Community Organizers: For a Change*


Terry Mizrahi, Ph.D.,

Chairperson, Community Organization, Planning and Development Method

Hunter College, School of Social Work



Community organizers are everywhere. Thousands—indeed millions—of people in this country are involved in community work. They are active in civic organizations, tenant and block associations, neighborhood improvement committees, parent associations, church outreach to the poor, citizen mobilization, school-based projects, and countless other local action groups. Indeed, active grassroots groups are a necessary and vital part of a democratic form of government.


Yet, organizing is not a well-known career choice for several reasons. First, the term community organizer is not listed as an occupation by the Department of Labor. As a result, many young people who may want to get involved in community life don't necessarily know that they can do this for a living. Additionally, some people don't pursue jobs as organizers because they assume that the skills involved are natural ones. The term organizer may be perceived as being synonymous with leader, and people may wrongly believe that they just don't have the knack. As a result, training in order to work in the field is not considered. Also, some people may not identify community organizing as a career because it is often invisible; that is, organizers are getting things done behind the scenes, while the president or leader of the organization gets the credit. Finally, since organizing has been identified with social change and social reform, these issues or causes taken up by organizers are controversial. There are often obstacles and opposition to change which may make some people feel uncomfortable.


Community organizing as a career is alive and well, comprising a variety of job titles, educational qualifications, and functions. There are knowledge and skills to acquire, and competent organizers with a social commitment to the common good are needed in many settings.


Community organizing is about working collectively with people to solve problems—joining or forming organizations to address issues that concern people in their neighborhood, workplace, or community of interest (eg., senior citizens, health care, housing, environment, education, economic development). Community organizers work with others to: improve the social conditions of a community, enhance the quality of life of people, and bring people into the political process. Sometimes, they work directly with oppressed and disadvantaged groups in the society, e.g. the homeless, the poor, immigrants and refugees, and people of color.


Organizers' jobs have many facets to them. Depending upon the agency or organization for whom they work, they could be involved in: stopping a toxic waste incinerator from being placed in a community, planning an alternative school or health center, developing a housing plan for the neighborhood, getting the drug dealers off the block, bringing in funds to develop a senior citizen program, changing a law to prevent banks from discriminating against poor districts, organizing a campaign to clean up the environment, coordinating services for the mentally retarded, recruiting volunteers to work at a battered women's shelter, promoting public awareness of benefits and entitlements, organizing stockholders to promote corporate responsibility, advocating human rights and social justice, or engaging in international solidarity work.


History Of Organizing


Organizing has a long, noble, and at times, controversial tradition. It has developed during the social reform movements of the various historical periods, especially the 1930s and 1960s. Organizing—taking collective action—is one of the reasons for the growth of the labor, civil rights, women, peace, consumer, environment, gay and lesbian, AIDS, and other movements throughout this century. Some of the most visible organizers— Ralph Nader, Saul Alinsky, Walter Reuther, Caesar Chavez, Jesse Jackson, Eleanor Smeal, Heather Booth, Faye Wattleton, Marion Wright Edelman, Ada Dear, Wilma Mankiller, Gary Delgado, Wade Rathke, George Wiley, Si Kahn—have all influenced our country's laws and systems. These well-known activists have been affiliated with causes for which there are countless other organizers also working at the local, state, and regional levels.


Values Are Essential to the Job

While the knowledge and skills an organizer brings to the process can be used for any goals, it is the values of social work that helps shape what people do, where, with whom, and why. These humanistic values include: social and economic justice, equality, democracy, and peace.

Community organizing within social work has contributed its knowledge, skills, and leaders to these causes, and also has its own tradition. The early social workers were leaders in the social reform struggles of their day and also helped build community institutions, such as settlement houses and social services to meet people's needs. While community organizers have always been a minority in number within the social work profession, their impact has been significantly felt. Beginning with Jane Addams who founded one of the first settlement houses in Chicago (Hull House), they have been among the leaders of the movements for social security, labor reform, and health care, as well as shapers of the social programs in the 1960s and 1970s through the Economic Opportunity Act, Model Cities, Community Block Grants, and a myriad of other social service initiatives. The 1990s under President Clinton seem to be ushering in a new commitment to community work and community service, as well as expanded opportunities to revitalize and develop communities—in urban and rural areas— across the country. The time is ripe for new jobs in this field.



Roles and Goals


Organizers wear many hats and are called many things—enablers, advocates, brokers, facilitators, leaders, planners, resource and program developers, coordinators, reformers, and social change agents. The terms associated with the field of community organization include community development and social planning. Within social work and other human service disciplines, it is also called community work or community practice.

Successful organizers work toward the goal of empowerment—helping people mobilize, obtain resources, and develop strategies that promote their interests or causes. While the knowledge and skills an organizer brings to the process can be used for any goals, it is the values of social work that helps shape what people do, where, with whom, and why. These humanistic values include: social and economic justice, equality, democracy, and peace.


Getting Started


Individuals usually get started in this field because of personal commitments, volunteer experiences, or beginning jobs. For example, they may have a passion for social cause, or they may feel deeply about local problems that have surfaced in their community, be it in their school, on their block, in their region, or a problem related to their racial, ethnic, or social group. "What are people doing about it?" is the question that gets young people and adults involved. This path is the natural, spontaneous way in.


