Tag Archives: community organizing

Hey, it’s good exercise!

In this digital age, I want to make the case for a return to old-fashioned door-to-door work.

Yes, as in actual doors.

And actually knocking on them.

I know, why would we bother to “waste” all of that time, when we have email addresses and Facebook and so many “easier” ways to organize people?

In short, because sometimes there’s just no substitute.

There are still some ways in which door-knocking campaigns are superior to online engagement strategies:

  • You can collect really valuable information about people, the conditions in which they live, and their relationships to their communities by physically traveling in their space. No virtual community gives you exactly this same sense of people’s places.
  • You get a certain credit for showing up that can be helpful in, especially, your efforts to recruit new people to your cause. Precisely because email is so much easier, it’s also more easily tossed away. Yes, some people will slam the door in your face, but, honestly, it doesn’t happen that much. We’re willing to give a little bit more respect to those who actually come to see us.
  • Door-knocking is a great way to get your advocates/members/activists more comfortable telling your story; once you’ve knocked on a stranger’s door (to ask for a petition signature, or a membership pledge, or a vote), you’re much less scared to ask an elected official to take a certain stand. There’s a real comraderie in door-knocking, too, that you don’t get with online strategies.
  • You can multitask on the doors. A good online campaign can get you members and contributions, and maybe petition signers, too. And a well-executed door-to-door effort can get you all that plus some media coverage (because knocking on doors, these days, for anything except a political campaign is really kind of news) and intelligence about your target community, and maybe some good volunteer connections, too.
  • Door-knocking can be part of a multifaceted online and in-person organizing campaign. Of course, these days, you don’t have to choose one or the other. You can collect email addresses when you’re talking with people on the doors, sign up canvassers on Facebook, and vice versa. My point is not to get you to abandon online efforts in favor of traditional neighborhood ones, but rather to rediscover the potential of the door-to-door campaign as part of your overall approach.

    There’s a reason why local and state elections are often won or lost on the doors, rather than with paid advertising or mailing: people build relationships and connect with issues in a different way face-to-face. That’s still true today.

    There are many sources of information about how to put together a good door-to-door campaign (including how to choose your target area, how to prepare your door script, how to train volunteers, how to protect your folks in the field, how to debrief your canvass, and how to follow up once you’re in the office).

    But I think that most of these campaigns fail not in any of these areas of detail, but in the most fundamental respect: we’re just not trying them anymore.

    Really, any social justice issue lends itself, potentially, to a door-to-door campaign, but those with a strong geographic component (think: school finance, environmental justice, zoning, unemployment, city services, law enforcement) are especially well-suited. Here, there’s really no substitute for constructing a strong connection among neighbors, and awakening a specific, localized population so that they can advocate on their own behalf.

    And, from my own experiences, 10 minutes on someone’s front stoop can do that. Really.

    So happy knocking.

  • Is “participation” overrated?

    Sometimes I write this blog because there’s something that I’m really excited about that I want to share, or because I’m soliciting others’ opinions and experiences, or because I’m delving more deeply into a certain topic and I need this forum to organize my thoughts and involve my community.

    And then, sometimes, I write about something that is kind of haunting me, about which I have a really sinking feeling, because I hope that writing about it will somehow make me feel better, and lead me to a place where I can do something productive with those concerns.

    This post falls into that last category.

    I teach a class on global poverty in the summer and, this spring, in getting ready for it, I read The White Man’s Burden, a really interesting and often provocative examination of western development aid to “the rest” of the world.

    As I get into that class this summer, I’m sure I’ll have some thoughts and questions to share about the best way for the U.S., in particular, to support development in other countries, about the connections between anti-poverty policy here and around the world, and about the rise of social entrepreneurialism and other “innovative” strategies that, really, shouldn’t seem so innovative at all.

    But, today, it’s a relatively obscure passage, from a sociologist and politician with whom I have a rather, um, complicated relationship: Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

    Here’s the quote, and then here’s why it’s haunting me:

    “The socially concerned intellectuals…seem repeatedly to assume that those who had power would let it be taken away a lot easier than could possibly be the case if what was involved was power” (from White Man’s Burden, p. 144).

