One Relationship at a Time
You see, you are all like acorns from Heaven, possessing the germ of life within you. If given the proper environment, assistance and circumstances, you will become a great tree. Humanity has been improved and developed by the efforts of a relatively small number of individuals who carry your race forward in all respects. So, you are like acorns from Heaven. Do you know what I mean? Many do not open.That is why there are a lot of them. Not all of them open to become seeds for great trees, but that is their promise.
…You have free choice in life.You can either be an acorn or a tree. Not everyone needs to become a tree, but if you become a tree, you will regenerate your race.” Wisdom from the Greater Community, Chapter 24: Happiness in the World
I first came across the name Saul Alinsky through a local agency of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). I did not know any more about Saul Alinsky except that he was a founder, not merely of the organization but of the very concepts driving the organization and ensuring its effectiveness.
It can’t be overstated, the power of the legacy that replicated itself into the version I observed, nor the fact that the very term “community organizing” was not a “thing” until Saul Alinsky applied original insight to the problem.
Original insight is radical. Radix, root. The heart of the matter. To have original insight is genius being expressed. It can come from paying very close attention; it is assisted by long consideration.
It took the demonization of his character for me to get to seek to know more about Saul Alinsky, and to find it a valuable study indeed.
Before I took this opportunity to get to know Saul Alinsky better, all I had to go on were snippets of wisdom handed down by the trained leadership in the IAF agency, a generation after Alinsky’s death. Their quiet assurance may have been more compelling than any little adage shared. Their actions had an integrity, a consistency, about them that was intriguing. Intriguing because sophisticated and effective, and teachable. Replicable, reliable.
The principles and philosophy found applied by IAF agencies is well worth an undergraduate or graduate thesis. What I took for granted was the integrity of the people who had mastered these principles. I saw them operating on a higher order of efficiency. The key, I see now in retrospect, was realism in the political sphere, in contrast with the idealism typical of faith-based communities. IAF agencies provide a mechanism for people of any or no faith to collaborate. This work organized communities of the faithful into practical problem-solvers. That is a remarkable achievement.
This is how truth speaks to power, I thought. It is diplomatic and wise. It does not underestimate the opposition. It does its homework. It builds relationships one at a time, deliberately and strategically (because one person represents a larger group). Here is a demonstration of how a focused and determined group of people can tackle seemingly impossible tasks with simplicity and assurance and shrink a powerful corporation to the size of the few individual decision-makers.
I saw only the great tree that Alinsky planted. I had not seen the process that he went through to give birth to it. Do I then see my own bias, in my quickness to forgive the fire of genius that gives it its urgent expediency?
Perhaps. Yet I recall how I did not like Machiavelli’s Prince, but I could not dispute its wisdom. And Baltazar Gracián, so appealing, so brutal but right. Perhaps there is a name for this genre? Epigrams by observers at the level of human: power broker. John Lennon’s lyrics have the same cynical regard for people who “ungrateful, fickle, dissembling, anxious to fear danger, and covetous of gain.” This view represents the predominating regard for current-day princes, yet for annotating the phenomenon, the witness is demonized as a “a teacher of evil.”
Though their maxims are not so much prescriptive as descriptive, in fact they are operative as warnings and preparations. They challenge the idealist with a basic alert: oh, so you don’t believe the ends justify the means? Fine, just don’t presume your opponent shares that belief. And please stop aiming your hostility at the messenger.
“The way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation.”–Machiavelli
“Honi soit qui mal y pense.” The principles that I observed in the IAF establishments, the sprouts under the canopy of the oak tree of Alinsky’s influence, were effective instruments for unity among diverse groups. People of all faiths and no faith gathered without agenda to allow the collective agenda to percolate through structured deliberation and commitment to follow through with many action steps. The tangible accomplishments are significant; the intangible achievements–the relationships formed among diverse populations and across great chasms of divergent interest–inestimable but profound.
The practical reality, the fundamental truth of our existence at this time in history, is that human unity trumps any individual objective. This is what Saul Alinsky realized and then addressed with methods and procedures to allow people across the divides of class, race and belief to collaborate.
Mark 4:3-20New International Version (NIV)
3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed.4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”
9 Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’[a]”
13 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?
14 The farmer sows the word. 15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. 16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. 20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”