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Community Organization Movement


By Wm. J. Norton*, Secretary, Detroit Patriotic Fund


Editor’s Note: This is a copy of a presentation at the National Conference of Social Work’s Forty-Sixth Annual Session Held in Atlantic City, New Jersey June 1-8. 1919

As the pomp and glory of battle fade and the fervor of a people consecrated to a noble end subsides, our social forces find themselves confronted with greater responsibilities than any they have yet assumed. Sobered by the struggle and the sombreness of war, and disturbed by the red torch of revolution flaring across the world, the whole nation realizes today that social problems are serious matters which must be met intelligently and vigorously. The best that is in American civilization turns an inquiring eye to find if their social workers are ready to offer the nation some guidance in her rough course over the reconstruction road.

Faced with such an opportunity it behooves social work to look to itself, to gird up its own loins, to examine its own armor, to find if it has a plan of battle, to see if its forces can be marshaled in an effective fighting array. This is doubly important because the task ahead is no easy one. In spite of the uneasy conscience of America’s rulers, and in spite of their new knowledge that change, although perhaps not desirable from their point of view is at least inevitable, every advance towards a better ordered and more just society, will be bitterly opposed by powerful forces of social stagnation.

What has happened in the world is simply this. The tremendous pressure that men and women are under simply to live, due to the enormous destruction of the war, is bringing out in bold relief the imperfections of the prevailing social structure. Many men admit begrudgingly today what they would never admit and probably never knew before, that the economic organism needs readjustment. It must be made more democratic, more just in its distribution of luxuries and necessities, more safe for health and limb, more stable in its power to employ at all times and to distribute the costs of sickness, accidents, and inefficiency. Thousands who never saw or cared before know now as national needs, that our society must be purged of the feeble-minded, that epidemics must be curbed and eliminated, that better standards of every day health must be attained and sustained, that play must be made wholesome and extensive, that education must adjust itself to a modern world, that our millions of immigrants must be truly assimilated, that the remaining misfits in society must be cared for adequately and humanely.

The nation is worried. The straining pressure of life gives its vision. Social reform will go far in the coming years. And we, the social workers of America, might play the part of greatness in guiding our beloved country in a series of sane progressions if we were ready now. But we are not ready.

The world today is an organized world. Business is organized for production. Transportation is organized to distribute the product. Credit is organized to lubricate the organizations of production and distribution. Capital is organized to protect its interests. Labor is organized to get larger rewards. Politics is organized to guard one or another of the great self-centered interests. Education is organized to pass on the old traditions. Everywhere one turns he finds giant organizations-everywhere but in the fields devoted to an impartial advancement of all the people.

I am disclosing no secret and uttering no heresy when I say to you that except in a few communities, the social work armies all over this great land, are organized in guerrilla bands only. In the main they closely resemble noisy rabbles led by a few ennobled Pancho Villas, conducting badly organized and poorly executed raids against the solid phalanxes of poverty, inefficiency, ignorance, disease, crime, and injustice. If this disorganization is to continue the social worker’s answer to the nation’s cry is already written. “We cannot serve you in the big affairs of the day. All that we can do is to continue coaxing, coddling, and punishing the poor, the unfortunate, and the erring children of your family.”

But some of us here, especially those who gather in this division, believe that such an answer is not necessary. We have watched in our mid-western communities, these guerrilla bands organized into regiments, the regiments into brigades, the brigades into divisions, and the divisions into a community wide army accoutred and ready to be marshalled against society’s social enemies.

It is this community organization movement that I desire to discuss today, not because alone it is a solvent of our weaknesses, for eventually it must be supplemented with coherent and cohesive state and national organization, but because it is the best expression just now of that type of harmonious, disciplined, group power, which must be injected into social work.

Originating in the west the community organization is spreading rapidly. It has in its head social intelligence. It has in its heart social power. It has in its whole being the strength to grapple successfully with the present problems of social reconstruction.

Yet, being new, it is feared. There are those who regard it as a blatant usurper. There are those who think of it as an autocrat in sackcloth garb. There are those who fear it will disturb their own tenure of little power. And there are those who fear that it will take the emotionalism that tickles their nerves out of the scheme of charity.

We must silence these natural fears, for community organization is not a monster designed to give over to the enemies of social progress the body of social work. Let us, therefore, consider it in its historic setting and in its relation to the present scheme of such organization as philanthropy has.

To understand this fully it is necessary for us to go back and to trace quickly the growth of social work in America, which began in a time when the nation was settled only in the east and when life even there was largely rural. Social knowledge and the means of acquiring and spreading social knowledge were not extensive; and the thing which we have named the social conscience, that dynamo driving our professional wheels and belts, was hardly yet awake. Altogether our forerunners in social work began in an era when American society had not been forced into ‘cohesion, and in a land and time where the doctrine of unrestrained competitive individualism was in the hey day of its revelry.

