By Zeik Saidman
The fountainhead of community organizing in the United States is the work and teachings of Saul David Alinsky. Last month the 100th anniversary of his birth was celebrated at the University of Chicago's Quadrangle Club at a time that could hardly seem more fitting.
Ten days earlier, Barack Obama had been inaugurated as the first president with genuine experience as a community organizer. Over 160 pages of his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," are reflections on his work with neighborhood leaders and clergy in the gritty southeast side communities of Chicago that Alinsky knew well.
Our newly appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote her senior college thesis on Alinsky's work, and a former colleague said that he invited her to train at the Industrial Areas Foundation. She enrolled in law school at Yale instead.
One of Colorado's most influential leaders worked closely with Alinsky. Robert Craig, a renowned mountaineer, founder of the Keystone Center and former executive director of the Aspen Institute where Alinsky was a prominent figure, called him "the most inspiring and penetrating advocate of democracy I've ever read or encountered.
"In all my years at the institute, there was never a resource person who could so exchange and empathize with struggling business executives striving to understand the roots and underpinnings of American democracy," Craig said.
While Craig was unable to attend the Chicago event, it was cause for celebration for the 75 leaders who crowded into the Quadrangle Club. The tribute, organized by Sanford Horwitt, who authored "Let Them Call Me Rebel, Saul Alinsky His Life and Legacy," provided an opportunity to reminisce about the impact Alinsky and his colleagues had on American history.
Fred Ross Jr., an organizer with Service Employee International Union in California, recalled how his father, Fred Sr., discovered a young field hand named Cesar Chavez. Ross recalled a time when Alinsky was questioned about being a member of the Communist Party. He responded, "I want to point out that I am not now, and never have had any connections with the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, the Minute Men, the Communist Party or Di Giorgio Corp."
Nina Helstein, a psychologist in Chicago, talked about her father, Ralph, the first attorney ever elected to head a major union - the Packinghouse Workers Union. He joined forces with Alinsky to improve the living and working conditions for workers like those Upton Sinclair portrayed in "The Jungle." They took on the giant packinghouses in Chicago's Back-of-the-Yard neighborhood.
Leon Despres, a distinguished 101-year-old former alderman from Hyde Park and a classmate of Alinsky's at the University of Chicago, told a story about a one-on-one meeting with the original Mayor Richard Daley that led to a heated confrontation. As Alinsky readied to leave, Daley asked, "What's your price?" Alinsky just laughed and left the meeting.
Then as now, community organizers are careful about building relationships with elected officials who can as easily become adversaries as allies.
Another disciple of Alinsky was Ed Chambers, executive director of the I.A.F following Saul's death in 1972. Ed, now in his late 70s, highlighted some of Alinsky's principles of organizing. Among them: Never do for others what they can do for themselves; change only comes about through threat or pressure; every negative has a positive and every positive has a negative; and understand the difference between the world as is and the way you would like it to be.
Chambers reminded the group that Alinsky's legacy continues through over 50 affiliate community organizations of the I.A.F. in the United States and several countries overseas.
Senior I.A.F. organizers Mike Gecan, Ernie Cortes, Sister Christine Stevens and Arnie Graff have for over 35 years trained and mentored hundreds of faith-based leaders in some of the most impoverished communities in the country. I have known them since my days as a community organizer in Chicago in the1970s.
It is our hope that the Alinsky legacy will continue as the next generation of idealistic young people develop the expertise to change lives for the better in the neighborhoods and barrios of the big cities, in the rural countryside and on the Native American reservations.
They will be the inheritors of the ground broken by Saul Alinsky that enables grassroots leaders from congregations and neighborhoods to be a powerful presence when decisions are being made about their lives.
As they demand a seat at the table with key decision-makers, the motto of the leaders from the I.A.F. network might appropriately be "Yes We Can."
Zeik Saidman is the associate director of The Centers at the School of Public Affairs at University of Colorado Denver.