Community Organizing:  Addams and Alinsky

Maurice Hamington


A settlement constantly endeavors to make its neighborhood realize that it belongs to the city as a whole, and can only improve as the city improves.

--Jane Addams


The job of the organizer is to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as the “dangerous enemy.” The word “enemy” is sufficient to put the organizer on the side of the people . . .

--Saul Alinsky


It is not coincidence that Chicago produced two of the most important figures in community organizing of the twentieth century: Jane Addams and Saul Alinsky (1909-1972).  Chicago was a center of social upheaval as exhibited by the Haymarket Riots of 1888, the Pullman Strike of 1894, and the Race Riots of 1919 (as well as race riots in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s).  This city’s social unrest existed in dynamic relationship to ideas about social change and reform fomented in Chicago as witnessed in the settlement work of Addams’ Hull House, the socialist work of Eugene Debs’s American Railway Union, the urban research and social theorizing of the “Chicago School”[i], and the Back of the Yards organization founded by Saul Alinsky.  Addams was the visible leader of one reform effort, the Social Settlement Movement, and Alinsky’s name became synonymous with the community organizing movement.  As activist Heather Booth describes, “Alinsky is to community organizing as Freud is to psychoanalysis.”[ii]  In this article, I will challenge the notion that the genealogy and influence of community organizing originates with Alinsky, and suggest that the innovation of Jane Addams’ work and philosophy are being overlooked.  The Settlement Movement has been characterized as well meaning, but paternalistic and patronizing[iii], while the Community Organizing movement is described as a grass roots effort that was tough minded and effective.[iv] Alinsky facilitated the distinction between the two movements by frequently criticizing the methods of the Settlement workers.  This chapter focuses on the comparative community organizing philosophies of Addams and Alinsky.  I wish to dispel some of the misconceptions about the differences between the two leaders while highlighting other crucial dichotomies.  I claim that although Addams and Alinsky differ in regard to how to leverage power and social vision, in many ways Alinsky (through the Chicago school) is an unwitting protégé of Addams when it comes to social epistemology and participative democracy.


The Addams’ Model of Community Organizing

    In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Addams authored a series of articles that served to define the social settlement movement and establish Addams as the spokesperson for the movement.  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.”[v] 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, with an openness to caring for and acting on behalf of those others.  For Addams, sympathetic knowledge is the connective understanding necessary for a robust democracy.[vi]  Social settlements were physical manifestations of her democratic philosophy.  The settlement was a multifaceted educational conduit that existed to facilitate social knowledge across boundaries of identity such as class and culture.  Those in the neighborhood had an opportunity to learn about one another as well as about how to navigate and succeed in the United States through settlement programs. Simultaneously, settlement workers learned from the various cultures around them.  Addams reflected upon and thematized what she learned through her writing and speeches thus allowing those not involved in settlements to learn about the experiences as well.  The social settlements were intentionally not charity organizations and Addams was quick to criticize that label: “I am always sorry to have Hull House regarded as philanthropy.”[vii] Starting from the feminist ontological view that humans are fundamentally connected in a web of relationships rather than atomistic agents, the social settlements facilitated self sufficiency by supporting community ties and promoting life long learning.  Addams analogized social settlements as good neighbors, and as such, modeled the behavior of members in a healthy democracy.  Good neighbors 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. 

One example of Addams’ concern for women and the development of self sufficiency in the neighborhood can be seen in the creation of the Jane Club, described in Twenty Years at Hull-House.  At a time when collective bargaining did not enjoy the legal protections that it does today, Addams observed that single women labor union members were particularly vulnerable when it came to periods of unemployment created by strikes or lockouts.  During labors actions single working women could no longer afford rent money.  Such vulnerability reduced the power of the bargaining unit and the influence of women within that unit.  Collaborating with labor leaders such as Mary Kenney, Addams established a workingwoman’s cooperative, subsequently named the Jane Club.  This cooperative ensured that all members’ rent was paid in the event of labor interruptions.  Addams secured funding to build housing for the Jane Club, but it operated as an independent entity as described in the Hull-House Year Book (1934): “The club has been, from the beginning, self-governing, the officers being elected by the members from their own number.”[viii]  This report came after the Jane Club’s 27th year of continuous operation.  The Jane Club allowed individual members to flourish through the power of communal enterprise.  Addams’ organizational vision made this project possible.

