Reaction Paper #2: Critical Synthesis
October 19, 2015
Dr. Leslie Martin
“The Education of an Organizer” vs. “There Goes the Neighborhood”
In Saul Alinsky’s article, “The Education of an Organizer,” he asserts that the key to a successful organization or movement is a great organizer. In “There Goes the Neighborhood: Environmental Equity and the Location of New Hazardous Waste Management Facilities,” Mark Atlas discusses the controversy that has spawned from the placement of hazardous waste treatment, storage, or disposal facilities (TSDFs). According to Atlas’ study, TSDFs are most likely to be placed near communities in which the people are less likely to express their discontent. At first glance, these two articles appear to be totally unrelated. However, after further analysis, they are actually linked in the sense that Alinsky’s article may provide answers to the questions in Atlas’ article. A successful rally against the placement of a TSDF is dependent upon a great organizer in the community, and the likelihood of the emergence of a great organizer is dependent upon the level of educations of the residents and the lack of racial diversity in a neighborhood or community.
The most obvious point that Alinsky makes in his article is that a successful movement is dependent upon a successful organizer. However, the real issue that Alinsky wants to identify and dissect is what it is exactly that makes a great organizer great. According to Alinsky, organizers are rarely great and have success in their movements, due to the fact that they are not versatile enough. In order for a good organizer to be great, he must be universal in who he is able to motivate. Typically, an organizer will be able to rally one group of people very well, but when it comes time to rally any another race or class, all of his prowess disappears. He could be perfect at motivating all of the lower-class Latinos in an area, but when it comes to middle-class white people, he may not be able to communicate a single a word to them. The reason for such failures is that organizers always use their own personal experiences when trying to motivate, but “an organizer can communicate only within the areas of experience of his audience; otherwise there is no communication.” (Alinsky P.70) That being said, organizers must learn to adapt to all types of people and be able to relate to as many people as possible, in order to communicate effectively. Alinsky lists the following attributes that an organizer must have in order communicate effectively and thus be a great organizer: curiosity, imagination, irreverence, a slightly blurred vision of better world, a sense of humor, “a well-integrated political schizoid,” political relativity, an organized personality, a strong ego, a free and open mind, and the ability to constantly create new out of old. (Alinsky)
In Atlas’ article, he attempts to resolve controversies surrounding the environmental equity movement. Emerging in the 1980s, the environmental equity movement seeks to better understand the impact of pollution on certain population groups. There have been studies that have shown that TSDFs are more commonly placed around low-income, minority groups, than any other population of people, making some people claim that low-income, minority groups have suffered more negative environmental and health affects as a result of the pollution. In response to these studies and claims, several more studies have been done to test these theories. However, over the years, research has concluded in some very conflicting results. Some results show that low-income, minority groups are suffering most from pollution, while others show middle-class and/or college educated people are more likely to have TSDFs place near them. Based on the studies done before that of Atlas, there was no definitive correlation between race or income and placement of TSDFs. In order to clarify the debate, Atlas conducted a study of his own. The results of his study showed that the placement of TSDFs had nothing to do with race, class, or income. Instead, the TSDFs were placed near communities that would show the least amount of discontent. Atlas asserts political activism is actually the variable that affects placement of TSDFs. He essentially said the more fuss that a community raises, then the less likely it is that a TSDF will be placed there. (Atlas)
“Fuss” or discontent raised over the issue is where Alinsky’s ideas become relevant. As Alinsky asserted, a successful movement is dependent upon a successful organizer. That being said, I believe that what is happening behind the scenes of the placement or lack of placement of TSDFs is whether or not there is a good organizer in the community. Communities or neighborhoods that rally against the placement of TSDFs are the places that are safe from TSDFs. The government decides instead to place the TSDF in a location that will express less dissatisfaction. So why is that a community has a good organizer or not? There is no definite answer to that question, but I do have a few hypotheses. I think that education has the most to do with it. Although studies show there is no obvious correlation between number of college-educated people and placement of TSDFs. However, I still feel that if a neighborhood consists entirely of college-educated residents, then it is more likely that there will be a well-rounded, intelligent organizer in the neighborhood who would be able to effectively rally the community and stop the TSDF from being placed there. Additionally, I feel that race would be the second factor that would affect whether or not a strong organizer would emerge. It does not matter which race, I just think it is more likely for a neighborhood or community that is predominantly one race to rally together. If ninety-five percent of the residents in a neighborhood are black for example, then it will be relatively easy for a strong organizer to feel comfortable communicating to everyone in that neighborhood and organize them to protest the placement of a TSDF.
One additional possibility that I thought about when comparing these two articles is what exactly would happen if organizers of Alinsky’s caliber were to lead in all of the proposed sites for TSDFs? Atlas claims that political activism is the key to preventing a TSDF from being placed in a city. I propose that strong organizers are the unspoken reason for why certain neighborhoods are as politically active as they are. That being said, if all organizers are as effective as Alinsky wants them to be, and all neighborhoods raised equal discontent to the placement of TSDFs, then what would happen? I assume that TSDFs have to go somewhere, so how would their locations be decided? I think that is part of the problem with Alinsky’s article. If all organizers were to be as effective as Alinsky was, then everything would become a stalemate.
Although my theories certainly are not definitive, I do feel that they provide a solid explanation for Atlas’ claim through Alinsky’s ideas. Alinsky discusses the importance of a great organizer and what it takes to make a great organizer, while Atlas clarifies why it is that TSDFs tend to be placed in low-income and/or minority neighborhoods by suggesting that political activism is actually the answer, not race or income. Additionally, according to Alinsky, political activism is mostly dependent upon a great organizer. Therefore, the placement or lack of placement of TSDFs is actually dependent upon whether or not there is a strong organizer in the community. The reason that TSDFs are more commonly placed in low-income, minority neighborhoods, as opposed to middle-class neighborhoods consisting of college-educated residents is because it is more likely for a great organizer to emerge from a neighborhood that has residents with high levels of education and/or a lack of racial diversity.
Alinsky, Saul. “The Education of an Organizer.” Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals. 1971. 63-80. Web.
Atlas, Mark. “There Goes the Neighborhood: Environmental Equity and the Location of New Hazardous Waste Management Facilities.” Policy Studies Journal (2002): 171-192. Web.