So nice to meet you–introductions in community organizing

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.

Brochure for JWJ Summer/Fall Trainings

62 responses to “So nice to meet you–introductions in community organizing

  1. Reading this post made me think a lot of the relationship building and networking when trying to find who the friends of your organizations are in the community, especially if you are new. You made a good point in regards to the name dropping. I would think especially if you are new to the community and you name drop someone who you think is great,and the person you are working with thinks the opposite or had a negative run in, you may leave a bad impression and potentially lose a “friend.” I would think asking them what they want to know about you may be a good start to discover what type of introduction to provide.

    • How does this apply to service expansion, too, Kelsey, if that’s what you’re confronting, instead of community organizing? What principles should inform your efforts to ‘ease’ your organization into a new geographic (or otherwise) community?

  2. I think that in any of these situations, it is absolutely important to utilize those listening skills. In the past I worked as an employment specialist, where our goal was to go out in the community and meet business owners, and connect them with clients with an SPMI diagnosis in the hopes that they would have a mutually beneficial employment relationship. It was really important to work on developing the trust. Someone made the joke to a new worker to remember to “not kiss on the first date” It made alot of sense. If you automatically go in and say what you are trying to do, you come off as a salesman, and this does not go far. Name dropping is guaranteed to backfire somewhere. It is important to see what the individual in front of you finds important, and work on establishing a solid relationship. Over the years Ive worked with many employers, and even though some placements didn’t work out, In the end if the trust, rapport, and commonality was there the employer was more willing to think about trying it again.

  3. I think a lot of the skills and relationship building you discuss here could be applied to general networking as well, even when one is a beginning professional like me trying to make connections in the field. Sometimes it’s who you know, not what you know, and I think it’s true not only in organizing but in getting a job.

    I think though in terms of organizing (esp. political organizing) and meeting with a legislator’s office, I think it’s super important to know what you’re going to say and practice going over responses to common questions about your topic. Even for me when I talked to Yoder’s office about trafficking last fall, and the staff member I talked to seemed to think I was doing well, I still felt like I could have gone over my brief more and outlined more specifically what points on my brief I wanted to go over.

    My brief was sent to DC, so I don’t think I did that bad. She also “endorsed me” for skills on LinkedIn, so I probably did something right, it’s just something to consider.

    • Certainly relationships are critical in job-seeking, too, Adele! The stakes aren’t quite as high as in a community organizing effort, where you have multiple relationships to manage simultaneously (and many different perceptions of you, and of each other), but it’s absolutely an important reminder that, in almost all aspects of social work, relationships are just about everything!

      On Thu, Mar 27, 2014 at 4:35 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  4. Matthew Kelley

    I love the kissing on the first date analogy. It is true though. It makes sense to not divulge all of your information in that first conversation. It is more important to build that rapport and give them a sample of what you want, but leave them to inquire more about it. You reference the salesman approach but I believe that if you do it correctly sales experience would be a bonus to building your connections for community organizing. I also completely agree with the name dropping. I don’t know how many times I have met someone and used a name that leaves a foul mouth in that person. I agree, it happens a lot when you are new to an area and are trying to branch out.

  5. Richard O'Brien

    I get the impression from what you have said, Melinda,is that like anything else in life, you get better at something the more that you do it. That seems to me to apply to community organizing as well. It sounds like you just have to jump in and get started and that you’ll make mistakes, have successes, and after a while, you’ll feel like you are getting the hang of it. Building a rapport and forming relationships strikes me as essential. In my business career and sales training, I was taught that people will not buy fmo you if they don’t like you, but if they do like you, then they might buy from you. The rapport that you build is critical. Similarly, I think people would not work with an organizer that they don’t like, but might work with one that they do like. Building trust is also a component of that. I generally trust people I like and don’t trust those that I don’t like, I would think that applies to many fields.

    • Yes, I think that ‘just get in and try’ approach is relevant in organizing, Richard, with perhaps the added insight that getting in with some critical self-awareness is crucial, so that you are constantly reassessing and reworking, and so that you don’t inadvertently harm developing relationships or create a ‘trust deficit’ from which you then have to emerge. I think that your history of building rapport with different populations, in so many different contexts, will serve you well in a variety of macro practice contexts!

      On Tue, Apr 15, 2014 at 8:02 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  6. This “introduction to introductions,” if you will, really made me think about the importance of using good social work ‘clinical’ skills in advocacy. By this I mean the ability to be present with people while at the same time intentional, positioning the people we are working with as the experts so that we can learn from them, and asking for permission for everything that we do with the information they share with us. I completely agree that these are skills that can only be developed through practice – and lots of it. When I am encouraging people to try something new I use an idea that is commonly referred to in my office as a PDSA cycle – Plan, Do, Study, and Act. Essentially you decide what you are going to do and how you are going to set yourself up to be most successful, you go do it, you ‘study’ or reflect on what was effective and what wasn’t, and then you develop a new plan and act on it. This is a cyclical process of learning that really never stops.

