Online for Organizing: The Story of COMM-ORG

by Randy Stoeker

In 1994 Wendy Plotkin, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, started an e-mail discussion list on the history of community organizing. She had lined up a nice set of papers to present on-line. But while she originally envisioned that this on-line group would discuss the historical dimensions of community organizing, she was quickly inundated with hundreds of us who ignored the “history” part of the announcement and lunged at the “community organizing” part. We were all out there, practitioners and academics, doing, thinking, and writing about community organizing, and had no one to talk to. No conferences, no gathering spots, no journals, no trade magazines, and few cross-cutting networks. But we had all just recently discovered e-mail.

Wendy carefully moderated the messages, introducing papers and returning rough e-mails to some for revision before she posted them. Eventually, however, the call of the Ph.D. dissertation forced her to choose between us and graduating. I was among those most dependent on the list. For me, stuck here in Toledo, it was a lifeline. Rather than let the list die, I took over the project that was known as COMM-ORG. Since then, my goal has been to bring academics and practitioners together. I continue to present papers on-line and to moderate the list. Every couple of years we evaluate how the list and its web site work for the participants, which are now about half academics and half practitioners and number 730 across over a dozen nations.

COMM-ORG seems to work in some important ways. First, every time I ask, people say “keep the list moderated.” Those of you on unmoderated lists know how much junk they generate and how caustic they can become. COMM-ORG doesn’t have those problems. As moderator, however, I reject hardly any messages and ask for changes in only about 1 of 20. I think that the mere idea of a moderator makes people more thoughtful and careful.

Second, true to the old Alinsky mantra, people participate in COMM-ORG out of self-interest or out of arm-twisting. I am still thrilled each time I post a new paper on COMM-ORG. But in contrast to the days of Wendy Plotkin’s leadership, there is much less discussion of the papers than there used to be. I have to use my personal networks within COMM-ORG to get people to read and actually write their thoughts on the papers. Instead, people usually contact COMM-ORG when they have a research need or a strategy need: how to do a house meeting, where to find information on an organization, how to deal with a funder’s demand for evaluations. And, like it did for me, COMM-ORG comes through for them, linking them up with people who sometimes become lasting contacts. It is interesting to me, also, how often practitioners can help academics with their research questions and how often academics can help practitioners with their strategy questions.

The Internet has the capacity to both isolate us and bring us together.

Third, and last, is that I have the wacky idea that the Internet should be a personal rather than a depersonalizing medium. When people forward messages to me from someone else, I ask them to go back to the author of the original message and get their permission before I re-post the message. I ask people to include their names in their messages. And that has created an atmosphere where people of three nations across two continents have approached me, when I’m on the road, to introduce themselves face to face. The Internet has the capacity to both isolate us and bring us together. The pressures are for isolation, but the COMM-ORG experience is that an appropriate on-line organizing strategy can also reduce isolation. You can find out more at

Randy Stoeker is a long-time PN member and teaches sociology at the University of Toledo.

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