantage (to the IAF) of developing a small but committed and active group of people who will support the IAF agenda.

What is that agenda? In general terms, the IAF’s “issue” can be expressed as a practical philosophy of governance called variously “third way,” “participatory democracy,” or “democratic socialism.” All these terms, and others, are an attempt to describe a brand of socialism that aims to be a middle ground between laissez-faire capitalism and right wing, totalitarian socialism (like communism). Proponents of this middle ground believe that their system of government can use democratic mechanisms to administer the state’s benefits. The mechanisms of administration for those benefits are the “mediating institutions,” which advocates believe render government control more benevolent and “just.”

The “mediating institutions” are schools, churches, unions, community centers and the like, held together by the relationships they have forged within their community organization – like Albuquerque Interfaith.

To achieve this utopian “vision,” the national IAF is engaged in “restructuring” activities of all kinds. It is operating nationally on the political level, networking with the Democratic Socialists of America, the New Democrats, and the New Party, among others. In the late 90s, the IAF made national headlines for its apparent orchestration of a massive naturalization drive. The trouble with this drive was that it included hundreds of invalid naturalizations, and people were evidently driven straight from receiving their citizenship papers to the polling booths. The situation was not rectified, however, until after the November 1996, California elections in which pro-life Congressman Robert Dornan lost to a staunch IAF-backed, pro-abortion candidate.

The national IAF is operating in the economic arena, also. It is very much a player in the Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Community packages of dozens of areas around the country.

The IAF was a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s universal health care plan, and is engaged in experiments to involve the churches in “community-based” health-care clinics.

The national IAF has been a major figure behind its own version of welfare reform. In Arizona this generated tremendous opposition. A coalition of over 30 community-based human services organizations, including food banks and health care facilities (hardly “radical right” types) fought the IAF over control of public welfare funds. The human services coalition argued that the IAF was attempting to overrun “existing organizations with demonstrated track records and accountability for working with the poor...” so that it might control public money for its own organizational purposes. The human services coalition warned that “Any diversion of funds to create another layer of providers would detract from the present effort and be disastrous.”

The national IAF is deeply involved in education reform. On January 24, 1996, the Albuquerque Interfaith began the first in a series of Professional Development Seminars funded by a $450,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Involving about 60 teachers, administrators, community center directors, high school students, and parents from the city’s public school system, these all-day seminars at the Albuquerque Hilton were, according to one local school board member, designed as the educational establishment’s response to the radical right. As New Mexico, at that time, had no vocal, organized group operating in opposition to systemic school reform, the necessity of a professional development program to counter that voice was incomprehensible.

What was the purpose of this professional development seminar? What did the IAF hope to accomplish among area educators? Dr. Benjamin Barber, a political scientist out of Rutgers University, during a radio interview, gave the answer. “Practical experiments to empower people in their own lives” are being conducted by groups who “don’t simply talk about citizenship and democracy, but are engaged in working for it.” Barber identified, specifically, the Industrial Areas Foundation. The IAF-lead Albuquerque “Professional Development Seminar” for public schools graphically exemplified the IAF activity connecting public education to civic education, of which Barber spoke.

This is occurring all over the United States. The scope of IAF involvement in the recent federal movement toward systemic education “reform” is vast. And it is necessary for the IAF to maintain its involvement in the movement toward systemic education reform, because this reform is extremely unpopular.

Marc Tucker’s National Center for Education and the Economy [the NCEE], is the think-tank which produced the rough draft of what became the Work Force Development Act of 1995 (HR 1617; SR 143). The NCEE was well aware that public support for the Work Force Development Act required nursing. Reaching the goals of the Work Force Development Act would “require a transformation in virtually every important aspect of the American system of education.”

A NCEE proposal for the legislation stated: “It will require thoughtful and sustained communication with the citizens of these states to build the public consensus needed to support these revolutionary changes.”

Weeks-long media campaigns and town meetings were suggested to “increase public discussion” and “focus daily news coverage” on education. Parents would have to see themselves as “collaborators” in their children’s education. The proposal said: “The Industrial Areas Foundation, perhaps the most experienced agency in the United States in the arena of community organizing, will help us think through the parent engagement and organizing issues.”

