Posted on January 18, 2022
People’s Action: The time has come for an organizing revival
The time has come for an organizing revival. Where we celebrate the evolution of the craft, and reground in organizing fundamentals that transcend form and context.
We have shifted an organizing field that was largely designed to win the best thing possible in the existing political and ideological landscape, to one dead-set on changing that landscape. Contesting to win the battle of ideas — advancing ours about race, class, gender, immigration, markets, and the role of government; a seismic shift toward contesting for governing power; using technology to be in relationship with more people; and a shift in who is leading our organizations and movements. You’d be hard pressed to find a decade where the organizing field has changed in such powerful ways.
If, in the pace of it all, something got lost, it was a culture that supported organizing fundamentals like starting where people are and the art of deep leadership development. Fundamentals that cut across organizing lineage for a reason — they work. Absent a revival, I believe they may be endangered.
To deliver on the promise of this moment, and to beat back the threats, what got us here will not get us there. Not alone. The social movements of the last decade have powered large-scale change, especially at a cultural level, that would have seemed dreamy ten years ago. Now we’ve gotta turn that awakening into sustained power to win tangible change in people’s lives.
That will require reaching into the cracks, organizing people untouched by our organizations and movements. People we will not reach with a better message or targeted facebook ad, but only through coming to them, asking about their greatest hopes, most pressing pain, and how they are making meaning of it all.
Forty million Americans live in poverty. We are in relationship with a small percentage. As many or more are defined as working class, many of whom are downwardly mobile. Most don’t even know we exist.
We need an organizing revival that helps us get to the next wave of people, and from there, the next. That is going to require lots of very good organizers.
There are many fundamentals we need to revive. Here are just a few that feel essential.
Start Where People Are At. It sounds so simple, but this is the first organizing super-power. We humans do not easily start where people are at. We tend to start where we are at — what we need, what we believe, what we want. Something profound opens up if we start where the other person is, truly work to be in their shoes, to understand their experience.
Our biggest campaign should not be one of mobilizing, but one of listening. This is how we build. We’ve been mobilizing non-stop for ten years. Now, let’s go and listen to millions of people.
How we do it matters — we should listen to learn, not to confirm. Be curious. Seek to understand. All people need to be seen and heard. Let’s go meet that human need, and from there great organizing can happen.
Agitate People to Greatness. We live in a constant haze that blinds us from truths about society and ourselves. Even when we do see through it, sensing that little can be done, we get comfortable being uncomfortable. This is no accident, but of design.
We are taught through experience that we are not powerful, that change is not possible, that we need to stay in our place. Breaking through this repressive worldview requires that people be stirred up.
Agitation, done right, is an act of love. We move people toward a more accurate and powerful sense of self and possibility. Done wrong, agitation is aggressive and sloppy. As an act of love, it can alter someone’s path in immeasurable ways, and unleash new power into the world. It is one of the most essential ways we develop leaders.
Winning Matters. We are clearer than ever on our north star demands. We need to be equally clear on the structural stepping stones that build toward those larger transformations. Organizing works because we create evidence that coming together and putting in the time is worth it.
We joke about when organizers used to work on stop-sign issues, and yet there is a reason we did. It provided evidence that coming together was worth the time. We don’t need to go back to stop-signs but we do need to develop a field that is clear on the structural stepping stones toward our north stars, and has a theory on how to deliver. A “political revolution or bust” stance may work for people of means and a diehard few, but it is not sustainable for most people. We have to be winning. To relieve people’s pain, to grow confidence in organizing.
There are other fundamentals: don’t do for others what they can do for themselves; it’s not where people start, but where they end up; all organizing is re-organizing; and many more. All worthy of remembering and reviving.
We can revive the fundamentals through training, culture, stories and our history.
Training. Organizing, really good organizing, is complicated. For a tiny handful this craft is intuitive on all fronts. For most, there are parts that come easy, and parts that come hard. Let’s train in how to organize the unorganized and truly develop leaders. To run great meetings, strategic actions, develop winning campaigns, to be curious about power. Training that helps us understand what is blocking our own growth, so we can help others realize theirs.
Culture. Training will only take us so far if that training is at odds with the culture of our organizations. Good organizing should be the air we breathe. If the culture of organizing is strong in our organizations, so will be the craft. If the culture rewards starting where people are at, truly developing other people, and building organizations that belong to members, people will do good organizing because they landed in the right context.
If the culture of our organizations celebrates the gamesmanship of the non-profit sector, we will grow people good at playing that game. If our culture rewards organizing the already converted, we’ll get more of that. The choice of what culture we set moving forward is ours.
Clear the Decks. There is too much on the plate of today’s organizer that is not organizing. When I was on the street, the job was organizing and a few other things would compete for that time. Today, I sense it can be the opposite, with people fighting to make time for organizing. Let’s take a clear-eyed look at our calendars and ask — how is this shit helping us organize and reach more people? Is this really building power for our members? If not, cut it loose.
Storytelling. The fundamentals come alive through stories. Stories of risky actions, leaders developing, winning campaigns. Let’s reignite a culture of storytelling — sharing the story from last night’s meeting, or of a campaign forty years ago. Organizers, the really good ones, are storytellers — inspiring us with stories from the past, and ones that spark our imagination about what comes next.
Honor our history. There’s no better source of stories than the folks who did this before us. Let’s bring our elders back into the fold. There is valuable, hard-earned wisdom on the sidelines. People who chartered these waters, suffered wounds so we would not have to, people who put language to the fundamentals. Let’s soak up that wisdom, and celebrate those who built the foundation we walk on.
There’s a sense among organizers that something is not right. That the craft is not right. It’s a strange thing to feel when we’ve made so much progress. Yet it becomes clearer by the day that what got us to this point, will not get us to the next one. That we have to organize another circle out, and after that another. This requires organizing that builds on recent evolutions in our craft, and swings back to pick up some things lost along the way. I feel confident we can do both.