In this misty era, which seems so remote to us now, the spiritual life of the people concerned itself with individual morality, the winning of a pleasant personal existence after death, salvation of the heathen, and personal service and charity. This ideal of personal service and charity was the closest approach to a social conscience. It was founded for the most part in religion, and its exercise was a duty to be performed either directly by the person himself, or through the church as his agent. It was represented in action by the charitable societies and institutions of the church, especially of the Catholic Church. Such agencies formed the nucleus of that large body of church societies, hospitals, homes, and other institutions which we see today representing many denominations and dotting all of the communities of America.

In addition to the church agencies there was another well defined group of institutions in our early society. These were exemplified by the poorhouse, a very early American institution for the care of various groups of dependents; the jail and a few prisons to house delinquents; a children’s home here and there; an occasional school for the blind or the deaf; and a few similar institutions. They were supported for the most part from the public treasury. They formed the beginnings from which has grown the great body of present day state and municipal welfare service.

The relief giving societies of the church, large in number, were also supplemented by similar societies either independent in operation or attached to some fraternal organization.

It was mainly an attempt to reduce excessive competition among these, to eliminate imposture by relief seekers, and to introduce the fundamentals of what has since become known as case-work that lead Robert Hartley and his associates into their attack upon social problems as they saw them and in particular upon poverty; which later grew indirectly perhaps into great proportions as the charity organization or family welfare branch of social work. Contemporaneously with Hartley’s efforts, or possibly a little preceding them, another set of people began efforts towards prison reform and the aid of prisoners starting another line of effort which led eventually into another great branch of social work, modern humanized penology that concerns itself not only with improved institutional treatment of delinquents, but also with probation work and other forms of individual outdoor treatment of the offender.

Between these early groups, laying the background of our now very extensive work was a common tie of a common humanity. But aside from this mutual ideal each went their ways separately, organizing their works apart from the others. They revolved about three different centers, the church, the state, and private societies.

As time went on bringing changing conditions, the expansion of industry and commerce with their attendant problems, and a gradual enlargement of medical, penological, sociological, and economic knowledge various other social problems began to batter at the consciousness of the people. So there came following one year after another a series of new attacks upon new emerging social difficulties. Institutions for the insane and the feeble-minded expanded the public institutional field laying the foundation again for a specialized group of those interested in the problems of mental hygiene.

Home finding societies for dependent children and agencies to fight neglect of the helpless little ones, began to supplement and did, in some instances, replace the orphanages and children’s homes and the almshouses as a place for children. A large cohesive group of workers specializing in the care of children gradually emerged from this.

The development of medicine brought a whole chain of new agencies for new attacks upon new problems. Hospitals appeared; a visiting nurses group; a hospital social service; dispensaries; a fight against infant mortality; a crusade against tuberculosis; and the end is not yet in sight.

In the course of time the social settlement appeared out of which has grown various types of educational work, the great recreational movement, and the Americanization effort.

Societies for promoting economic readjustments developed, such as the fight on child labor, the safety movement, and struggle for social insurance.

Time does not permit mentioning all the different channels into which the vigorous leaven of the new social ideas has pushed the forces of social work. Enough has been cited to show how and why the expanding structure of this new and not yet very well defined social service was naturally organized in little groups around separate fields and around separate problems.

Several points in this development are worth stressing for a complete understanding of the situation which history has handed out for the community organizer to break his lance upon.

One is that we have several distinctive lines of approach to similar problems which have not been very sympathetic to one another. There is the church or religious approach which promptly subdivides itself into Catholic and Protestant with entirely different motives. There is the state or public approach which has again quite another motive from either of the church groups. There is the racial approach, represented best by the Jewish charities. And finally there is the segregated individual approach which is far more personal in character than any of the others except the racial.

Another point is that most of these segregated individual movements arose first in some single locality, spreading out later to other places spasmodically, and only as a few persons in each place caught the idea sometimes quite hazily. Only after a series of communities had established the same form of service did a national organization of that specialty arise. The net result is a lack of standard processes and an uneven quality.

Still another comment is that many types of service frequently demand more than one agency or institution of the same kind in a community. Settlements, clinics, orphanages, and hospitals are examples of institutions so limited in capacity or by geographical usefulness that several may exist in the same area of population.

And finally we have to recognize that the majority of social workers and board members are not social thinkers. They come at their work looking at a single problem, and not at the social structure, or more frequently yet, looking at a few poor, or sick, or helpless individuals, and not at the community structure. Add to this the extreme individualism of Americans and we find a partial explanation for two settlements nestling close to each other in the same block.

We have then a historic setting to social work, wherever social work is fairly well started, which presents to the person with a community wide vision and a community sense, a situation somewhat as follows. He sees the field already laid out, not on a logical or a modern efficiency basis, but upon a basis of unrelated functional division, each function revolving about an attempt to solve some specific problem. He sees it complicated by religious, racial, political, and personal motivation. He sees that institutions were located geographically not with an idea to distributing service to all parts of a community according to need, but largely by accident. He sees social workers and board members, wrapped up in institutions, case work, dispensaries, feeble-mindedness, all the constituent parts of social work, but not in social work. He sees the group upon whom he must most rely critical of everyone’s work but their own, wonderfully strong in their personal approach, and thoroughly undisciplined in mass action.

