Community organizing and civic action is often called upon during times of social upheaval as a method for the justice-minded among us to help us move towards an equitable and stable society. It is important, then to examine who is welcome in the radical spaces where this work takes place. Professional community organizing has at times been infamous for being unwelcoming to women (Sen, 2003; Smock, 2004; Stall & Stoecker, 1998). The organizing field is sometimes described as having a culture of machismo, a or “cowboy” culture (Rooks, 2003; Gutierrez & Lewis, 1994; Mizrahi, 2007), yet women continue to organize. Are these critiques of sexism within the organizing field relevant in contemporary Chicago, and if so, what are women’s experiences of professional organizing like? This interpretive phenomenological study aims to illuminate how women perceive and describe their experiences as professional organizers in the birthplace of professional, power-based organizing, Chicago.
To understand women’s experiences of gender in professional community organizing in Chicago, a phenomenological study consisting of 10 in-depth interviews explores women’s experiences as professional organizers. Purposive snowball sampling was used to recruit professional organizers who identify as female, have been organizing professionally for a minimum of two years, and who have organized in the Chicago region. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and checked for accuracy. After this, each transcription was read through several times to gain a holistic picture of the interview. The goal was to gain a key theme from each based on the practice of interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA).
This research tells the story of women who work passionately to demand rights and resources for all but who do so not without significant sacrifices and difficulties along gender lines. Key themes that emerged included emotional labor, such as protecting and cleaning up after male superiors and colleagues; a disregard for the second shift, such as supervisors dismissing the needs of organizers who were parents; and a vision for a web of female-supporting relations that women could utilize to share the work, back each other up when using their voice.
Conclusions and Implications
Despite repeated calls to make professional community organizing more welcoming to women, the field remains a difficult and fraught space, despite its claim on empowerment. (Craddock, 2019; Mizrahi, 2007; North, 2013; Rooks, 2003; Sen, 2003; Smock, 2004; Stall & Stoecker, 1998). This implicates social work in myriad ways. Recent calls for social work to embrace community organization must wrestle with the testimony of these professional community organizers who continue to struggle with gender oppression in their field. Social justice is a core value of social work (NASW, 2017), and community organizing is a primary vehicle for the enaction of social justice. If social workers are called via our history and guiding documents to engage in organizing for social justice, it must be an enterprise that is welcoming to all people, not least women, who make up most of the social work workforce (Salsburg & Quigley, 2017).