Books for changing the world
Occupation: Organizer
A Critical History of Community Organizing in America

A trenchant history of community organizing and a must-read for the next generation of organizers seeking to learn from the successes, failures, and contradictions of the past.

The community organizing tradition is long overdue for reexamination. In Occupation: Organizer, scholar and activist Clément Petitjean traces that history from its roots in the Progressive movement to its expansion and diverging paths during the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s, when Saul Alinsky became the most popular “professional radical” in the US while groups like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Black Panthers recast organizers as horizontal, antihierarchical spadeworkers—those who do the work as part of the community, rather than standing apart from it.

But in the years since, the professionalization of organizing work has only increased, despite the critiques. Only by grappling with its limitations and pitfalls, Petitjean insists, can we learn to build durable, effective organizations for change.

  • "In left-wing circles and right-wing fever dreams, the professional organizer has recently been a key protagonist. With its sympathetic yet rigorously critical treatment of the organizer and the contradictions inherent to the position, Occupation: Organizer helps us assess how to remake our world into the more democratic, just, and peaceful place we know it can be." —Micah Uetricht, coauthor of Bigger than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism

    "An essential read for everybody interested in the history and contradictions of community organizing in the US." —Eric Blanc, author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers' Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics

    "Ever since Saul Alinsky first organized Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood nearly a century ago, community organizers have been engaging in grounded but often-heroic struggles – including the struggle to figure out exactly what they are trying to do. Clement Petitjean brings welcome historical perspective and deep insight to this conundrum, and by probing key tensions in the role itself—between professional and agitator, democrat and manipulator, Alinsky’s organizer and Ella Baker’s spadeworker—his book effectively dissects the paradoxes and possibilities of professionalization in an important kind of community work. Occupation: Organizer is an incisive yet nuanced study of how social-change work became “community organizing” and how its history clarifies the challenges ahead." —William Sites, University of Chicago

    "Occupation: Organizer
    is a deeply thought-provoking book that approaches community organizing—and critically, the role of the organizer—from the standpoint of the development of a profession, with all the ironies and difficulties that entails. With a sharp and unsparing sociological eye, Clément Petitjean asks how the job of “community organizer” emerged over decades and how identifiable but unstable boundaries formed around it. It is a story that highlights both key figures and strategies in the professionalization process and the movements and institutions that made them effective. Petitjean leaves the reader with both an appreciation of the work organizers do and a deep unease about the profession itself. Occupation: Organizer brings new perspectives to current thinking about nonprofits, foundations, and the weakening of grassroots movements, and challenges us to think more clearly about present contradictions and the real futures that may emerge from them." —John Krinsky, The City College of New York

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