Title:  Community Organizing:  Addams and Alinsky




Community Organizing:  Addams and Alinsky

            Given his success in local organizing and bringing political power to disenfranchised communities, Saul Alinsky is commonly referred to as the father of community organizing.  However, a generation earlier, in the same city (Chicago) that Alinsky began his activism, Jane Addams modeled a form of community organizing through the social settlement movement.  Alinsky criticized the methods of the social settlement movement and yet he cut his political teeth at the same Chicago School that Addams had influenced so strongly. This paper focuses on the comparative community organizing philosophies of Addams and Alinsky to dispel some of the misconceptions about the differences between the two leaders.  The paper suggests that although Addams and Alinsky differ in regard to how to leverage power and social vision, in many ways Alinsky is an unwitting protégé of Addams when it comes to social epistemology and participative democracy.


Community Organizing:  Addams and Alinsky

Chicago produced two of the 20th century’s most important figures in community organizing: Jane Addams and Saul Alinsky (1909-1972).  Addams was the visible leader of the Social Settlement Movement, and Alinsky’s name is synonymous with the community organizing movement.  As activist Heather Booth describes, “Alinsky is to community organizing as Freud is to psychoanalysis.”[i]  In this paper, I will challenge the notion that community organizing originated with Alinsky, and suggest that the primacy and innovation of Jane Addams’ work and philosophy are being overlooked.  The Settlement Movement is commonly characterized as well meaning, but paternalistic and patronizing[ii], while the Community Organizing movement is described as a grass roots effort that was tough minded and effective.[iii] Alinsky facilitated the distinction between the two movements by frequently criticizing the methods of the Settlement workers.  I focus on the comparative community organizing philosophies of Addams and Alinsky to dispel some of the misconceptions about the differences between the two leaders.  I claim that although Addams and Alinsky differ in regard to how to leverage power and social vision, in many ways Alinsky is an unwitting protégé of Addams when it comes to social epistemology and participative democracy.


The Addams’ Model of Community Organizing

         Addams viewed social settlements as experiments in learning that cut across culture and class: “Hull-House endeavors to make social intercourse express the growing sense of the economic unity of society, and may be described as an effort to add the social function to democracy.”[iv] Her ultimate goal was social advancement, and she felt this was only possible if citizens were highly invested in one another.  This “social democracy” required what she described as “sympathetic knowledge” or a duty to learn about others in society no matter how unfamiliar those others were.  For Addams, sympathetic knowledge is the connective understanding necessary for a robust democracy.[v]  Social settlements were physical manifestations of her democratic philosophy.  The social settlement was a multifaceted educational conduit that existed to facilitate understanding across boundaries of identity such as class and culture. Starting from the view that humans are fundamentally connected in a web of relationships rather than purely individual agents, the social settlements facilitated self sufficiency by supporting community ties and promoting life-long learning.  Addams analogized social settlements to good neighbors who listen carefully, respect community members, and respond to their needs. If garbage needed to be collected, the settlement workers found a way to get it picked up.  If working parents needed day care, the settlement workers organized one. 

Addams’ philosophy of community organizing as manifested at Hull House involved listening to the community and responding to needs.  It was non-ideological in that Hull House did not affiliate with any particular social group.  Addams’ lack of ideology meant that she was open to many different paths to achieving success.  For example, she was willing to collaborate with government agencies in order to advance societal interests.  Finally, Addams’ philosophy of community organizing was anti-antagonistic, which should not be confused with being nonconfrontational.  On many occasions, Addams confronted entrenched others in her struggles to advance the interests of the neighborhood.  She did so without engaging in personal rancor.  For example, on three occasions she organized unsuccessful opposition campaigns to unseat the local corrupt alderman, Johnny Powers.  However, Addams avoided antagonism.  Although disagreeing with Powers’ backroom deals and cronyism, she was objective enough to admire his ability to form close ties with the community.[vi]  She refused to villainize anyone, although she was not afraid of pointing out their errors. In her community organizing, Addams attempted keep all people in the conversation and avoided alienating individuals through unnecessary personal antagonism.