    I appreciate your honesty in stating that there is no one way to approach the beginning conversations that works in every situation. It takes more work and effort to individualize our approaches but it is necessary as these initial conversations are the foundation for shaping our views of problems and solutions as well as how the people we will work along side view us.

    • Yes, John–the importance of good clinical skills in macro practice is one of the reasons that I’m frustrated, so often, by the false divide between the different approaches to social work practice. The truth is that clinicians need macro understanding and context, and macro practitioners need great people skills. How can we best bridge that gap?

      On Fri, Apr 18, 2014 at 12:25 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  7. How do social work skills apply in community organizing tasks? Social work skills come into play when developing trust within a fiduciary relationship. Social workers must learn how to build trust within the community they are organizing because if not, then they are ineffective and not credible, leading the community to bow out of the organizing.

    How can community organizing approaches aid social work practice? Building the working relationship either with a client or with a community can be difficult, and with your suggestions on how to best approach a new relationship, I feel that it is easily translatable to working with individuals.

    What do you feel that you need to know, or know how to do, before embarking on community organizing activities as a professional social worker? How to bridge the gap between clinical workers and macro practice in community organizing. I too have had the thought that the limited clinical skills I have possessed (through practicums) are sufficient because I want to work in the macro setting. I have learned, through job searching, that this really isn’t the case and far too often the agencies want a clinical background before being any kind of administrator. I get it, but I feel discriminated against because they are not able to see that the limited experience I had in the clinical setting was one that I feel could be easily translated into a lot of experience due to the fact that I had a lot of opportunities serving multiple clients and attended numerous trainings. I’d like to know what it takes to find the “right” person to talk to in order to get the snowball effect of talking with others to occur. The thought of wasting my time and energy on the “wrong” person is more of a barrier to me than it should be.

    • How are you selling your SWAAP skillset, Rachel, in the job search process? I think it can be hard to explain what macro social workers are and what we can do, but we have so much to contribute. I’m not quite sure what you mean about wasting your time on the ‘wrong’ person. I think one of the assets we bring as social workers to organizing is that we can see the worth in every person and, then, inject that sense of human dignity into the organizing relationship. It may unfold in unexpected ways, but that’s one of the serendipities!

  8. Emily Bell-Sepulveda

    “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?””

    This is how I envisioned implementing my community intervention. However, I realize that if I proceed with this effort, there is a lot I need to learn in advance. There is also more complexity to “rallying” support than I would like to think—it is daunting. I want to change my neighborhood, but when I talk to people I realize how difficult it is to convey potential to others.
    I think the key is to be structured in advance, to target specific individuals and then leaders. Going door-to-door in the early stages would be a waste of time when there are ways to assess the efficacy of contact with particular people in advance, and with the possibility of getting community leaders on board in advance of organizing more than a few concerned neighbors. Then once some support is there, the credibility will follow to allow you to begin building informative relationships with other neighbors.
    Dustin gives excellent points. Even as someone who supports progress, and grassroots efforts for change, I am always wary of an individual’s agenda. I want to know that they are capable of listening to me, or in general, their constituents, rather than pushing an agenda. If they come in with a spiel that is clearly rehearsed, I am put off and looking for a “catch.” Maybe that is just me.
    Unfortunately, I do feel I take the “social” out of social work. I am a “brass tacks” kind of person. This doesn’t always jive well when building relationships. However, I can actively listen and I can also be persuasive when necessary. I feel that these are also assets in community organizing. Ultimately, I don’t know if this would be the best fit for my career, but I see the value in acquiring the skills. If I am going to be able to support others’ efforts in community organizing, it would be nice to have the skill set to do so. I wish I could do the training this year!

  9. This topic is interesting because we just did debates over controversial issues in class the other day and some of this reminds me of the topic “State licensing is an obstacle to social work students’ selection of macro practice as a specialization”. Because when you think about the macro or SWAP concentration, versus the clinical concentration, a social worker really needs aspects of both to be a truly successful and well-rounded social worker.
    In regards to the blog, going out and meeting new community members 1:1 for the first time is very similar to what a therapist would do at an intake. The first session is aimed at gaining information, but not in an obvious way while also trying to build a relationship and foundation for rapport with the client or community member. These sessions are always confidential, as the sessions with community member should be because the last thing a community organizer that is viewed as an outsider needs is to stir up rumors or drama within a community.
    A lot of the clinical focus of social work seems to be upon understanding people and forming appropriate and healthy connections with them to assist in their treatment. These skills are just as much needed if a macro social worker wants to be able to make change. If a macro social worker does not have to skills to converse and relate to a person or group, they will probably have a hard time getting a lot of positive feedback from the community.
    I do agree that practice makes perfect and the more a community organizer gets in the public and interacts with community members, the more natural this will feel and they will just get better at it.

