Living Community Psychology – Saul Alinsky


Gloria Levin

Here, the column makes a radical departure by interviewing two people who are not, themselves, affiliated with our field. Rather, they are the son and grandson of Saul Alinsky, a highly influential figure in forming the values, scholarship and practice of Community Psychology.

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Living Community Psychology highlights a community psychologist through an in-depth interview intended to highlight the personal and professional lives of those working in our field.  The intent is to personalize Community Psychology as it is lived by its diverse practitioners. These past columns contain a wealth of life advice gleaned from over 60 profiled community psychologists, from graduate students to retirees, representing an invaluable resource for community psychologists.

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Upon entering a fundraiser for a progressive candidate for Congress, a young staffer greeted me. My jaw dropped at the sight of his nametag –“Jason Alinsky.”  Could he be ….?!

He confirmed, yes, he is related to Saul Alinsky – in fact, his grandson.  I wondered what it must be like to carry the name and maybe the legacy of this notable but polarizing American figure.

Therein began my grand adventure, interviewing, first, the grandson and then the son (hereinafter referred to as David) of our field’s community organizing guru. Having been trained by Peace Corps to be a community organizer in 1966 Chicago by Alinsky staff and having worked as a community organizer for years, for me, this column is a very special treat, over and above those columns I have written over 17 years.

Following are snippets of information about Saul through the perspectives of his descendants, as well as an insight into their own lives as affected by their famous relative. You might want to, first, review the highlights of Saul’s biography, found in his Wikipedia entry, as well as a lengthy series of interviews published by Playboy magazine soon before his unexpected death in 1972. (The latter is found online, divided into 13 parts, at  Playboy described Saul as “a bespectacled, conservatively dressed community organizer who looks like an accountant and talks like a stevedore.” Because Saul has been grossly misquoted and thus, grossly misunderstood over the years, David periodically edits the Wikipedia entry to assure its accuracy.

Saul was raised in a Chicago slum within an orthodox Jewish, Russian emigre family, but, after his parents’ divorce, he shuttled between his mother (remarried, eventually outliving several husbands) in Chicago and California, where his father, Benjamin, had moved his apparel business. His father neglected him during his stays in California, according to Saul, sending him, a young teenager, to stay in rented rooms rather than at home with Benjamin. Saul graduated Hollywood High School and in 1926 entered the University of Chicago.

To pursue his original goal of becoming an aeronautical engineer, Saul joined ROTC. However, during ROTC training, he broke his back and spent his first year of college in bed in a full body cast. He was able to keep up with his studies through assignments his professors sent him. And he read voraciously while disabled. But he suffered from a bad back throughout his life. Fascinated with Indian burial mounds in Southern Illinois, he received his undergraduate degree in archeology. However, having graduated during the Depression, he did not pursue a career in archeology (for which no jobs or grants were available). Having received a 4F draft classification, he spent the war years selling war bonds for the US State Department. When he returned to the University of Chicago for graduate school, he changed his field to criminology, a field in which he could obtain grants and find employment.

Saul married Helene, another student at the University of Chicago. Unable to conceive children, they later adopted two children, Kathryn and then Lee David. (An oddity:  Along with Saul, his son and two grandsons all bear the middle name of David, and David’s father in law is… also named David.) The children were always told that they were special; that, being adoptees, they were chosen. However, in 1947, while spending the summer in a rented cottage at the Indiana dunes, Kathryn and a friend waded into the waters without adult supervision.  In the process of rescuing the girls, Helene tragically drowned, caught in an undertow. This, despite Helene being a strong swimmer — the first woman varsity swimmer at the University of Chicago. (David’s daughter, Shelby, carries the middle name of Helaine, honoring her deceased grandmother.)

After Helene’s death, Saul hired a succession of housekeepers to care for the children. Saul claimed, in the Playboy interview, that he “always stayed close to my kids when they were growing up; I didn’t want them to have to go through (my own father’s remoteness).”  However, David remembers that Saul was consumed by his work and constantly crisscrossed the U.S. to do field work and deliver speeches. After being a widower for 5 years, in 1952, Saul married his second wife, Jean Graham. However, within two years she was stricken with Multiple Sclerosis. Chicago’s weather exacerbated her MS so she spent more and more time in California. Jean and Saul amicably divorced in 1970, and Saul then married this third, and final, wife Irene McInnis in 1971.

Ironically, much like his own father’s inattention to Saul, says David, “he did not pay much attention nor spend time with me, so – with his second wife, Jean, sick with MS and spending more time in California — I was left to my own devices, going to high school in Chicago and living in our family’s apartment. For some kids, that can be empowering … or not.” Grocery store accounts were established so David could order his own food during Saul’s absences, and the family of his best friend, who lived upstairs, watched out for him.

