Trained by Saul Alinsky, whose own book, “Rules for
Radicals,” is widely considered the citizen’s blueprint
for grassroots organizing, Michael Gecan has worked as an organizer
with the Industrial Areas Foundation for the past 25 years. He has
helped citizen groups get off the ground in Chicago, Philadelphia,
Baltimore and, most prominently, was a founding organizer of the
East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC) in New York. His book,
“Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen
Action,” contains anecdotes and advice from his experience as
an organizer to those who wish to become leaders in their own
communities.

Book Reviews

Speaking from his time with the EBC, Gecan emphasizes that the
most important ingredient for a successful citizen group is power.
This power is gained from building support for the organization
within the community through one-on-one meetings with local leaders
and citizens. He argues that too often action groups are more
interested in catchy slogans, raising money and working on the
bureaucracy of the organization before they have any significant
framework of support. Building a firm base takes time, energy and
commitment, but the power gained by having popular support can be
wielded to coerce the government into providing the desired
results.

Gecan emphasizes that such power is essential because of the
divide between the world “as it is” and the world
“as it should be.” He claims that most citizens who
take action believe that if their cause is just, they will find
help, but the reality is that “merit means (almost)
nothing.” He insists that organizations lobbying for
improvements in their neighborhoods must force officials to
recognize and respect the power of the citizens. The author offers
many personal examples of times when the local government was not
interested in doing the right thing, but his action groups were
able to create media attention and force the right thing to be
done, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Gecan closes the book with an explanation of what he sees as the
three sectors of society: the market, the public and the
“relational.” He defines the relational sector as the
area he works in, consisting of jobs in which people work to help
other people. Presenting the strong and weak points of both the
market and public sectors, he argues that each could gain from
becoming a little more like the other. However, the relational
sector needs to guard against becoming more like either the public
or the market. Too often, Gecan claims, those who need assistance
are forced to deal with an unbearable bureaucracy, or find their
needs divided into different categories with a different
organization for each need, like an assembly line, where they
become unknown to their case workers — a faceless
consumer.

Depite being an interesting and easy read, as a how-to-guide
“Going Public” leaves something to be desired. Gecan
offers some general guidelines and fundamentals to organizing:
Build your power base, pick your fights, protest calmly and disband
or regroup around another issue once the organization has
accomplished its goal. However, the book may be more accurately
described as a memoir, with significant portions dedicated to
Gecan’s own experience organizing EBC. Gecan also seems more
interested in suggesting what issues are worthy of organization
than in giving readers the tools to form their own action groups
for whatever purpose they see fit. Nevertheless, stories of
citizens’ successes in improving their communities after long
neglect from the government are heartening, and leave the reader
feeling optimistic about the possibility of change through citizen
action. Those who are interested in challenging the status quo and
implementing changes in local communities will find the book
reassuring and empowering.

 

Rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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