  10. I like that you point out that the first meeting in community organizing is not a survey, but rather a time to get to know the person you are meeting with and their self-interest. Without knowing where their self-interest lies, you will not know how to present your information in a way that they will be more likely to buy into. It reminds me a lot of what I have learned about building relationships with current or potential funders in a grant writing and fundraising class that I took. They ever took it a step farther to suggest investigating the individual to see what their interests were, what causes they were giving money to or were involved in ahead of time. By understanding their personal interests, you can tap into those in organizing as well as fundraising. It reminds me of a meeting I went to with a foundation who helped fund an organization that I previously worked with. I was informed that the foundation was mainly interesting in helping children, and that in the past they have appreciated hearing client success stories. However, during the meeting the foundation representative was being presented mainly with the agencies financial information, capital campaign, and a new program that serves women. While this was all positive information, you could tell it was not what she was interested in hearing. I then watched as my supervisor intentionally turned this conversation to how the new program for women was impacting their children to touch on the foundation’s interest in supporting children. She then asked me to share a success story that I had recently experienced working with children in the program, and the foundation’s representative smiled for the first time in the meeting and said she would be happy to continue funding the program. This is just one example of how you can come prepared with a lot of great information, by what is really important is learning the individual or group’s interests so that you are able to connect them with your own.

  11. The core foundation of social work is building rapport with our clients. We are beaten with the idea to meet the client where they are at currently. This would be helpful in knowing when community organizing. Everyone that you meet will be in a different place. In micro practice you wouldn’t assume that one intervention would work with every client? So why would you expect that one introduction would work with everyone you meet. I think another social work skill to have is that our code of ethics states that we should be competent before we practice. I think this could be used in the same before 1:1 meetings. If there is information on the internet about this person, I think it’s important for us to look at it before meeting. It might just drop a hint that the person likes doughnuts. Well then let’s have our meeting around coffee and doughnuts.
    I think it’s important to know as a professional social worker when community organizing our boundaries. How far are we willing to push the envelope until we are uncomfortable? Where is our line drawn in the sand? I think it is also important to be self-consciously aware that it’s not our battle to fight. What we may think is the right way to get our point across our volunteers may see a different view point. It’s our job to inform them of the pros-and cons, not to talk them out of a particular way to advocate.

    • Absolutely, Morgan–I think one of the distinctions, though, between micro practice and organizing, in this case, is that, in a social worker/client relationship, you’re both fairly clear about why you’re coming together and, at least broadly, what your roles will be, whereas, in community organizing, there’s that whole ‘who are you and what are you doing?’ dimension. I thought that Molly’s discussion about boundaries and reciprocity was really thought-provoking. As social workers, where we land may be different than an organizer coming from a different tradition/profession, but the reminder that we need to be authentic, and that there is vulnerability in these relationships, is a critical one.

  12. Tina Wiltshire

    I think what you said about not walking in with the same introduction is a critical element in relationship building. It can come across as not being genuine and immediately turn the person away. As you said, listening to what they have to say is important in building and maintaining that relationship as well. It also gives you the chance to find a commonality that may really draw them in and build the relationship from there, as opposed to a one-way conversation telling them who you are, what you’re doing there, and what you want from them.

  13. Well said, Tina, and, I think, it’s important for us to realize that these kinds of introductions are becoming somewhat rarer and, then, more difficult for us to pull off, because the nature of communication today tends to obscure the importance of this credentialing (because people have so much more information about who’s connected to whom, and that’s how we figure out who we’re going to trust), and because so much social media is about broadcasting–getting our perspective/position/information out there–rather than about listening or really engaging. Can you think of people whose introductory style has really made an impression on you? What did they do that had such an effect? How might you emulate their approach? What made it so effective?

  14. The whole concept of community organizing is still a little fuzzy to me, but it truly sounds interesting! I’m eager to learn more about it. What stood out to me most in this post was actually something put in parentheses: “some people will want a lot of information about you before they feel comfortable talking, others will be turned off by a long introduction.” I’m running into this a lot lately, and not just in the social work world. This is hard for me to navigate, and I think sometimes I’m overly conscious about it. I think my tendency is to overshare, but I try to analyze the person to see if there are any signs of “shut up” or “keep going.” How do you know what a person wants from you upon meeting them? How do you know if they want a lot of information or not? What’s the best thing to do in this situation? How is this different in the community organizing world than in other settings? I know there’s no way to get it right every time, but what’s a people pleaser to do?

  15. Tammy McCandless

    The basic introduction is important in all aspects of the organization because relationships are the key to successful organization. Whether it’s building your organization with supporters or clients, they want to know they are important. Standing on your own without over-sharing stories or name dropping and having a real conversation will make more of an impact than trying to “impress” someone. It reminds me of the saying we have two ears and one mouth for a reason – because we need to listen. I love the part of building rapport and establishing a relationship can be transformational enough to lead people to their desired change – and at its core is what organizing is about. If a client is met by someone who doesn’t seem to care it can be detrimental to the organization and the client. If a client is lost, an organization won’t grow. Unfortunately, building relationships is not easy for everyone.