As seen in the example of the Jane Club, Addams’ philosophy of community organizing was responsive, anti-ideological, fluid, and methodologically anti-antagonistic.  Most of all, Hull House listened to the community and responding to needs.  It was non-ideological in that Hull House did not affiliate with any particular group.  Although socialists and anarchists were invited to speak at Hull House, there was no affiliation.  Many residents held religious beliefs, but no settlement ties to organized religion were made.  Furthermore, 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 personal antagonism.  Although disagreeing with Powers’ backroom deals and cronyism, she was objective enough to admire his ability to form close ties with the community.[ix]  She refused to villainize anyone, although she was not afraid of pointing out their errors.  In her account of the Pullman Strike, she delineates the mistakes in leadership that George Pullman made including a lack of connection to his workers and a blind paternalism.[x]  Despite her support for labor organizing, she also recounted the errors of the workers.  Pullman was not characterized as inherently evil, but rather as an all too human gone astray.  In community organizing, Addams attempted to keep all people in the conversation and avoided alienating individuals through unnecessary personal antagonism.

In summary, Addams’ community organizing supported her political philosophy which emphasized social democracy, widespread participation, and 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 Settlement Movement was a very disparate amalgamation of efforts.  The over 400 settlements that existed at the movement’s peak had no formal ties to one another.  For example, although Hull House avoided religious affiliation, many other settlement communities overtly embraced religion.[xi] The movement also 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.”[xii] 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 the philosophy of community organizing 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 one that Addams had created in the early decades at Hull House.  Karl Marx once famously declared, “I am not a Marxist” in response to the many unsavory manifestations of his work. 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

Addams (with Ellen Gates Starr) opened Hull House in 1889 in West Chicago on Halstead Street.  A half-century later, 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.”[xiii] The neighborhood that Alinsky confronted was largely foreign born, suffered from high rates of unemployment, and resided amidst 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.  Alinsky did a great deal of behind the scenes work to bring the parties together, and he coordinated a highly effective campaign for the event..  The local newspapers almost immediately hailed Alinsky as the architect of a new movement for community justice.[xiv]  The Alinsky led coalition successfully leveraged public outrage to bring expanded city services and political power to the Back of the Yards community.  This effort 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.  Meeghan stayed to work in the BYNC while Alinsky moved from battleground to battleground.

     Alinsky’s philosophy of community organizing is based on power relations.  He built grassroots organizations that 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.”[xv] Social research is followed by the identification and development of local leadership that Alinsky describes as “native” or “indigenous” leadership.[xvi]  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.  Invitations are extended to these community groups rather than individuals.  The strategy is one of strength in numbers that parallels the solidarity crucial for effective 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.”[xvii]  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.[xviii]  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 occurred in 1944.  The event also serves as contrasting Alinsky’s approach with that of Addams.  An opportunity arose to bring the Infant Welfare Society’s (a children’s health clinic) branch station to the Back of the Yards community.  Two local organizations vied to house the station:  BYNC and the University of Chicago Settlement.  To win the battle, 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 status for BYNC as the voice of the community and he was determined not to lose.  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.[xix]  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.  Alinsky had once again demonstrated how effective his methods were.  As a result of the confrontation, the Chicago Settlement never fully regained its stature in the community.[xx]  The BYNC used its newfound status to fight for increasing benefits for the community.