To summarize, Addams philosophy of community organizing emphasized social democracy, participation, while eschewing ideology, and supporting the development of connected/sympathetic knowledge.  Although Addams’ philosophy came alive through the work of Hull House, it did not reflect the entire settlement movement. The movement underwent drastic changes through its decline in the 1930’s; the largest of which being the use of professional social workers.  After World War I, fewer volunteers were forthcoming resulting in the settlements employing more contracted professionals who did not reside at the settlement.  These settlements became increasingly bureaucratic and institutionalized and thus less like the fluid and flat Hull House that Addams had managed. Addams viewed proximal relations as paramount. She overcame her outsider status in the Hull House neighborhood by treating her neighbors with dignity and respect, as well as living in the area for almost 50 years.  Subsequent settlement workers had more specialized education, as described by Judith Ann Trolander: “In place of residents, the post-World War II settlement house hired increasing numbers of M.S.W.s, changed its methods and image, enlarged its professional organizations, and attracted different kinds of people as settlement house works.  Professionalization was the underlying cause of these changes.”[vii] These professional social workers were more clearly marked as outsiders to the community.  Settlement houses continued to work for the improvement of impoverished communities, but moved away from Addams’ vision of a highly connected and engaged good neighbor.  I mention this evolution because the settlement movement that Alinsky confronted and criticized was not the same that Addams had created in the early decades at Hull House.  Just as Marx once famously declared, “I am not a Marxist,” if Addams were to confront the professionalized settlement movement of the latter half of the 20th century, she might similarly declare, “I am not a settlement worker.”


The Alinsky Model of Community Organizing

In 1939, Saul Alinsky and Joseph Meeghan organized the Back of the Yards community located behind Chicago’s Union Stock Yards, the subject of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. As early as 1906, Addams described the “sickening stench and scum” in the Chicago stock yards as “unendurable.”[viii] The neighborhood that Alinsky confronted was largely foreign born, suffered from high rates of unemployment, and existed next to the environmental nightmare of the stockyards including its pervasive putrid odor.  Alinsky led the formation of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC), a confederation of numerous local groups, brought together to collectively address issues in the neighborhood.  Many of the local ethnic communities were at odds with one another, but Alinsky and Meeghan negotiated a major public meeting where churches, fraternal clubs, athletic clubs, local businesses, and labor unions were represented.  The local newspapers almost immediately hailed Alinsky as the architect of something new.[ix]  Alinsky’s success at bringing expanded city services and political power to the Back of the Yards community launched his 35 year career in community organizing that found him replicating the model in other beleaguered urban areas through the Industrial Area Foundation (IAF).  In 1940, after securing funding from philanthropist Marshall Field and progressive Catholics in Chicago, Alinsky created the IAF to systematize his community organizing efforts.  The IAF took the Alinsky method to impoverished areas in Baltimore, Detroit, Little Rock, Rochester, San Antonio, and Toledo.

            Alinsky’s philosophy of community organizing is to build a grassroots organization that can democratically leverage power to address social inequities.  It begins with understanding the community.  Alinsky, drawing upon his roots in social science, advocates social research to thoroughly understand a neighborhood and its problems.  As Robert Bailey Jr. describes, “organizers seek to mobilize a community’s residents to attack problems affecting their community.”[x] Social research is followed by the identification and development of local leadership that Alinsky describes as “native” or “indigenous” leadership.[xi]  Alinsky views contacting and fostering native leadership as crucial to the process of understanding the neighborhood and rallying the community around a cause.  Professional organizers provide the skills, but the community gains its power through participation and coordination in a manner analogous to labor union organizing.  Alinsky’s approach is to create an overarching “community organization” made up of representatives of local groups. The strategy is one of strength in numbers that parallels the solidarity crucial in collective bargaining.  Ultimately, Alinsky views community organizing as a power struggle to gain rights and privileges for marginalized communities:  “The present power age denies and evaluates everything in terms of power.  To this common and accepted view, the field of organization has been no exception.  It is universally assumed that the function of a People’s Organization is similar to that of any other kind of organization, which is to become so strong, so powerful, that it can achieve its ends.”[xii]  For Alinsky, the operant metaphor for community organizing is that of a battle or game to be won.

