History, Context, and Emerging Issues for Community Practice

Robert Fisher. The Handbook of Community Practice. Editor: Marie Weil. Sage Publications. 2005.

History provides a collective memory, historical shoulders to stand on, and roots for contemporary practice. Historical knowledge also puts practice into comparative perspective, as the similarities and differences of efforts in prior eras force comparison with contemporary practice. We dismiss the past—for its provincialism, naïveté, or worse—at our own peril. It isn’t simply, as Santayana warned, that those who fail to heed the past are condemned to repeat it. There is no present without the past. Because we in community organization are overwhelmed by the demands of the present, we think we have little time for history, that reviewing and understanding the past is a luxury. But history matters.

Certainly, issues of human agency—defining the very nature of a community organization, its goals, methods, daily choices—play a critical role in the life of any community organization effort. But the larger historical context heavily influences which conceptualizations and choices are available or encouraged, as well as which goals and strategies seem salient and likely to succeed. The renowned English social historian E. P. Thompson (1971) referred to history as the discipline of context. Because organizing efforts and writings about organizing are always specific to a particular time and place, a history of community organization situates practice in the context of the varied social sites that generated it. To that end, what follows is a framework for understanding the changes over time in the history of community practice. It is obviously not a definitive history. It offers a model for appreciating major historical roots and currents. As the analysis approaches the present, it reveals continuing historical trends as well as emerging critical issues for community practice.

The Model

This chapter contextualizes the study of contemporary community practice in a cyclical model, which proposes that the transformation of community organization practice occurred less as a linear process and more as a periodic shifting back and forth in response to two dominant influences: (a) changes in the national political economy and (b) developments and pressures in the social work profession. In terms of political economy, throughout the history of community practice, there has been a direct and dialectical relationship between the national political economy and local community efforts. In each era since the late 19th century, the national political-economic context—which includes economic power and relations, on the one hand, and the political power to affect or change it, on the other—has given shape to a dominant type of organizing practice. Organizing is always shaped by a myriad of factors, including the work of predecessors, local context, leadership, and resources. Nevertheless, whether it was interorganizational efforts in the charity organization societies in the late 19th century; service delivery, community building, and social action work in settlement houses during the first decades of the 20th century; professional reevaluation and strengthening in the 1920s; social welfare programming and social action efforts in the 1930s; or other trends during other eras, discourse, policies, and programs at the national level substantially determined which types of community practice would develop, survive, attract attention, and succeed (Fisher, 1994).

Local efforts and social movements also played a critical role in affecting national developments. The social reform work of the settlement houses and the significant leadership of settlement workers such as Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, Mary Simkhovitch, and Florence Kelley, to name but a few, had a profound impact on the events and movements of their day. The national political economy of the Progressive Era, as well as the social movements of the day, which shaped that political economy and responded to it, profoundly structured the broader context for and nature of community organization practice. The larger political economy presses itself on community practice in this way: identifying and legitimizing conditions, encouraging endeavors and actions, promoting particular conceptualizations of community organization, and discouraging others.

Community practice is not only affected by events, politics, and movements of the day, but also heavily influenced by being part of the social work profession. Community organization occurs within the norms, boundaries, and processes of overall social work practice. Ties to the social work profession improve the practice of community organization through such professional processes as systematic discussion, debate, analysis, and evaluation. The sophisticated efforts in the history of social work to define and conceptualize community organization demonstrate these virtues. Being situated within the social work profession also constrained community organization, both in regard to demands placed on the subfield to be like the rest of social work and by tensions resulting from being a stepchild of the profession. For example, Jack Rothman recalls that when he was in graduate school in the early 1950s, “the au courantview in social work at the time was that you had to work a good eight to ten years in casework or group work before you could possibly go into CO [community organization]” (Rothman, 1999b, p. 221). Of course, the relationship to the social work profession is complex. The point here is that this relationship and changes in this relationship are seminal in the history of social work community practice.

Critically, community practice also occurred outside of social work. In a nutshell, efforts inside social work, historically called community organization, expand social work practice to the community realm, whether a geographic community, cultural community, or community of agencies and service providers. Links to the social work profession usually make community organization more institutionalized, formalized, tied to an academic discourse, and agency-based than its counterparts outside of social work. Community practice outside social work, historically called community organizing, expands, reconceptualizes, and applies models of union organizing and political activism to the community. Although the latter approaches share a number of aspects with social work community practice, they exist independent of the social work profession and are heavily influenced by shifts in the political economy and social movements. Community organization and community organizing sometimes merge and overlap, as in Mobilization for Youth (MFY) and other efforts in the 1960s or, more recently, in feminist organizing and work in the gay and lesbian communities. Much of the time, however, community workers inside and outside of social work have been aware of but generally ignored each other. In some instances, they have seen themselves in competition and at odds. This chapter, unlike most histories, incorporates both strands of community practice, although the focus is on community organization in social work.

The Gilded Age and Charity Organization Society

The emerging urban-industrial order that developed after the Civil War presented unprecedented social conditions and challenges. In the late 19th century, the United States witnessed a dramatic acceleration of its transition from an agrarian, rural, and traditional society to one that was industrial, urban, heterogeneous, and modern. The Gilded Age, so named by Mark Twain to reflect many Americans’ single-minded quest for individual wealth during that time, brought about fierce competition among big businessmen, workers, and farmers to see who would benefit from the transformation to an urban-industrial society. In a nutshell, the laissez-faire and Social Darwinist political economy of the day encouraged only social interventions that were oriented to improving individual behavior and benefiting business. Pro-labor and pro-farmer organizers were unable during this period to win many concessions or force government to intercede on their behalf.

