Each month we bring you a nonviolence training workshop
based on the experience of the Nonviolent Action Training
project and INNATE.
here to view print version]
Saul Alinsky, the charismatic US American organiser
and community activist whose work could be considered the
foundation of this approach, died in 1972. Some of Alinsky's
tactics - both in theory and in practice - have always been
controversial even for activists. His classic exposition is
the book "Rules for radicals - a pragmatic primer for
realistic radicals", published in 1971. People tend to
love him or hate him but there is a tendency not to mention
him initially when explaining the approach, on the basis that
people are put off or confused - and in any case things have
moved on in the couple of decades since (‘broad based
organising’ groups may not directly use Alinsky’s
thinking or ‘rules’).
In the United States of America it could be
said that the direct heir/ess to Alinsky is the IAF, Industrial
Areas Foundation. In Britain there is a Citizen Organising
Foundation which has worked on broad based organisations in
different areas. Both of these target the churches and/or
religious groups as their main building blocks. But there
are other State-side coalitions which are attempting to build
up to a national agenda from the bottom up, such as ACORN
and Citizen Action, to put pressure at both state and national
level for action on issues of poverty, unemployment and community
It is hard to generalise and some of the following
applies only to the IAF/COF model, but here is an attempt
to spell out some of the main characteristics of these approaches;
1) Building coalitions on a broad base from
the bottom up to work on perhaps one winnable issue at a time.
Perhaps nothing new in this you might say, but a lot of work
goes into it, the IAF / COF model being to principally use
the churches/religious groups. The aim is to be able to make
effective demands of power-holders. And it is targeting 'ordinary'
people as the ones to get involved, using their own self interest,
and based on a pragmatic rather than ideological approach.
2) Tremendous work on preparing for events,
whether it's a meeting or other form of action. A meeting
with a city official, for example, might have a dozen different
scenarios role-played before the actual meeting took place.
Mass meetings of members are planned down to the last detail
and may include putting officials on the spot. Such meetings
are treated like a piece of theatre (made to be exciting),
and other actions may be even more theatrical.
3) A particular interviewing approach to really
get to know key people locally and others who may be of use
at a later date, without initially asking anything of people.
4) Affirmation and appreciation for the part
played by people and groups; at mass meetings, groups are
welcomed and praised.
5) Efficient and effective assessment both during
mass meetings (with roving stewards picking up feelings and
perceptions), immediately afterwards, and with a smaller group
6) Organisations are self-supporting, 'dues'
(subscription) based; these may be collected on a door-to-door
7) Using the churches' and religious groups’
position in society to pressurise organs of the state, and
pushing the churches themselves to put their money where their
The United States has a very high proportion
of church goers (perhaps 50%) and some people would draw a
contrast with European states such as Britain where the church
going population might be nearer a tenth of that. Can the
churches be used as building blocks for mass movements where
church-going is very much a minority activity? And while Northern
Ireland may have similar churchgoing rates to the USA there
are additional difficulties in that, while the church going
population is relatively large, it might be assumed in bringing
churches together that you had a different agenda (ecumenism),
and many of the churches are in any case very conservative;
in the Republic, an ecumenical approach might be less problematic
in general but anti-clericalism is now a live issue.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
From “Rules for Radicals”
1. Power is not only what you have but what
the enemy thinks you have.
2. Never go outside the experience of your people.
3. Whenever possible go outside the experience of the enemy.
4. Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.
5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.
6. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.
7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
8. Keep the pressure on (with different tactics and actions)..
9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
10. The major premise for tactics is the development of operations
that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.
11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break
through into its counterside.
12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.
13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A. You can familiarise yourself with some
of the work by doing a web search for the organisations mentioned
above, and if dealing with Alinsky’s tactics from ‘Rules
for Radicals’ then reading the book is a good idea.
B. Copy the information above for participants as a handout.
Allow people to read it, perhaps giving it to people before
the session which will deal with it.
C. In running through the handout, examples you can supply
from your preparation (A above) will help bring it home to
people what it’s about.
D. You could then do a brainstorm on a topic like ‘How
to build a mass movement’. A key question is whether
you feel you can use churches and religious groups as ‘building
blocks’, or whether there are possibilities with community
or voluntary organistaions.
E. If taking Alinsky’s tactics, a spectrum/barometer
exercise could be useful in bringing out different approaches
and interpretations; those who agree completely with a tactic
go at one end of an imaginary line in the room, those who
disagree completely at the other end. A few people at different
points (either end, and middle, or where people are particularly
concentrated, or isolated) can be asked to explain why they
have placed themselves where they are. Run though the tactics,
or some key tactics, one by one.
F. Subsidiary questions can include (during E or afterwards)
“Are these tactics ethical?”, “Are these
tactics nonviolent?” if these issues have not already
been dealt with fully.
G. General discussion on ‘broad based organising’
and/or on tactics can focus on the relevance to particular
campaigns that participants are engaged in.
H. You can conclude with a quick round asking people about
one thing they may have learnt, if anything, from the discussion