Saul D. Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” is a go-to reference for young organizers learning how to be “realistic” instead of “rhetorical” radicals, and to bring about real change in the world. This book taught me to think about how I tap my community to act on advocacies that are important to me.
Rules for Radicals
Known as the father of modern community organizing, Alinsky writes directly to the reader, is generous with anecdotes from his years of organizing experience, but doesn’t mince words when he needs to impart something important.
Here are ten of my takeaways from “Rules for Radicals”:
1. Start from where the world is.
“I start from where the world is.”
Alinsky begins with the importance of having a realistic and healthy perspective of the world.
As an idealistic young person, I get easily frustrated by current events. I find it difficult to understand why terrible things happen, because I know the world doesn’t have to be that way. But according to Alinsky, if you want to change something you have to first accept it for what it is.
I try to read more history, to understand why things are the way they are. And when you realize the powers that be that influenced the status quo, you will have a bigger perspective on how things should be changed.
2. See power and not be blinded by it.
“To know power and not fear it is essential to its constructive use and control.”
This is important, especially in a class-stratified society like the Philippines. It is ingrained in us to look at people based on social class.
We are conditioned to believe that creating an impact in society requires money and power, which exempts every Filipino who think they are poor from trying to help. We put rich people on pedestals, thinking that because they have the means they will act to build a better nation.
It is a sad fact that those who want to change the world don’t (believe they) have the capacity to do so.
3. When teaching organizing skills, start from personal experience.
On the education of a radical organizer, Alinsky maintains that “the qualities of an organizer cannot be taught”. He stresses the importance of praxis in sharing the skill:
“Always the potential organizer’s personal experience was used as the basis for teaching. Happenings become experiences when they are digested, when they are reflected on, related to general patterns, and synthesized.”
When you are learning how to organize as a young person, find mentors who can help you think about your experiences in a universal way. What do your experiences growing up reflect on your generation as a whole? What did you struggle with in your education that reveals problems on your generation as new workers?
When you can relate your personal struggles with that of the people around you, you will be more empathetic towards other people and their advocacies. This is where an organizer’s education begins.
4. Stay true to who you are.
Alinsky encourages the young radical to stay true to his nature:
“The organizer will err far less by being himself than by engaging in ‘professional techniques’ when the people really know better.”
It is tempting to imitate your mentors and idols. We all start out taking notes from them. But if you try to be someone else while trying to influence the people around you, they will see you as inauthentic and self-righteous. In organizing as well as in everything else, you gotta do you.
5. Dare to have a sense of humor.
“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”
Curiosity, irreverence, imagination, and a sense of humor are the important qualities an organizer should have according to Alinsky. I found it fascinating how he encouraged spontaneity and intuitiveness, and at the same time a daringness to mock and make fun of the world as it is and those who maintain the status quo.
6. Learn the difference between a leader and an organizer.
“The leader builds power for purposes both social and personal. He wants it for himself. The organizer finds his goal in creation of power for others to use.”
For me, this means that organizers do lead people, but not in the limelight. If you want to make an impact in the world, sometimes the work is thankless and unglamorous. Organizers don’t gain influence for themselves, but for people whose lives they want to make better.
7. Communication is one of the most important skills in organizing.
Alinsky pinpointed the ability to communicate as one of the most crucial characteristics of an organizer, the ability to reach into people’s experiences for them to understand you:
“People only understand things in terms of their experience, which means that you must get within their experience. Communication for persuasion: getting a fix on his main value or goal and holding your course on that target.”
He didn’t say public speaking skills. Alinsky said communication is important because communication is two-way: listening and speaking. An organizer should know how to listen to other people in order to understand where they are coming from. To persuade people for Alinksy means listening to what they need and promising to deliver a solution to those needs.
8. Give people hope.
“The organizer’s job is to inseminate an invitation for himself, to agitate, introduce ideas, get people pregnant with hope and a desire for change and to identify you as the person most qualified for this purpose.”
I like this quote: “get people pregnant with hope”. For me it means that you allow people not just to have hope, but also to imagine life and create goals with hope. Alinsky also says that an organizer must become anointed with this task.
9. Have a doable action plan, and make sure everybody wins.
Alinsky encourages young organizers to approach people on issues with concrete, doable action plans and a win all, take-no-prisoners attitude:
“Change comes from power, and power comes from organization. In order to act, people must get together.”
Change comes from people getting together, being organized, and becoming a power strong enough to disrupt the status quo. To achieve this, there must be a solid and consistent action plan. This is important because without structure, people will not be able to see your vision and they will not feel included in the beneficiaries of the change you wish to see in the world.
10. Give people a real and tangible chance to act.
He says that powerless people do not have opportunities to think about solutions to their problems, and usually stop short at complaints when solicited for answers:
“We must never forget that so long as there is no opportunity or method to make changes, it is senseless to get people agitated or angry, leaving them no course of action except to blow their tops. It is when people have a genuine opportunity to act and to change conditions that they begin to think their problems through – then they show their competence, raise the right questions, seek professional counsel and look for the answers.”
If you want to organize people, involve them in your vision by having a concrete plan of action that they can take. This will move them from merely thinking whether they can enact change, to actually knowing that they can.
Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” is a clear, no-nonsense, practical guide on organizing for young radicals. This book made my furrow my brow, giggle at some parts (i.e. the bean symphony), and think about how I can apply the insights from this book to something from which my community can benefit.
Author: Pia Besmonte
Pia Besmonte is a poet, literature teacher, and author based in the Philippines. She wrote “Manic Pixie Depressive Gremlin”, a collection of poems on mental health awareness and empowerment for millennial Filipinas. She loves to paint, sing, watch films, and take care of her family, Team BLG.