The first Charity Organization Society (COS) in the United States, founded in Buffalo, New York, was added to this mix in 1877. COS quickly spread across the nation as their leaders sought to develop a new form of social welfare that could bring order, through scientific means, to the disordered state of charitable enterprises at the time. The “scientific approach” of the COS sought to bring business principles of efficiency, management, and consolidation to the administration of charity. The COS idea of scientific philanthropy was consistent with other efforts in the larger society such as civil service reform, which sought to bring order to government employment and counteract corrupt systems. As community practice, COS sought through interorganizational efforts to coordinate existing charity efforts. The goal was to “bring about some order in relationships among numerous agencies and organizations [and to this end COSs] were the forerunners of all modern social work development” (McNeil, 1951, p. 122). But COS practice emphasized more than interagency coordination. The structure of COS services also rested firmly on the self-help ethos of the Gilded Age. It presumed that poverty and other social problems resulted from individual character defects and therefore should be resolved through individual improvement. The “friendly visitor,” more a caseworker than community organizer, sought through home visits to help those in need and to discriminate between the truly deserving and undeserving poor.

Progressive Era and Social Settlements

Although the 1880s and 1890s was an era absorbed by the business credos of Social Darwinism and laissez-faire capitalism, many saw it as a time of crisis (Bannister, 1979; Hays, 1957; Hofstadter, 1948). Society seemed to be coming apart at its class and ethnic seams (Fisher, 1994; Husock, 1990; Kogut, 1972). Settlement leader Vida Scudder saw the turn-of-the-century city as a “cleavage of classes, cleavage of races, cleavage of faiths: an inextricable confusion” (cited in Shapiro, 1978, p. 215). In response, reformers began to develop a counterideology and social movement which argued that society, not simply the individual, was responsible for social conditions, and that the environment, not simply one’s personal characteristics, heavily shaped life experience (Quandt, 1970). Many reformers in the national progressive movement believed in large, centralized initiatives, but the essence of progressivism was a variant of communitarian reform, best epitomized by the social Settlement Movement, which advocated for community-based initiatives and interventions.

The Settlement Movement began on the American side of the Atlantic on the lower East Side of New York City with the founding in 1886 of Neighborhood Guild (later University Settlement) by Stanton Coit (1974; see also Kendall, 2000; Reinders, 1982; Skocpol, 1992). Three years later, Hull-House was established in Chicago, and in 1892, Lillian Wald helped create the Nurses Settlement in New York, which soon became Henry Street Settlement (Wald, 1915, 1934). These were only the most famous settlements. The decade saw a proliferation of social settlements, so that by 1910, there were as many as 400 nationwide. Although they were predominantly initiated by affluent Whites for the benefit of European immigrants, community work and settlements for African Americans also proliferated and contributed to community practice in the Progressive Era (Carlton-LaNey, 2001a, 2001b; Rouse, 1984). Nowhere was the expansion of settlement house community work more evident than in the nation’s two premier cities, New York and Chicago (Kraus, 1980). These cities were the sites of the most important social innovations of the era because they were at the confluence of the massive challenges of the time: industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and the development of finance capitalism (Hays, 1957; Still, 1974; Warner, 1972).

Community organization practice in the settlement houses responded to the obvious limits of COS. “To begin with, charity workers emphasized the individual causes of poverty while settlement workers stressed the social and economic conditions that made people poor…. The settlement workers tried desperately to disassociate their movement from charity in the public mind” (Davis, 1967, pp. 18-19). Settlement workers were social reformers and social scientists, not charity workers (Crunden, 1982; Deegan, 1991). Theirs was a form of community organization tied to responding to the excesses of the Gilded Age and the massive needs of the new immigrants. They saw community organization as social reform practice at the community level.

Building on the settlement workers’ sense of the interconnectedness between individual problems and social betterment, their practice method included three core elements: (a) an integrated collaborative practice that delivered desperately needed services, intervened at the individual as well as community level, and sought to develop solidarity between settlement workers and neighborhood residents; (b) a sense of the essential importance of community and community building; and (c) a willingness to organize and advocate for social, political, and economic justice (Fabricant & Fisher, 2002b). Mary Simkhovitch said, “The aim of the settlement or neighborhood house is to bring about a new kind of community life” (cited in Kennedy, Farra, et al., 1935). Jane Addams sought to “arouse” a neighborhood’s “civic and moral energy” (cited in Holden, 1922, p. 77). At their most progressive, settlement houses fought to improve local health conditions, develop small parks and public recreation, reform municipal politics, upgrade public schools by promoting their extended use after school hours, and establish public nursing and school social worker systems in the public schools. Settlement leaders lobbied for legislation, served on public boards, promoted political candidates, occasionally ran for office themselves, conducted social research, and participated in broad campaigns for tenement house reform, defense of labor unions, and the rights of workers, women, and children. Settlements fought to revitalize the local community by reforming the local political economy and providing social services (Lasch-Quinn, 1993). The larger settlement houses, especially in New York and Chicago, tended to be more involved in social action. Although their daily program of child care, medical care, recreation, and education gave the settlements viability and permanence (Rothman, 1973), it was the combination of collaborative practice, community building, and social action that signified their practice at the time and for later generations.

And the settlements were not alone. Workers and immigrants organized countless similar projects, efforts at community-based self-empowerment (Spain, 2000). Moreover, other contemporary efforts, such as the Community Center Movement to use public schools as social centers in every neighborhood, and the Social Unit Plan, a block-by-block plan for community health, reflect concepts and practice built on the settlement house model (Fisher, 1994; Halpern, 1995; Mattson, 1998; Melvin, 1987). After World War I, social work professionals would debate whether social work was a cause or function and whether it was about social reform or service provision. But the integrated and pluralistic community organization practiced prior to the 1920s transcended this dualism. In this period, aiding individuals, building community, and changing society were all integral parts of the community organization practice pyramid (Berry, 1999).

