Beginning a relationship in a community organizing context is an odd thing. These are often relationships that become some of the most intense, even, at times, intimate, of your life, yet they are in no way merely ‘personal’ relationships–they are always intentional and, ideally, strategic. As difficult as they can sometimes be to maintain and adapt, then, figuring out how to initiate them can sometimes seem completely foreign, even to social work advocates who are pretty comfortable with the idea of these evolving professional relationships and of deep connection to those with whom we are bound by professional ties.
The real truth is that there is absolutely no way to understand how this works until you actually do it, and even then, you’re really only ‘learning’ it for that particular context, and maybe even only for that person, so you’ll have to unlearn and relearn in the next organizing situation. But here are two resources that I hope help those of you who might be beginning community organizers, or the several students who I know are considering community organizing as a career but still murky on exactly how it’s supposed to work. First, I have elaborated a bit on some of my thinking about making introductions in community organizing, and how to get started, and then I have attached the brochure for Jobs with Justice’s training sessions (this summer in KC and this fall in Jefferson City), which are similar to some organizing training that I have attended and, from all accounts, are totally excellent. They obviously go far beyond introductions, although you do practice 1:1s, to include power analysis and critical self-evaluation in the organizing process and, while the training isn’t cheap (although scholarships are available!), I think it would really be worth it for those who are seeking to integrate community organizing strategies into their practice.
First, obviously, you have to find a starting point. Most organizers use a sort of snowball sampling to get from one person to the other, asking “who else should I be talking to?” While this part sounds pretty common-sense to people, what we often don’t consider is that where we start is critically important, as it will influence at least the first several conversations we have, and possibly the trajectory of the entire organizing campaign. Starting in the wrong place can give people the wrong idea about your work, steer you away from diverse viewpoints and/or really key leaders, and/or get you off to an unnecessarily slow start.
Once you have that first conversation (and it is going to be a structured one, using a 1:1 methodology that you really have to practice before it feels comfortable; I think that I did about 60 of them before I felt like I had any idea what I was doing), you’ll want to talk with people who your initial contact identifies as having similar perspectives as him/her and also those who do not.
These 1:1 conversations are really the ‘bread and butter’ of most organizing work, and the organizing training I’ve attended dedicates a significant portion of time to understanding and practicing the art. I even took a class in graduate school from Ernesto Cortes, lead organizer of the Industrial Areas Foundation, and we did 1:1s as a part of the course. The purpose of these meetings, which will normally last between 20-40 minutes (never longer than an hour the first time around), is to begin to understand the other individual’s self-interest. It’s not about taking a survey, but about listening with an ear towards issues, to figure out what people care about enough that they’ll break out of their solitary lives to come together with others to try to change it. Your goal at the end of the meeting, more than anything, is the beginning of a relationship. This is where I think that organizing really parallels good direct social work practice. We social workers know that that initial meeting cannot just be about collecting information for an intake–we have to build some rapport, establish the foundation of a relationship which can be transformational enough to lead people down a journey towards the change they desire in their lives. And that, at its core, is what organizing is about too.
I know that I made a lot of mistakes when I was starting organizing (and, even more discouragingly, probably a lot when I had been organizing for years!). Here are some of my thoughts about the most common mistakes we make, especially in these initial phases of relationship and rapport-building: sharing what one person told you with another without their express permission (even with it, this can scare people and, besides, your goal is to connect them and let them discover their common passions); throwing around names (get in the door based on your skill in building relationships, because you don’t know what kind of baggage is associated with the name you just dropped); using the same standard introduction with everyone with whom you meet (some people will want a lot of information about you before they feel comfortable talking, others will be turned off by a long introduction); and assuming people will have heard of you (they have many more pressing concerns than your organizing, and even if they have, they will probably want to keep their assessments to themselves).
I know that none of that makes much sense in the abstract. I spent an hour combing through YouTube videos, hoping to find someone demonstrating a 1:1 meeting (I did find a LOT of video with Obama talking about community organizing, which was kind of stunning, when you think about it), but no luck. Maybe there’s a volunteer who I can video doing a 1:1 with me? I’d love to hear from veteran organizers about what works for them in making introductions, as well as from social workers with ideas about how our practice skills apply in this context. And I’d encourage you to consider organizing training as another facet of your professional development, either from JWJ or another organization–I’d be happy to help you locate something that might meet your needs.