Tuesday, June 27, 2006

2006 JUL | PEOPLE POWER: Saul Alinsky, Sherry Arnstein & the "Ladder of Citizen Participation"

Saul Alinsky, Sherry Arnstein &
the "Ladder of Citizen Participation"

"The idea of citizen participation is a little like eating spinach: no one is against it in principle because it is good for you. Participation of the governed in their government is, in theory, the corner stone of democracy, a revered idea which is vigorously applauded by virtually everyone. The applause is reduced to polite hand claps however, when this principle is advocated by the have not blacks, Mexican Americans and Indians. And when the have nots define participation as redistribution of power, the American consensus on the fundamental principle explodes into many shades of outright racial, ethnic, ideological and political opposition."- SHERRY ARNSTEIN

DEMOCRACY (Greek: "demos" [people] + "kratos" [rule]) literally means PEOPLE RULE!

One way to to categorize and conceptualize power is: 


The sheer mass NUMBERS of people are at least equal in strength to the massive RESOURCES concentrated in the hands of the few, and, therefore, the balance is determined by sustainable ORGANIZATION. Large, top-down organizations have short-term advantage. However, small, decentralized, and bottom-up organizations have the advantage in the medium term to long term. We, the people, have the right and the responsibility to exercise our power and maximize it for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our schools.

"As Benjamin Franklin wrote, 'In free governments the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns.' The ultimate powers in a society, therefore, rest in the people themselves, and they should exercise those powers, either directly or through representatives, in every way they are competent and that is practicable." - THOMAS JEFFERSON

Saul Alinsky wrote 2 well-known books, "Reveille for Radicals" and "Rules for Radicals, A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals". While town meetings were a vital force for decentralization of power in early American history, the Industrial Revolution's mass production brought mass centralization of power in the hands of the few. This was followed, of course, by the labor movement. The next great
landmark in American power dynamics is the birth of community organizing.

A documentary by Bob Hercules & Bruce Orenstein, "THE DEMOCRATIC PROMISE: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy", tells us, "Few know it today, but Chicago was the birthplace of a powerful grassroots social movement that changed political activism in this country. 'Community Organizing' was pioneered in Chicago's old stockyards neighborhood by the soberly realistic, unabashedly radical Saul Alinsky."

"This is a story about poor people getting power; it's openly about power, and that's not a concept openly spoken about in America." - BOB HERCULES

The documentary's website summarizes the project as, "the story of ordinary people making demands for the power to govern their own lives. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, the documentary examines both the history of community organizing - through the work of Saul Alinsky - as well as the current state of community organizing, as shown by contemporary organizations in New York and Texas. In a larger sense, the program is about the restoration of American democracy through shared public participation in civil life - a vital antidote to an era of increased citizen alienation and voter apathy."

"It becomes a contest of power: those who have money and those who have people. We have nothing but people." - SAUL ALINSKY
Arnstein Ladder
In 1969, Sherry Arnstein published, "A Ladder of Citizen Participation", in the Journal of the American Planning Association. The Arnstein Ladder has become one of the most-used and most meaningful navigational tools for fixing one's position within a power dynamic. The ladder has 8 rungs, as summarized on Partnerships OnLine :

1 Manipulation and 2 Therapy. Both are non participative. The aim is to cure or educate the participants. The proposed plan is best and the job of participation is to achieve public support by public relations.

3 Informing. A most important first step to legitimate participation. But too frequently the emphasis is on a one way flow of information. No channel for feedback.

4 Consultation. Again a legitimate step - attitude surveys, neighbourhood meetings and public enquiries. But Arnstein still feels this is just a window dressing ritual.

5 Placation. For example, co-option of hand-picked 'worthies' onto committees. It allows citizens to advise or plan ad infinitum but retains for power holders the right to judge the legitimacy or feasibility of the advice.

6 Partnership. Power is in fact redistributed through negotiation between citizens and power holders. Planning and decision-making responsibilities are shared e.g. through joint committees.

7 Delegated power. Citizens holding a clear majority of seats on committees with delegated powers to make decisions. Public now has the power to assure accountability of the programme to them.

8 Citizen Control. Have-nots handle the entire job of planning, policy making and managing a programme e.g. neighbourhood corporation with no intermediaries between it and the source of funds.

Sherry Arnstein died in 1997. During her life, she had served as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, worked at Arthur D. Little, Inc., and held many other important posts.