The Return to Normalcy, 1918-1929

The political economy of the 1920s dramatically altered the practice of community organization. Settlements and community centers did not decline in numbers as much as they seemed to fade in significance. They persisted in the 1920s, but not as vital institutions. Settlement programs continue today in many cities but struggle to maintain funding (Fabricant & Fisher, 2002b). During the 1920s, an intersection of pressures helped account for changes in the dominant form of community organization practice. Within the newly emerging field of social work, federated funding structures such as community chests (precursors to the United Way) were established throughout the nation. Their fundraising efforts promoted their power in the service community, and they engaged in larger-scale service planning and assumed increasing responsibility for coordinating and vetting services. These new structures, which grew out of the COS, had a profound impact. However, it was the conservative political economy—the return to pre-Progressive Era politics and the rejection of the reform impulse—that gave these and other developments particular salience and legitimacy.

In the cyclical model, the economy of the 1920s is an archetypal conservative political economy. With the close of World War I, right-wing repression against social activism, exemplified by the Red Scare of 1918, delegitimized prior reform projects and victories. The Red Scare was followed by a so-called “return to normalcy,” in which the business ethic of the 1920s replaced the social reform impulse of the Progressive Era. Heightened individualism replaced concerns about social cohesion. A resurfacing of laissez-faire ideology replaced analyses of structural causation. Society drew back from concern with social issues into more individualist and materialist pursuits, including the consumption of new consumer durables such as radios and cars. To increase demand for these new products and stimulate economic growth, businesses began to invest heavily in advertising and to encourage purchasing on credit, which had been taboo up to that point in American history. Right-wing social movements resurfaced as well, such as religious fundamentalism, the Ku Klux Klan, and other nativist organizations (Carter, 1975; Chambers, 1963; Fisher, 1994).

World War I was a watershed for Progressive Era community organization practice. Some, like Jane Addams (who later received the Nobel Prize for Peace) and Lillian Wald, opposed the war, and many Progressives saw antiwar activities as an opportunity to increase social solidarity and complete the Progressive agenda. Instead, the war delivered a traumatic shock to liberal and collective sensibilities. With the postwar Red Scare and attacks on Progressive reformers and immigrants, key aspects of community practice were forced to retreat. In place of the core settlement elements of collaborative practice, community building, and social action, the 1920s institutionalized a much more restrictive and confined practice. Jane Addams said that social work reflected the “symptoms of this panic and with a kind of protective instinct, carefully avoided any identification with the phraseology of social reform” (quoted in Lundblad, 1995, p. 667). The atmosphere of social work changed in the 1920s (Lubove, 1975). The newly emerging profession of social work thought that it needed to reject the romantic “do-goodism” of the Progressive Era to gain credibility as a profession. Among social workers, there was a new emphasis on being disengaged, that is, being objective experts rather than social reformers (Tobin, 1988). Social work students in the 1920s were said to scoff at the very idea of community service.

This was not, however, entirely true. Social action tended to fade during the 1920s; community building was no longer primary, but community practice did not disappear (Chambers, 1963; Ehrenreich, 1985). In the field, as the COS had done earlier, efforts such as the newly emerging community chest movement focused on interorganizational coordination and administration, that is, building and managing federations of social service agencies that sought to bring greater order, efficiency, effectiveness, and power to voluntary sector welfare efforts (Bowman, 1929; Trolander, 1975; see also Brilliant, Chapter 12, this volume). By linking charitable efforts, by developing a centralized mechanism for collecting and distributing charitable giving, and by being more attentive to issues of funding and record keeping, social planning efforts such as community chests and welfare councils fit closely with the business-minded, efficiency-seeking, and professional temper of the time (Fabricant & Fisher, 2002a).

Related changes can be seen in the emerging literature on community organization. As the field of social work began to professionalize, so did the subfield of community organization (Lubove, 1975). The writings of Bowman, Hart, Lindeman, McClenahan, Pettit, and Steiner, although not all of a single piece, began to emphasize a more rigorous and exacting approach to the study and practice of community organization (Rothman, 1999b; Schwartz, 1965). The writings of this period, for example, are much more scholarly in tone and approach than the earlier writings of settlement house workers (Rothman, 1999b). Some authors strongly rejected what they saw as the naïve romanticism of community organization in the Progressive Era (Fisher, 1994). These writers recognized that community was an ideal, not an actuality (Schwartz, 1965). But most authors, influenced by the writings of John Dewey and the emerging field of urban sociology, sought a more professional and systematic method to guide community organization practice. The varied works of Steiner and McClenahan (Betten & Austin, 1990), for example, offered a “study-diagnosis-treatment schema” that, according to Schwartz (1965, p. 177), was intended to help workers understand a community’s uniqueness as well as how its problems were shared generally with other communities. At the same time, community organization theorists were increasingly focused on the tensions in the relationship between expert and citizen. While committed to the idea of democratic participation, they increasingly searched for an essential place in community organization for the “expert or professional.”