When no one was available to care for David, during the summer months, Saul sometimes took him along on business trips. One of these trips contributes an amusing anecdote to Alinsky family lore. On one road trip to Wisconsin, Saul and his young son ate at a roadside diner and then checked into a motel. When hanging up David’s clothes for the night, Saul discovered a pile of coins in his son’s pants pockets. Turns out that David, thinking his father forgetfully left money back at the diners, had pocketed the tips Saul had left on the table for the servers. Unknowingly, David had left the impression with a string of waitresses that Saul had stiffed them. “So much for Saul Alinsky, the protector of the working class!” laughs his grandson, Jason.

Saul’s main base of operations (and later, for training future community organizers) was the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago. His second in command from 1953 to 1963 was Nick von Hoffman, who led most of the IAF’s field work. Nick later became well known as a journalist, author, TV commentator and Washington Post columnist. Saul did not directly teach David about community organizing, although David remembers Saul recounting, at the dinner table, tales of Saul’s work with the Woodlawn organization. On the other hand, David was more interested in his social life at the time. Ironically, David attended the University of Chicago Lab School at the same time that Saul was confronting the same university in the Woodlawn struggle. Saul never encouraged David to follow in his footsteps, although it was always assumed David would attend college. Saul discouraged David’s one-time interest in being an architect, saying “architects don’t make much money.” In fact, Saul never earned much himself “although we lived ok,” remembers David.

Soon after the Playboy interview (March 1972), Saul died of a coronary at age 63 while walking on a Carmel, CA street. Ironically, just six months before, at the urging of his physician, he had stopped smoking and lost considerable weight, but the damage from his years of heavy smoking and overeating had taken their toll. His ashes are buried in a family plot in Chicago. On the marker appears a quote from Thomas Paine that also appears in the epigraph of Rules for Radicals:  “Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul. . . ”

After Saul’s estate cleared probate and the attorneys had withdrawn, his publisher (Random House) requested that the family name a representative(s) to conduct business related to his intellectual property. The responsibility was to be shared between Kathryn (never interested and now deceased), Irene and David. Irene is a silent partner, ceding the responsibility to her stepson, David. In this role, he considers requests (e.g., requests to republish Saul’s books in foreign languages), and book royalties and fees for the books’ rights are disbursed to him and to Irene, in equal shares.

Both Reveille for Radicals (published in 1946 and updated in 1969) and Rules for Radicals (published in 1971) are still in print; Saul’s 1949 John L. Lewis autobiography is not. Sales tended to be quiet until an event precipitated buzz about Saul’s influence on current-day politicians, most recently in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns and elections for President Obama and, to a lesser extent, when Hillary Clinton was vetted for her presidential bids. The connections are that Obama was a community organizer in Chicago for an organization that was once affiliated with Alinsky, and in 1969, Hillary Clinton wrote her senior thesis at Wellesley on Alinsky’s philosophy of community organizing. She had interviewed Saul who was sufficiently impressed to offer her a job which she turned down for law school. In truth, while recognizing many strengths of Alinsky’s approach, she disagreed with his unwillingness to work inside the system.

The far right wing demonizes Saul, unleashing a barrage of vitriol through blogs, magazines, op ed columns, etc. Much of their ire centers around the mistaken notion that Saul had dedicated Rules to Lucifer when, in fact, he had dedicated the book to his wife.  (Snopes thoroughly discredited the lies about devil worshipping, etc., but the hatefulness continues.) Recently, Dr. Ben Carson obliquely criticized Alinsky when mocking Hillary Clinton during his speech at the Republican presidential convention in July 2016: “So are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer? Think about that.” In fact, Saul’s quote — along with quotes from Rabbi Hillel and Thomas Paine that constituted an introductory page to Rules — merely alluded to Lucifer as an early radical.

David has found that most of the detractors have never read Rules. He acknowledges that the writings are difficult to read — dense with information and highly thought provoking. “Every sentence is packed and merits a slow, careful reading.” But the naysayers merely parrot claims about communism, etc. found in blogs rather than really attending to the content of Alinsky’s thoughts. David views Rules as a manual for organizing people who want a seat at the table, and is without partisan motivations.

David bears the brunt of attacks on Saul, receiving abusive mail and threats almost every day, when a new wave of hate rolls in. Then it dies down, until the next flurry, occasioned by someone implicating Saul in the process of insulting Democratic politicians. David uses an early warning system, Google Alerts, through which he receives notifications when Saul’s name appears in publications, blogs, etc. Nevertheless, David expects Saul’s name to “gradually disappear in the mists of history, until 300 or 400 years later, like The Prince by Machiavelli, when he will be rediscovered and then, like The Prince, become a classic.”

In closing down his office posthumously, Saul’s long-time secretary at the Industrial Areas Foundation, Georgia Harper, organized his papers for donation to the University of Illinois at Chicago Library. (Still angry with the University of Chicago for its obstructionist role in the Woodlawn neighborhood organizing effort, “out of spite” Saul arranged for his papers to go to UIC rather than to his alma mater.)  David kept a collection of index cards, which Georgia had typed and organized, consisting of quotes that Saul had underlined in books he had read, along with his handwritten marginal notes. Saul had used these cards when writing his books and speeches.  Fascinated, grandson Jason claimed one of the boxes, which he calls his “treasured lockbox,” including Saul’s handwritten notes on airline napkins and other scraps of paper.

