Monday, August 06, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education XIII: Public vs. Private

[To read the entire series, go here. A one-page version of the entire series is here.]

Note: Much of this is elaborated from pp. 96-99 of Commonwealth by Harry Boyte.

Innumerable books have discussed different ways to conceptualize differences and similarities between “private” and “public” realms, mapping these across history, different cultural groups, and different conceptual frameworks. Here, I discuss the model developed in the context of community organizing.

According to one of Saul Alinsky’s lieutenants, Ed Chambers, one of Alinsky’s many shortsighted attitudes was about the private lives of organizers. “Indeed, Chambers spoke with visible pain of Alinsky’s cavalier, dismissive attitude toward his associates’ family life and retirement and security needs.” Chambers noted that “’He called me up long distance to order me to Rochester’” to work on a famous organizing campaign (Boyte, 96).

This refusal to respect people’s personal lives created numerous problems. Not the least was the tendency to burn people out. Many organizers speak of the revolving door through which many experienced organizers and leaders fled, never to return to the field. In this way, their hard-earned skills that could have supported future efforts were lost.

Post-Alinsky, many organizing groups realized that they needed to fundamentally change the way they supported organizers. Over time, to the extent possible, major organizations like the Gamaliel and Industrial Areas Foundations have tried to make organizing more humanly “doable,” something one could continue for a long-term career. At least in these flagship organizations, pay rates have increased, retirement and other benefits are more likely to be planned for, and thinking has gone into making jobs more family friendly.

One of the approaches developed in the wake of these issues was a new way of framing a distinction between “public” and “private” relationships. These new distinctions were designed to help them and the leaders they work with navigate the enormous emotional and time challenges inherent in any organizing effort. Like all concepts in organizing, these distinctions are meant as flexible guidelines. They are pragmatic tools for helping organizers and leaders make ethical and practical choices in a world that is always too complex to be captured by such binary frameworks. And it’s important to understand that these principles were actively constructed. They were not simply found lying around, but were developed and are still in the process of being developed in response to ongoing experience.

In trainings, organizers started by distinguishing between two columns of different kinds of relationships. On the private side they listed the more intimate relationships one has with one’s family and friends. On the public side they listed the more instrumental relationships one generally has with organizational colleagues, politicians, strangers, and others outside of one’s relatively narrow circle of intimacy. This is all summarized in the following table:

Roles Played in Private vs. Public Relationships

PRIVATE Relationships

PUBLIC Relationships


Church Members


Students at School


Political Actors


People on the street

They also distinguished between what had emerged for them through their organizing experience as the key differences in the characteristics of relationships in these arenas.

In the private, people tend to encounter people who are mostly like themselves in the characteristics that are important to them. Private relationships are often given or inherited—few people, for example, can choose their families. They are relatively permanent. One might want to disown a sibling or a parent, for example, but we rarely do. Similarly, once we decide people are our “friends,” we become much more likely to tolerate their imperfections (and to expect imperfections to be tolerated in ourselves). In private, we have the right to expect to be relatively safe in a range of different ways; we can be honest about our feelings and fears and needs.

In the public, we encounter people that are often very different from us. If we conflict with them, we are much more likely to vote with our feet rather than try to work things out. If we are “stuck” with them (on the job or in politics, for example) our engagements with they are likely to be guarded, since public relationships are inherently less safe than private ones. Part of the reason for this lack of safety is that public relationships are much more likely to be instrumental. We engage with other people in public because we have something we need to accomplish or deal with. Partly as a result, these relationships are often quite fluid, with old acquaintances fading away while new ones emerge, often as a result of changes in our institutional or geographical location and not because we have necessarily chosen new people to engage with.

The table below summarizes these key characteristics of public and private relationships:

Characteristics of Private and Public Relationships













Restricted to small number of intimates

Open to a large number of acquaintances

Finally, our expectations of what we can get out of public vs. private relationships are quite different. In the private, we expect to be accepted. We expect some level of loyalty, regardless of how problematic we may be at any moment and we often have a need to be liked or loved by our family and friends. Furthermore, in private we give without much expectation of getting anything in return.