Depression, New Deal, and War

The Depression and the vigorous public reaction to it, at both the grassroots level and in Washington, D.C., dramatically altered community organization yet again. When the social reform impulse resurfaced in the 1930s, it was different than in the Progressive Era. The 1930s response to economic disaster and social need was much more centralized and national, not community based. In the 1930s, community organizing surfaced with a strong class- and union-based model of social action. Within social work agencies, too, including settlement houses, the struggles of the period restored social policy advocacy and social action to the community organization equation. However, the focus of social reform and social action was clearly at the national level during this era. Former settlement workers, such as Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and Herbert Lehman, were involved in implementing large-scale social policy and welfare programs rather than community-based organizing projects. Helen Hall, the head worker at the Henry Street Settlement in New York, was often invited to Washington, where she testified and acted as adviser on a variety of social issues.

In terms of the larger political economy, the massive problems of poverty and unemployment forced society and social workers to see and confront, once again, the structural dimensions of individual problems. “All around the social workers of Hull-House,” commentator Edmund Wilson wrote in 1932, “there today stretches a sea of misery more appalling even than that which discouraged Miss Addams in the nineties” (quoted in Davis & McCree, 1969, p. 177). Environmental factors rather than character deficits regained prominence as the primary explanation for social problems. As social problems and needs worsened in the 1930s, with all the attendant pain and human suffering, the era revived a sense of public life and a need for social change.

Within social work, debates raged. Some argued that the 1920s’ emphasis on casework was inappropriate, as it denied the relationship between social context and individual problem. Harry Lurie, director of the Bureau of Jewish Social Research, criticized his fellow social workers for being as responsible for the Depression as the country’s industrial and political leaders because social workers had turned away in the 1920s from the social dimensions of problems and had focused instead on issues of professionalism and technique (Trattner, 1999).

The message was clear: Social workers could best make their contributions by allying themselves with those groups in society working for political, social, and economic change. This, in turn, of course, tended to politicize social workers once again, a sharp contrast to their nonpartisanship of the prior decade. (Trattner, 1999, p. 297)

These social forces prompted the field of community organization within social work to reevaluate its mission, hoping to put community organization on a firmer professional footing and at the same time meet pressing contemporary demands. A report at the 1939 meeting of the National Conference of Social Work, “The Field of Community Organization,” delivered by community chest executive Robert Lane, intended to define community organization as a field of social work comparable to casework and group work. Based on discussion groups in six cities, the Lane Report reflected both the nature and the aspirations of community organization during the 1930s. Continuing from the 1920s was social work’s emphasis on professional standing and legitimacy. Within a broad definition of community organization, the report specified a typology of the kinds of practice that constitute community organization. Among them were fact-finding for social action and social planning; initiating and developing social welfare services and programs; facilitating interrelationships between and among individuals, organizations, and groups; and developing public understanding of and public support for social welfare activities, programs, and objectives (Schwartz, 1965). But the Lane Report determined that the “core function” of community organization was achieving adjustment between social welfare resources and social welfare needs. The focus here was on social service planning and coordination, program development, and administration (Rothman, 1999b). The 1930s’ distinguishing characteristic, which differed from some earlier and later periods, was an emphasis on task over process goals. This was an era of social planning and getting things done to confront the Depression; community building and more participatory processes were seen as less central to the field and certainly less pressing. As the Depression subsided and World War II began, community organization continued its emphasis on “maintaining adjustment between social welfare resources and social welfare needs” (Dunham, 1943, p. 138) and proposed that “community organization was a social work process comparable to social casework and social group work and that the community was a client in a distinctive sense” (Schwartz, 1965, p. 179).

Outside of social work, community organizing tended to be more engaged in social action, often of the confrontational and direct action variety. From the Unemployed Councils of the Communist Party, protesting against hunger and eviction, to the founding of Saul Alinsky’s Back of the Yards effort in a stockyard neighborhood of Chicago, community organizing took on the militant and even ideological tone of contemporary labor struggles, specifically that of the emerging Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The class-based democratic organizing of the more radical unions in the CIO was transferred to the neighborhoods where these workers and their families lived. Settlements and other community organization efforts were also involved in comparable efforts around social security and welfare relief. Outside of social work, the community organizing of the day, unburdened by professional constraints and sometimes proposing a revolutionary, rather than incremental, program, went beyond middle-class advocacy and leadership on these issues to mobilizing and politicizing those most affected by the Great Depression. Compare the tone, politics, and tactics of the statement by Clarence King in the Encyclopedia of Social Work—“In general, community organization for social work may be said to comprise social welfare planning, organization, and coordination” (King, 1941, pp. 128-29)—to those of Saul Alinsky, who at about the same time encouraged community organizers to “rub raw people’s resentments” to build a people’s movement (Alinsky, 1946).

To be sure, there were those in social work who used a social justice movement approach during the Depression. The rank-and-file movement within social work, led by Jacob Fisher, Bertha Reynolds, Mary van Kleeck, and others, picked up on the radical politics and the militant union model of the day. These leaders sought dramatic changes inside and outside the profession. Although these changes were not exclusively in the area of community organization (Bertha Reynolds, for example, was a clinician), their analysis and work proceeded from a class-based structural perspective of both the profession and the relation between social workers and their clients (Burghardt & Fabricant, 1987). This approach changed as World War II put the brakes on social action efforts. After the war ended, however, militancy returned. In 1946, there emerged a wave of local and national strikes, demands for better wages and conditions for workers, and a general demand for equality for which the war against fascism had been fought. But this was shortlived. Actually, it was crushed. Another wave of conservative political economy was about to constrain community practice, pushing community organization into more professional concerns once again, and pushing social action organizing into near oblivion. During the Depression, however, whether community practice occurred within or without social work, there was a general focus on the larger issues of social welfare and a sense of reaching larger aims through political action (Magee, 1943).

