Books About Organizing
By Drew Astolfi
If you like to read…here are some books. However you should do so with clarity that reading about organizing is like dancing about architecture…I firmly believe that community organizing is best described as a martial art – it is something you practice for years and make sacrifices for before it really gives itself up to you. It’s also almost an axiom that the very best organizers didn’t write about it…so no books by Mother Jones, John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, MLK, Myles Horton, Herb White, Bayard Rustin, Mad Bear Anderson, Robert Moses, Walter Ruether, Dorothy Day, Fred Hampton, Gale Cincotta, Ernie Cortez, Caesar Chavez, Ella Baker, John Trudell, Delores Huerta, Bob Hunter, Larry Kramer, Cleve Jones, Mary Gonzalez … well, you get the idea. Part of the outsized influence of Alinsky is related to the fact that he wrote down and codified a system of what many people were doing in the 30’s. Anyway here’s my list. Others would no doubt chose others, and there are very many of these books in circulation. Still all of these are books about organizing – about people and power, about how and much less about why.
Reveille for Radicals by Saul Alinsky
Reveille for Radicals ‐ the classic Alinsky book written back in the 40’s and mostly about the organizing Alinsky did in the 30’s. It’s his best book, although the follow up Rules for Radicals his challenge to the new left is more directed at people who see themselves as radicals, you could read either one, I like this one. But it’s old.
No Shortcuts by Jane McAlevey
Jane McAlevey is one of the best organizing theorists of my generation, and she has written an important book arguing that we need to return to first principles in organizing. She is mostly talking about labor, but it applies to community organizing too. I think you might like it for the case studies in each chapter – essentially 5 stories about how organizing works.
Cold Anger by Mary Beth Rogers
Talks about the life and influence of Ernie Cortez and describes how he reinvented the (white male?) organizing methods and created the relational, leader centered version of organizing that the faith based network groups aspire to. Still one of the best books around.
Basics of Organizing by Shel Trapp
Written in the 70’s this is the simplest, stripped out, clearest manual for urban neighborhood based community organizing is the Basics of Organizing by Shel Trapp (Trapp was the organizing director of National People’s Action and the strategist behind the HMDA and CRA laws, later in life he helped found ADAPT and pass the Americans with Disabilities Act). Here it is for free on the internet. (It’s just like Trapp that he gives his stuff away). http://www.tenant.net/Organize/orgbas.html
Primetime Activism by Charlotte Ryan
This book gives you an introduction to the methods and practice of message and narrative work. Worth reading to understand the terrain, and much of the lessons in apply to online organizing as well.
Faith Based Organizing Books
Doing Justice by Dennis Jacobsen
Dennis Jacobson’s book Doing Justice is especially good for people of faith. Jacobson is a leader in the Gamaliel Foundation. It explores principles of organizing and also talks about the religious basis of the work.
Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook: collected writings of James Boggs
Here are Grace and James Boggs’ notes – they were influential organizers from Detroit. This collection of essays from Dr. Stephan Ward is pretty good, and has the advantage of tracking a specifically black inflection to community organizing over a very long period of time; it’s a history lesson and an organizing lesson in one book. James and his wife Grace influenced most of the current generation of organizers.
Historical books about organizing
You can read history for these lessons about organizing, and here are some that were important to me.
A Spark is Struck! by Sanford Zalburg
This is the biography of Jack Hall, legendary labor organizer. This is one of the best learn via biography books out there…it tells the story of the ILWU and how they overthrew the colonial plantation system in Hawaii and turned it into the first multi‐racial state in the US.
The Children by David Halberstam
This book is a history of the civil rights movement through the eyes of James Lawson and others, and while it is a history book embedded in the story are valuable lessons about the way regular people apply power to make changes. It’s very readable, too.
Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed by Frances Fox Piven
Foundational book around movements and organizing. Written by someone who was an organizer in the Welfare Rights Movement – which created and influenced a number of movement organizations.
Black against Empire by Joshua Bloom
The Panther Party inspired a lot of community organizing, and Bobby Seale provides the definition of power that is still foundational to the community organizing that people have done since the early 70’s. This is an unvarnished story of their successes and failures.
Drew Astolfi is a long time community organizer who has worked both nationally and in several states. He currently works for Community Change. Drew spent 11 years as the director of Faith Action for Community Equity in Hawai’i