In the public, as I have already noted, our relationships are much more pragmatic. We have relationships because there is some instrumental reason why we need them. Instead of wanting to be liked, in public, we expect respect (regardless of whether others like us or not). Instead of letting it “all hang out,” we must be much more guarded about what we say. In fact, in public, we generally take on a particular kind of dramatic “role.” This is common to teachers and politicians and bosses and workers. In these contexts, to one extent or another, all of us present a particular kind of “face” to the world. The point is not that one must necessarily be dishonest in public—in fact, persistent dishonesty can destroy public relationships even quicker than private ones. Instead we must be careful about how we frame what we think, what we reveal about ourselves, and the topics we discuss. While we can expect un-judgmental loyalty in private, in public we expect to be held accountable for what we say or do, and to hold others accountable in the same way. In general, then, what is most important to understand in public relationships are the self-interests of the different people involved. What motivates us and others to act? {In a future post, I’ll talk more about the broad way organizers frame self-interest.)

The table below summarizes the benefits and aims of public and private relationships:

Benefits and Aims of Private vs. Public Relationships



The need to be liked

The need to be respected

Expectation of loyalty

Expectation of accountability


Quid pro quo/self-interest

Again, I want to emphasize that these distinctions are not definitions that can be followed strictly and unproblematically. Instead, they are flexible guidelines for “’appropriate behavior’ in [these] different realms” (Boyte, 96). Organizers, perhaps better than most people, understand that “’universals,’ principles that seem to apply across widely varying cultural and communal contexts, need always to be contextualized to have any real meaning. Thus, IAF teachers argue that nothing is ever completely ‘either-or.’” One organizer pointed out, for example, that “’public’ would have a qualitatively different meaning in most African societies . . . . And different settings partake of different ‘public’ and ‘personal’ or private qualities—a church . . . is far more personal than a convention or a political rally” (Boyte, 97).

I often use the example of my own “public” role as a teacher in my community organizing course. But at the same time as we talk about how I need to be held accountable and to hold my students accountable, we also talk about how there are private aspects of the teacher-student relationship as well. To some extent, it is important for me to be loyal to my students, and to balance accountability with a more personal kind of caring. No role is ever completely public or private (although teacher-student roles may be especially fraught with these kinds of tensions).

One way these conceptions of “private” and “public” are useful to organizers are in helping them distinguish between ways of treating people who are intimate relations and those who are public acquaintances. They allow one to draw relatively clear boundaries between people one should expect to be liked by and those from who one demands respect. They help limit one’s responsibilities to those who fall outside of one’s private arena and clarify the responsibilities, benefits, and burdens involved in admitting new people into one’s private circle. One organizer noted, for example, that he used to try to treat everyone like they were friends. He just ended up totally exhausting himself and actually damaging his relationships with people who really were his intimates—like his family. Learning to distinguish between “private” and “public” relationships helped him let go of relationships with people in his organization who weren’t living up to their responsibilities and concentrate on people who he could depend upon.

Despite limitations, it is in the realm of power, politics, inequality, and oppression that these distinctions between “private” and “public” come into their real power. In general, organizers argue that powerful people often try to control those who are less powerful by intentionally confusing private and public relationships.

A few examples:

On the east-west highway in my city right now there is a large billboard advertising a bank that says “it’s not business, it’s personal!” This is a perfect example of an effort to make people feel like a public relationship is really intimate. The fact is that the bank doesn’t care about individual clients. It understands quite clearly that its relationship with those it serves is not private but public. And if you don’t live up to your responsibilities to a bank you will find this out quite quickly, regardless of how nice the tellers and mortgage brokers may be.

Recently my wife and I went to buy a car. We had decided not to purchase a particular vehicle from a salesperson, and he started in on a passionate appeal to us, telling us that he needed another sale to get his bonus for the month. In other words, he was asking us to be loyal and altruistic towards him, even though he knew quite well that his relationship with us was entirely temporary and that any intimacy on his part was really an act that he performed with every customer who came onto his lot. Needless to say, we walked away from that deal.

Waitresses know quite well the power of fake private relationships. There is clear evidence that patrons who are touched lightly during a meal will give a larger tip than those who are not. Of course, in a sense at a restaurant one is paying for a kind of manufactured intimacy. But much of the impact of the strategies used by people like waitresses is quite invisible to patrons. They “feel” more personally connected, and this activates their “private” tendencies.