  16. Oh, Tammy, great points about not trying to take up too much space, in a sense, especially in those initial interactions. It is absolutely more about how you connect with the other person, than how you mark your territory, but we so often get hung up in wanting to make an impression. How do you ‘check’ yourself, in those initial interactions? How do you observe your relationships shifting over time?

  17. Great questions, Annie, and good points about how often these same questions come up in any relationship–particularly in those early stages–not just community organizing contexts. Yes, we look for cues from others, so that we’re attending to their emotional reactions. And we should also be transparent, I think, about our uncertainties, and willing to be redirected in the conversation if needed. And we have to think about our objectives: should it always be about ‘people pleasing’, or should we think about what people really need, out of a given interaction, and try to create that value as we build a relationship? How do we know the difference?

  18. Reading this reminded me a lot of my first year internship in the MSW program at a psychiatric hospital. It was very common practice to treat all patients the same and to share their information with other clinicians. It often seemed like there were no limits as to what clinicians would say about their clients. Names would be used and very descriptive stories would be told without any intention of using them for the benefit of the client. For clients that were in the hospital often and who were well known among staff it was almost to the point of gossip. I noticed quickly that it was worthless to try and use the same introduction with clients during our initial visits. No one is the same and everyone has special needs and expectations of me before they even came into my office. Meeting these needs and expectations early on allows for growth and improvement within the client-clinician relationship and I expect the same is true in community organizing. During my internship this year I have done a lot of community development work and have learned quickly that there is no consistent message or way to do things that applies to everyone. It is vital to know your audience. To research their goals, needs, assets, and connections before initial meetings so to ensure success in developing a working relationship. I have found the social aspect of community development very interesting! It is something that I feel I will develop over time by exposure and I look forward to completing an organizing training in the future! Could you please email me some links to these trainings?

    • There are a lot of different options for organizing training, Emerald; most are pretty intense, but I think you would like them! I did labor organizing training during my MSW and found it really valuable. PICO has a week-long training (Molly’s organization) as does Gamaliel, a similar institutional-based organizing effort. What are you most interested in?

      I’m struck by how many of your reflections about the importance of meeting people where they are apply to any social work or, really, any relationship, period…further evidence that macro practice isn’t really so different, after all!

  19. Thanks for sharing your early experiences with community organizing! These are great tips! I would say I have made way much more mistakes when working with grassroots/community projects. When introducing myself to a bunch of strangers, my social anxiety arises dramatically. I still remember the first time when I worked for a community project in China, I interviewed one group leader. After that, I shared his opinions with other stakeholders and pointed out his name during a meeting. He was really angry because I exposed his confidentiality to the others. After that he had to deal with the awkwardness with others. In Chinese culture, people are reluctant to confront tensions or straight conflicts because there will be no space or flexibility for negotiation after things become transparent. They do not want to lose pride, so you are right that it would not hurt to ask someone if he/she does not mind that you will share his/her points and names with others. However, it takes time to build rapport between you and community members. I believe the trust grows when stakeholders or community members know you better. The first time I would not suggest over-sharing your information with others unless it is necessary. It will make people feel you are so easy to be close to anyone. To be honest, I am not comfortable with someone who can act like he/she and someone else are old friends and know each other really well during the first meet. You can definitely feel bona fides when meeting someone the first time, but the trust is really something you need to invest time and energy in. My strategy will be when we meet with someone the first time, if I really need to tell them some critical stories or experiences from my friends or colleagues the first time, I will remove their confidentiality to protect them, unless I am pretty confident that they will be happy if I share their stories with others and there will be not risks expose them to the community.
    I am still learning how to introduce myself to people of different personalities or preferences. It is an art! Observing the interaction of one person with others may be informative to help you estimate what communication strategies he/she likes or dislikes. I can also decide if he/she likes more information or less according to his/her first questions. However, again, building rapports is not an easy job.

  20. Thank you so much for sharing this, Yan! Yes, credentialing ourselves by sharing what another has shared with us is always dangerous. The only story we can authentically tell, after all, is our own! And I really appreciate your insights about the challenges of cross-cultural communication and rapport-building, too. Your considerable reflection and intentionality bode well for your continued development, but I absolutely get that you face a steeper learning curve, in this respect, than many other community practitioners. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help!

  21. Sarah Thompson

    This is so interesting. I appreciate the experiences and knowledge you have shared here, especially some common mistakes. Its valuable to know that how you start conversations will need to vary with each person. My question is, will I be expected to know how to start conversations with specific people or will this come about as I start the conversation with someone new? I imagine that both will happen. It is key to do research ahead which might lead to how you would start a conversation, but its not going to always be so cut ant dry. And as we should all expect to make mistakes, how do we go about recovering from them? Are there times when our organizing efforts are completely jeopardized due to our mistakes? If so, do we give up, or would there be other ways to start over? I’m sure its situational… Just some insights

    • Hi, Sarah! Yes, of course, there are (unfortunately!) a lot of times when an organizer’s mistakes can derail an organizing effort. Ideally that wouldn’t be the case, but there’s so much about a community organizing effort that has to unfold rather organically, that I suppose it’s unavoidable that we sometimes really miscalculate. It may or may not be reassuring, then, to think about it as you do other relationships…where, similarly, sometimes things go really well, and sometimes we really miss the boat, or stick our feet in our mouths, or blunder in a way that can be hard to redeem. What do you do then, if the relationship is one you want to salvage? What lessons do those experiences hold for this new arena of community organizing? How much ‘cover’ can we expect, for just being really authentic?