    When I read that quote, I think of all the times that I’ve used the word “empowerment” rather loosely, about all of the references we make to “participation” (even when we know that it’s kind of token), and about all of the barriers that exist between people who have been deliberately stripped of their real influence and the reclaiming of that power over their own lives (not the least of which, of course, is the view that power is zero-sum, and the loathing those in power have for the idea of relinquishing it).

    I’ve always been skeptical at best of “consensus-based organizing”, always believed that power is won by those on the margins, not benevolently granted to them by others. That’s why I talk to my students so often about the importance of seeking and increasing their own power, because those who are powerless can never hope to empower others.

    But, still.

    I’ve been thinking a lot in the past week about this quote, and about how reluctant we are, even within our social service organizations, to really share power, not just allow people to give “input” or “participate” in some pretty meaningless way. I’ve been thinking about the damage we can do, truly, when we pretend that what people’s participation is getting them is real ownership, when it’s not, and about how those experiences can turn entire generations away from the exercise of real power and the struggles required to win it.

    So here’s what I’m hoping you’ll share in the comments, to perhaps put my soul a bit at ease:

  • What do “participatory” structures need to have to ensure that it’s real power that’s being shared? How can we tell participation in name only from the meaningful kind?
  • Where have you seen power change hands in marginalized communities, and what transpired to make that happen?
  • How should we talk about power, and empowerment, and participation, to ensure that our own language isn’t part of the problem, distorting the concept to the point of making it unrecognizable?
  • The Facebook Effect: Practicing Advocacy in Baby Steps

    There is a debate, of sorts, at the intersection of traditional activism and avant-garde technology, about whether advocacy on Facebook (and other social media, but it mostly seems to center on Facebook) is a poor substitute for “real-world” activism and a diversion from important work, or, conversely, whether such online activities represent the future of organizing and a replacement for more traditional campaigns.

    This week, as I think and write about my use of social media and my observations in that field, in response to my reading of The Facebook Effect, I’m wondering what if, in fact, it’s kind of neither?

    What if putting your politics in your status updates and inviting your friends to community events, which are both relatively passive actions that nonetheless require being “out” with one’s concerns and preferences for social change, is kind of like an interim step towards the kind of organizing that can build lasting movements, and the kind of advocacy that can take down whole regimes?

    Because, sure, there have been some pretty dramatic examples of Facebook campaigns that have resulted in significant “real-world” impact, like the anti-FARC work in Colombia but, on the whole, most people’s use of Facebook is a whole lot more mundane. And there may even be some evidence that having an online outlet for policy frustrations reduces one’s willingness to take those complaints directly to those in power, although I haven’t seen any conclusive research to that effect (and I have been looking). The concern is that people will feel that “they’ve already taken care of it,” and stop short of real change. On the other hand, Facebook is now one of the first places people air grievances, and some studies suggest that these actions foment offline activism, too.

    Even casual use of social media, though, makes obvious the ways in which political conversations seep into interactions, and the ways in which people practice defending their beliefs, and seeking out the likeminded, in an online forum.

    And I think of that as baby steps.

    Because organizing is always about asking people to make a leap, to step out of the private life that, while not necessarily comfortable, is at least known, into a public realm that promises conflict and tension and inevitable disappointment. And getting people to do that from scratch has always been hard.

    But if today’s potential advocates have already seen that the world doesn’t fall apart when people don’t agree with you, or even when few respond to your invitation, then maybe they’ll be less reluctant to step out. And, conversely, if activists have used social media to discover that they’re not totally alone in their passions, then maybe the alienation and apathy that are an organizer’s worst enemies can be chiseled away, at least a little.

    I don’t think the revolution will be on Facebook, although it’s also unlikely that it will be a complete bystander.

    And maybe, just maybe, the revolutionaries will have practiced some of their arguments, refined some of their skills, and connected with some on their comrades, on this platform.

    Our challenge, from this view, is to neither glorify or denigrate this online activism, but, instead, to recognize, translate, and leverage it in the social change arena. That requires getting past the outdated (and never that true in the first place) idea that social justice work necessarily equates with painful sacrifice, and creating movements with enough room for people to enter at multiple points.

    And, then, we can all take some big steps together.

    Teacher, mother, wife, activist…neighbor

    Aerial photo of our neighborhood, including the nearby public park

    Before I had kids, I didn’t do much neighboring. My husband knew the neighbors far better than I did, especially because I was seldom home from work before about 10PM. Even when I wasn’t at work, and even when I was outside working in the garden, I saw home as a refuge, a place to think through the strategies that might convince the Speaker of the House to bring a bill up for a vote I knew we could win, not a place to connect with others in a meaningful way.