Cold War and the Fifties

The years from about 1945 until 1973 were ones of tremendous economic growth and opportunities as well as political and cultural change. Initially, there was the enthusiasm of the postwar atmosphere—returning to peace and civilian life after years of delaying school and work and disturbing personal life. The atmosphere was buoyed for social workers by the social justice spirit of the times. Fascism had been defeated abroad; democracy had prevailed. Of about 3 million students in universities after the war, one third were there on the GI bill. Many were studying to become social workers, as social work, like other professions, was about to undergo a major expansion. At the same time, however, elites sought to cement U.S. economic and political power worldwide and fashion a conservative consensus for the Cold War at home through economic growth and political repression. Economic growth opened up opportunities and career advancement for young adults, but political repression heavily curtailed social justice work. Social action community organization was largely put on hold for a decade, when a context more interested in social work and social justice fed it and gave it room to grow.

Equally important, the postwar era was a difficult time for those in and outside of social work interested in community organizing. Community practitioners found it nearly impossible, in the reactionary context of the day, to sustain their social action work. Once again, as in the Red Scare after World War I, social change and democratic dissent were widely perceived as a threat to the nation. This was an era of highly conservative Cold War politics, dominated by the fear of communism abroad and at home (Fisher, 1994; Fried, 1996; Pells, 1994). Equally as important, the architects of this conservative post-World War II political economy feared another economic depression. There was deep concern about the fragility of the American economy and capitalism in general. Federal deficit spending for war and defense—what President Eisenhower later called the “military-industrial complex”—appeared to be the only answer to economic depression. Insecure about American prospects at home and abroad, cold warriors in both political parties sought to silence those who raised concerns about the direction and priorities of postwar America (Kolko, 1976). In such a context, quite similar to the period directly after World War I and during the 1920s, issues of poverty, social problems, and urban slums were as absent from public discussion as they had been omnipresent just a decade or so before (Galbraith, 1958/1998; Harrington, 1962). In response to a context of repression and intimidation, most community work, whether inside or outside the field of social work, withdrew from the political scene or fell dormant (Andrews & Reisch, 1997; Fabricant & Fisher, 2002b). As David Rosenstein, then president of the National Federation of Settlements, put it in 1953, at the height of the repression: “People in the neighborhoods are afraid to join anything” (cited in Fisher, 1994, p. 70). Arthur Dunham at the University of Michigan remained the only continuing university professor in the field of community organization. Meyer Schwartz was just helping to develop the first 2-year concentration in community organization at the University of Pittsburgh. But these exceptions proved the rule of constrained community organization in this era.

Community organizing had little public impact in the late 1940s and 1950s. For example, Alinsky’s work essentially lay fallow for more than a decade until the civil rights movement took off in the 1960s and drew attention once again to community-based social action (Horwitt, 1990). Social workers involved in community practice, in the field and in academic settings, had greater viability because they responded to the postwar context in a greater variety of ways and sought a wider variety of funding sources (Fabricant & Fisher, 2002b). The United Community Defense Services, a community organization project in defense industry-related sites in the United States during the Korean War, secured funding for community organization in a climate hostile to social change by promoting community organization as a means for “lubricating the social machine,” helping people in “critical defense areas,” and thereby supporting the Cold War and the struggle against communism (Fisher, 1994). During this period, academics and practitioners also worked hard to develop “a conceptual framework for social work practice in the field of community work” (Schwartz, 1999, p. 264). According to Kenneth Pray, the focus of community work should be on developing a “direct helping relationship with individual people and groups of people,” much like casework (cited in Schwartz, 1965, p. 181). Newstetter (1947) was more interested in the process of intergroup work; he viewed community to be essentially the interaction and adjustment relation of groups. John Hill warned practitioners “to distinguish between their responsibilities as citizens and their responsibilities as members of a profession” (Hill, 1951, p. 459).

Writing toward the end of this period, Murray Ross (1955) offered a more expanded conceptualization of community organization, which included process, reform, and planning orientations. His work rested more heavily on contemporary social science research and used a more systematic and social-scientific approach than others writing about community organization at the time. But ultimately, like most of his contemporaries, Ross concluded that community organization should focus on community organization as a process and the community worker as an enabler, rather than on social action and more advocacy-related forms of community work or more top-down planning models (Rothman, 2001; Schwartz, 1965). Austin recalls the dominant trend in community organization at this time: CO, like group work and casework, was primarily focused on interpersonal processes—that is, how inclusively self-help groups were organized and how democratic decisions were made, not with specific outcomes impacting poverty, racial segregation, or general patterns of discrimination. (Austin, 1999, p. 196)

The Sixties: 1960-1975

The period from 1960 to 1975 was a heyday for social action the world over. Resistance began in the Third World, with nationalist and socialist rebellion against Western imperialism following World War II. It percolated in the United States in the 1950s, then dominated public discourse for the next decade. In the United States, mass social movements—by people of color for civil rights and power, by students against the war in Vietnam, and later by women against sexism and for gender equality—resisted oppression of people based on class, race, politics, values, and gender. This period is remembered as a time of mass insurgence, radical politics, and youthful experimentation. It was a time when the notion of democracy was reinvigorated with participatory content. Community-based work—from that of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to Mobilization for Youth (MFY) and the Community Action Program—was central to sixties activism. (Breines, 1982; Carson, 1982; Chafe, 1980; Evans, 1979; Polletta, 2002). The social movements and programs of the era incorporated community organizing, especially social action, into the equation of urban social change to an even greater extent than in the Progressive Era (Halpern, 1995).

