Issue #135, May/June 2004


Book Review

The Joy (and Angst) of Organizing

Review by Kim Fellner


Dynamics of Organizing: Building Power by Developing the Human Spirit, by Shel Trapp. (Self published.) 2003. 144 pp. $20 (paperback.) Available from the National Training and Information Center, 312-243-3035.


There was a time when aspiring writers – at least male writers – thought that producing great literature demanded that you live large like Ernest Hemingway – testing your machismo on the battlefield and planning your exploits in nights of drink-enhanced discourse. In his new book, Dynamics of Organizing: Building Power by Developing the Human Spirit, veteran Chicago organizer Shel Trapp suggests a similar ethos of organizing: If you want to succeed, be mean, be macho and drink like a fish.

Like organizing itself, Trapp’s treatise is both a joy and an aggravation. At a short 144 pages, it’s a vibrant, easy-to-read romp through a lifetime of neighborhood organizing, full of rousing war stories, feisty characters, memorable tactics and useful lessons. It also, perhaps unintentionally, presents a case study of the culture of Alinsky-style community organizing as practiced in America in the second half of the 20th Century. Those lessons, though, are more nuanced and harder to assess.

Shel Trapp is one of a small group of legendary organizers – all men – who emerged from Saul Alinsky’s Chicago-based school of organizing. The approach changed the way poor and disenfranchised people achieved power to improve their neighborhoods. By replacing advocacy by experts with collective direct action by the victims themselves, organizing harnesses – and liberates – the power of communities and the spirit of individuals; it builds relationships and leadership to confront systemic injustice. The methodology includes creative thinking from the gut, leading to innovative tactics that engage large numbers of members, who turn out to induce shock and awe in misbehaving politicians and institutions – yielding victory. At least in theory, and often in practice.

Trapp’s book is peppered with examples of this process. Early on, he describes how Organization for a Better Austin (OBA) in Chicago moved from an action about shopping carts to a victory on overcrowded schools. Trapp relates that neighbors were concerned that shopping carts, taken from the A&P supermarket lot, were becoming dangerous playthings for children, impeding traffic and otherwise blighting the neighborhood.

A committee of six members met with the A&P manager, who “looked at the blacks in the group and said, ‘I didn’t have a problem until you people moved in’.”

Twenty-one people showed up at the next OBA meeting, and the committee suggested a new plan:

…during the week, everyone present would shop at A&P and take home a cart. The following Saturday, we would hold a parade through the neighborhood to return all the carts at once. This was so much fun that by the end of the week, A&P had virtually run out of carts.

On Saturday, 75 people paraded through the community, each pushing a cart. The manager saw us coming and called the police. We welcomed them, explained the problem with shopping carts strewn all over the streets, and said we were returning the business’s property. After they heard our story, the police were on our side. The manager then did an about-face. He called his district manager and obtained a promise that the following Monday, poles would be installed 18 inches apart so carts could not leave the area in front of the A&P.

The next week the poles went in. We had won the great shopping cart victory. I bought a case of beer and we had a celebration on the block. “We’ve got to do something about the overcrowding at May School,” one woman said. “If we can beat A&P, we can beat the Board of Ed.”

As Trapp grew into his vocation, the scope of the work grew as well. Trapp and his organizing partner, Gale Cincotta, formed the National Training and Information Center in 1972. Neighborhood groups in several cities united under the banner of National People’s Action (NPA) and took their demands about housing and welfare to their legislators in Washington, DC. Their in-your-face actions and dogged research were instrumental in passing the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which prohibits mortgage lenders from redlining urban communities. CRA has funneled hundreds of billions of dollars into low-income communities throughout the Unites States.

One of the most memorable episodes in the book concerns Trapp’s work with leaders in the disability rights community, which led to the founding of ADAPT. Not only does Trapp convey the drama of buses and bureaucrats dodging a phalanx of wheelchairs, but he also offers a glimpse of his own vulnerabilities. He admits his initial fear of dealing with the disabled, his embarrassment at being seen in a restaurant with a quadriplegic – and how that deepened his insight and respect.