    But that changed when I began to see my neighborhood as the proximate environment in which my kids will grow. It’s where they will learn what it means to be a citizen, and what obligations to others mean for our own lives. It’s where they build relationships with adults beyond our family and their teachers. It’s where they mediate conflicts, and watch us do the same.

    It’s home, but home as the center of shared lives, not home as an enclave against the outside.

    And, so, today, my role as “neighbor” is fairly prominent in my life.

    In the summer, I cut flowers from the garden for Sam to deliver to our closest neighbors. At Christmas, we sing carols with a few families around us (luckily, they’re more musically-talented than our clan!). The kids and I spend much more time in the front yard than in the back, mainly oriented around the large front porch that we added to the house last year. All year long, Sam shuttles back and forth with the kids two houses down, who spend at least an afternoon a week at our house. When their mom had another baby last summer, we brought her food for a week, and her husband and mine go out on a regular basis. The teenagers across the street not only babysit my kids, but also just play with them, and we go to their sporting events and consult on their homework. We have the phone number of our elderly neighbors’ daughter, who lives in California, on our refrigerator, and ours is the second emergency number on theirs. The young single mom across the street brings her son over for more exposure to other kids, and the divorced man next door lets my twins hang out on his front porch, which they, for some reason, prefer. When my husband comes home from work, after a rundown of the kids’ day, he usually asks, “what’s going on in the neighborhood?”

    And I know.

    But, still, despite the breadth and increasing depth of these relationships, and despite my background in community organizing and what I’ve witnessed as the power of “place-based” organizing for change, I’ve never thought much about my neighborhood, this community, as a force for social justice.

    In part, that’s a reflection of the relative affluence in which we live; there are few glaring injustices that must be righted here.

    But that doesn’t mean that we can’t use these relationships to leave a mark on policies, in our community and beyond it.

    We could speak out, as taxpayers and public school patrons, about the kind of state school finance formula that would serve not just our kids but all kids. We could work on issues of after-school time, a challenge for several families in our neighborhood, and one that they mostly struggle with alone. We could share the story of our walkable neighborhood as testimony to the need for public transportation and investments in infrastructure that would address the spatial isolation of other communities.

    And, in so doing, we could make being neighborly more about making a difference.

    One of the tools I’m exploring to help with this is a neighborhood-based social networking application, called Neighbors Forums. There aren’t any active forums in my area to date, but there are examples of those at work in other parts of the country, models that communities can follow, and tools to integrate neighborhood forums into the social networks people already use to connect. They emphasize in-person recruiting, relying on the electronic component as a complement, not a replacement, to the “old-fashioned” door-to-door organizing that still characterizes the most successful community efforts.

    And that makes sense for me, and for this place.

    While I’ve broached the subjects of values, and politics, and “issues” with my neighbors, enough to know what their concerns are and what moves them, I haven’t yet begun to really organize. I think that I’m headed there, as I move towards integrating the various aspects of my life into some sort of cohesive whole. I’m not sure if I’ll look to something like the Neighborhood Forums, or recruit my neighbors to join some larger venue, or both.

    As I work through some of these questions, alongside these former strangers who I now can’t imagine my life without, I’d love to hear from others who are organizing where they live. What has it meant for you as strivers for social justice, and as neighbors? How have these efforts shaped your personal and professional lives? And what lessons learned would you pass along?

    Youth, impatience, and social movements

    DREAM students sitting in at Senator McCain’s office. All are now facing deportation charges.

    I’ve never been arrested.

    Yes, I’ve been yelled at, cursed at, even kicked out of church once. I’ve gotten a few threatening letters, a couple of nasty phone calls.

    But I’ve never stood far enough afield of “respectable” comportment, even in opposition to laws that I find indefensibly unjust, to warrant arrest.

    Which makes me think…have I been doing something wrong?

    For the past year or so, there has been a tension simmering in the immigrant rights movement, one known to most other great, worthy causes that inspire social movements around them, between prudence and passion, strategy and sacrifice, “staying at the table” v. “heightening the contradictions”.

    And here, as so often throughout history, those tensions have played out along the lines of established, funded, well-respected organizations v. young people demanding social justice on their terms and on their timelines, willing to use their own lives as the fodder for the change they seek.