This massive interest in community organization and participation resulted from three primary sources: (a) civil rights and student movement initiatives, (b) foundations seeking new models in the late 1950s to address juvenile delinquency, and (c) liberal elites who came to power in the 1960s seeking to address, at least modestly, social problems and the growing unrest in the United States. In a nutshell, social disorder and mass movements, which sprang up in response to the gross inequities and inconsistencies between the ideal and de facto practice of democracy in the United States, pushed political and federal leadership to develop a wide array of programs that would provide both needed resources and services at a decentralized level and the opportunity to increase community-based organization and participation.

What made the period even more exciting and important was the quantity of funding and social space available for varied forms of political participation and social change (Fabricant & Fisher, 2002b; Halpern, 1995). Public initiatives in the War on Poverty committed extensive federal support to organizations working with the poor, addressing the social causes of poverty, and pursuing a decentralized strategy of working to address poverty at the neighborhood level (Marris & Rein, 1967; Moynihan, 1969; Peterson & Greenstone, 1977). The Office of Economic Opportunity, developed in 1964 to administer the War on Poverty, dramatically expanded the amount of money available for community-based nonprofit programs (Kravitz, 1969). Programs under the new Office of Economic Opportunity included Operation Head Start, Job Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Upward Bound, VISTA, and the Community Action Program, which established community action agencies throughout the nation (Marris & Rein, 1967; Piven & Cloward, 1971). Poverty was once again seen as a federal problem, but many of the key programs defined the federal role as helping to initiate and fund such community-based efforts as participation, planning, and power. From the mid-1960s onward, the Great Society, limits aside, wrought profound changes and brought massive funding for neighborhood work and social change (Halpern, 1995). Federal expenditures for social welfare services tripled in only 5 years, increasing from $812 million in 1965 to $2.2 billion in 1970.

Community workers were not passive recipients in this process. The Henry Street Settlement, for example, was an initiator of MFY, an experiment in community-based response to poverty and powerlessness. In 1957, Helen Hall and others first began work in neighborhoods with MFY planning, which was a precursor to later projects under the War on Poverty. MFY achieved such prominence that President Kennedy initiated a federally recognized project in May 1962. Activist academics at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, among them Lloyd Ohlin, Richard Cloward, and George Brager (Brager, 1999; see also Hall, 1971), revised the model to heighten community activism and development of power (and activism). Tensions at MFY reflected significant splits in community organization strategy and tactics: a more activist movement strategy versus a more professional incremental approach. Many community workers had used the latter approach with success in the Progressive Era and especially during the New Deal, when they had a good deal of access to power and were influential participants in policy development. For example, Margaret Berry, director of the National Federation of Settlements in the 1960s, opposed the transformation of a community organization into a “protest agency for the poor,” because she felt Blacks could make significant gains by bridging rather than exacerbating class and racial tensions (Lasch-Quinn, 1993, p. 161). But whether community work was more militant and revolutionary or more engaged in advocacy and social reform, community-based efforts attracted a great deal of attention and provided many people with jobs and social change experience. Of course, it was not an easy time to achieve social change; victory never comes easily. But for community organization, it was an unusually supportive and exciting era.

Within the field of social work, the enormous growth and transformation that began after World War II reached fruition in the 1960s (Rothman, 1999a). More progressive and macro-minded social workers were primed to expand on the egalitarian values and political experiences of the Depression and the Second World War, but they were stymied in the postwar decade by a reactionary context and a social work profession that pursued more traditional (micro) and more conservative (adjustment-oriented) forms of social work practice and preferred more psychosocial and behavioral forms of research. The reform context of the 1960s, however, expanded the audiences and opportunities for community organization theory and practice. In this more liberal context, a new generation of community organization professionals found a more comfortable and supportive home. Some—such as Richard Cloward, George Brager, and Harry Specht at MFY—were key architects and players in the newly emerging social movements and projects, and many educators—Jack Rothman, David Austin, John Turner, Robert Perlman, and Irving Spergel, to name just a few—were practitioners who also developed careers in social change as university educators. However, most of the social workers who became involved in community organization were less heralded, grassroots professionals involved in a wide variety of agencies, organizations, and movement efforts.

Community practice continued to occur in the same arenas and with similar methods as before, but those involved in community building, social planning, and social action increasingly became much more interested in issues of power and much more willing to consider expanding strategies and tactics to include more social action and political advocacy and even militant, confrontational strategies and tactics. John Turner stated it mildly when he wrote, “Over the years we learned much more about power” (Turner, 1999, p.100). Burghardt and Fabricant (1987) emphasize that during this era, community organization emphasized the refinement of particular skills, especially the democratic intergroup process, coalition work, the understanding of political and power structures, and the confrontation of racism and sexism. The programs and funding of the era offered job opportunities and experience to those interested in community organization. Of course, it wasn’t entirely a heyday for those interested in social change. Warren Haggstrom’s program in radical community organizing at Syracuse University was aborted, leading to his move to UCLA. But the overall atmosphere was one of greater support and legitimacy for social action and democratic dissent.

Related developments occurred in community-organizing efforts outside of social work. SNCC’s community-organizing work around Black civil rights in the Deep South was perhaps the most compelling model of the period. Participatory democracy served as the core vision, goal, and method for student activist work in SNCC and SDS. Saul Alinsky, distancing himself from the New Left as he had done earlier from the field of social work, found in the new, more liberal context support for his work as a “professional radical.” A pariah only a few years earlier, he was heralded as “the prophet of power to the people” by Time magazine in the mid-1960s (Horwitt, 1990). The essence of 1960s social action community organizing, especially that of the New Left, often is summarized in the phrase “power to the people” and can be captured in a number of basic working principles:

  • The organizer is a catalyst rather than a leader.
  • Participatory democracy is the prime thrust of community organizing with a mission to “let the people decide.”
  • Finding and developing advocacy and other skills among indigenous leaders is a central goal for long-term change.