Common Themes

     Superficially, Addams and Alinsky appear to have very different organizing philosophies.  However, a 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. Sidney Hyman, whose sister had been a resident of Hull House, became an activist for Alinsky in the BYNC.  In a 1983 interview describing his enthusiasm for working with Alinsky, Hyman contrasts Addams’ philosophy with that of Alinsky’s:

The good Episcopalian ladies with the good-bad conscience did everything for Hull House.  These were the so-called hellfare workers, the Lady Bountifuls.  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.[xxi]

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 fail to 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.  Addams challenges the class structure of charity, for example, when she criticizes the charity worker who judges the cleanliness of the neighborhood home “over against her own parasitic cleanliness and a social standing only attained through status.”[xxii]  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 shared a concern for listening and learning the needs of the community employing both quantitative and qualitative means to gain perspective.  When asked how to organize people, Alinsky responds, “You find out what they care about, what they are worried about, and you organize them around these issues.”[xxiii] Addams began her settlement with the simple plan of being a good neighbor, but within 5 years of opening Hull House, she and her cohort were engaging in systematic research to understand the community.  In 1895, Addams co-authored Hull-House Maps and Papers, a groundbreaking social study on the ethnicity and conditions surrounding the settlement.  Historian Kathryn Kish Sklar refers to this study as “the single most important work by American women social scientists before 1900.”[xxiv]  In the introduction, Addams makes it clear that Hull-House Maps and Papers, is not in the interest of science, but part of a connection to the community that will serve to facilitate progress:

The residents of Hull-House offer these maps and papers to the public, not as exhaustive treatises, but as recorded observations, which may possibly be of value, because they are immediate, and the result of long acquaintance.  All the writers have been in actual residence in Hull-House, some of them for five years; their energies however, have been chiefly directed not towards sociological investigation, but to constructive work.”[xxv]

In this manner, both Addams and Alinsky demonstrated a respect for the knowledge generated by social science and the scientific method, and each understood the need for presence and responsiveness beyond quantitative analysis.

Both Alinsky and Addams advocated for 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.”[xxvi]  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.”[xxvii]  Alinsky’s community groups were democratic to the point that he regretted some of the directions chosen by local groups he helped found.[xxviii]

Both Addams and Alinsky 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.”[xxix]  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.”[xxx]  In the same way, Alinsky is very concerned that the United States is facing 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.”[xxxi]  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 citizen’s duty for active involvement.  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.”[xxxii]

     The resonance between the social philosophies of Addams and Alinsky is not surprising if the Chicago School connection is taken into account.  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 academics 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 and 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 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.).”[xxxiii] 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 actively engaged in any particular issue and thus 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.  Addams recognized the role of power and the ability Hull House had to leverage its 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.”[xxxiv] Nevertheless, their rhetorical methods diverged widely. Addams was guarded in her remarks in order to keep people engaged in the conversation. Alinsky was flamboyantly 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.”[xxxv]  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.”[xxxvi]  Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals maintains numerous war metaphors describing community organizing as “warfare” with the “enemy” requiring “tactics” to gain and redistribute power.  Accordingly, Alinsky’s abrasiveness elicited numerous critics.  Addams had her detractors as well, but they were for the positions that she took, not because of her rhetorical demeanor. 

Methodology is not the only difference between the two.  Perhaps 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.  For Addams, war was regressive and wasteful and thus a threat to society.  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 organizations 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.

     An interesting example of the stylistic difference between Addams and Alinsky has to do with their approach to higher education.  They both were college educated and benefited tremendously from the skills, knowledge, and mentors of their academic experience. Both found fault with abstract scholarship that found no basis in social advancement.  Alinsky is explicit, “I never appealed to people based on abstract values.”[xxxvii]  Addams also recognizes the limitations of abstract ideals.  When it came to organizing social efforts around an issue such as prostitution or child labor, Addams thought it was crucial to use tangible examples that resonated with the audience in order to fuel interest and passion for the subject.  Nevertheless, Addams maintained a commitment to scholarly reflection to help characterize and give meaning to social issues.  In regard to a holistic notion of peace that was more than the absence of war and required local and international effort, Addams proposed that, “it requires the philosopher to unify these spiritual efforts of the common man into the internationalism of good will.”[xxxviii]  Addams did have her criticism of scholarship that became too academic, as reflected in her falling out with the University of Chicago.  Comparatively, Alinsky appears almost bitter in his anti-intellectual tirades.  In a 1965 interview, Alinsky muses, “In college I took a lot of sociology courses too, but I can’t say they made a deep impression on me. . . . Today the University of Chicago sociology department is just a tribe of head counters.”[xxxix]  The professionalized social settlement workers of the era was one of the educated groups that Alinsky railed against, referring to their training as “formalized garbage they learned in school.”[xl]