  22. This post is great, Melinda, what type of trainings can I attend to get more familiar with this type of practice?. Thinking of the community intervention project I have in mind, I will need a lot of guidance to be successful. I have a lot of questions and a lot to learn!! I also think that relationship building with the community is imperative, good communication skills will take people long ways,

    • You may want to consider labor organizing training, Gloria, or get involved with a group like CCO that does community organizing? There’s no substitute for just being part of a campaign!

  23. I think you could probably do community work for your entire life and learn something new from each introduction (and the entire process). Each community is going to respond differently to outside involvement, especially depending on the community. Clearly, being genuine, honest, respectful, and transparent are all things needed to successfully engage with community members, but sometimes that won’t be enough. Sometimes no matter how trustworthy or transparent you are, you may still not be well received, this population may have been mislead, lied to, and abandoned by previous intervention efforts and would therefore be unlikely to warm up quickly. In this case, its more about maintaining integrity and following through on every action you intend on taking. All you can do is prove yourself and remember not to take anything too personally.

    • And build on one experience, Grace, to learn for the next, which I think is the best tribute we can give to those we work with, anyway–that they have given to others, by virtue of equipping us to be better, as we move on to interact with new populations, tackle new issues, or face new challenges.

  24. I identify with your caution about dropping names. Over the past few years I have quickly found out how small the non-profit world is, and I have put my foot in my mouth more than once as a direct result of speaking before knowing my audience well.

    Another way that 1:1 conversations can go awry (in my experience) is if both parties aren’t familiar with the format. When I first began social justice work, a fairly experienced organizer met me and each of my housemates for 1:1 conversations. Unfortunately, because none of us were experienced with the format, we saw these conversations as personal and vulnerable exchanges. When we realized that we had all been very vulnerable and shared about our personal lives, while the organizer had shared her story with each of us verbatim, we felt both embarrassed and uninterested in connecting further. While neither party was necessarily at fault, sharing the reason for the conversation with your new contact is crucial.

    I’m sure that one of the best ways to learn is through personal experience, and I’m very interested in continuing to grow my knowledge. Learning from the community organizers in my life has been one of the most interesting things I’ve gained from social justice work, and I hope to avoid some of these pitfalls in the future!

  25. Oh, yes, Sammy–great insights! I have had that experience with 1:1 conversations with organizers, too; what is pitched as the start of a ‘relationship’ is…but a very particular and public one, and those being approached don’t always understand that. It’s not like starting a friendship, but, particularly to those new to the organizing arena, it can be hard to tell the difference. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  26. Jenny D'Achiardi

    Now more than ever, I realize that I need to get out into the Kansas City community and get involved in a campaign! I had no idea that the first conversation would be so systematic via a 1:1 methodology that appears to be deliberate yet still somehow flexible. I agree that practice and training are essential to building the skills of a community organizer and in fact, after looking at the brochure I went to the Jobs with Justice website to look for any future trainings, to no avail. So many factors are at play in starting these conversations – choosing the right person, adapting your approach to suit their style, remembering that you are sowing the seeds for a strategic relationship and not a friendship – I would think it strange not to be overwhelmed. Although my instincts for self-preservation and loyalty to the cause would render me speechless if I were to have this type of conversation now, hopefully I can gain some confidence in the future through practical experience. I also enjoyed the connection made between direct practice and organizing regarding that first contact and how in both contexts the interaction should be about more than just gathering information. I feel like I am in an auspicious position because I have no macro experience or direct service work to bias me and I am learning about both kinds of social work from the perspective that they complement each other and to think otherwise would be counterintuitive.

  27. Good point, Jenny, about the advantages of starting ‘fresh’ in considering each approach to social work! PICO often organizes trainings, too, for those interested in institutional-based organizing (like with churches and other organizations), although I think their trainings are a full week, which is hard to justify if it’s not your job. I’ll keep an eye out for things I think might be good opportunities. The Health Care Foundation is sponsoring a training on advocacy rules for nonprofits, which isn’t organizing but is certainly macro practice, although I think it’s during the day when you would be at work. I look forward to watching you grow into professional social work practice, on all levels!

