Ernie Cortes – ChangeMaker Chat

We talk to one of the biggest names in US community organising, Ernie Cortes. We chat about the history of organising, exploring how it has changed and how it has created a powerful network of organisers that now spans the globe. Ernie reflects on the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) under Saul Alinksy, his work building the IAF after Alinsky’s death, and some of the practices the IAF uses to develop powerful organisers.

Ernie refers to a series of books and readings — for those who are keen to follow up, here are these references for people to follow up:

  • A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle – the original book about Sherlock Holmes and his method
  • Fred Ross – American community organizer who worked with Alinsky and founded the Community Service Organization, where Caeser Chavez and Ernie Cortes both connected with organizing
  • Nehemiah – Biblical figure who helped rebuild Jerusalem. His name is taken by the IAF’s East Brooklyn Congregations as the name of their major housing project.
  • Walter Brueggemann – who discusses how people can turn private pain into something public and coherent
  • Melian Dialogue by Thucydides – is a passage from Greek History that has been used by the IAF since Alinsky’s time to make an argument about the forms of leadership required to exercise public power. Its one of the best pieces of training theatre ever (and therefore, we aren’t going to explain it here – you really need to ‘do’ this one)
  • The Island at the Centre of the World, by Russell Shorto – the formation of New York.
  • Playing the Enemy, John Carlin – the story of Mandela and the Springboks and how it made change (dramatised in the film Invictus).
  • Paul Tillich and Martin Luther King Jr speak about power and love, and how power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimentality and anaemic.
  • Aristotle on Politics
  • Ed Chambers – Cortes makes reference to Ed Chambers who was the IAF director after Alinsky. He wrote Roots for Radicals that overviews the modern practices of community organising.
  • The Importance of Being Unprincipled by John Randall – discusses the power of negotiation and compromise.
  • Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville – the original study of civic organisations in US democracy as observed by a French political scientist.
  • Inside the Whale by George Orwell
  • Politics and Fate, Andrew Gamble
  • Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James
  • On Humanity in Dark Times, by Hannah Arendt on Lessing
  • Eye on the prize, about Dianne Nash and the Freedom Rides


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