    I’ve straddled both sides of this divide, to an extent, advising the DREAM Act youth who are staging sit-ins (and being arrested for them) as well as working to support the call-in campaigns and legislative strategies of the immigrant rights organizations. I’ve made contributions for bail funds for DREAMers in jail, and, last fall, I talked with chiefs of staff about prospects for bringing a stand-alone bill to the floor.

    And what I see is that, while the mainstream organizations aren’t wrong (the young people are doing risky things for which they may pay a tremendous price, and there’s no guarantee that it will have any result (as we saw, in fact, when DREAM failed in the Senate, and many of those students are now likely to be deported), and it does make people in power really uncomfortable and, at least temporarily, less willing to negotiate), they’re a little bit missing the point, at least at first, when there was a lot of whispering about the wisdom of the insider approach as contrasted to the renegade actions.

    I mean, social movements aren’t just about winning legislation. They’re also about changing people’s lives, forcing a new public consciousness, and giving people the amazing opportunity to act on their deepest values.

    In the first place, the students point out (echoing what Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members had to remind the Southern Christian Leadership Conference adults in the 1960s), the closed-door negotiating sessions, with much reasonableness on both sides, aren’t exactly yielding the gains we know we deserve, so (as youth tend to argue), what have we got to lose?

    As adults on the sidelines, we get worried (because these kids may get deported, and some of them have families, and how will they finish school?), and kind of skittish (because now we have to answer, not just to the haters who opposed us from the beginning, but also to those sympathetic to our cause as long as it’s not too loud or too combative). So did the African-American parents whose six-year-olds went to jail in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

    Social change is often really scary, especially for those who have to forge it. We get nervous when people are honest about their anger, especially if they don’t direct it at the targets we choose or express in the way we’d like.

    But the truth is:

    in the search for justice, patience isn’t necessarily a virtue.

    In the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, sounding much like the SNCC students whose side he often took in battles between the youth and the elders, reminds that “time is neutral”, that waiting never produces inevitable progress, and that “the time is always ripe to do what is right”.

    Even if the Senate Majority Leader disagrees.

    Today, the courageous immigrant students whose tenacity and moral witness are almost single-handedly keeping immigrant rights on the national agenda are teaching us new and needed lessons about the power of direct action, the meaning of civil disobedience, and the promise of unity. And I think that those who make their living, as I used to, from advocating alongside and on behalf of immigrant communities, are being challenged and stretched in wonderfully exciting ways, and, in many cases, are rising to those challenges, albeit with some reservations, out of acknowledgement and admiration for the movement youth are creating.

    On February 1, 1960, four college students, steeped in nonviolence but not closely associated with any civil rights organization, decided, almost on a whim, to sit in at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s lunch counter.

    They didn’t issue a press release, or prepare talking points, or form a coalition.

    They just sat, and refused to move.

    And now that lunch counter sits in the Smithsonian and the student movement their silent action sparked helped to right centuries-old wrongs.

    And that’s part of what makes me a bit ashamed to have never seen the inside of a jail cell.

    Where do you stand on the “inside v. outside game” divide? What are you willing to sacrifice for the causes in which you believe? How has that changed as you’ve aged? How can adults support youth movements, without co-opting or patronizing or pressuring them? And why does figuring out how to build movements with a place for more radical action matter, to our quest for justice?

    The Allure of Stop Energy

    A math problem, of sorts:

    What’s the difference between this?

    More than 750,000

    and this?

    Courageous and committed, but relatively few


    There’s a central truth in organizing.

    I don’t completely understand it, but I’ve certainly witnessed it.

    And I know that we have to figure it out.

    It’s far easier to get people involved in a movement to stop something they see as bad, or threatening, or offensive, than it is to bring people together to support something positive, encouraging, or hopeful. Even if the latter is something that they care about a lot, and even if it would make their lives very much better.

    And so that’s the story those pictures tell.

    In 2006, almost without even trying, pro-immigrant organizers had thousands of people showing up for nearly-spontaneous protests against H.R. 4437, a particularly draconian anti-immigrant bill, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, that would have (among other things) criminalized assistance to undocumented immigrants (even by clergy! or social workers!).

    It was ugly. And hateful. And scary.

    And, so, literally MILLIONS of people turned out for those rallies.