  28. I have many thoughts and ideas about community organizing. The notion of starting it up and bringing it to fruition is where I get nervous. Not because I don’t believe in myself- though I may not give myself enough credit-but because I feel so strongly about my ideas and that they may actually work. I wonder, if this or that idea was to really happen, what would I do with that much power? Power in the sense that a thought turned into something that helped bridged and benefit the community, even standing in its differences-whatever those may be.
    Realizing and understanding that relationships in community organizing begin with a conversation, makes me anxious with excitement, and the fact that -starting up- seems that simple is even more mind-blowing. To say hanging around like-minded people with similar goals is an open statement. For example, in a conversation with a friend who desires to start a social group aiming to connect with others, allowing them to unleash and reach their full potential, while my aim is to bridge people in a community to obtain a greater cause of mutual respect, acceptance, and understanding, in hopes that the message spreads beyond us, amid the differences in people and cultures, it is more than “like-minded people.” To put it another way, as in the blog, as awkward as it may assume, the goal is to begin a –transformational-relationship. The intent is the same, and now that that relationship is formed, and the initial conversation has happened, the next steps are in order. Understanding that mistakes are likely to happen along the way, and being nervous is a part of life, I take that as an opportunity to learn, grow, and hold onto those relationships within the community for support along the way.

  29. This may sound very strange but this reminds me of navigating queer clubs and drag shows. It also reminds me of navigating a new space, like coming from Tulsa to Lawrence and knowing two people here. The only difference is the intent is very structured/professional. I think about the way I build relationships and how open I am when meeting new people. This has not always rubbed people the right way and sometimes I am not stubborn enough to adapt to the situation. If I want to do organizing work I know I will have to adapt to every encounter but being a military brat I kind of got it down.
    I am really fascinated by the trainings around this though. I never would have thought that there was a structured way to gather people to do this work. I want to be able to build these relationships now and I think the training would be invaluable as more networking is needed in the future.

  30. I can imagine that there are aspects of the ‘orienting’ and ‘credentialing’ in initiating new relationships that transfer, regardless of the context of that relationship. I’m sure you’ve had many more introductions in your lifetime, already, than many others. I do think that these types of introductions do differ, though, precisely because they are so intentional, as you suggest. You’re not just content to put yourself out there and see what happens; you have an objective for what you want this relationship to accomplish, professionally, even if you’re not sure exactly how that dynamic will unfold, and that inevitably raises the stakes somewhat…and might even warrant a somewhat different approach. I’ll be interested to see where you end up situating your social work practice and what that organization’s philosophy on initiating relationships is. I imagine that you will bring new dimensions for them to consider, as well.

  31. Leslie Butsch

    I do see a lot of similarities between an introductory meeting for community organizing purposes and an initial meeting with a service participant at a direct service agency. You sit down with someone with the intention to listen, offering guidance to help them understand your role as a facilitator of their goals. I think the major difference is within the intention – in a direct service arena, we are often led by the client needing a service from us, so there is an implicit power dynamic. In community organizing, one could argue a community member doesn’t “need” anything from us, and the power should be more balanced, or perhaps more in the hands of the community member.

    I recently had what I may describe in the future as one of my first community organizing failures: I decided, in collaboration with the Lawrence Public Library, that I would offer free financial coaching to folks in the community a few days a week during the month of April. I trained several other AmeriCorps members on how to utilize financial coaching resources, and staffed the library with volunteers. (Almost) Nobody came for financial coaching. In hindsight, I feel foolish for jumping so quickly into the idea the library had without really considering what the community may want or need from a group of young service providers wanting to give a little extra. I try to remember it wasn’t a complete face palm – at least these AmeriCorps members now have more financial coaching resources at their fingertips and the library has a positive relationship with AmeriCorps for attempting to be a go-getter. I see my mistakes could have been corrected if I had followed the first rule: asking the community what they want. I also needed to set a concrete goal, as a way to measure whether it was successful or not. I realize this was not a huge social change community organizing attempt of mine, but just a naiive hope of educating and making myself available, but even in this I feel I missed the point without really connecting and introducing myself to those who should’ve had a say.

  32. Thank you for sharing this example, Leslie! I’m glad that you found some ‘wins’ in it, because I absolutely see those too, but I’m sorry that it was a disappointment for you. And you also learned that the library is willing to step up, beyond the ‘typical’ library repertoire of activities but, still…I’ve had those events people don’t come to, so I feel you on that!

  33. This was really helpful for me as someone interested in community organizing but not having a clue where to start. I like your analogy to initial conversations with clients in a direct service environment and the emphasis on building a relationship to more effectively respond to their needs and goals–not throwing out a one-size-fits-all sales pitch and hoping to reel in those interested in the service you’re offering. I also like your approach for finding out the needs and goals of a community: “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.” It’s so hard to get people interested in causes when everyone is so busy and overextended and constantly bombarded with competing causes, it seems much more pragmatic to find what issues are important to them and become a partner in making changes in those areas. It reminds of the story (I think we discussed it in class?) of the neighborhood that just wanted to get the dollar store shopping carts cleaned up and nobody listened to them about it being a real concern until somebody did and helped them take action for change. Meeting the community members where they were and helping them with their real concerns helped build trust and rapport and opened the door for bigger efforts for the community in the future.