There are also more structured ways of testing the waters through volunteer work. In the past, people have joined the federal government-supported VISTA or Peace Corps. Volunteer bureaus operated by local governments and private organizations such as United Way often offer a range of opportunities that go beyond traditional social services.


Additionally, entry-level jobs are offered by such groups as ACORN, Public Interest Research Group, Center for Third World Organizing, Grassroots Leadership, as well as with the thousands of membership organizations, social service agencies, and associations working on a particular issue. Every cause has its leadership organizations—sometimes more than one, and sometimes competing ones. Those interested in organizing can find their niche according to their political and social beliefs.


Educational Opportunities


Many of the groups listed welcome committed people who may not have a college education, but who are willing to be trained on the job. More typically, most organizations seek persons who have college degrees, preferably in the social sciences or human services, where they have had an opportunity to do some field work or an internship. Sometimes they encourage and even support a staff person in returning to school on a part-time basis.


For those beginning at the college level, majoring in the social and human sciences is the usual area of concentration. However, it is important to note that some of the best organizers enter the career from other liberal arts and specialized backgrounds.


Selecting a social work major at the undergraduate level is a direct route into the field. All accredited social work degree programs require course instruction and field work in communities as a part of a general curriculum. Students who typically enter a BSW program in their junior year are required to do a part-time internship, which usually includes understanding community life and institutions, analyzing communities—their people, institutions, culture—and working on community projects. Depending upon the interest of the student, faculty, and agencies affiliated with a particular BSW program, community work can have different degrees of emphasis.


At the graduate level, there are several ways to enter professional organizing life. While it is not necessary to have a master’s degree, many effective leaders of advocacy organizations and coalition and human service campaigns have one. Within MSW programs, some schools still offer a concentration or major in community organizing or community development. Unfortunately, during the 1980s, some schools eliminated the major in community organizing or else incorporated it into what has become known as macro practice or policy, planning, and administration (PPA). Nevertheless, all accredited graduate schools of social work expose students to methods of working with people that includes working with communities, as they do in BSW programs. However, the ability to acquire a specialization in the area will vary from school to school.


Courses at the graduate level cover such topics as: knowledge of community and social systems, organization and groups, inter-organizational and political arenas, skills-building in program planning and evaluation, collaborations and coalition­ building, lobbying, community assessment, leadership development, grant writing and fundraising, public relations, service-coordination, and case and class advocacy.


During a typical two-year MSW program, students will have an internship for one or both years in which they have a supervised practicum to develop their competencies in community practice. If the program has a two-year major, the initial year might be spend in a grassroots setting with a neighborhood group or community center, while the second year might be served in a politician's office getting experience as a legislative aide.


Other graduate degree programs outside of social work offer some aspects of community organizing, each with their own perspective. Among them are: urban planning, community health education, human service and public administration, international studies, and labor studies. There are also a few independent, non­-academic schools for organizers. These include the MidWest Academy and the Industrial Areas Foundation, both in Chicago.


Career Paths


Career paths in community organizing are vast and varied. Experience has demonstrated that, regardless of the job title, the community organizing approach to problem-solving and the involvement of people always exists. Here are just a few of the job titles held by graduates of MSW programs: settlement house director, advocate for the homeless, commissioner of the Department of Youth and Juvenile Justice and other departments, youth program coordinator, health coalition director, family policy analyst, tenant organizer, housing specialist, drug prevention program director, AIDS program developer, legislative aide to elected public officials, and politician. The community organizing specialization in social work allows for a diversity of career opportunities.


Caveats and Challenges


While the revitalization of community organizing within social work is occurring, it is not in the mainstream of the profession. Those interested in pursuing careers in organizing within social work will have to find or establish their own support group and seek comfort in the social missions grounding their work.


Organizers are few in number relative to the need and did not have a professional association until recently. A National Organizers' Alliance, begun in 1993, is designed to help obtain job benefits, security, and advancement. The Association on Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA) has existed since 1988 to promote these areas in social work education and practice. There are also centers affiliated with schools of social work that support community organizing research, training, and program development the Education Center for Community Organizing (ECCO) at the Hunter College School of Social Work is an example.




Grassroots organizers and even leaders of advocacy and policy organizations are paid relatively low wages. To gain more pay, organizers usually have to move away from the front line. The hours can be long: there are often night meetings and weekend events, since those are the times when people come most conveniently together as citizens.


The process of change is sometimes a slow one and not without its frustrations. Organizers need tenacity and determination as well as good interpersonal and analytical skills. They must interact with and influence diverse groups of people, not all of whom share the same values, goals, and strategies. The payoffs and victories may be slow, so satisfaction must often be derived from the process of engaging and educating people. Ultimately, though, an organizer's investment of time, energy, and resources will have an impact on society and seem worth it—for a change.


* Adapted from an article by the author published in Mental Health and social Work Career Directory-1st edition, B.J. Morgan & J.M. Palmisano, Editors. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1993.