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Social Work: Community Organization Process – 1947

Educational and Promotional Process in Community Organization

By Lester B. Granger, Executive Director, National Urban League

A presentation at the Meeting of the National Conference on Social Welfare

in San Francisco, CA, April 13-19, 1947, (pp. 218–226)

WALKING IS AN ACTIVITY ENGAGED IN by every physically normal human being. And yet, if anyone of us should be asked how weLester B. Granger, Executive Director, National Urban League[View Image]
[View Image]
Lester B. Granger, Executive Director, National Urban League

walk-what specific muscular and nervous processes are involved in the act of walking-there is not one of us who could give the answer. This simple instinctive act not only involves so many complex interactions of the human body that it defies description, but it has been engaged in for so long without conscious thinking that we take the act itself for granted without understanding it.

The same thing is true of community organization, especially in its educational and promotional phases. In the comparatively few years during which community organization has been recognized as a specific professional function, we have come to understand that it is inaccurate to speak of the community organization agency in the strict sense and that rather than an agency classification, community organization is a social work process engaged in at one time or another by practically every agency operating in the social welfare and planning field. It is a matter of program emphasis and not program monopoly that produces the classification. So, small and large agencies, casework, social group work, and health organizations, all at one time or another are concerned with educating the community to full realization of the existence of a social need and with organizing that community to take steps to serve the need. But most of these steps have been taken almost instinctively on a commonsense basis rather than with full awareness of what processes are involved and how the community responds to the specific application of this or that community organization method.

However, if we are to learn to “walk” with greater speed and more directly to our goal, it is necessary for us to understand more exactly what goes into the operation which we are carrying on. In this respect it is helpful to look with special care at the interpretive and publicity programs of agencies which have either been organized in fairly recent years or which are working in fields where public interest has been greatly intensified during the last decade. This is true, for instance, of tuberculosis and cancer. It is especially true of polio and heart programs. The kind of concentrated attention which the Federal and state governments have been directing to maternal and infant care, the prolonged examination of social legislation programs developing from the original Roosevelt messages on social security and old age assistance-all this has accelerated social agency operations in these fields as well. From a study of the growth of the agencies concerned with these areas of need, and from step-by-step analysis of the increase in public support and in the efficiency of agency programs dependent upon that support, we are able now to come to certain definite conclusions regarding the educational and promotional process in community organization.

We know, first of all, that the American public is inclined to be unselective and undiscriminating in its response to social appeals except on the basis of current disaster situations, or the emotional overlay of the problem. Lynching is a horrible manifestation of the worst of our antisocial nature, and the public, therefore, responds energetically to an appeal to stamp out lynching. Tuberculosis has been dramatized as the “great white plague” over a long number of years, dating back to the period when lack of scientific knowledge made the malady mysterious and, thereby, more fearsome. Heart disease is less dramatic. Cancer is a “quieter” form of affliction. Malnutrition and the deaths resulting from it have been considered “acts of God” to be endured patiently and without demonstrative resistance. Only within our generation has the public in general been made aware of the close connection between malnutrition and bad housing and death from tuberculosis, and that awareness is the result of patient, unremitting, and skillful education by the agencies working in this field.

Thus it can be seen that the first step in community organization is education, involving the development of a general community awareness of the nature of the problem, and a definition of its outlines with an indication of the special interests which the general public has in it. The American Heart Association has been in existence for not more than twenty-five years, and yet through the journals, pamphlets, and leaflets published by the Association, its emphasis on the social, economic, and mental aspects of cardiac problems, its exhibit materials and educational conferences, its sponsorship of research and development of subordinate groups to investigate special phases of heart disease-through all these methods, the American Heart Association has been able to impress its message upon the attention of the American public to a remarkable extent. The American Cancer Society has corralled public attention through its nation-wide annual drives. The National Tuberculosis Association has accomplished the same end through the establishment of a tremendously large number of local affiliations in more than two thousand communities. Here we have three different types of organization-the one depending upon research and publication of its findings; another, upon national financial campaigns; and the third, upon a network of local groups-but all of them succeeding by one means or another in capturing the attention of the American public for their areas of special concern.

While public attention is being caught and held, there must also proceed concurrently the careful and scientific organization of the body of knowledge on the subject. The public interest is notoriously fluctuating unless it has something solid on which to hold. Three decades ago, anti-tuberculosis programs were stimulated by the slogan “Consumption Is Curable.” It was the reassuring note lightening a message of horror which lifted the courage and intensified the determination of the public to stamp out “the great white plague.’ Misery too long advertised without accompanying instructions for its eradication tends, in the long run, to be accepted by the public as something to be endured because it cannot be avoided. Thus the next move in the educational process is to identify and outline the positive steps which the public or its agencies must take in order to solve the problem which has been advertised. I am especially conscious of this need because in the field of race relations, with which the National Urban League is engaged, public interest has often been stultified and discouraged by the note of profound hopelessness sounded by those who protest against racial hatred and discrimination. When we emphasize that a thing has been done, we assure the public that it can be done again and again until the need for doing it has departed.