In following these principles, an effective community organizer will:

  • Develop informal organization structures to encourage participation and attract participants
  • Find and develop social spaces in the community that are free of constraint in which people can meet and organize
  • Create supportive personal relations within and across community groups
  • Recognize that grassroots efforts are not simply an end in themselves, but part of a larger movement for social, economic, and political justice (Fisher, 1994; Frost, 2001; Polletta, 2002)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of key developments both expanded interest in community work and undermined its future. Government repression, such as COINTELPRO, a covert counterintelligence effort of the FBI designed to eliminate radical political opposition inside the United States, began to destabilize movement efforts. Great Society programs were significantly derailed as early as 1967. The student movement became increasingly absorbed by the struggle against the Vietnam War and felt increasingly pressured to escalate strategies and tactics. Simultaneously, women within the movements began to develop a gender analysis of contemporary problems and American life, ultimately helping to birth the women’s movement. The women’s movement came partly out of the tensions within the New Left but much more significantly out of the activist fervor and lessons in democracy learned by the women in the organizing projects. With the success of the mobilization to end the war and the repression of movement activism, many activists had withdrawn from nationally oriented, mass movement work by the early 1970s and returned to grassroots community organizing as a means to build a more participatory, egalitarian, and communal society. Some of these grassroots organizations, such as ACORN and the Industrial Areas Foundation, continue today. Many of these efforts seemed to experience a heyday in the late 1970s—a veritable “backyard revolution” (Boyte, 1981). As the animus for such work declined, however, these efforts, while still important, receded from public consciousness, and their significance faded.

Since 1975: Community Practice in a Private World

Referring back to the historical cycles model, which has guided the analysis in this chapter, in the last generation, we have witnessed a shift to a conservative, corporate-dominated context on a global scale (Barnet, 1994; Bauman, 1998; Brecher & Costello, 1994; Eisenstein, 1998). Key indicators underscore this shift: the turn to greater individualism, conservative politicians, right-wing discourse and social movements, laissez-faire economic orientation, and corporate hegemony. This set of conditions is the context for most of the chapters in this handbook on contemporary practice. Because the other chapters flesh out the varied nature of practice and challenges in our contemporary context, this one highlights the significance of the shift in context and its broad impact on emerging trends in community practice. In a nutshell, the contemporary context is characterized by three central challenges: (a) the private marketplace and the practices of global corporations dominate and permeate almost all areas of life; (b) issues become increasingly private and individual rather than public and social; and (c) people are increasingly isolated and less able to build community and social solidarity. I have referred elsewhere to these as the political economy of private institutions, the culture of private individualism, and the privatization of physical space (Fisher & Karger, 1997,2000).

First, the post-1975 era exalts private institutions. They are seen as the engines of economic and technological progress and as the primary instruments to address and resolve social problems. Likewise, the post-1975 era disparages public-sector institutions and unrequested intervention in the global marketplace. The corporate bottom line, prerogatives, and process come to dominate all sectors of life. The public sector declines as a significant force. Such tendencies increasingly translate into a withdrawal from social problems that do not affect the business community and marginalization of those who try to raise them as public issues. The efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to dismantle the welfare state of the 1930s and 1960s underscores the hostility of this private era toward the public policies and programs of prior reform eras. In this new context, policies and programs of the welfare state are dramatically undermined. Increasingly, instead of addressing contemporary inequities, the new privatized political economy exacerbates or ignores them (Block, Cloward, Ehrenreich, & Piven, 1987; Greider, 1992). Public issues are framed by marketplace discourse, and the marketplace increasingly becomes the final arbiter of public life. As public life dissolves into private life, social change becomes much more difficult. Society is reduced to marketplace cause and function, and community organizations are dominated by corporate processes and objectives.

Second, and obviously related to the first trend, we live in a world that increasingly emphasizes a culture of private individualism rather than a sense of public good and public participation (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985; Lasch, 1978; Putnam, 1996, 2000; Sennett, 1974, 1990; Specht & Courtney, 1994). People focus even more than before on their own individual needs and growth, and those of their family, to the exclusion of concern about, let alone participation in, public life (Habermas, 1989; Madsen, Bellah, Madsen, & Tipton, 1991; Ryan, 1992). Increasingly this leads to a preoccupation with individual deficits as opposed to social problems and a belief that if all problems are caused by the individual, then solutions also rest within that person. The very sense of social problems and social solutions disappears as issues of poverty, violence, education, and environmental pollution are redefined as individual problems with individual solutions (Fisher & Karger, 1997, 2000; Schram, 2000).

Third, private space increasingly replaces public space (Blakely & Snyder, 1997; Boyte, 1992; Davis, 1992; McKenzie, 1994; Sorkin, 1992). The restructured urban landscape removes people from public spaces (e.g., streets, parks, beaches, libraries, mass transit, dense city neighborhoods, and downtown street shopping) and encourages them to inhabit the private sphere (e.g., private homes and backyards, country clubs, private bookstores, private cars, fortified gated and suburban communities, and shopping malls). In such a world, the very act of building social solidarity with others, of building community, let alone public life, is dramatically diminished (Boyte, 1989; Eisenstein, 1998; Fisher & Karger, 1997; Putnam, 1993, 2000; Sandel, 1996; Suarez, 1999) at the same time that increasing corporatization, individualization, and globalization force people to seek solidarity and empowerment at the community level (Fisher & Karger, 1997; Sirianni & Friedland, 2001.