Gender Mapping

Ultimately, Alinsky and his followers emphasize that they were engaging in a new brand of community organizing.  Note that Alinsky reveled in the word “radical.”  Alinsky’s two most important works are Rules for Radicals and Reveille for Radicals. Sanford D. Horwitt’s biography of Alinsky is titled Let Them Call Me Radical, and Marion K. Sanders published interview with Alinsky is titled The Professional Radical. Alinsky defines a radical as, “that unique person who actually believes what he says.  He is that person to whom the common good is the greatest personal value.  He is that person who genuinely and completely believes in mankind.  The radical is so completely identified with mankind that he personally shares the pain, the injustices, and the sufferings of all his fell men.”[xli] Despite this fixation with the term, was Alinsky a radical?  Alinsky advocated for social reform and change using tactics designed to provoke and gain attention, but he did not question fundamental institutions of society such as capitalism.  By many standards, including those of feminist theorists, Alinsky is a mild radical at best.   Sociologists Donald C. Reitzes and Dietrick C. Reitzes claim that despite self description to the contrary, Alinsky’s philosophy of community organizing is not “radical and revolutionary.”[xlii]  During the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee held dialogues with Alinsky and his organizers, but they became frustrated because he was only advocating reform.  Mike Miller, who worked for both SNCC and later an Alinsky organization, describes:  “A common label attached to Alinsky was that he was only ‘local,’ failing to understand that major decisions were made at a national level.”[xliii]  I suggest that Alinsky was using the term “radical” not in the sense of challenging existing institutions and structures, but as describing a curmudgeon with integrity.  Furthermore, the term is clearly masculine in Alinsky’s mind.  For Alinsky, a radical is a man who does not use methods traditionally described as “feminine.”  Furthermore, all of Alinsky’s examples of radicals—John P. Altgeld, Edward Bellamy, John Brown, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Lloyd, Horace Mann, Thomas Paine, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens--are male.

What is intriguing about the difference in methodology between Addams and Alinsky is how well it maps onto gender stereotypes.  Addams was cooperative and caring in fostering life-long learning and relationships.  Alinsky was competitive and abrasive in trying to achieve victories in the name of social justice.  Alinsky’s organizing did not exclude women, but its demands and style favored men, and this was borne out demographically.[xliv]  Kenneth Boulding describes Alinsky’s community organizing as requiring, “behavior more typically identified as male; activism, aggression, self assertion, and organizing more frequently associated with the ‘managerial sex.’”[xlv]  Perhaps not surprisingly, the “masculine” approach has been considered realistic and efficacious while the “feminine” approach has been thought of as naïve and simplistic.  Accordingly, for decades Alinsky has been assigned the title of “father of community organizing,” while Addams’ community organizing legacy through social settlements has been overshadowed.  Until recently, Addams has been excluded from serious consideration in philosophy and sociology[xlvi] as well as activism/community organizing/radicalism.  Given the breadth of her social theorizing, the volume of her publications, her impact on local communities and international policies and institutions, one has to wonder if implicit sexism is not at the heart of her exclusion.

Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker authored one of the few comparative studies of gender and community organizing.  They compare the “Alinsky approach” to a “women-centered approach” in community organizing, thus Addams is not a direct target of comparison, but she is a leading figure in the women-centered approach.  This insightful and comprehensive study divides the two approaches along a public/private sphere split.  According to Stall and Stoecker, Alinsky’s methods assume working within the public sphere while a women-centered approach must traverse the private to the public.  The assumptions of the two approaches are very different with the Alinsky model assuming the self-interested agent and the women-centered approach assuming a caring model.  Accordingly, Alinsky’s organizers must find the issues that resonate with people’s individual self interest. The women-centered model seeks to foster connections among community members to facilitate caring.  Although this is a useful and well-documented analysis, a few of the assumptions of Stall and Stoecker’s discussion appear to belie the gender biases that they wished to highlight.  Comparing an individual’s community organizing approach (Alinsky’s) to an amalgamation of approaches (women-centered) appears unbalanced.  Stall and Stoecker claim, “unlike the Alinsky model, the women centered model of community organizing cannot be attributed to a single person or movement.”[xlvii]  The implication of this statement is that Alinsky is solely responsible for his philosophy of community organizing: the myth of the heroic male.  Such a decontextualized claim ignores Alinsky’s training and acknowledged mentors such as labor organizer, John L. Lewis, as well as the aforementioned Park and Burgess.  Furthermore, such an approach assumes that what Alinsky did was novel.  His tactics may have been unique, but much of his philosophy, a social epistemology of participative and proximal relations, can be found in Addams’ theories of the settlement movement.  Stall and Stoecker also seem to implicitly denigrate the ability of a women-centered approach to structure large-scale projects:  “The presence, and partial restriction, of women in the private sphere leads the women-centered organizing model to emphasize a very different organizing process formed around creating an ideal private-sphere-like setting rather than a large public sphere organization.”[xlviii] Just because women were restricted from the public sphere did not mean that they did not enter or manipulate it.  Addams’ Hull House was very much an entrée into the public sphere that Addams and her cohort leveraged to become more widely influential.  For example, Robyn Muncy documents how Hull House residents were responsible for creating the Women’s Bureau, the first government agency headed by a woman, longtime Hull House resident Julia Lathrop.  The Women’s Bureau was not only a women-centered organization, but it integrated numerous feminist principles of operation.[xlix]  To be fair, Stall and Stoecker are not alone in assuming the primacy of Alinsky’s community organizing, but it is intriguing that gender bias runs so deep that even those attending to it cannot escape it.[l] 

Alinsky accomplished a great deal in his lifetime and modern day activists do well to study his philosophy and methods, but his legacy is perhaps generally overstated and inflated to match his larger-than-life personality.  Judith Ann Trolander notes that Alinsky was a powerful spokesperson for community organizing and a brilliant self promoter, which served to advance his cause.[li]  Perhaps Alinsky influenced the extent of his own legacy.


Conclusion: Addams as a Model of Feminist Community Organizing

     Marie Weil lists various United States social movements with significant female leadership, and no one is associated with more movements than Addams.  Despite this delineation, Weil falls prey to gender perceptions, claiming:

Despite a rich and proud heritage of female organizers and movement leaders, the field of community organization, in both its teaching models and its major exponents, have been a male-dominated preserve, where, even though values are expressed in terms of participatory democracy, much of the focus within the dominant practice methods has been nonsupportive or antithetical to feminism.  Strategies have largely been based on “macho-power” models, manipulativeness, and zero-sum gamesmanship.[lii]

I would qualify Weil’s largely accurate description by suggesting not that the field has been male dominated, but that the portrayal of it has been.  Much like Alinsky’s effort to depict himself as using necessary masculine methods over and against inferior feminine methods, history has masked the successful communitarian and cooperative efforts of women organizers as anachronistic.  In this manner, feminist community organizing is hidden behind the acclaim heaped upon male organizing.  The feminist process of reassessing given historical truths reveals more grassroots organizing than is commonly attributed. 

     Addams develops a feminist philosophy of community organizing emphasizing proximal relations and sympathetic knowledge that in some ways resonates more with modern feminist sensibilities than it did with first or second wave feminism.  In 1990, Patricia Yancey Martin explored the dimensions of a feminist organization.  She offered numerous definitions one of which is that a feminist organization is “pro-woman, political, and socially transformational.”[liii] Addams’ approach to community organizing was inclusive, providing new and unique opportunities to empower women including athletic expression, reproductive information dissemination, and economic independence.  Hull House residents often found themselves engaged in political conflicts.  Ultimately, it was a women-centered community that modeled what women could accomplish in the public sphere.  This form of community organizing has a modern quality in its fluidity and cosmopolitanism, and yet sought to create lasting social relationships.  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.  This quality might particularly appeal to modern feminists in a world dominated by truncated social transactions and technology that facilitates long distance interactions.  Hull House, and Addams reflections upon society and social settlements, remain a fascinating example of feminist community organizing that has not been fully mined for its ongoing significance.