Thus education is directed, not only at developing public awareness of the need for action, but also at informing the public as to what action specifically is necessary and is most likely to be effective. When these ends have been accomplished, the educational process as such can be said to have been largely completed. The next step is that of promotion.

Promotional activities in community organization are too often undertaken while subject to two fatal handicaps. The one is incompletion or misdirection of the educational process; the other is incomplete knowledge of community attitudes, a knowledge which can be made complete only by careful analysis of the forces which are potentially for or against execution of the program. The national drive for health security, for medical insurance, has been slowed down considerably and unforgivably by failure on the part of its early leaders to analyze and understand the attitudes within the medical profession. Any form of health insurance depends, in the last degree, upon wholehearted support by an overwhelming majority of medical practitioners. Medical men are notorious for conservative attitudes on economic and social, as well as professional, questions, and yet a gigantic drive was planned and tentatively initiated without sufficient effort to take the medical profession into confidence and to resolve, first of all, the grave and usually honest doubts which medical practitioners entertain regarding the entrance of “the State” into the field of private medical practice. Thus, in recent years, steps have had to be retraced slowly and painfully in order to build within the medical profession itself a solid core of support -from conservatives rather than from professional liberals-for planned state responsibility in the field of medical care.

Such problems are all too common in social work. It is significant that the greatest progress toward effective community organization has been made in those areas where there is the least evidence of vested interest in the form of groups organized for action in those fields. The areas of Negro need in which the National Urban League has worked most freely and with least community opposition have been in industrial relations, vocational guidance, and neighborhood organization. For there are no other agencies on the national or local level equipped effectively to place Negroes in industrial and business jobs, to guide Negro youth toward wise choice of their careers, to organize Negro neighborhoods so as to develop indigenous and responsible leadership, and to promote better civic understanding and performance. When the League moves into the field of labor relations, it is apt to encounter, if not the resistance, at least the suspicious aloofness of labor leadership which is jealous of its authority, fearful of subversion of that authority, and uncertain about the motives of a “bunch of social workers butting into labor business.” These suspicions and hostilities are usually eliminated after attitudes have been identified, questions have been answered, and mutual confidence has been attained. But, in contrast, industrial employers who are harassed with personnel problems affected by race are apt to welcome the services of an outside agency which speaks the employer’s as well as the worker’s language and shows that it knows its businessThe

Urban League finds it easy to talk about the principles of good housing for all the people, but when steps to attain that housing contravene the purposes of profit interest groups, threaten to change the racial character of a given neighborhood, or run into the cross fire of opposing citizen interests, the League finds that principles constitute one thing and practice something entirely different. Thus, in organizing the community for social action, it must be remembered that frequently all the community cannot be organized, and a choice, therefore, must be made as to with which groups the agency will work. It mut be remembered, also, that even when over-all community support is essential, the cells of hidden or open resistance must be located and either isolated or dissolved before the organizing process can gain its full momentum.

Next in the promotional process are the discovery, the training, and the disciplining of leadership forces. Every community organization worker is familiar with the “Sentimental Susies” and the “Hysterical Harrys” of social action. These worthy and well-meaning souls are the first to appear in response to a clarion call. They are the battle-scarred veterans of many community battles, and their prior appearance on the scene is the most effective known deterrent to later recruitment of leaders. And yet the emotional drive of these social enthusiasts has its value. Their unquestioned zeal must be put to work. A nice judgmental question, therefore, is involved in the handling of the “emotionalists” among the leadership forces. They are more valuable for purposes of social legislation, as a rule, than for any other purpose. They lobby by correspondence and button-hole-hooking; they attend and address mass meetings; they are the ideal recruits for pressure purposes.

But aside from these, there must be discovered and developed leaders among the average-citizen type of supporter. For it is the average citizens, in the long run, who will determine the success or failure of social action. They must be introduced to the language of the cause. They must be indoctrinated with the thinking which the language expresses. They must be known to each other, so that they work in concert and with a fair degree of mutual trust, in spite of differences of opinion on extraneous issues.

And here is emphasized the need for indigenous leadership, whether of the state, the city, or the neighborhood. The American National Red Cross has learned this lesson so well that in spite of the fact that the Red Cross is a vast bureaucracy in most of its aspects, it has a hold on the affections of the community to an extent probably not equaled by any other national social work organization. The National Infantile Paralysis Foundation has similarly made use of the native leadership devices through its March of Dimes, its local neighborhood benefit program, and the heart-tugging message carried by the crippled child known to his friends and neighbors.

This is another way of saying that the social agency is effective in its community organization activities in the degree to which it assists the community in carrying forward a program, rather than carries the program itself. Millions of Americans who have contributed to the March of Dimes cannot name the agency which is the recipient of their contributions. It is not the National Infantile Paralysis Foundation which these dime-givers are supporting; it is the cause of relieving and healing the pathetic victims of a malign disease. They are rallying affectionately to the memory of a great American, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who personified, not only the blight of the disease itself, but also the deepest springs of courage with which the disease can be borne. Thus every contributor to the Foundation’s annual campaign feels to a greater or less degree that he is thereby healing a child and revering the memory of a beloved national leader.