Few of us have one famous grandfather, much less two.  Jason and his siblings (all born long after Saul’s death) are the progeny of two famous families. His mother (Joanne) is a member of the Linowes family of Washington, DC which included four eminent brothers – Robert, a prominent real estate attorney; Harry, a corporate accountant; Sol (Linowitz), former Xerox chairman and senior diplomat; and Joanne’s father, David Linowes, an academic political economist and senior advisor to four U.S. presidents.

Both David and Jason recall incidents when their last name was recognized for its connection to Saul. The Alinsky name resonates in Chicago (“a common event there,” according to David). Elsewhere, David reckons he is asked about his name every 6-8 weeks, most recently at his wife’s high school reunion. His daughter in law (Rachel Alinsky, wife of his son, Robert) encounters the question at times, because the Alinsky name is stitched onto her lab coat as a resident at Massachusetts General Hospital. Jason’s first encounter with name recognition came when he was young, and a retail clerk asked if he were related to Saul. “My mother explained to me why this man knew the name. However, it did not quite connect until I was in high school, when the gravity of who Saul was began to dawn on me.”  Jason did not read Rules for Radicals until late in college (at the University of Cincinnati).

David has two older children:  Shelby, age 33, received a 2006 degree in English and Education and is senior editor for children’s books at National Geographicin Washington, DC, and Robert is a 30-year old tax attorney in Boston. Although Robert wrote an undergraduate political science paper on grandfather Saul, his career path more closely follows that of his Linowes grandfather.  However, Jason, the youngest grandchild, is following in Saul’s community organizing footsteps. David observes that the organizing tradition may have skipped a generation, with Jason “our family’s contribution” to the Alinsky tradition. Nonetheless, the grandchildren are all keenly aware of their grandfather’s legacy. Jason learned, from David (as influenced by Saul), to analyze by reading between the lines. “From my earliest upbringing, I learned to decipher, from what people tell you, what they really feel and mean.”

Jason majored in history and marketing in college and was active in student government and fraternity life. After graduating in 2013, he “fell into” community organizing when he joined a Maryland political campaign and canvassed neighborhoods. “I loved the tangible products from knocking on doors and identifying a community’s leaders.” A pivotal moment for him was when he engaged a potential voter who had been ignored in the past by campaigners because he lived in a low turnout precinct. “Once he felt he was being heard, he could bring in 60 votes from his contacts. At that point, community organizing really began to resonate with me.”

Since then, he has worked on several Democratic campaign staffs in Maryland and Massachusetts and has worked in legislative offices. He expects to continue his involvement with Jamie Raskin and Will Smith.  Raskin, at whose fundraiser I met Jason, won his election to the U.S. Congress. And State Delegate Will Smith, for whom he served as chief of staff, is contending to replace Jamie in the State Senate. Beginning the summer of 2017, Jason will be pursuing a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins Graduate School of Government and Public Policy and aspires to work on Raskin’s Congressional staff.

David Alinsky’s undergraduate degree, in mass communications, was from Emerson College in Boston, where his stepmother, Irene, was on the faculty. He was a photographer and then a television engineer.  (David met his wife, Joanne, when they worked together at WGBH-TV, a public broadcasting station.) After earning an MBA (Boston College), he was a manager at Boston area hotels and then founded his own IT consulting firm. Although his career never followed his father’s path, he (now in retirement) is active in his own community of Medfield, MA (a Boston suburb), serving as the small town’s assistant registrar and also on its energy committee, looking to save costs for Medfield and assure energy sustainability.

David is occasionally invited to meetings to discuss Saul’s legacy. At one such meeting, hosted by Sanford (Sandy) Horwitt, an Alinsky biographer, he met and eventually befriended conservative Republican Ralph Benko. Although coming from very different political poles, they found common ground around their appreciation for Saul’s (always nonpartisan) work. Forging a partnership, they recently established The Alinsky Center ( ), intended to be a nonpartisan think tank serving as a forum to clarify and advance Saul Alinsky’s philosophy and methods.  David expects the Center will host semiannual conferences, convening activists from the right- and left-wings to discuss how Alinsky’s work can be broadly useful for the common good. The Center’s Board of Advisors includes Saul’s 3 grandchildren and a bipartisan, diverse group of adherents to Alinsky’s philosophy and activism. Notably (and surprisingly) is Grover Norquist, enforcer of the Republican anti-tax pledge who finds Alinsky’s tactics to be of broad utility. This should be interesting!!!

When asked how he is like/unlike his father, David replied that he is similar to Saul by standing up to bullying of the vulnerable. The dissimilarity regards his relationship to family. “I was left without much guidance from my parents. As a result, I am more conscious of my own family – encouraging and helping my wife and children to succeed.” Saul Alinsky’s name and his notoriety have certainly shaped the identity and experiences of his descendants, if in varying degrees. And so has Saul Alinsky shaped the practice and many of the values of the field of Community Psychology.

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