    In Kansas City, we had three within 2 months, each larger than the one before. People I’d never seen before were volunteering to be event marshals, and people I hadn’t seen in years were showing up with carfuls of friends they had convinced to come. I helped respond to community pressure for action in Garden City, Dodge City, Emporia, Hays, Pittsburg, Lawrence, and Topeka, too.

    It was unprecedented, organic, and urgent.

    And, so, we then started to try, in about summer of 2006 (once it became apparent that H.R. 4437 was, in fact, dead in the U.S. Senate and no longer a real, legislative worry) to translate some of that community momentum into pro-comprehensive immigration reform action.

    We organized town halls on CIR. And maybe 100 people came. We organized rallies, thinking it was the type of action that had appealed to them. We maybe got 150.

    And it became apparent: it’s just a lot harder for us to build a cohesive movement around support for this elusive, often ill-defined and very far off possibility, rather than some here-today, very real threat.

    It hadn’t really occurred to me, though, that this was not a challenge unique to those of us in the immigrant rights world, but, instead, a more immutable law of community organizers and social change agents worldwide, until I read Clay Shirky’s essay in Rebooting America. He writes, the “usual stories of collective action have to do with short-term pressure brought upon existing institutions to try to stop them from doing something.” And I underlined “short-term” and “stop” them, and thought about 2006.

    Because immigrants, the same ones who missed work and risked retaliation to oppose H.R. 4437, care very much about immigration reform. It’s not a question of generalized apathy. I even believe that if a similar threat emerged here today, we’d see similar response. We’re seeing that some in Arizona and elsewhere with more urgent battles.

    The challenge, then, is this: how can we build movements with relationships and visions that will carry us through this more slogging work of articulating shared goals and building broad-based support for our message? How do we guard against the inevitable collapse of consensus? How do we charge forward when our best models, and most inspiring memories, are stop-energy focused?

    How do we change the math, so that we can change the world?

    Starting where people are: When Life Interrupts Activism

    Before I became a mom, virtually nothing came in the way of my work. For years, I rarely noticed when the clock changed to 5PM. If I was in the office, instead of in someone’s home recruiting new leaders or in a gymnasium somewhere facilitating a public meeting, or in a hotel in Washington, DC, I’d eventually notice, around 7PM or so, that it had gotten quiet, and take off my shoes and run the high-volume copies of flyers that I didn’t want to annoy my coworkers with during the day. I’d come home when I was too exhausted to think anymore, around 11PM, give my husband a big hug (and, yes, eat the dinner he’d made me), go to bed, and get up to do it again the next day.

    But this post isn’t about how unhealthy that may have been, or what it says about organizational capacity, but, instead, about what we can’t see, or even feel, when we’re approaching our work like that.

    Because, the truth is, I often forgot the social work maxim to “begin where the client is.”

    I was a lot more focused on getting them where I needed them to be: conscious of the need for collective action, committed to our strategy for social change, at the congressional forum with the 30 people they promised to turn out…

    I don’t apologize for holding fast to the belief that EVERYONE can raise his or her own voice against the injustices encroaching on their lives.

    I believed that then, and I saw tremendous leadership from single moms with 4 kids, people with first-grade educations, and men working 3 jobs and teaching catechism classes on the side.

    And I believe it now.

    But I must have some regrets about how unsympathetic I was, at times, to the realities of people’s lives, because I highlighted almost every paragraph in an essay by Joshua Levy in Rebooting America. He writes about trying to teach politically-conscious blogging in an English-as-a-Second-Language class, and of being frustrated and a bit perplexed when his students’ main priority was figuring out whether the technology he was teaching them could make it cheaper to stay in touch with their families around the world.

    Day after day, he would talk enthusiastically about civic engagement and about English as a tool for empowerment, and he’d hear in return anxieties about family members, economic concerns, and the pressures of life for low-income immigrants rather alone in a huge, foreign city.

    Most sobering, for him and for me, in retrospect, is that, eventually, maybe when they sensed that he wasn’t really listening, or maybe when they felt bad for being such an obvious disappointment to this fired-up volunteer teacher, they quit talking. And, so, they went through the motions of what he wanted them to do, in an empty way that meant little to him and even less to them.

