Review: Gotta Get Organizized—Occupation: Organizer, by Clément Petitjean

Author Clément Petitjean asserts early on in his new book, Occupation: Organizer, that the role of a “community organizer” is multifaceted and warrants a comprehensive reassessment. While the general public may have a basic understanding of what community organizing relates to, its historical underpinnings and broader societal significance have yet to be properly critiqued. Fortunately, Petijean has taken it upon himself to delve deep and navigate the topic and its many layers. The result is a critical and insightful analysis of the role of community organizing.

For much of the book, Petitjean focuses on community organizing within Chicago. He notes early on, “there is no equivalent in the rest of the US to the tightly knit, highly self-conscious, dense institutional fabric that is the community organizing milieu in Chicago.” The city, he adds, “offers a fruitful vantage point from which to look at how that history unfolded…” By emphasizing Chicago’s pivotal role in the development of community organizing, Petitjean provides readers with a valuable lens through which to view the broader context of the subject.

Author Clément Petitjean

In 2008, when Barack Obama became the President of the United States, the term “community organizing” was relatively unknown to the general public. Obama, having worked as a community organizer in Chicago for many years prior, helped to raise the profile of the term to the American public. However, almost immediately, the term “community organizer” became exposed to nonstop media coverage and analysis from every aspect of the political aisle. At the time, many were critical, with scathing criticisms coming from Republicans and others who lamented the term as devoid of actual responsibilities and minimal in its legitimacy and usefulness to the larger community.

Petitjean here begins his deeper analysis and makes his initial case for why community organizing desperately needs a reevaluation. The work of community organizing existed decades before Obama’s initial campaign. Even now, years later, the term is still considered by many as vague and convoluted. The question of why community organizing remains as such is fascinating and one of many questions Petitjean attempts to tackle throughout the book.

An associate professor of American studies at the Université Panthéon Sorbonne in Paris, Petitjean is well-versed on the topic of community organizing, his writings on the subject appearing in several academic journals. In Occupation: Organizer, Petitjean’s fascination and critiques for the topic are on full display. Petitjean writes first and foremost as a sociologist, his words fact-based and unbiased. His writing strikes a delicate balance between showing both appreciation and criticism for organizing practices, events, and figures in the narrative, such as President Obama, civil rights activist Ella Baker, and Saul Alinsky, who is lauded by many as the “founding father” of community organizing.

Saul Alinsky is given prominence throughout the text. Alinsky’s long history and significance to how community organizing developed is a consistent thread here. Petitjean touches on Alinksy’s history, beginning with his early work developing The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) in Chicago in 1939 and traces his role and influence in key events and organizations, such as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and the Black Panthers. As with the other key figures discussed, Petitjean writes with both admiration and a critical lens into Alinsky and his influence. While Alinsky and his teachings are arguably where much of what our understanding of community organizing comes from, Petitjean also makes it a point of showcasing his limitations as a leader and guide to draw from.

Petitjean offers the most thought-provoking critique and assessment when he touches on how, by the late 1960s/early 1970s, community organizing would develop into its own profession. Here, Petitjean truly dissects the significance and limitations that come with large-scale organizing, regardless of how noble the intent.

As Petitjean discusses in one section, community organizing grew as a monetized profession that worked largely outside of the communities they were helping. Many of the people brought in were arguably removed both financially and emotionally from the people they were meant to serve. While Alinksy and those like him adhered to a hierarchical structure, this approach would be challenged by the progressive movements of the time, who recast community organizing work as more of a collaborative effort for those who actually live in the community. As with other topics discussed throughout the book, Petitjean deconstructs the differing perspectives critically, highlighting the pros and cons of each. While he is unable to answer all the questions and concerns raised, his framework and context for where these issues stem from is key. Petitjean does not offer straightforward answers to these questions but instead encourages discussion and critique of the history and facts he lays out.

Occupation: Organizer sets out to be a comprehensive guide and assessment to the world of community organizing. For those interested in pursuing a career in community organizing, Occupation: Organizer is an essential read. It provides an in-depth understanding of the work involved and explores its historical and societal significance. This book also opens up discussions on how future organizers can uphold the values of the profession and ask the right questions when it comes to building better communities in meaningful ways. 

Occupation: Organizer is available starting April 18 and can be found on the Haymarket Books website.

Adam Prestigiacomo
Adam Prestigiacomo