Let me cite one more example which demonstrates how a community will act on its own when it resists the ready-made program proffered by a social agency. Near Atlanta, in 1943, a branch plant of the Bell Aircraft Company was under construction. Advance information was received by the Urban League that no Negroes would be employed in the plant out of deference to a presumed Southern employment practice. The statement was made by plant representatives that no trained Negroes were available. This was backed up with a declaration by public training officials in Atlanta that no interest in securing such training had been demonstrated by the Negro public. At this point, the Atlanta Urban League fell back on its community. Conferences were held with aggressive and influential Negro leaders. The message was quietly carried throughout Atlanta via churches, clubs, and fraternal lodges. A citizens’ committee was organized, with the Urban League in the background and active volunteers in the lead. Of course, indignation in the Negro community ran high, but indignation and traditional gestures of protest were not sufficient. Public opinion was channeled into a mass registration movement, and war training officials were subsequently confronted with the signed applications of more than five thousand Negro men and women for admission to training courses for jobs in the Bell bomber plant. On the basis of this presentation, the indifference or resistance of public officials was broken down. Training courses were instituted. Subsequently, Negroes were hired on production jobs in the plant and held those jobs until the end of the war.

A dramatic announcement of the situation by the Urban League would not have been enough. Neither could the League, with all its board and staff members, have carried on this mass registration activity. The people had to feel that it was not only their cause, but their program. They responded to the advice of their minister, their ward leader, their favorite teacher, even the owner of their neighborhood barbershop. Here was a perfect example in microcosm of the educational and promotional processes of community organization.

This meant comparative anonymity for the organizing agency. Few persons even in Atlanta appreciate the role played by the Urban League in this situation. And this is good, because the individuals who had the thrill of participating in a successful social action program and who received recognition of their leadership are all the more valuable, as a result, for other leadership responsibilities in the future. The spotlight must be foresworn by the organizing agency if its methods are to be effective and their results lasting. That agency which insists upon carrying the load of responsibility and being subsequently bedecked with the ribbons of public appreciation will find itself shortly in the position of an old Spanish American War veteran telling the story of his past exploits to an impatient new generation of veterans of the second World War.

I have sought to describe something of the methods of community organization as learned in the National Urban League and from observations of successful agencies in other fields. There is nothing herein which is new or profound, for I have an iconoclastic conviction that many of us attempt too often to make a profound mystery of what is, after all, a simple common-sense professional operation. Community organization is a comparatively new term in social work, but it is an old practice of far greater age than our profession, and it is carried on in almost every phase of human living. The Cincinnati block organization plan established just after the beginning of the second World War was not a new process. It was merely a social work adaptation of a practice established by Tammany Hall in New York City back in the days of Boss Tweed. Supporters of present day social legislation are striving frantically to learn the political strategy and develop the organized effectiveness of the real estate lobby of the old trust combines. It is not to our discredit that we have discovered nothing new. It is to our discredit if we fail to refine, improve upon, and make more effective the methods which we have borrowed from other fields for our own purposes. In our educational activities we must learn to use as efficiently as do those who oppose our purposes the tools which play upon the fear, love, and pride of the American public. We must recognize the differences between various American communities, geographical, social, and psychological. We must recognize that in the same community there are different socio-economic units which are themselves small communities. We must recognize, also, that a psychological or an economic link can join many communities which are widely separated in a geographical sense, but which are closely linked in their basic interests. The educational approach on a national scale which gains converts in the industrial Middle West may frighten and develop hostility in the residents of the rural Southeast. An appeal addressed to the “American” type of thinking may fail to impress or may even alienate first or second generation new Americans. A message which is accepted readily by the white, Gentile, Protestant bulk of our population may fail entirely to impress members of this or that racial or religious or cultural minority.

This brings us to the final point in a discussion of the educational and promotional processes of community organization. Leadership which participates in the education and promotes the action to which community organization is addressed must be representative, in a cross-section sense, of the people affected. Our wartime civilian defense program was effective for this reason, and in those cities where it was not effective the reason could usually be ascribed to the failure to use representative leadership. Such cross-section selection undoubtedly accentuates the difficulties of community organization, but it certainly helps to guarantee effective and lasting results. And it is the result with which we are concerned, rather than with the difficulties, if we are to make community organization, in the professional social work meaning, a useful tool in the building of the American community.

Source: National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings On-Line.

The web site for this resource is:

Note: The proceedings of annual meetings of the NCSW, 1874-1983, are available on the web thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota.

2 Replies to “Social Work: Community Organization Process – 1947”

  1. Trymore Chisa says:

    I really found this article helpful but I am still confused with the term community organization and community development. Do they mean the same thing?
    Ok that aside lets analyze conscientization as an approach to social work. What is it that which we need to look at?

    • jhansan says:

      Trymore Chisa: The terms “community organization” and “community development” are frequently used interchangeably. For a number of years, schools of social work offered courses in community organization; however, I am not certain whether or not that continues anywhere. Your best source for more detailed differentiation would be to Google one or both of the terms and make your own conclusion. Good luck, Jack Hansan

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