I have been working on introductions to learning modules for a community organizing course I will be teaching online in the Fall. One of the things I wanted to include was what some community organizers call the “Parable of the River” (or sometimes a waterfall) that is often attributed to Saul Alinsky. I was searching across the Internet to find a good representation of the parable and found a wide range of different versions. (To avoid writing introductions, I seem to have ended up writing this post . . . .)
Interestingly, it seems like there are versions of this parable with a different perspective than that used by community organizers. And this different version seems somewhat more prevalent among those oriented towards more traditional social service.
First an example of a “community organizing” version of the parable:
Once upon a time there was a small village on the edge of a river. The people there were good and life in the village was good. One day a villager noticed a baby floating down the river. The villager quickly swam out to save the baby from drowning. The next day this same villager noticed two babies in the river. He called for help, and both babies were rescued from the swift waters. And the following day four babies were seen caught in the turbulent current. And then eight, then more, and still more!
The villagers organized themselves quickly, setting up watchtowers and training teams of swimmers who could resist the swift waters and rescue babies. Rescue squads were soon working 24 hours a day. And each day the number of helpless babies floating down the river increased. The villagers organized themselves efficiently. The rescue squads were now snatching many children each day. While not all the babies, now very numerous, could be saved, the villagers felt they were doing well to save as many as they could each day. Indeed, the village priest blessed them in their good work. And life in the village continued on that basis.
One day, however, someone raised the question, "But where are all these babies coming from? Let’s organize a team to head upstream to find out who’s throwing all of these babies into the river in the first place!"
Now a different version of this parable:
While walking along the banks of a river, a passerby notices that someone in the water is drowning. After pulling the person ashore, the rescuer notices another person in the river in need of help. Before long, the river is filled with drowning people, and more rescuers are required to assist the initial rescuer. Unfortunately, some people are not saved, and some victims fall back into the river after they have been pulled ashore. At this time, one of the rescuers starts walking upstream
“Where are you going?” the other rescuers ask, disconcerted. The upstream rescuer replies, “I’m going upstream to see why so many people keep falling into the river.” As it turns out, the bridge leading across the river up- stream has a hole through which people are falling. The upstream rescuer realizes that fixing the hole in the bridge will prevent many people from ever falling into the river in the first place.
In both parables, the key issue is that those trying to rescue the drowning people are making an error by focusing on the current emergency rather than on what is causing the emergency. As a result, they have no hope of actually solving the problem.
A key distinction between them is that in the first parable an agent is assumed to be causing the babies to fall in the river. In the second the problem is simply technical, with no agent attached. The bridge “has” a hole (note the passive voice).
This tendency to obscure the agents behind oppression and social harm may be a key difference between what I would term a “community organizing” approach and more familiar “social service” and “social science” approaches. From social service and social science perspectives there simply are these problems that need to be solved. The highest level of action is identifying and addressing the (usually impersonal) causes of shared problems.
Importantly, this approach generally obscures the activity of the agents who are perpetuating social challenges through their action or inaction.
Perhaps some of the tendency to avoid seeking out responsible agents is a result of the enormous challenges involved in identifying someone or some institution that one can definitively say is causing a particular problem. But maybe part of the problem is this focus on “causes” in the first place. In fact, the “cause” question can become a pretty complex, ultimately unsolveable existential challenge with no clear solution. Is the cause of pollution from a coal plant the owners of the plant, or bad government standards, or perverse incentives that make clean production unprofitable, or any of an innumerable set of other influences? What is the “cause” of the fact that so many poor kids have difficulty reading?
In my experience, as social scientists, most educational scholars tend to draw from the second version of this parable rather than the first. There “are” problems and we need technical solutions to solve them. In fact, to the many scholars who tend to avoid thinking about “causes,” even the limited insights of the second parable seem like a revelation.
In contrast, when organizers are looking for targets (see earlier post) they aren’t really worried about who or what is the “cause” of a problem. Instead, they try to figure out who can or should be made responsible for the problem now that we have it. In other words, the challenge for a community organizer is to identify the agent that can be induced to solve the problem, regardless of the vast chain of influences that produced it. The aim is to build a coherent link between specific agents and a specific social problem, and the substance of such a link can vary widely.
From an organizing perspective, many people and institutions have resources that are not fairly shared, and the aim is to find ways to force some subset of these agents to use their resources in more equitable ways
To simplify the distinction I am making, here, one might say that social scientists and social service people tend to focus on “what” caused a problem and “how” to solve the problem, while organizers focus on “who” can solve the problem. And in many cases, answering “what” and “how” questions seem like pre-organizing issues. Sometimes, of course, getting people to figure out the answers to these questions themselves in a collective manner can be tools for engaging, educating, and organizing them, but often this does not seem to be the case.
One limitation of a focus on causes and solutions without focusing on agents is that each agent will be linked to different resources and different possible actions. In other words, different agents imply different solutions. Perhaps more problematically, failing to focus on the identification of realistic agents of change often creates an enormous unbridgeable gulf between theoretical solutions and actual solutions.
Here is a somewhat relevant example that indicates some of the differences between the social science approach and the organizing approach:
We have been working on the beginnings of an effort to transform dental care for low-income urban children. For a range of reasons, we want to fight for a school-based dental treatment program. And we have identified an agent and avenue of change—the state health department and the state health insurance program. But there is no clear established “blue chip” model or “solution” to fight for. So we have stepped back, and I have been working with the state dental school and local district officials to get a pilot school-based services project funded. A local “proof of concept” effort would provide the basis for a program blueprint that we could then fight for on a state level. To a large extent, however, this social science investigation work is “pre-organizing.”
Two final observations:
First, there is a key problem with this parable in both of its versions. It represents those who are harmed as powerless victims, often babies. But people are rarely entirely powerless, and organizers never approach people as if they were powerless or babies. It seems odd that this central parable used by many organizers contains such a disempowering metaphor at its core.
Second, it is interesting to note that in a version that Stanley Cohen says he got from Alinsky, “a fisherman is rescuing drowning people from a river. Finally, he leaves the next body to float by while he sets off upstream ‘to find out who the hell is pushing these poor folks into the water.’ According to Cohen, Alinsky used this story to make a further ethical point: ‘While the fisherman was so busy running along the bank to find the ultimate source of the problem, who was going to help those poor wretches who continued to float down the river?’”