In such a context, a number of emerging trends in community practice seem most salient. Within the field of social work, the last few decades have seen a dramatic turn away from macro analysis and interventions and toward more individualistic and intrapsychic work. Paradoxically, social work places greater and greater emphasis on professionalization at the same time that the practice of social service work becomes increasingly deskilled by the corporatized economy of managed care and contracting. In the subfield of community organization, there has been a general turn toward more conservative approaches because these are the ones most likely to receive acceptance, support, and funding. Within schools of social work, education has shifted away from social action to a revival of interest in “traditional forms of process-oriented, interagency planning and coordination” (Kramer, 1999, p. 281). As in all historical periods since the COS, a great deal of social planning continues to occur in large service agencies, although in the past few decades these agencies have been driven more by contract availability and requests for proposals than internal goal-setting (Fabricant & Fisher, 2002b; see also Brilliant, Chapter 12, this volume). In the 1980s, community practice emphasized management and administration. In the past decade, as individual therapy approaches and family-based interventions have proven unable to impact deep and despair-provoking social and community conditions, community-based work of the community-building and community development types, with a focus on asset-building and social capacity strategies, is experiencing a miniboom in terms of financial support and attention (Saegert, Thompson, & Warren, 2001; Sherraden, 2003). Reflecting on an era that emphasizes goodwill and harmony with the private sector, the emphasis is on building partnerships and consensus and getting to the table with those who wield economic and political power. Unfortunately, these efforts, although significant in a world of diminishing social cohesion and resources for poor communities, are limited in terms of addressing larger issues of social, economic, and political justice.

On a related note, one of the contributions of the feminist movement of this period was to underscore the political and social change nature of service work (Stout & McPhail, 1998; Withorn, 1984). Another contribution of the feminist movement was to reinstate women in more leadership roles in community organization; after a heyday of female leadership during the Progressive Era, the leadership of community organization and community organizing became a male bastion. The delivery of services to victims of male battering or AIDS, in a context disinterested in both, was part of the larger feminist and gay/lesbian movements (Hyde, 1989; Weil, 1986). But the delivery of services in community-based organizations and agencies is about social change only as long as there remains a larger vision and project that not only includes but extends beyond service delivery (Armstrong, 2002). The same is true for various approaches in community practice. It is the politics of the effort that matters (Burghardt, 1982).

Accordingly, in the conservative political economy since 1975, social action efforts, inside and outside of social work, have been viewed by many as inappropriate vestiges of a prior era. The price of corporate support for social planning, community building, or community development—the price of sitting at the table—is often the exclusion of confrontation or even the potential for an adversarial role. This has a huge impact on whether or not the causes of social problems and conditions can be met or even addressed. It also has an impact on whether public-sector programs, such as those to address poverty, racism, hunger, and low-income housing, can be pressured or leveraged (Calpotura, 2000; Fisher & Shragge, 2000; Shragge, 2003; Williams, 1999).

While militant social action community work has declined dramatically, there seems to have been more political advocacy and electoral-oriented work around service budget cuts and policy initiatives since the 1980s, especially in response to the most recent fiscal crisis facing many states (Burghardt & Fabricant, 1987; Fabricant & Fisher, 2002b). In addition, in a context in which power has become highly concentrated, democracy more constrained, and life more individualized, community practice has featured a greater emphasis on democratic process and voice and on defining organizing as being about building relationships (Warren, 2001). The obvious neoconservative and neoliberal politics of the era have made people more aware of the structural dimensions and implications of contemporary problems. In addition to increasing organizing with the poor around welfare rights, a great deal of work has developed in communities, particularly the organizing work within the women’s and gay and lesbian communities as well as among functional communities of people with disabilities and older adults; these groups previously were not involved in issues of community organization or advocacy. Thousands of community-based efforts are organized around particular cultural identities and, as always, around specific local community issues (Sirianni & Friedland, 2001). In addition, an anti-globalization youth movement is emerging, which seeks to build ties with labor and grassroots organizations and which, prior to the September 11,2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the war on Iraq, seemed to be developing into a critical source of an alternative vision and democratic opposition (Brecher, Costello, & Smith, 2000; Polletta, 2002; Prokosch & Raymond, 2002). The challenge to all those who are doing good work in communities throughout the nation is to develop an ideological and philosophical gel and programmatic base that can begin to unite the diversity and proliferation of community work across the United States and enable diverse groups to contend together for political, economic, and social power. In the 1980s, it seemed that feminism would be the gel and the base to challenge the neoconservative politics of our time; in the 1990s, it seemed that perhaps organizing around the environment or visions of a multicultural society would unite and mobilize the fragmented world of community practice and social change; in the late 1990s and early 21st century, it looked more like the direct-action, anti-globalization movement would be a vanguard of change. Any of these, or a combination thereof, might still create the gel and the base.

Clearly, however, the Bush and Cheney regime and the events of September 11, 2001, have moved the political economy of the nation further to the right, dismantling public life and the public sector and challenging and reshaping community practice once again. Perhaps our current challenge is akin to that faced by community activists in the early 1950s. But with the pervasively conservative political economy merging with the privatizing trends of the past two decades, perhaps what we observe now is a much more formidable obstacle than even the early 1950s to the democratic politics and ideal of an inclusive and equalitarian public good. This ideal incorporates concerns for participatory democracy, equalitarian citizenship and access, community building, and diminished racism and sexism with progressive political, social, and economic programs. Focused on a constant goal of moving society toward social, economic, and political justice, such ideals and initiatives have characterized the best of community practice inside and outside social work. Only through continued struggle and practice will we discover the depth of the opposition to and the potential of our work. To that end, the chapters that follow should help.