Yet, while Trapp clearly communicates the excitement and dynamism of action organizing, the book also reveals some challenges inherent in both the Alinsky organizing model and the leadership style of our most notable organizers. Most of the sacred cows of organizing wander through Trapp’s book, such as “winnable issues” (if you can’t win, don’t get in), the ideology of pragmatism (a fraction of action beats paralysis of analysis) and the admonition not to clutter your members’ minds with too many facts. And while I believe all these things to a point, they do limit the range and scope of issues that organizations address. As one Chicago observer told me, “Many neighborhood organizing efforts don’t go beyond basic neighborhood improvement projects. If the considerations are all geographic rather than political in the larger sense, the result can be policies that are quite reactionary; with public safety, for example, we have seen groups support youth curfews and more jails. And I was once at a meeting where he (Trapp) exhorted a roomful of women to target their opponents’ children in the playground, saying that ‘their parents could afford counseling.’ Power for its own sake is not enough; the question is power for whom and for what outcome.”

Trapp’s mantra is “Nice guys finish last,” and again, to an extent that’s true. But the book borders on extolling meanness for its own sake and suffers from hyper-aggressive maleness. Although Trapp consciously scatters female pronouns throughout the narrative (as in the organizer…she…), virtually all the analogies are about war, sports and dogs. And while he clearly loves and respects his female colleagues, he most admires them when they are “the meanest ass bitches.” He describes Gale Cincotta as a “very intimidating woman…She always brought two bottles of vodka, one for the staff and one for her. By the time she’d finish her bottle, you would have thought she’d been drinking water. She had no hesitation in her thought process, no slurring of words, nothing. She just kept on going.”

At another point, he extols the virtues of holding staff meetings three nights a week between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. – in the style of his own legendary organizing mentor Tom Gaudette – because an idea that seems crazy early in the evening might be seen for its true brilliance when your resistance is broken by exhaustion. Yes, I agree that the occasional all-nighter can invigorate creative thinking and add excitement and urgency to an undertaking. On the other hand, sleep deprivation is a noted tool of torture and control, and basing success as an organizer on the capacity for perpetual wakefulness is just plain nuts. The fact that Trapp and Cincotta were willing to sacrifice their health and important family time to the cause does not necessarily make it a good model.

And therein lies the rub. It would seem that many of our most venerated organizers ultimately conflate mythology with methodology, blending their own eccentric personae with the requirements of the work. And we, the mentored, often find ourselves trying to emulate not just their organizing skills but also their styles and idiosyncrasies. Unfortunately, the quirks that make them larger than life are often dysfunctional for life itself.

I was trained by a pugnacious fireplug of a union organizer with an uncontrolled passion for white wine and an unabashed love of organizing. Those of us who were tutored by him are united by the experience of his outrageous exploits – and by the fact that we lived to tell the tales. I think of him with love and exasperation and try to honor the spirit and dedication he brought to the work. Yet I now understand that much of what made him so memorable was ultimately unhealthy behavior, both personally and organizationally; he drank too much, neglected his family and was unnecessarily obnoxious toward many people.

There’s no question that organizing requires righteous anger, extraordinary commitment, discipline, brashness and toughness. But as another legendary organizer Tim Sampson said, “When I started organizing, one of my primary motivations, which I came to cherish, was anger. But as my life went on, I learned there is a more powerful force in the struggle for social change, and that is love.”

And, if you read the subtext of Trapp’s book, that love is there. In the shadow of a macho swagger, buried under bluster, the respect and affection for colleagues and neighbors shines through. As James Mumm, one of the hundreds of younger people who learned from Trapp puts it, “Shel is certainly old-school. But he is one of the few men I have seen cry in public because of the intensity of peoples’ stories. He is also completely at home, and beloved by many, among the low-income people of color that he worked with for more than 30 years. Not bad for a white ex-minister with no hair!”

Kim Fellner is the former director of the National Organizers Alliance.