            The BYNC applied Alinsky’s organizing philosophy successfully to bring tangible and intangible benefits to the community.[xiii]  Tangible benefits included improved services to the neighborhood, and the intangible benefits included a new sense of pride.  One incident that reveals how Alinsky valorized the leveraging of power and also serves as contrasting Alinsky’s approach with that of settlements occurred in 1944.  An opportunity arose to bring the Infant Welfare Society’s (a children’s health clinic) branch to the Back of the Yards.  Two local organizations vied to house the station:  BYNC and the University of Chicago Settlement.  Alinsky told the Infant Welfare Society’s president that if the University of Chicago Settlement housed the infant station, the priests of the largely Catholic neighborhood would initiate a boycott from the pulpit.  Alinsky viewed this conflict as an opportunity to gain the status for BYNC as the voice of the community.  It was a showdown between settlement methods and grassroots power politics.  He escalated the antagonism by accusing the Chicago Settlement of being anti-Catholic because it gave out birth control information.  Alinsky made this accusation despite his own pro birth control beliefs.[xiv]  In a public struggle, he backed the Chicago Settlement into a corner and rebuffed their efforts at conciliation until it was clear that BYNC was victorious, and perhaps more importantly, he had demonstrated how effective his methods were.  The Chicago Settlement never fully regained its stature in the community.[xv]  The BYNC used its newfound status to fight for more benefits for the community.


Common Themes

            Superficially, Addams and Alinsky appear to have very different organizing philosophies.  However, delineation between style and philosophical commitments reveals more commonality than usually attributed.  Part of the challenge of making this separation is that Alinsky and members of his organization intentionally and forcefully depict themselves as differing strongly from social settlements. BYNC activist Sidney Hyman described his enthusiasm for working with Alinsky in contrast to Addams’ philosophy:

Going to work for Jane Addams at Hull-House was a romantic thing to do for a young, sensitive woman. [Their noble purpose was] to help, but it was always the Lady Bountifuls who were doing the helping.  Now Saul comes along and turns it around and sort of sets the whole Hull-House idea on its head.  He says he doesn’t want the hellfare worker, he doesn’t want the Lady Bountiful; he wants people to help themselves and that became a very romantic idea.  A lot of people wanted to get it on that one, just like an earlier generation a lot of people wanted to get in on the Hull-House idea.[xvi]

Hyman makes the error of associating Addams with unreflective charity work; however, the real target of his critique should have been what the settlements evolved into during the post-Addams era rather than Addams’ philosophy. Addams would likely be aghast at such an association with charity work because she vehemently contended that settlements were intended to facilitate education and connection, not charity.  In Democracy and Social Ethics, Addams devotes an entire chapter to criticizing well meaning, but ineffective charity workers who do not understand the communities that they attempt to serve.  Addams’ criticism of charity workers is strikingly similar to Hyman and Alinsky’s criticism of social settlement workers. The notion that Addams stood for charity in opposition to Alinsky who stood for collective action is not borne out by historical examination.  It can be demonstrated that Addams and Alinsky share much in terms of their philosophy of community organizing, with some important exceptions.

            Addams and Alinsky value listening and learning the needs of the community, employing both quantitative and qualitative means to gain perspective.  When asked about organizing, Alinsky responds, “You find out what they care about, what they are worried about, and you organize them around these issues.”[xvii] Within 5 years of opening Hull House, Addams and her cohort were engaging in systematic research to understand their community.  In 1895, Addams co-authored Hull-House Maps and Papers, a groundbreaking social study on the ethnicity and conditions surrounding the settlement.  In this manner, both Addams and Alinsky demonstrated a respect for social science and the scientific method, and each understood the need for presence and listening above quantitative analysis.

Both believe in the active participation of community members in the organizing of social efforts.  Addams recognized that when existing social institutions do not provide a reasonable means for citizen participation, those citizens will organize to resist.  For example, according to Addams an unresponsive government, “forces the most patriotic citizens to ignore the Government and to embody their scruples and hopes of progress in voluntary organizations.”[xviii]  Hull House afforded numerous opportunities for local groups to organize, particularly as clubs or labor unions.  The settlement acted as an incubator for such groups providing meeting space and expertise without formal affiliations.  Similarly, Alinsky viewed his organizations as fully democratic:  “This kind of organization can be built only if people are working together for real, attainable objectives.”[xix]  Alinsky’s community groups were democratic to the point that he regretted some of the directions taken by local groups he helped found.[xx]

