Study Guide: Collective Action for Social Change

A solid how-to guide to organizing.

Collective Action for Social Change: An Introduction to Community Organizing by Aaron Schutz and Marie G. Sandy is a solid read for any community based activist (Here’s a PDF if you can’t afford a hard copy). Those new to organizing will appreciate the foundation, history, and theory within this book, while seasoned activists will find new frames to asses and improve their community organizing skills. 


While reading this I couldn’t help but think that if I had read it 10 years ago I would have saved the causes I champion a lot of time and frustration. In this study guide I will draw out some of the most important lessons in this book, some of the theory behind this organizing model, and some prompts for further readings.

The book is broken up into 4 parts. Part I is a basic overview of organizing, Part II is some history and theory of organizing, and Part III is some case studies. Part IV is the main course though. There’ll never be a how to manual but this section gets pretty close.

Part I: Overview (Pages 1-44)

A key component of this approach to community organizing is that it exists to make change within the existing political and economic landscape. Within the first few pages the authors make it clear that:

“..the organizing tradition has always been reformist, not revolutionary. Organizing groups want influence over, not destruction of the social institutions that affect the lives of the oppressed”.

This doesn’t mean there is not conflict with power structures but simply that the goal is not to overthrow the system.

While this will cause more radical organizers to dismiss the rest of the book they would be mistaken. Whether it’s Mao’s Mass Line, Entryism, or the neo-Alinsky style of organizing found in this book the goal, at its core is the same: How can millions of oppressed people can be mobilized to exert political power in their lives.

Power is defined here as the ability to make change. How powerful an organization is is determined by how many people it can mobilize, how much money it has, what its reputation is, how often its input is sought before a decision is made, etc. The basic formula laid out here to build power is to have an organizer bring community leaders together under a type of coalition or new group and have everyone agree to collective goals through a shared values.

Organizers are usually paid staffers who have training in this area while the leaders are the real decision makers. The organizers shouldn’t push their agenda or try to mold leaders into adopting their views. Organizers’ goal are to move leaders to a collective yet vague value set such as justice, peace, or equality. Leaders are the the ones who decide what the problem is that conflicts with these collective values, how to cut this problem into tangible issues, and how to break those issues into an actionable strategy. Of course the organizer has her/his opinions, views, and expertise that influence their leaders but this cannot be stressed enough: An organizer’s job is to follow leadership.

From here the win/loss of the campaign is consolidated through organizational growth and increased power. And this is the major takeaway from this section. The most important thing for an organization isn’t winning but growing the organization so that it can make more and bigger wins in the future. This means that how you win is more important than actually winning. I’ve been part of many groups that have won a campaign but fizzled out within the year because it didn’t consolidate its victory into growth.

The authors take some time to go over activities that do not fall under the organizing category. Most of the critiques against these types of activities are that they don’t build power or challenge the existing power structure. While this is true, many of these often add to organizing efforts. In most cases organizing without any of these elements would be impossible. Activities the authors don’t consider organizing are: 

  • Legal action
  • Mobilizing
  • Activism
  • Political campaigning
  • Advocacy
  • Community development
  • Direct service
  • Community building
  • Movement building
  • Nonpartisan dialogues
  • Lifestyle changes

Quick takeaways:

  • It’s a truism that you can only gain something for one group of people if another group gives something up. This means that there will always be opposition to any organizing effort.
  • Organizations need to use one pagers. No one has time to read a 25 page white paper.
  • Targets are always people. It’s the university president -not the university. It’s the Mayor –  not the city.
  • Organizations need a depth of knowledge about their opposition. Their opposition’s reaction determine how you win.
  • Advocates speak on behalf of a group of people. They get people to carry their water while activists work with the affected community to empower them to make the change themselves.

Prompt Questions:

  • What are the limitations to focusing on reforming public institutions as opposed to taking them over? What are some of the pitfalls of being reformist? Of being radical?
  • What are some other ways to measure an organization’s power?
  • What are some ways an organization can build power over the short term? The long term?
  • What is organizing vs other forms of community involvement discussed here? How do they add to organizing? How do they take away from it?

Part II: History and Theory 47-107)

Organizing is an American tradition. From the early days of the Industrial Workers of the World to the 60’s Students for a Democratic Society to today’s Black Lives Matters, organizing is how we’ve accomplished our collective goals. Learning from what did and didn’t work for those that came before us is one of the best was to grow as an organizer.

