Modern Day Community Engagement: Origins

Image Courtesy of: Spatial Agency

Image Courtesy of: Spatial Agency

Modern day community engagement, specifically through organizing, is often embodied by the work of Saul Alinsky. Alinksy began organizing in Chicago in the 1930’s in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, of notorious acclaim for its horrific working conditions. Alinksy also organized the Eastern European immigrant community to go on strike against the meatpacking plants. After long battles, both political and physical, workers successfully forced concessions and unionized the meatpacking plants. Later in his career, Alinsky worked alongside Cesar Chavez to organize citizens in African American ghettos and Mexican-American farmer communities.

Alinksy’s handbook for organizing, Rules for Radicals, is based on taking aggressive action and building broad-based coalitions around a single issue. In organizing the Back of the Yards community, he advocated that local Catholic clergy members speak out against the atrocious working conditions. With the use of external agitators and community based goals, Alinsky’s organizing efforts mounted pressure against those in power to change their practices.

While many community organizers in America study Alinsky and his ground breaking strategies, there are a wealth of examples of community building visionaries– fighting not only for political, but also economic change. Akhter Hameed Khan serves as a prime example of a successful community organizer.

Akhtar Hameed Khan, one of the pioneers of micro-finance and bottom-up development, designed the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) in the 1980s.  At the time, Orangi, a town on the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan, was the largest of the city squatter settlements. Also known as Katchi Abadi, the squatter settlement housed over one million people including day laborers, shopkeepers, and bricklayers. The project focused on creating a system of underground sewers, using local materials and labor from within the community. Within a decade of the initiative, local residents had established schools, health clinics, worker centers, cooperative stores and a bank to finance enterprise projects.

By combining community materials and skills from the diverse group of laborers, the project successfully built a better dwelling for its inhabitants.  Successful majorly due to its grassroots level organization, the project enhanced local ownership, skills, and incentives. The OPP held participatory planning forums to gain insights from everyone living in Katchi Abadi. In addition, the forums allowed community members to survey the area and skill sets of community members. As a result, many in Pakistan and the development community agree with the OPP’s development tactics.

Community engagement takes on many different forms, from Alinsky’s model of building a coalition to force political change to Hameed Khan’s approach of utilizing community members’ skills to improve the economy. The most popular manifestations of engagement tend to be earth shaking actions (i.e. major protests); however, citizen engagement also consists of individuals attempting to change the world through conversation. Other citizen engagement activities include raising awareness, increasing inclusion of a discriminated group, or holding forums for collective participation on important issues.

Many NGOs and actors in the global development community lead community organizing initiatives. For more information on organizations actively working on community engagement and projects leading the way in innovation, please read our Networks and Organizations page.

Both individuals and organizations lead various types of community organizing activities with a common goal to empower individuals. Alinksy’s first rule is “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.”

Because power is derived from two main sources – money and people, poorer communities must therefore increase power through the voice of its people.

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