He finds that this existing system of organization by motives, by persons, and by problems, until it is supplemented by community organization, and community consciousness, creates waste of human resources and human lives. It generates friction which causes loss of power to the whole system. It breeds littleness of vision and littleness of action. It is the father of prejudice and confusion. It is the mother of selfishness in the house of generosity.

Yet in the face of all this that he sees, the community organizer if he is wise takes the situation as he finds it and attempts, not to destroy what has been done, or to do it all over again, but to accept the conflicting motives and personalities, to treat it with human understanding, and to organize it as it stands. For in spite of the fact that what we have described is really a sort of organized social work. it presents nevertheless a disorganized community.

The community organizer admits at once that the method of growth by organized problems with their three approaches, church, state, and personal, was logical for the times and was the best way to obtain a certain amount of progress. He goes further and admits that this same type of functional organization must be continued, only it must in the future be worked into harmony and be planned and controlled by a community consciousness. One of the approaches to the average intelligence is by specialization, and the human emotion is aroused more often than not by accident. The busy person accidentally discovering a tuberculous child and aroused thereby rallies to a tuberculosis crusade, and by specializing upon this simple problem maintains his interest. The community organizer also recognizes the dominance of religious and racial motives and traditions, and admits without question their rights to a place in the field.

The intention of the new community organization therefore is not to supplant the old but to strengthen and to supplement it. It aims to gather all of these specialized agencies with their different approaches and conflicting personalities together into a single community-wide co-operative society, with the purposes of creating a feeling of comradeship among them, of eliminating waste, of reducing friction, of strengthening them all, of planning new ventures in the light of the organized information held by all, of swinging them in a solid front in one attack after another upon the pressing and urgent needs of the hours. It says to a Protestant, “We know you are a Protestant and have a right to be one. That man there is a Catholic and has a right to be one. And that man there is a Jew and has a right to be proud of that. Stick to the points in your work where race and religion tell you to differ from others but admit the others’ right to do the same and remember always that you are all of one clay, American citizens in this American community, and wherever you can do it without sacrifice of principle, work and plan as one.”

It is the generation of this harmony about points of agreement, of this tolerance about points of disagreement and of this spirit of camaraderie that enables the new community organization to pool common functions of the various problem, religious and racial groups. Joint money raising is not difficult with such understandings as these, joint surveys, joint conferences, joint efforts at standard raising, joint defences of public agencies from political attack, and joint- demands for improved social laws and law enforcement.

One of the weakest points of the old structure is an inadequate public attention. Nothing less than complete friendly attention by all the population in a community should be the goal of social work. Without modern organization methods this cannot be approximated. Without its approximation the social worker’s leadership of ideas in the reconstruction period is futile. Yet through community organization it has been and it can be attained. Community organization does more than knit agencies together. It knits people, multitudes of people, about the agencies. It adds bands of volunteer salesmen. It adds bands of volunteer advertisers. Together with the old groups these new and virile people advertise and sell the wares and the ideas of social service into the most remote corners of a city.

Again community organization is not an attempt to change the focus of attention on special problems through existing agencies and motives and personalities. Instead it aims to keep this focus, while it adds another, through which all problems in a community are reviewed together in their relationships, through the concentrated lens of all the agencies. It pools many visions into one great synthetic view.

Finally the results achieved where real community action is secured are not new results, but larger results and more satisfactory. This is now demonstrated beyond question in such great centers as Cleveland, Cincinnati and Detroit.

To return to our starting point we are confronted with the task of giants. Giants really live today as they did not in ancient times. They are not solitary men and women though. They are great living organizations of many men and women, harmonious and disciplined to act together for great purposes. Foch is a great man but not a giant. Yet the Council of Versailles in creating an inter-allied organized harmonious army under his direction created a giant that was irresistible. And so must we act. Social workers cannot longer remain pigmies to be bowled over by a blade of grass. We must group ourselves into harmony of action until we have become one of these modern giants strong, triumphant, and irresistible in our progress for a better society.

* Norton, William J., (1883-1975) — William J. Norton, a social worker, was born in Maine, April 8, 1883. After graduating from Bowdoin College, he entered settlement work in Brooklyn, New York and later Cleveland, Ohio. In the period 1913-1917, he organized the Cincinnati Council of Social Agencies; and Community Union and Detroit Community Fund. In 1929, he became executive vice president of the Children’s Fund of Michigan, a post he held until the dissolution of the fund in 1954. During the Depression he also served as chairman of the Detroit Emergency Relief Commission (1931), as chairman of the Michigan Emergency Welfare Relief Commission (1933-1938). Norton was also president of Oakland Housing Inc., a low income housing project originally funded by James Couzens and the Rural Rehabilitation Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. After the 1943 Detroit race riot, Norton was appointed chairman of the Mayor’s Interracial Commission. Other governmental and private social welfare posts he held included president of the National Conference of Social Work (1928); trustee of the McGregor fund; chairman of the Detroit Chapter of the American Red Cross (1944-1945); chairman of the Michigan State Hospital Commission (1938-1945) and chairman of the Michigan Department of Mental Health (1945-1947). Norton died in 1975.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Norton, W.J. (1919, June). Community organization. Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work 46th Annual Session, 656-670. Atlantic City, NJ.



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