Alinsky symposium sparks topics of community organizing, activism

Rachel Alexander

Credit: Bullion
Credit: Bullion

Someone  walking by  Reid on Friday, Oct. 16 easily could have been convinced that the Whitman bubble is just a myth. Over 100 community members, faculty and Whitman students gathered there during lunch to participate in a discussion about community organizing in Walla Walla. The talk, which featured a panel of three community organizers from Eastern Washington, was part of a three-day symposium hosted by Whitman’s Sociology Department.

The symposium focused on the ideas and work of Saul Alinsky, who spent over 40 years community organizing in Chicago.

“[Saul] Alinsky is an interesting character because he’s very controversial,” said Michelle Janning, sociology department chair.

Noah Leavitt, adjunct assistant professor of sociology and general studies, agreed and explained Saul Alinsky’s controversial focus.

“[Saul] Alinsky is considered controversial for the same reason that anyone who teaches disenfranchised people to understand how they can challenge existing power structures and have  more control over their lives  is controversial,” he said. “Existing power structures don’t want to be understood, and they certainly don’t want to be challenged,” he said.

Saul Alinsky studied sociology as part of his work, Janning noted.

“He never would have called himself a sociologist, but his work is very relevant for people interested in public sociology,” she said.

Sociology professors involved in the event saw it as a way to reach out to the community while making the study of sociology more practical.

“How do you take a discipline that’s considered very theoretical and take it to Whitman students, who are very practical?” said Leavitt. He noted that the symposium was motivated by a desire to bridge this divide while celebrating the centennial of Saul Alinsky’s birth.

The symposium featured numerous workshops on community organizing, with topics ranging from bringing people of different faiths together to educating the next generation of organizers. Among the featured guests was Dave Alinsky, Saul’s only son.

“I’m here to give context to the discussion and to put a human face on who my father was,” he said.

Though not a community organizer himself, Dave Alinsky recognizes the importance of activism.

“My generation has pretty much screwed things up,” he said. “It’s going to be up to your generation to clean up our mess.”

Symposium events were attended by a diverse group of people, including Whitman students, community members and local community organizers. Some used the symposium as an opportunity to network between groups, while other attended simply to hear about organizing.

First-year Emily Berg said she wasn’t exactly sure why she signed up to attend one of the symposium’s panel discussions.

“I was just really interested in a bunch of people getting together from the community with a common goal to discuss and generate ideas,” she said. “Listening to problems that are currently prevalent in Walla Walla has made me more aware of how I can affect the community while I’m here at Whitman.”

Several residents spoke about the problems they saw in Walla Walla.

“Walla Walla’s a very poor town,” said Norm Osterman, a town resident. “It’s hard to see on Main Street, where people are sipping wine and eating cheese. There’s poverty here. There’s things that need to be changed.”

The organizers in the room discussed strategies for mobilizing communities, based on Saul Alinsky’s ideas, as well as their own experience.

“At a very basic level, it’s bringing people together to make some kind of change,” said Louis Gonzales, a local union organizer.

Julia Leavitt, a Whitman graduate who organizes for Commitment to Community, stressed that it’s important “to go in and talk to [people] without an agenda.”

Gonzales agreed.

“It really is knocking on doors cold and listening,” he said.

For Dave Alinsky, community organizing goes deeper than simply giving voice to the underrepresented.

“Democracy is a very fragile thing. There’s no guarantee that it’s going to last,” he said. “You can’t just sit by and assume that other people are going to protect your freedoms. I think that’s one of the most important things you can get out of a four-year education.”