Both share a commitment to giving the disenfranchised a voice.  Addams may have held paternalistic ideas when she opened Hull House, but she soon realized that the community needed to speak for themselves: “The residents at Hull House find in themselves a constantly increasing tendency to consult their neighbors on the advisability of each new undertaking.”[xxi]  Addams came to view the active participation of the marginalized as essential to the success of the settlement.  For Addams, settlements “draw into participation in our culture large numbers of persons who would otherwise have to remain outside.”[xxii]  In the same way, Alinsky was concerned about a crisis of disenfranchisement: “It is a grave situation when a people resign their citizenship or when a resident of a great city, though he may desire to take a hand, lacks the means to participate.”[xxiii]  The community organizations provided citizens with a means to reengage themselves with political processes.  In this trajectory, Alinsky and Addams held an expansive view of democracy that entailed a duty to get actively involved.  Correspondingly, both had an abiding faith in humanity.  Alinsky describes the community organizer as having “a complete commitment to the belief that if people have the power, the opportunity to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions.”[xxiv]

            The resonance between the social philosophies of Addams and Alinsky is not surprising given their connection to the Chicago School.  Addams and Hull House helped shape the sociology department of the University of Chicago, which in turn influenced Alinsky’s approach to community organizing.  Mary Jo Deegan documents the strong ties between Addams and the early sociologists of the Chicago School: George Herbert Mead and William I Thomas.  During this early period, the sociologists collaborated with Addams often, and were frequent visitors to Hull House, just as Addams visited and lectured at the University of Chicago.  The sociologists hailed the publication of Hull House Maps and Papers as a landmark work in urban sociology.  The next generation of sociologists, including Robert Ezra Parks and Ernest W. Burgess were also interested in social settlements, but were more concerned with professionalizing the discipline of sociology in a manner that distanced itself from social work. An implicit gender divide emerged, as social workers were largely female while the academic sociologists were almost exclusively male.  Alinsky attended the University of Chicago from 1926 to 1932 by which time most of the first generation of sociologists had since left.  Park and Burgess likely mentioned Addams only sparingly in the classroom, but this does not diminish her influence upon them.  As Lawrence J. Engel describes, “Although these male sociologists failed to acknowledge the significance of Addams, their work was nevertheless influenced by Hull House: its community-mapping techniques, its emphasis upon the social dimensions of democratic neighborhood life, and its institutional relationships within the community (labor churches, city agencies, etc.).”[xxv] Even though Alinsky was loath to credit his academic roots in forming his philosophy of community organizing, Engel identifies clear evidence of connection.  Equally compelling is Deegan’s evidence for Addams influencing the Chicago School.  This genealogy places Addams as an indirect and unacknowledged mentor of Alinsky and explains much of their philosophical convergence.



            Where Addams and Alinsky differed was in methodology and long-range vision.  Addams emphasized cooperation devoid of antagonism.  Her interest was in widening the circle of those engaged in any particular issue, therefore she avoided unnecessary alienation.  Addams believed in the power of rational argument to sway the views of her opponents.  She was not naïve about conflict and recognized that it occurred, but she had faith in the ability of people to make common cause.  Nevertheless, Addams was not blind to the role of power and the ability Hull House had to leverage power.  For example, Addams describes one function of the social settlement as “big brother whose mere presence on the play ground protects the little ones from bullies.”[xxvi] Stylistically, their rhetorical methods diverged widely. Addams was guarded in her remarks in order to keep people in the conversation. Alinsky was bombastic to intentionally provoke opponents.  For example, in describing the difference between social workers and his organizers, Alinsky declared, “they organize to get rid of four-legged rats and stop there; we organize to get rid of four-legged rats so we can get on to removing two-legged rats.”[xxvii]  He enjoyed a good battle and he particularly enjoyed winning.  Alinsky’s organizations viewed each effort at social justice as a contest: “we are concerned with how to create mass organization to seize power and give it to the people.”[xxviii]  Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals maintains numerous war metaphors describing community organizing as “warfare” with the “enemy” requiring “tactics” to gain and redistribute power.