An example of the IAF’s work to generate parent involvement in OBE restructuring can be documented in a vision paper called “Community of Learners.” Albuquerque Interfaith used this vision paper as a model for its own educational statement. The “Community of Learners” version was produced by a network of nearly a dozen Texas IAF locals in 1990. It was “facilitated” into being by a very interesting woman, Sonia Hernandez, an educational consultant on the NCEE board of trustees who was, in the early 1980s, the president of the IAF San Antonio local, Communities Organized for Public Service.

Ms. Hernandez, in her capacity as an education consultant, provided “...a larger framework for people to think about their own schools and the troubling questions about whether their children were being prepared for the work of the future. Schools are about political power, Hernandez explained.” [William Greider, Who Will Tell the People, 1992, p 231.]

No wonder children are graduating from the public school system unable to read! Recall Barber’s radio interview where he describes the IAF’s “civic education” activity in the public schools. Place that next to Sonia Hernandez’s remark that “Schools are about political power.” What sort of educational system is being put together?

Interfaith members, to guide them in producing their own “vision” about education have studied “A Community of Learners” in Albuquerque. The “ Community of Learners” paper recommends “shattering the paradigm of school” as it has been popularly conceived and replaces it with “communities of learners,” which are schools characterized by “collaborative relationships among all stakeholders, including parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders.”

How did the churches come to be involved in such schemes? It’s a chicken and egg debate over which came first: do liberal religious communities embrace Alinskyian faith-based organizing or does participation in such organizing tend to liberalize the community? Perhaps both assertions are correct.

The IAF has, for example, conducted a national project called “IAF Reflects.” IAF Reflects is a series of “intense, 2-week seminars for veteran organizers.” These retreats for congregational leaders are, in the words of one enthusiastic observer, designed to put those “leaders in touch with the biblical tradition that might give deeper insight into their work together, bind them more closely, and empower them to go forward to build God’s reign. The IAF has come to realize that it is about holy work...”

Faith communities, writes the Catholic Villanova religion professor, Susan Toton, “must be conversant in two languages -the language of the faith and the language of public discourse,” which Toton equates to IAF-style activism. “Both are essential for communities committed to furthering God’s reign.”

Ed Chambers, national IAF executive director, has a similar idea. He says: “I’d had a little training in philosophy. And I started forcing myself to look at what our kind of organizing meant to people. We worked with people in the churches, and their language was the language of the gospel. Their language was nothing like Alinsky’s language. His language was power talk. Tough, abrasive, confrontational, full of ridicule. And those are really all non-Christian concepts. So I started looking at it. Here are the non-Christian are the Christian concepts. Are there any similarities? Is this just a different language for the same thing?”

What is this language of Alinsky’s? Alinsky explains it. According to him, in his Rules for Radicals, this “power talk” is Machiavellian. “What follows [Alinsky writes in the opening paragraph of the Rules] is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”

Machiavelli’s The Prince used to be on the Catholic Index, when the Church had an Index, as forbidden reading. This was not because the object of Machiavelli’s discussion was to protect the rich. It was because the principles Machiavelli gave the rich for holding on to power were unethical.

The “power talk” of Alinsky is also unethical. He teaches, at great length, (for instance) that the “ends justify the means.” (In fact, Alinsky devotes an entire chapter in the Rules to rationalizing why the endsjustify the means.) Romans 3:8, however, says “it is not licit to do evil that good may come of it,” and Pope John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor, insists that the Christian must accede to the truth of this moral teaching.

These two positions are not reconcilable. It is not moral to speak the language of pious ethics at worship, and then go out into the world and speak the language of opportunism and might-is-right and whatever else “ends justifies the means” ethics produces. They are not simply two different languages saying the same thing.


In conclusion, the IAF is only one of several networks of Alinsky-style, faith-based organizations operating around the country. 1 Collectively, there are over 200 local affiliates of an Alinsky-style organizations in the United States and several of the networks are expanding into Latin America, Europe, and Africa.

Therefore, it is extremely important that people of strong religious convictions understand the funding mechanisms that support these organizations. In addition to the dues paid by member congregations, expansion efforts require “seed money.” The Catholic Campaign for Human Development annually channels millions of dollars into Alinsky-style, faith-based organizing. The Jewish Fund for Justice, the Lutheran Fund for Justice, grants disbursed through the United Methodist Global Ministries, and the Presbyterian World Services are similar sources of funding.

The dream of organizing of religious institutions into an ecumenical political power-base is nothing new – but we’d better be very watchful of what we organize.

1 PICO, Gamaliel, ACORN, and DART are examples of other large Alinskyian networks.

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