An organizer I know spoke of a campaign in which his organization was in conflict with a major bank in our city. The bank director used to call him up and the first thing the director would do was ask about the organizer’s family, his children, etc. The organizer said he would patiently wait out this “private” discussion, and then move directly to the “public” part of their discussion.

Frequently, politicians and others in power positions will say something like “I’m a nice person. Why are you doing this to me?” They’ll ask leaders and organizers to lunch or dinner in relatively intimate settings and try to create a personal relationship. But these relationships are not personal, they are public. They involve citizens putting on public faces and engaging with the powerful in their public role. And when social activists don’t understand this, they are open to being used.

One classic way to fight against absentee landlords in the central city who are letting their properties become blighted is to force what they want to be private into the public. A couple of years ago, the organization I work with went to the neighborhood in the suburbs where a notorious landlord lived. Leaders left leaflets with her suburban neighbors with pictures of her properties and a description of how her lack of upkeep was affecting her residents and their neighborhoods. This forced the landlord into a public relationship with her neighbors. This act essentially argued that people who do harm like this should not be able to hide in the private realm. Not surprisingly, if I remember correctly, this landlord very quickly made a deal with my organization.

These distinctions between “private” and “public” help social action organizations decide what kinds of actions are and are not ethical. An ethical action, these distinctions imply, will be one oriented towards the public roles played by an individual or an institution. It’s not legitimate, for example, to bring someone else’s family into the fight unless there is some specific reason why this has become fair game.

During a fight with the school board a couple of years ago, the board president, who was opposing us, declared that at a public meeting that anyone could come to his house any time they wanted. His door was always open for discussion. I thought that this opened him up to a very effective action where our organization might come in force to his house and present him with demands collectively. From my perspective, he had tried to use this as an example of how he was really a “personable” kind of guy as an effort to resist our efforts. This action never happened, however. He had younger kids and there was legitimate disagreement about whether this would overstep ethical bounds and exactly how to do something like this in an ethical way. I’m still not sure, myself, about this strategy.

Whether a relationship is public or private is a result of the role a person is playing at any particular time. For example, two US senators might be married. At home, they would have a “private” relationship under this rubric, but on the Senate floor, their relationship would be “public.” This is something that politicians and powerful people generally understand quite well. It’s why very conservative and very liberal Senators can say terrible things about each other’s views on the airwaves and then go play an amiable game of golf. And the fact is that a personal relationship with and between the powerful can be useful tools in a range of ways as long as the individuals engaged understand when they are playing different roles.

As Boyte notes, the distinction between public and private has

proved significant in teaching leaders the dynamics of effective political action, from the parish level to the life of communities. “We would never have been able to challenge the priest to stop acting like our ‘father’ without this sort of training [about public and private’ said Beatrice Cortez, a president of San Antonio COPS [a congregational organizing group] . . . . ‘You learn what is appropriate and inappropriate for politicians. They shouldn’t try to get us to love them, for instance.’

Cortez frequently tells a story about her daughter to illustrate how children can quickly pick up the point. During her tenure as president of the organization, Cortez had a COPS phone in her house. One day the mayor, Henry Cisneros—whom she had known for years—called up on the line. ‘My daughter answered and at first didn’t know who it was. ‘Who should I say is calling?’ she asked. Cisneros said, “Tell her it’s a special friend.’ ‘Then she recognized his voice,” Cortez said. “She said, ‘On this line, you’re not a friend, I know who you are. You’re the mayor!’ I told her, ‘You’ve got that right, honey!’ (Boyte, p. 98)

In general, Boyte argues that

The self-conscious recognition of the public realm in which IAF [and other community organizing] organizations functioned as significant actors thus began to make explicit and clear what had often been known intuitively but never quite identified: public life had its own distinctive dynamics, its own principles. . . .

But public life . . . also stands in a different relationship to private life than has been classically conceived. Indeed, the groups partially reverse the traditional attributes of public and private . . . The private . . . is the more self-sacrificial and idealistic realm, while the public is the world view of quid pro quo and self-interest. (Boyte, p. 98)

In a future discussion of the practice of “one-on-one” interviews developed by community organizers, I will discuss a range of other issues related to the rich conceptions of public and private that inform much contemporary organizing work.

[For discussions of “public” and “private” that influenced the development of the specifics of this distinction in community organizing, see Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, and Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man.]