  34. I really love that shopping cart story! Yes, Whitney–this speaks to me so much. I have seen so often that the people who become the biggest advocates and the most involved community leaders aren’t necessarily the people who have time to spare–in fact, they seldom are–they’re the people who care so much about a particular issue that they sort of can’t not engage on it. In my own life, I see the same pattern. Even with the best of intentions, I ignore some of the ‘daily action’ texts I get about issues that just aren’t totally central to me. But I will drive 2 hours roundtrip to be at a legislative hearing about funding for my kids’ schools or advocacy on child welfare, because I really can’t sleep well at night if I’m not in those fights.

  35. Victoria Stracke

    I think one of the social work skills (which you highlight in this blog post) is not making assumptions. Not assuming the person has heard of you, or your organization; not thinking they have a good relationship with one of the people you have already talked to; not assuming it’s okay to name drop or bring up something someone may have told you in confidence, and so on. By not making assumptions, you can also work toward building trust (another social work skill, no doubt). As for what I need to know before embarking on community organizing, I certainly think a video of a 1:1 meeting (or maybe even a transcript from a meeting?) would be helpful in providing a framework for how to navigate those experiences. Further, I think community organizing (just like everything else) requires practice. Although you could watch a video, or read a blog post, I believe practicing (and failing) is necessary for improvement.

  36. Great reflections, Victoria. Are there any community organizers you admire, who you might be able to observe as they’re navigating new relationships? There’s so much that is so contextual and, often, unspoken, even, around making those initial overtures, that I think it would be most valuable to witness how it unfolds and then, ideally, be able to debrief that encounter. Getting closer to experienced organizers is incredibly useful, for a variety of reasons, but watching them skillfully weave these connections is definitely one!

  37. Christina Cowart

    These tips are so helpful! I know I can already recognize some mistakes that I’ve made, and have also witnessed some other organizers make along the way. In particular, the name dropping. I see this a lot in organizing, and know that I myself am guilty of this. I think this comes from a place of insecurity in our own abilities in building relationships based off our own skills. I also think you make a good point about not using the same standard introduction for everyone you meet. My organizing experiences have placed me in many different contexts with many different organizers. I found that it was important for me to tailor my introduction and the information I shared according to my audience. A mental health provider and a member of the catholic church are not going to have the same interests and value systems. As organizers, I think it’s important to recognize these differences and adjust our introductions to the audience in order to make better connections.

  38. Have you experienced the same reaction, Christina, when organizers drop names? I always wonder if my observations are unique to what I’ve witnessed, so I’d love to hear when what you see doesn’t line up!

  39. I agree that the relationship building skills in community organizing are parallel to building rapport with clients in direct practice. As social workers, what we do will vary, but how we approach our work should be the same. We should operate within our code of ethics and honor our core social work values. My limited experience in community organizing all came during practicum at Kansas Appleseed. Things that I feel I need to learn/improve on would be structuring the meetings better, keeping initial meetings brief, and a note taking process that can produce usable information. I also would like to learn how to synthesize individual stories into the broader story, especially those that fall outside of our “intended message.” Or do we need to do this at all? I really liked how you talked about making sure we start in the right place (with the right person) because it often times determines who we meet with next. Maybe we do not start with the right person, but we must have the ability to recognize that we are steering from our intended community or are lacking diverse perspectives/contacts.

  40. Lana Dominguez

    Your post really outlines a lot of different skills that I need to work on when meeting new people for the first time as it relates to this work. It is customary for me to be extra “friendly” and an “open book” as I believe that transparency is crucial for building trust, but I never realized that this could be misleading. This is especially true for name dropping or sharing information without the express permission to do so. Although I rarely do the latter, the former comes naturally to me to try and find commonality. But it is true that the person who I name may not have the same relationship with the person I’m meeting with and could really sour our future. I will have to work on building my ability to keep conversations structured, not too personal, but simultaneously authentic as I move forward. I would love to find those videos of Obama, however, as I imagine those are incredibly interesting!

  41. Thanks for sharing this, Lana; this recalls, for me, a lot of what Molly was talking about in terms of authentic, warm, and mutual relationships…but not personal ones. I do think it’s important to underscore that where you ‘land’ on the continuum of personal connections may be different than where I do, or any other organizer. What I outline here are lessons from my own practice, from reading and talking with other organizers…but certainly not sacrosanct, in any sense. What do you think will help you build these skills (and really, sort of the ‘feel’ for these connections)?

  42. This post reminds me of some advice I was given by my stepmother who said to be careful how forthcoming I am in the very beginning of networking in this career field. I am glad that you made a point to mention that name dropping is not always a good thing since one doesn’t always know the historical context of other individuals and those with whom I would be trying to get to know and work with. In the past I’ve done some journalism and this post also reminds me of that because interviewing people for stories seems kind of analogous to community organization networking. Breaking the ice with community organization networking I imagine is quite similar in that you want to have a good introduction and at the same time there is a specific goal in mind for the meeting, which is a lot like journalistic interviewing. An interesting thought I have regarding this, is the increased occurrence of social anxiety and I wonder how many social workers deal with it while trying to accomplish endeavors such as these. I suppose for the most part that 1:1’s are not as intimidating as group meetings so that’s a positive thing. I have to admit that I do not particularly have the gift of gab, but in certain contexts it is not too difficult to initiate a conversation with a professional goal in mind as finish point.