[i] The Chicago School is associated with scholars at the University of Chicago in the very late 19th century and early 20th century in the fields of economics, philosophy, psychology, religion, and sociology; however, the meaning of the term has evolved differently in the various disciplines. Addams was associated with early influential members of the Chicago School including philosophers John Dewey and George Herbert Mead while later sociologists, Robert Ezra Park and Ernest W. Burgess, influenced Alinsky.

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

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

[iv] 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.

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

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

[vii] Jane Addams, “The Objective Value of A Social Settlement,” in ed. Jean Bethke Elshtain The Jane Addams Reader (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 45.

[viii] Hull-House Year Book: Forty-Fifth Year, 57.

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

[x] Jane Addams, “A Modern Lear” Survey 29 (Nov. 2, 1912), 131-7.

[xi] Mina Carson, Settlement Folk (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 219 n38.

[xii] 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.

[xiii] 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. 

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

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

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

[xvii] Ibid., 53.

[xviii] The BYNC website lists dozens of accomplishments since its inception.

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

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

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

[xxii] Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics, 12.

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

[xxiv] Kathryn Kish Sklar, “Hull-House Maps and Papers: Social Science as Women’s Work in the 1890’s” in ed. Helene Silverberg, Gender and American Social Science: The Formative Years, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 127.

[xxv] Jane Addams, “Prefatory Note” in Hull-House Maps and Papers: A Presentation of Nationalities an Wages in a Congested District of Chicago, Together with Comments and Essays on Problems Growing Out of the Social Conditions, Residents of Hull House, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 45.

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

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

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

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

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

[xxxi] Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, xxvi.

[xxxii] Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, xiv.

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

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

[xxxv] Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 68.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 3.

[xxxvii] Saul Alinsky in Sanders, The Professional Radical, 31.

[xxxviii] Addams, Newer Ideals of Peace, 15.

[xxxix] Ibid., 14-15.

[xl] Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 68.

[xli] Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, 15.

[xlii] Reitzes and Reitzes, “Saul D. Alinsky,” 54.

[xliii] Mike Miller, “The 60’s Student Movement & Saul Alinsky: An Alliance that Never Happened.”  Social Policy 34:2&3 (Winter 2003, Spring 2004): 106.

[xliv] Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker, “Community Organizing or Organizing Community? Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment” Gender & Society 12:6 (December 1998), 735; and, Trolander, Professionalism and Social Change, 65.

[xlv] Kenneth Boulding, “Alienation and Economic Development: The Larger Background of the Settlement Movement, “Neighborhood Goals in a Rapidly Changing World (New York: NFS, 1958), 62-3.

[xlvi] The pioneering work of Mary Jo Deegan and Charlene Haddock Seigfried has asserted Addams intellectual significance in sociology and philosophy respectively.  Deegan, Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School; and Charlene Haddock Seigfried, Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[xlvii] Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker, “Community Organizing or Organizing Community? Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment” Gender & Society 12:6 (December 1998), 736.

[xlviii] Ibid., 746.

[xlix] Robyn Muncy, Creating A Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890-1935 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[l] Joan Acker has observed that men, making feminist analysis without implicit assumptions about masculine primacy challenging, dominate organizational theory.  Joan Acker, “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations” Gender & Society 4:2 (June 1990), 139-58.

[li] Trolander, Professionalism and Social Change, 144.

[lii] Marie Weil, “Women, Community, and Organizing” in Nan Van Den Bergh and Lynn B. Cooper, eds. Feminist Visions for Social Work (Silver Spring, Md: National Association of Social Workers, 1986), 192.

[liii] Patricia Yancey Martin, “Rethinking Feminist Organizations” Gender & Society 4:2 (June 1990), 182.