Be Like Barack: The Pros and Cons of a Career in Community Organizing


It may not be remunerative, as President Obama's book Dreams from My Father makes clear, but community organizing offers its own set of benefits.


photo © Marc PoKempner, 1995 (


The media coverage of the 2008 Democratic primaries generally focused on the issues that separated Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton, but the two candidates also shared a great deal of common ground. One such area of mutual interest is community organizing. Sen. Obama worked for three years as the director of Developing Communities Project in Chicago, and Sens. Obama and Clinton were influenced to varying degrees by the ideas of Saul Alinsky, a Chicago activist who is regarded as the father of community organizing. Community organizer jobs don't usually receive much attention, if any, from career guidance counselors, but if you're looking for an opportunity to help people in tangible ways and make the world a better place, community organizing might just be your calling.


What is community organizing?


At its core, community organizing is about solving problems together. Though it's generally considered a specialty within the broader category of social work jobs, community organizing has a greater emphasis on empowerment, activism, and the need for reform and social change. These concerns could take form in a myriad of ways, from recruiting candidates for volunteer opportunities to working with local community groups on housing and development issues to organizing workshops, rallies, or protests. The scope of community organizing can extend from door-to-door canvassing in your neighborhood to international development jobs in so-called Third World countries.


Where do community organizers work?


Most community organizers hold non-profit jobs at some type of public interest group, advocacy organization, public charity, private foundation, civil rights group, religious congregation, etc.


Though separate statistics for the community organizing sector are not available, the U.S. nonprofit industry is vast and growing. The National Council of Nonprofit Associations (NCNA) places the number of charitable nonprofits in the country at over 835,000, and a report from The John Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies tabulates 9.4 million non-profit organization jobs in the U.S., excluding volunteer jobs. The number of charitable non-profits in the country increased by 68% from 1993 to 2003, according to the latest available NCNA figures. Non-profits now account for about 10% of U.S. GDP.


The downside to this wealth of opportunity is that a career in community organizing usually doesn't pay very much. The hours can be long, and the work requires a lot of dedication, passion, and tenacious idealism, as well as an ability to bring people together from different cultures and classes. But the upside can be immense: safer neighborhoods, retrained workers finding new jobs, disadvantaged students going to college, and the ill and elderly receiving the care and services they need. Perhaps non-profit jobs should really be referred to as social profit jobs.


How do I become a community organizer?


Job requirements for community organizing are comparable to the requirements for other jobs in social work. Schools across the U.S. offer degree programs in social justice, community organizing, social work, and other social and human sciences, but related experience and fluency in other languages may be sufficient for some jobs. Community organizing training programs, summer internships, and paid internships are also available at many different non-profit organizations.


--Joshua Avram

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