More substantially, Addams and Alinsky had different approaches to the scope and long-range goals of community organizing.  Alinsky was vague about the broad social changes he was attempting to institute and made little effort to thematizing across the individual battles for social justice that he was waging.  Joseph Heathcott claims that Alinsky’s “lack of broader political vision” makes his philosophy of community organizing less serviceable in an environment where large stable organizational constituencies such as unions and churches are not there to support his planned confrontations.  By contrast, Addams viewed social progress as the overarching goal for which all efforts are connected.  For example, Addams found no contradiction in arguing for labor rights at the local level and advocating for peace at the international level.  Both advanced the cause of social democracy.  War was regressive and wasteful and thus a threat to society while the success of labor unions brought greater quality of work life for all citizens and was thus a boon to society.  Addams’ philosophy also envisioned ongoing efforts at community organizing.  For Addams, the social settlements were intended to be lasting good neighbors.  She led the effort to convert the settlement workers’ outsider status to insider status by living in proximity and reciprocity with oppressed peoples.  Alinsky’s organization developed leadership talent within the community, and intended it to be strong enough to last, but there was no effort at a long-term presence by the organizer.  Once the community organized, it was on its own with occasional consulting from the outside.  These differences in method and vision cannot be directly correlated to success.  Both Addams and Alinsky had their successes, and their failures.


Addams’ Approach as a Model of Feminist Pragmatist Community Organizing

            Addams develops a feminist pragmatist philosophy of community organizing that has a modern character to it because it is very fluid, highly cosmopolitan, and yet sought to create lasting social relationships whereas the Alinsky model of overt social antagonism has perhaps run its course to a certain extent.  Addams’ settlement community was not bogged down in layers of bureaucracy or institutional rules and was therefore capable of responding quickly to the needs of the neighborhood.  Addams embraced diversity in a manner ahead of her era.  She believed cultural and intellectual pluralism were crucial for the success of a democracy.  Finally, Addams approach to community organizing supported the notion of setting down lasting roots in the community to provide ongoing service. In a world dominated by truncated social transactions and technology that facilitates long distance interactions, this quality might particularly appeal to modern social theorists.  Hull House, and Addams reflections upon society and social settlements, remains a fascinating example of community organizing that begs for further investigation..



[i] Robert A. Slayton, Back of the Yards: The Making of a Local Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 198.

[ii] Allen F. Davis, Spearheads for Reform: The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement 1890-1914 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 17, 20.

[iii] See, for example, Donald C. Reitzes and Dietric C. Reitzes, “Saul D. Alinsky: A Neglected Source But Promising Resource,” The American Sociologist 17 (Feb 1982): 47-56.

[iv] Jane Addams, “Hull House (Chicago),” in ed. William D. P. Bliss, Encyclopedia of Social Reform (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1908), 587-90.

[v] For a discussion of sympathetic knowledge, see Maurice Hamington, The Philosophy of Jane Addams (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming).

[vi] Jane Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 99.

[vii] Judith Ann Trolander, Professionalism and Social Change: From the Settlement House Movement to Neighborhood Centers, 1886 to the Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 31-2.

[viii] Addams identifies the problems in the Chicago Stock Yards, as a failure of the local government to adhere to the will of the local inhabitants, foreshadowing what Alinsky would confront over 30 years later.  Jane Addams, Newer Ideals of Peace (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2007), 58. 

[ix] Sanford D. Horwitt, Let Them Call Me Rebel (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 75

[x] Robert Bailey, Jr., Radicals in Urban Politics: The Alinsky Approach (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 49.

[xi] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, Vintage Edition (New York: Random House, 1969), 64.

[xii] Ibid., 53.

[xiii] The BYNC website lists dozens of accomplishments since its inception. http://www.bync.org/site/information/bync

[xiv] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), 94.

[xv] Horwitt, Let Them Call Me Rebel, 138-43.

[xvi] Sidney Hyman quoted in Horwitt, Let Them Call Me Rebel, 127.

[xvii] Saul Alinsky in Marion K. Sanders, The Professional Radical: Conversations with Saul Alinsky (New York: Harper and Row, 1970),

[xviii] Addams, Newer Ideals of Peace, 62.

[xix] Alinsky in Sanders, The Professional Radical, 48.

[xx] Bailey, Radicals in Urban Politics, 49.

[xxi] Addams, “The Objective Value of A Social Settlement,” 41.

[xxii] Jane Addams, “Widening the Circle of Enlightenment” Journal of Adult Education 2:3 (June 1930), 279.

[xxiii] Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, xxvi.

[xxiv] Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, xiv.

[xxv] Lawrence J. Engel, “Saul D. Alinsky and the Chicago School” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16:1 (2002), 63.

[xxvi] Addams, “The Objective Value of A Social Settlement”, 43.

[xxvii] Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 68.

[xxviii] Ibid., 3.