    He describes it as reality getting in the way of the “web-induced political consciousness I was trying so hard to impress upon my students”, and he concludes his essay with his own reflection that the power of digital technology to reinvigorate democracy will be incomplete and unfulfilled, to him, until his students can participate in a meaningful way. Filling in what he doesn’t say, from my own experience, this means not just creating mechanisms that facilitate participation in user-friendly ways for people with unpredictable lives, but also the creation of a social environment that lifts some of those same pressures, so that so many people aren’t having to swim so fast upstream.

    And, so, for this I do apologize: I not only failed to start where my clients were, but I sometimes didn’t even remember to really find out.

    It’s an apology to all of the mothers who couldn’t come because their children needed to be home in bed, to all of the people who really couldn’t get off work, to all of the teenagers who needed to study, and all of the fathers who were just too tired, to everyone without transportation, to those who were too sick or anxious or frightened…to everyone who is a human being just as worthy of dignity and respect as anyone else, even if they really didn’t care about our campaign nearly as much as I thought they should…

    I get it.

    For the individual, life can get in the way of movements for social change. That’s why they’re movements, and that’s why it takes the many.

    But there will be a place for you when you’re ready.

    Because it won’t be a real revolution until you have a chance to be in it.

    With you, not “of” you: Free agents and your nonprofit

    While we may not often refer to them this way, most of us who have worked in community organizing have had encounters with the people that The Networked Nonprofit refers to as “free agents”. They’re the folks out talking about your work, lifting up your causes, and even bringing in dollars, just because they have a passion for what you do.

    The authors of The Networked Nonprofit make a convincing case that new social media tools make it easier for free agents to operate (they have access to more information about nonprofits and their work, and they have improved ways to communicate and share that information with an ever-wider set of potential converts, through expanding social networks), and also provide traditional nonprofits and the folks who staff them with new ways to find, reach out to, and even “organize” free agents, too.

    Kanter and Fine understand how to approach free agents, without scaring them off, but social workers, administrators, and even community organizers used to working within set structures, and with established roles of engagement, are often less comfortable with the ambiguous and fluid ways in which free agents can add value to our work (starting with, of course, the fact that they’re seldom preoccupied with adding value to our work, but rather passionate about an issue that happens to overlap with our efforts).

    If you’re asking yourself why you can’t get people to “take more initiative”, or if you yourself feel stunted by the confines of organizing committees or certain protocols, thinking about free agents and how you might pull them into your orbit, without expecting to put them under your wing, may open up new, untapped fonts of energy and, in the process, help you rethink how you approach the “agency” of each and every individual alongside whom you labor for social change.

    I’ve done some additional reading and talking and contemplating about these ideas, and here are my takes on the list of dos and don’ts, so to speak, from the book (pp. 19-21). I want to hear from free agents hard at work on causes of all kinds: how do you find organizations worthy of your efforts, and do you attempt to reach out or coordinate your work in any way? If so, what kinds of responses have you found? And, organizers, how does viewing your leaders through a lens of “free agency” change how you approach your leadership development? What have you found that works, and doesn’t, in collaborating with these independent operators?

  • Get to know free agents: in many ways, this comes back to the whole question of listening; if we’re only putting our advocacy message out, without listening to what others are saying in the same issue space, we’ll never find people who could be potent allies. Going beyond the online world, though, we need to look for free agents in our physical organizing, too–the person who has shown up at your last three protests without saying much (because, also, it could be someone doing opposition research, so we need to get to know him/her!), the volunteer who’s faithful behind the scenes, the soccer league coach who has access to thousands (from my own work–he turned into a turnout machine!). If we’re so focused on what we’re producing, or on who didn’t come to an event, we’ll miss those who are obviously motivated by some internal fire to contribute (relates to “Don’t ignore the newcomer”, another piece of advice from the authors.)
  • Break out of silos: Again, this has offline applications as well; we need to do our listening, and our outreach, not just among the usual allies, but in unlikely places, too. I made a point of skimming the letters to the editor in a very conservative religious publication in Kansas, to have a sense of how issues of immigration were resonating in this particular faith circle. That’s how I found an evangelical pastor fervently committed to justice for immigrants, who, while he never became a core part of our organizing work (and never developed really strong relationships with the other, mostly Catholic, mostly liberal clergy), delivered the votes of several conservative members of the legislature, out of his own (supported and shaped by our work) advocacy.
  • Give free agents a place to learn about issues and sort out their feelings about them: We too often expect advocates to arrive “converted” and ready to recite our talking points, instead of remembering that people feel most strongly those values and positions to which they come on their own terms. We need public events on our issues that are really for the public, and blogs and discussion boards where people can ask questions and forge their own beliefs, even when that makes us uncomfortable, or even when they don’t “come around” as quickly as we’d like.
  • Keep the welcome sign lit and Let them go: These related mantras remind us that free agents really are free, and must be, to come and go as their passions wax and wane, and as life intervenes. But, really, this is how we should regard all of our leaders; if people are only engaged out of some sense of obligation to us, not a commitment to community or cause, it’s hollow leadership at best. We need to structure organizations, and campaigns, so that there are roles that people can play in various capacities, and not take it personally when others have different parameters for their involvement.
  • Don’t be afraid to follow: I like this final piece of wisdom the very best. Unfortunately, I’ve seen more than a few organizers feel really threatened by the outstanding leaders in their midst, and, when good ideas get ignored because they came from outside instead of in, or when leadership gets squashed because other leaders are intimidated, it’s our causes and the people most affected by them who lose the most. We’ve all got too much to do, right? So why, again, are we worried about being the ones to direct every action or develop every strategy?