    • This is a really interesting parallel to draw, Troy, to your past experience in interviewing. While the purpose is somewhat different–building a connection rather than purely collecting data–certainly the approaches of drawing people out, being careful not to take up too much space, and looking for non-verbal cues as well as listening to what people say, all seem to have common roots, as you identify. I think 1:1s are just differently stressful, honestly, not necessarily less. You’re certainly not in front of a room with a lot of eyes on you, but that also means that it can feel really intimate and, so, sometimes pretty intense. What have you found (or did you experience as a journalist) helpful in getting people to talk? How might you draw on those skills in practice?

  43. Two things stood out to me in this post. First, it’s interesting how you emphasize that relationships developed while organizing communities will be intense and intimate. I have trouble wrapping my head around how this can be the case, when these relationships can be perceived as means to an end. How can connections be genuine and respectful to the whole person when they are also part of a larger strategy?
    Second, snowballing seems like a very useful and natural technique, but I hadn’t considered the dangers. People will refer you to people they know, people whose views they agree with, and most likely people who are like them. A community organizer will need to do much more intense groundwork to identify and bring together diverse voices that truly represent the community.

    • This is hard for me to answer this one, Brook–I guess, the way I see it, is that seeing relationships in community organizing as only means to an end isn’t good organizing, or maybe even ‘real’ organizing. I can remember so many moments of crying with people I was organizing with, celebrating with them in sincere joy, calling them first–before my husband–when something made me really mad or super excited…they’re professional relationships, yes, but they are intense and often quite close. And they’re part of a strategy only inasmuch as relationship is the only thing that can change the world…but the fact that we hope to move mountains together doesn’t make the feeling of being on this journey side by side any less potent. Does that make sense? I’d love to talk more about this if you’d like.

      • Brook Nasseri

        Oh, thank you so much for your response! This is actually really helpful in helping me reconcile these apparently paradoxical aspects of the role of relationships in organizing. Your comment reminded me of a reading last semester from practice class last semester.* The article discussed helping relationships, which the author defines as “a relationship in which at least one of the parties has the intent of promoting the growth, development, maturity, improved functioning, improved coping with life of the other” (Rogers, 1961, p. 39-40). This article really helped me understand micro social work. And upon rereading it, I noticed that the author asserts that “the relationship of the community consultant to a community group” is also a helping relationship (p. 40). Your point that relationships can change the world is a reminder that community organizing is, at its core, relational and deeply human.

        * Rogers, C. (1961). The Characteristics of a Helping Relationship. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

  44. McKenzie Dick

    What struck me most about this post is the part where you must figure out what people care about enough that they are willing to break out of their solitary lives. This reminds me of volunteering at Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) Camp. After MDA stopped funding the camps, the children affected were heartbroken. It took a few, crucial adult volunteers stepping up, to reinstate a version of the camp which is now called Camp Milton. These volunteers had to do their version of community organizing to get donations, volunteers, and businesses to participate. I want, someday, to enact change as they did.

    Also, I love that Obama has videos on community organizing. That really boosts my interest in the topic as he is one of my idols.

  45. Thank you for sharing this story, McKenzie! I’m interested in what you’ve observed about the effect that coming together like this has had on those volunteers–do they continue to work together? Have they tackled anything else as a group? How has it affected their lives, their outlook, their orientations, to have had this success of building something together?

  46. Colin Frickey

    This article was interesting, I have never thought specifically about introductions as a community organizer before. It is interesting that even these potentially short relationships you can describe as intense and intimate. I think your points on being consistent in introductions and not name dropping too much are really good. You don’t want to switch up who you are as a professional and your introduction based on who you meet, but it should be consistent. Also, like you said, you dont know the weight peoples names may carry so do not be dropping names or speaking for another individual. It can ensure no one accuses you of putting words in their mouth or just placing yourself in an awkward situation.

    I think it is important that you made note of the importance of building a relationship and report through initial introductions. I think relationship building is one of the keys to accomplishing work. If individuals dont feel welcome or connected to a task, then they are a lot more likely to give less effort.

  47. I really appreciated how genuine this was. I think it can be a truly difficult struggle to really know what you’re doing, so I think it’s important to address that you won’t feel comfortable in the beginning.
    I also really appreciated how personal this felt. Working with communities can be truly difficult and having that genuine one on one connection with a person brings a face to that community and creates a more human experience overall.
    I often get wrapped up in communities almost being like organizations, and forget to put in the effort to really get to know the person behind the phone.

  48. Really good point, Bren, that communities are made up of people! So are organizations, of course, but organizations are entities we’ve constructed specifically for the purpose of at least somewhat depersonalizing things…so they feel very different than community engagement, usually.

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