An illustration of pioneering community organizers

The Roots of Community Organizing, 1917-1939

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Neil Betten and Michael J. Austin, contributions by Robert Fisher, William E. Hershey, Raymond A. Hohl and Marc Lee Raphael

Today's community organizers and social planners have a tendency to ignore their antecedents and to "reinvent the wheel." "What is found in textbooks today had its origins in the day-to-day, trial-and-error experiences of community organizers in the 1920s and 1930s," state Michael J. Austin and Neil Betten in their Introduction to this pioneering study of community organization. The historical analysis of the intellectual and practical roots of community organizing in the United States begins with urban political organizing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the organizing of immigrant communities by the International Institutes beginning in 1910, and the Cincinnati Unit Experiment from 1917 to 1919.

The authors and their collaborators focus on historical material that has received relatively little attention within the profession. This includes the "organizing manuals" of Steiner, McClenahan, Hart, Pettit, and Lindeman; the emergence, in the 1920s, of physical planning as practiced by city planners and social survey research as practiced by social planners; and the social action approach to community organizing with special reference to organizing the working class. "There is clearly a dualism in this work," comment Betten and Austin. Not only does the book provide insight into the background of community organizing stemming from various social agencies, but it also explores the activities of people and groups that were organizing communities but did not consider themselves community organizers. These include the socialists involved with the Cincinnati Unit Experiment, political machines, an the Catholic Worker Movement.

While the study encompasses a time period from the last years of the nineteenth century to the end of the 1930s, it focuses primarily on the years from 1917 to 1939, when community organizing associated with the social work profession was emerging. The study ends in 1939 with the Lane Report, which was the first effort to identify the educational foundations for training future community organizers.



"During the last twenty years, historians have increased their efforts to examine the history of social work. The history of community organizing, however, still needs greater exploration. The community organizing aspects of the most famous settlement houses have been studied, as have attempts to consolidate private fund raising. However, there are a number of important texts that have been largely unexamined by modern students of community organization practice. In the 1920s community organizers produced a series of significant works based on their experiences. Thus, during that period, which many historians dismiss as politically reactionary and inhospitable to reforms in general, community organization theorists began to formulate the intellectual foundations of their field.

"One of the first significant efforts at organizing communities for social welfare purposes began in 1869 in England when the Charity Organization Society was formed to coordinate the efforts of all private charitable organizations that provided assistance to the poor. There were many examples of such community organizing in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as the establishment in Chicago in 1983 of the Bureau of Associated Charities and associated charities in Pittsburgh (1908), Milwaukee (1909), St. Louis (1911), Cleveland (1913), and Cincinnati (1913). World War I gave impetus to the movement, and small cities and even rural areas copied these early efforts at community cooperation. The new community organizations engaged in cooperative planning to deal with various social problems. They sometimes created new social agencies or reformed old ones. Out of such early efforts at coordinating assistance to the poor, community welfare planning councils and social survey techniques developed.

From "The Intellectual Origins of Community Organizing"




Part I: Identifying the Roots
The Roots of Community Organizing: An Introduction • The Intellectual Origins of Community Organizing

Part II: Locality Development
The Cincinnati Unity Experiment, 1917-1920 • The International Institutes: Their Philosophy and Role in Community Organizing • Grass Roots Organizing in the Community Center Movement, 1907-1930 • Rural Organizing and the Agricultural Extension Service

Part III: Social Planning
Social Planning and Physical Planning • Federated Philanthropy in a Jewish Community, 1904-1939

Part IV: Social Action
The Urban Political Boss as Community Organizer • The Conflict Approach to Community Organizing: Saul Alinsky and the CIO • Religious Organizations as a Base for Community Organizing: The Catholic Worker Movement during the Great Depression

Part V: Epilogue
The Legacy of Community Organizing at the Close of the Great Depression



About the Author(s)

Neil Betten is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Florida State University.

Michael J. Austin is Professor and Dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work.

Contributors: Robert Fisher, William E. Hershey, Raymond A. Mohl, and Marc Lee Raphael.

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