This part of the book is very interesting and frustrating at the same time. Some of my favorite organizers are left out and others’ importance are overblown. But the purpose of the book is to give a brief overview and it does that pretty well. I’ll only point out a few things that I feel were missed or are too important to pass up.

The Labor Movement organizing section highlights the Industrial Workers of the World and states matter-of-factly that their ideologies ran counter to traditional values of American Workers which gave an excuse for government repression. While this is true a great lesson of today’s labor movement can be drawn out. Many of the radicals in the IWW were recent immigrants and brought their traditions with them. A similar situation is arising today in the labor movement with more and more immigrants, many undocumented, joining not only the workforce but often times the labor movement too. Although traditional unions such as the UFCW and Culinary Workers Union have a lot immigrant workers, many more immigrants are joining workers associations and centers such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

In the section titled “Organizing the Middle Class: The Last Years of Alinsky’s Organizing (1964-1972)” showcases the limits to this style of organizing. A quote from Alinsky himself is

“One thing I’ve come to realize,” he said, “is that any positive action for radical social change will have to be focused on the white middle class, for the simple reason that this is where the real power lies.”

Alinsky also fancied himself the moderate voice in the 60/70’s and was critical groups such  as the Black Panther Party for not having a “coherent strategy for building power”. I have a major problem with this shortsightedness and dismissiveness of more radical groups. Radical organizing focuses on the most oppressed peoples because, in their view, this is the only place revolution can come from. This is key to understanding the frame upon which neo-Alinsky style organizing fits.

There are major limits to organizing only within one specific group of oppressed peoples without linking up with allies. Radical in the 60/70’s knew this and tried to overcome it by having black, brown, and white radicals come together into unified organizations. To gloss over the richness of their achievements robs us of their valuable lessons. A good read on some of this history is Hillbilly Nationalists and the Making of an Urban Race Alliance.

But alas, Alisky cuts to the core of the issue. To him the potential for making reforms can only come if the white middle class is involved because this is where the current power structure lies.

More notes:

Question Prompts:

  • What are the demographics needed to make meaningful change? Where does the potential for power come from?

Part III Case Studies Pages 111-177

A great way to learn about organizing is to study the mistakes and best practices from the large number of groups working for social change. Many of the stories in this section are worth the read. 

An important lesson many liberal activists learned is from the 2008 Obama campaign and the 2012 Organizing for America program. Both of these campaigns were wildly successful at this but they did little to build the Democratic Party into a party that could do more than win the presidency. Almost all governors and state houses are run by Republicans today, in part, because these campaigns focused on electing an individual as opposed to growing the parties power. That said there are still many good lessons to draw out of his campaigns and electoral politics in general.

The most important lessons learned from the Obama elections is that storytelling is an art form. It’s the way humans have conveyed information since before we came out of the caves. When we hear a moving story we feel emotions and we are much more likely to act. Facts and figures don’t move people to action, stories do.

This is why Obama canvassers were told not to get into policy discussions with potential voters and instead direct them to the website. The goal of canvassing isn’t to sway voters with logic or facts but instead to have an emotional connection. And this isn’t just Obama, it’s all of politics. The emotional anti-Obama vote is just as real as the “yes we can” vote. Stories are also why all good speeches start from the “I”, a with a personal narrative; move to the “we, a collective experience; and finish a with a shared vision and how to achieve it. The Obama campaign did this masterfully.

Storytelling is important for getting out the vote for a candidate or moving people to take an action but by itself it doesn’t build power in a community. The Democrats won the white house but have been beaten in nearly every state and local election.


  • What are some lessons you have drawn from other organizations that you have worked with?

Part IV: Key Concepts 181-283

Chapter 11:

This is the “how to manual” for organizing that people were looking for when they bought this book and it doesn’t disappoint. 

A key concept for this organizing approach is understanding public and private relationships. Private relationships are those you have with your friends and family. These relationships are built on loyalty, love, and are for the most part unchangeable. Public relationships on the other hand are built on self-interest, accountability, and respect. Confusing the two will make your life hell. Politicians and organizers alike try to bend each other into the personal category to get what they want. How many times have you heard someone say something to the effect of “how can you be so hard on the Mayor, he’s such a nice guy”. Understanding the rules of the game is paramount to earning a seat at the table.

Some of the pitfalls that happen when we confuse public and private relationships.

