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Hopeful Stories of Communities Organizing

Community organizing spreads among universities


Column by Cameron Conner

The modern practice of community organizing was born 85 years ago in the stockyards of the Chicago meatpacking plants, a neighborhood made infamous in Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle:

"The buildings…were old, dilapidated and unclean. The streets were generally narrow, the shops along them dirty and gloomy looking. The district was mildewed, and the atmosphere oppressive."

In 1939, a young sociologist named Saul Alinsky worked with Chicago residents to build a new type of "people's organization." They called it the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC). In a community with Polish, Lithuanian, Slovak, Bohemian, German, Irish and Mexican residents, this organization became the first to unite people as a single powerful constituency.

Where unions and political parties failed for years, Alinsky's model succeeded because it worked through the few neighborhood institutions people already held in common. In an area that was 90 percent Catholic, the most important of these was the parish.

The strategy worked. More than 100 of the neighborhood associations—many church-based—pledged support in the organization's founding assembly. Confronted for the first time by the united people of Back of the Yards Neighborhood Councils, meatpacking companies quickly gave in. Within days of the organization's founding, neighborhood residents won their first union contract and local banks quickly caved to pressure, demanding residents be able to access funds for mortgages and building upgrades.

Based on the success of his model in Chicago, Alinsky went on to build similar "people's organizations" across the country. Organizations like BYNC became the first chapters of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) – the oldest and largest community organizing network in the U.S. today.

More than eight decades later, faith-based institutions—churches, synagogues and mosques—are still the glue that holds many communities together. They remain at the heart of the community organizing tradition, but a new generation of community institutions are coming onto the scene, and organizers at Citizens UK are taking note.

Just as the Catholic Church was at the center of the BYNC in the 1940s, today universities represent a crucial new institution for community power.

King's College London has been at the forefront of work with Citizens UK for the last decade. Responding to the issues affecting families in the neighborhoods around their campus, college leaders began working with organizers to bring together working-class parents from the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark.

Rather than develop programs they predicted would be useful to struggling families, King's College staff called on community organizers at Citizens UK to help them ask parents what they needed. Despite representing a diverse population, parents overwhelmingly agreed that they wanted to break down two of the main barriers that still kept their children from attending university: the cost and quality of private tutoring—a necessity for attending good universities—and the huge application fees for British citizenship.

Soon, this parents' group pulled in other members of the community connected to King's College and built a campaign that both reduced the citizenship application fee for children and created an interest-free loan program so parents could avoid taking out risky debt to finance applications.

Because tutoring existed in the university for community members, parents formed their own organization, "Parent Power," to train more families in how to access resources. In 2019, this organization received national recognition by winning the Guardian's Social and Community Impact Award.

Meanwhile, north of London in Birmingham, student, faculty and administration leaders of Citizens UK at Newman University held their own campaign to identify pressures facing families in the community. As a smaller, public university that fills a role like community colleges in the U.S., Newman was the same kind of "linking institution" that the church had been in Chicago.

In a community-wide listening campaign, organizers heard story after story about the lack of mental health care for older teens. The Newman team learned 16- and 17-year-olds fell into a service gap for local health care providers.

Mobilizing with other Citizens UK member institutions across the city, leaders worked with health care practitioners to close the gap. The result was an astonishing array of new mental health services that impacted about 4,000 young people in Birmingham.

These are two stories among many. In Wales, Cardiff University has worked with Citizens UK to win pay rises for thousands of low-paid workers. In 2019, students at University College London organized with high school students, teachers and parents to ensure that kids could no longer be denied free school meals because of parents' immigration status—a game changer for tens of thousands of children across the UK.

Cases like these demonstrate that not only does the community benefit when universities are woven into our civic alliances, but also—just as the Catholic Church had a vested self interest in improving the living and working conditions of its parishioners—universities need not engage out of sheer altruism. They benefit.

Too often, universities are turned to by community organizations as an altruistic and aloof benefactor rather than a partner with an equal need to live in a flourishing community. After all, it's hard to attract new students to a university in a struggling community.

In an increasingly competitive market, King's College London, Newman University and Citizen UK's other higher education members have seen their work in the community attract new investment, applicants and acclaim.


Cameron Conner's columns for The Fig Tree are selected from blogs he is writing during his Watkins Fellowship stays in Spain, the UK, South Africa and Mongolia. To follow his stories of communities organizing around the world visit

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, March 2024