    Finding free agents, and working with them, even if they won’t work for us, should, after all, make us all more…free.

  • A whole new world? Organizing for the 21st Century

    I’m hopeful that the folks at the Building Movement Project aren’t freaked out by my rather obvious obsession with their work.

    I’m friendly, I promise.

    I just really appreciate how they are trying to stimulate thinking, among social service practitioners as well as those more naturally oriented to organizing and social change work, about such questions as: how is community organizing changing in the 21st century, and how should it?

    I wrote about their Alliance for Change report before, so I’m not going to restate any of it here, but I’ve been doing more thinking, and reading more examples, of efforts to combine organizing/social change and direct services, and that has led to some questions in my mind, that I hope might spark some discussion in this venue about how organizing and service work might look later in this century.

    Let me say again, lest there be any doubt, that I think that models along the lines of what these organizations are building are absolutely integral to the success of both “traditional” service providers (because who can stand, for long, to solve the same problems over and over?) as well as community organizers (who find fundraising and membership-recruitment increasingly difficult in today’s climate).

    My questions, then, are about how we make this work, not whether it’s worth it.

    First, what do social work ethics say about the practice, among some of these entities, to require membership in order to receive services? I’m not automatically opposed to it, but I do think we must confront the specter of coercion, especially as we hope to challenge it elsewhere.

    Second, how do we create programs to address real needs in our members’ lives (and, thus, demonstrate relevancy and build legitimacy with them) without taking necessary pressure off public entities, reinforcing, in a sense, the moves towards retrenchment and privatization?

    Third, how do we promote ownership and indigenous development of programs and services without sacrificing quality? This, certainly, isn’t a dilemma unique to this blended organizing/services model, but it’s still a real one. While non-professionals can provide professional-quality services (and professionals do not always!), assuming that those who can organize can also design and administer services is a potentially dangerous leap.

    Fourth, while the organizations profiled cite the use of multiple strategies as part of what sustains their members, by offering interim victories (like electoral turnout, or program development), how do we fend off potential distraction, especially away from the longer-term goals of societal transformation? Many things that nonprofit organizations can do are “shinier” than slowly changing the world.

    And, finally, how do organizations become sophisticated enough to be seen as legitimate players, yet remain transparent and accountable and accessible to members? Typically, strong grassroots organizations have relied on the size of their memberships for their power, but these new hybrids have other routes to that elusive ‘seat at the table’. Can they be both things?

    The questions above are in addition to those identified by the Building Movement Project and its partner organizations, around the challenges of accepting public money, avoiding turning members into clients, and building deep membership while also building alliances across divides.

    Towards these ends, they’re conducting additional survey work, connecting organizations in site visits and coalitions, and seeking to advance data about this nascent field.

    But I want to hear from those of you seeking to bridge the false and counterproductive divide between organizing and social services: how have you tackled any of these challenges, and which ones have you experienced that I have not even foreseen? Where do you see organizing headed in this century, and what excites and worries you about those directions? What tactics hold the most promise in this climate of new political opportunities and unheard of threats? And where are the greatest risks of failure?