  • We refrain from criticizing public officials publicly.
  • We look for love and loyalty from politicians when this should never be expected in the public sphere. The trite saying that “there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics” holds true.
  • We don’t bother, annoy, picket, etc. the public sphere because this would be rude in the private sphere.

The private and personal relationships dovetails perfectly into one of an organizers most important tools: the one on one in which an organizer meets with a community leader. Every one on one meeting should have 4 goals.

  1. Uncover self interest.
  2. Develop a relationship.
  3. Evaluate leadership potential.
  4. And recruit to the organization.

When doing one on ones there are three main types of people who you will identify based on  their self interest:

  • Selfish people want to get something from the organization such as individual power and more individual respect in the community. They won’t stick around during the lulls in organizing and will only show up for the cameras. They’re unable to put what’s best for the community ahead of their own selfish needs.
  • Selfless people on the other hand want to give their left arm for the cause. They’ll come to every meeting, every sign making party, and every action for months until they burn themselves out. Their major flaw is that they are not seeking to exert their own self-interest in the public sphere for the long haul. Organizing is a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Self-interested people are in it for the right reasons. A persons self-interest is a person’s passion. This is informed from their stories, who their friends/family are, and where they came from. Tapping into this is key to recruiting people to any organization for the long haul. A method that progressives borrowed from religious community is the “coming to Jesus” story. Asking someone to tell you the story on how they became an anti-war, an education, worker rights activist, etc. is a great way to reveal someone’s self interest.

Through this process a relationship is formed. The reason developing a relationship is important is because people are accountable to other people. If someone tells you they’ll be at a meeting they are much more likely to attend than if an organization sends them an email blast. The type of relationship developed through one on ones can start out as public and end up in the private sphere. Many of my closest friends including my partner I’ve met through organizing.

Next, figure out their leadership potential. The main goal of an organizer is to develop leaders and this starts with figuring out what kind of leader they can be. Native leaders are those who already have followers such as pastors or heads of organizations. If you are meeting with native leaders than your goal here is to move them to your organization’s values.

Leaders can either be the loud type or the quiet type and space in any organization needs to be made for both. Most of the time an organization’s leaders are not the ones with the most followers, the best at public speaking, or the policy wonks. Most leaders in any group, more often than not, are the people most willing to ignore their everyday lives for the organization. These are not always the best leaders so as many barriers for those unable or willing to ignore their everyday lives needs to be made. This means having onsite childcare, providing dinner, meeting in the evenings, etc.

But in the end a leader justifies their position because they represent their constituents. Without these leaders then an organization becomes an advocacy group.


  • The Iron Rule: Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves. Don’t forget that an organizer’s job isn’t to be the workhorse but to equip its members with the tools to exert their own power in the community. Of course, there’s always special circumstances in which you’ll have to jump in and make sure something is done before a rally but more often than not someone else can and should do the work.
  • Leadership and democracy is tricky. Consensus based organizing is good and all but it breaks down at a certain point. If an organization is to grow to a size that it can exert real power in a community than it needs to have a hierarchy and delineation of responsibilities. The Tyranny of the Structureless should be required reading for an organizer.
  • Strong leaders are often ridiculed for creating a “cult of personality” but often times they are a frame in which the organization exists. This isn’t necessarily bad as long as the leader isn’t dominating the organization and is aware of her/his position.


  • Where does consciousness raising fit into the public and private spheres?
  • What type of leader are you? Have you been in organizations that didn’t respect your type of leadership?
  • What are some of the limits to consensus based organizing. What about an organization with limited or no constituency input.

Chapter 12: Power and Targets.

Saul Alinsky defined power as “the ability to act”. Simply put, without power there’s nothing that an organization can do. The ability to influence the political process can be bought with money or earned through organizing. If you are reading this you likely don’t have the kind of money needed to buy power. You know you have power when those with power (elected officials, CEOs, etc) recognize your organization as a legitimate participant in policy decisions.

All participants in policy decisions are targets for organizing. The individuals who can make the decision, whether it be a vote or policy change, are the primary targets. Those that influence these targets such as donors, their church, and important voting blocs are the secondary targets. Sometimes the best way to get a target to change a position is to influence a secondary target.

It cannot be overstated how important it is to pick the correct target. To confuse targets makes your organization look sophomoric, ill-prepared, and is very embarrassing. That said, if you know the president of an organization has the power to make a decision that doesn’t mean that they won’t shift responsibility to someone else.

