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Community Organizing and Democracy: Political Involvement Outside the Voting Booth

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At a time when many Americans are disaffected with the current electoral choices, the School of Public Affairs hosted an event to talk about other ways to stay involved in the process outside of voting in the upcoming election.

Robert Gannett, Jr., a community organizer in Chicago and author of the book, Tocqueville Unveiled, who has put political theory into practice, spoke on Oct. 27 as part of lecture series sponsored by the SPA’s Political Theory Institute. (

Gannett linked the writings of the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville with the modern day community organizing of Saul Alinsky to emphasize the power that citizens working together can make at the local level. Gannett discussed the threat of individualism to democracy and the value of people building associations and leveraging power to work for change.

Gannett also shared his personal experience as executive director of the Institute for Community Empowerment advising citizens in Chicago neighborhoods. He spoke of specific campaigns to advocate for affordable housing and public mental health services, the challenges and hard work involved, as well as the satisfaction of standing up to the establishment and seeing lives improved.

“If you give people legitimate and tangible ways they can fight, they will take the ball and run with it,” said Gannett.

He noted that not all organizations “beat to the same drummer” and his believes that those who live in communities hold the keys to how to best organize themselves.

“I hope that each of you will create own version to encourage participation,” said Gannett. “Use your imagination and ingenuity to device a novel approach.”

In this election cycle, there is a risk that voters will turn off and become apathetic, said SPA Associate Professor and PTI Director Alan Levine. “What we wanted to do was raise the question: What else they might do, even if they are disgusted by the political choices?” he said.

Anna Bonomo, SPA/Pol Sci ’17, was one of a handful of undergraduate student in political theory class who met with Gannett prior to the lecture to discuss his work.

“It was a good conversation,” said Bonomo. “[The guest lecturers] definitely bring a different dynamic to it. It’s great to hear from outside people because they are so knowledgeable on very specific things we are talking about.”

“It was interesting to hear various tactics used to get people mobilized,” said Robert Bennett, SPA/Pol Sci ’18. “I’m a Democrat in a completely Republican State, Idaho, so it gives me faith that somehow I can organize my community and bring about a little change in my own personal community.”

SPA Associate Professor, Thomas Merrill said that after decades of decreasing civic participation, it’s helpful to think about why that happens and how to address it.

“It was good to have someone talk about these big theoretical questions,” said Merrill. “[Gannett] really shows that all these big themes we are reading about in class actually translate. Maybe you should try to take care of it yourself rather than looking to a political party or political leader to do it for you.”

“It’s about connecting theory and practice,” said Levine. “We believe that policy uninformed by deep theoretical questions is often wasted time. But theory on its own that is not realized is also ineffective.”

The next lecture on Tuesday, Nov. 1, featured Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, discussing "The Fractured Republic."