So how do you know who to target? First of all, targets are always people. It’s the CEO – not the bank. It’s the commissioner not the commission. And in order to influence a target an organizer needs to be able to identify with them. If your target is very religious then shaming their position based on religious grounds will strike a nerve. If they’re a dyed-in-the-wool realpolitik type of person going after their major financial backers will make them see that it’s less expensive to support you than to oppose you.

At the start of any campaign the organization should do a power analysis to determine your target:

  1. Who has the ability to make the change (primary target).
  2. Who has influence on this person (secondary target).
  3. What are the self interests of potential targets.

Once the correct target is picked out it’s time to polarize the target. Even though someone might support you 40% of the way, at the end they’re going to have to say “yes” or “no” to your organization’s demands. This doesn’t mean that you burn bridges or don’t compromise. You have to work with these targets again in the future and every campaign has some type of negotiations. Also remember that the larger goal of organizing is to get a seat at the table with the other decision makers. If your organization makes a major win but is seen as irrational they’ll stay sidelined in future policy decisions.


  • Ask for a timeline from the target which will make sure that they’ll get back to your organization. This will keep them from punting on the issue.
  • Taking public credit for the achievements of the organization grows power.


  • Do a quick power analysis of an issue that your city or county can influence.
  • If the goal is a seat at the table then what is too radical? Can attacks be too personal?

CH 13: Cutting an Issue:

The world is a messed up place. We have global climate change, institutional racism, poverty, and enough war to make anyone sick. These are all major problems that we all face. Problems make us feel small. They make us feel like there’s no way that we can possibly influence something so encompassing.

There’s a commonly held belief that the reason we have so many problems in the world is because people don’t care enough to stop them. I’ve met enough people, even those that feign being a-political, to know that the great masses of people care deeply about these problems.  The perception of apathy is because the masses of people don’t know how to change these problems.

This is where organizers step in to break these problems down into issues that can be acted on. Climate change goes from an amorphous collective angst into issues such as a new bike path through the city, protecting state land from oil drilling, and stopping a pipeline. These issues can be acted through campaigns and doing so can grow the power of an organization. While none of these alone, or even together, will solve climate change it adds to a shared vision and builds an organizations capacity to make larger wins in the future.

The issue that an organization chooses must have a solution. If an organization doesn’t have a solution then the solution will be imposed. For example: when an organization presents an ordinance as the solution then the onus is on the commission as to why this isn’t a reasonable remedy.

Tips for picking issues:

  • An issue either needs to excite or piss off your constituency.
  • If the issue doesn’t build power for the organization it isn’t a good issue. A good issue should do some of these:
    • Grow membership.
    • Improve membership skills.
    • Increase finances.
    • Develop relationships with powerful people.
    • Educate the public on your organization and the issue(s) they focus on.
    • Threaten the self interests of powerful people.
    • Enhance your negotiating power.
    • Build your organization’s reputation.
  • Good issues have the ability to generate controversy and outrage among the public. This in turn brings attention to your actions and solution.
  • GOOD ISSUES ARE WINNABLE! Good issues are tangible. Remember, the problem might not have a clear solution but the issue should.
  • People care about good issues. If the majority of people are educated about an issue and still don’t act on it, it’s not a good issue. Starting with issues that people care about is important. The goal of an organizer isn’t to make everyone share your rankings for important issues: it’s to empower people to make these changes himself.
  • The simpler the ask the easier it is to hold the opposition accountable and educate your members.

Chapter 14 Tactics and Strategy:

Now that we have an issue and targets it’s time to talk about tactics and strategy. A tactic or action is anything that puts pressure on your target. The sum of all the tactics in a campaign is the strategy used to win your issue. Aside from being critical to winning an issue actions also keep members involved. People tend to fade away is there’s nothing happening.

Criteria for a good tactic:

  • Puts pressure on the target or secondary target. This doesn’t necessarily need to be direct and could be something as simple as a press conference.
  • Includes a specific demand. There’s nothing more deflating than having to be asked what your organization wants. Powerful people know that expressions of collective angst fade quickly. If you’re only goal is to make noise they’ll weather the storm and wait for your organization to dissolve into the next thing.
  • Is outside the experience of the target. You want to challenge their comfort zone in one way or another.
  • Is within the experience of your members. If your members are uncomfortable with a tactic it’s the wrong tactic for the organization. What an organization is comfortable with changes throughout a campaign though. A group that doesn’t feel comfortable taking a street one week might be willing to shut down an intersection the following month.
  • Involves a large number of people. It’s only through being involved in an organization that new members are consolidated. It’s also usually through actions that new members are found.
  • Is fun and engaging otherwise no one will come back.
  • Educates members and develops leaders. You can only truly learn to fight power by actually fighting power. In order to educate and develop leaders your organization must:
    1. Involve a range of members at different leadership levels in the planning and carrying out of the action.
    2. Include an educational component. A speaker on the topic or a handout should be given explaining what the issue is and why it’s important.
    3. Have a summation at the end. Every action needs to end with an evaluation of what went well and what didn’t. Write these evaluations down and refer to them when planning future actions. The act of being self critical is a the best way to improve an organization.

Some examples of tactics are:

  • petition drive.
  • letter writing campaigns.
  • in-house media (videos, blog posts, etc).
  • turnout events (rallies, pickets, etc.).
  • visits with public officials.
  • public hearings.
  • accountability sessions.
  • citizen’s investigations.
  • educational meetings and teach-ins.
  • civil disobedience and arrests.

When developing an action it’s easy to fall into routine that is comfortable. If all an organization has ever done is petition gather then that is likely that they’ll propose to gather more petitions for a new campaign. Being creative is important for the success of any campaign but creativity for the sake of creativity can be silly and serve as a distraction. Over the long term your power comes from your reputation to powerful people. If this perception is damaged then so is your power.

Once the action is set and carried out the opposition will react and it’s very likely that the opposition will try one or all of the 7 D’s of Defense:

  1. Deflect – most powerful people surround themselves with layers of bureaucracy that make for easy scapegoats. The best way to combat this is to be prepared by being sure the target has the ability to act on the issue.
  2. Delay – I’ve never had a meeting with a politician that hasn’t tried to delay an answer. Always set a deadline for their response.
  3. Deceive – there’s lies, damn lies, and statistics. The people you are going up against are better funded and have teams of people with degrees in deception. They will try to baffle you with mistruths and you can only combat this with research. This is also why membership needs to be well informed so that they are not mislead by this counter tactic.
  4. Divide – If the organization or coalition doesn’t practice good discipline and solidarity the opposition will pick off a group of individuals to negotiate with. Often times when this happens the solution is imposed by the opposition with a splinter group accepting it as a compromise.
  5. Deny – this is usually done by denying meetings or saying no problem exist. To combat this organizations need to escalate tactics and apply more pressure.
  6. Discredit – the better funded opposition will likely attempt to discredit your findings or stance. Organizers should be prepared to defend this with good research and by maintaining the moral high ground. Even in this day in age it’s not uncommon for powerful people to red-bait organizations.
  7. Destroy – this happens when leaders or members are arrested or threatened. This is especially common for immigration rights groups being threatened with deportation. To counter this the organization needs to strongly support any person, from their own or any other group, who is facing this type of repression. Solidarity will not only help the individuals but also has the potential to expose the issue and organization to a wider audience.

Sometimes actions appear to just happen for people who just show up. But those who organized he action know it took 10 times as long on planning as it took to carry out. It takes a lot of work but it pays off to be prepared.  


  • Power is not what you have but what the opposition thinks you have. The threat of an action is sometimes enough to get the result. The risk though is that if you cannot follow through then the organization’s perception is damaged.

2 thoughts on “Study Guide: Collective Action for Social Change”

  1. Hey Jeremiah! Thanks for sharing. I’m reading in preparation for a position I am applying for. It’s definitely interesting to read as an anti capitalist. While they give due respect to anarchist and communist contributions to social movements, which is more than many alinskyists do, they also throw them under the bus in weird ways. Like, in the history section when they describe Alinsky and the Civil Rights Movement…in what way were the early 1960’s “post-communist”???

    I think we should learn from many sources, and we can absolutely apply these lessons at the micro level while also supporting the development and radicalization of mass movements at the macro level.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you. I especially didn’t like the dismissiveness of the Black Panty Party. But you get to the crux of this. Radical and reformist organizing aren’t perpendicular paths. Or, at least they shouldn’t be. The “more left than thou” organizing isn’t effective and a orthodox Alinsky will have us only organizing white, middle class people.


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