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Back to Basics: The Fundamentals of Community Organizing

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In a new pamphlet, veteran organizer George Goehl lays out the core practices organizers shouldn’t leave behind, even as we seek to evolve the craft of organizing.

In 2023, Jenn Carrillo and I began running a Working-Class Campaigns training. It grew out of conversations with new and mid-level community organizers to get their take on what they needed. We heard many things, but the headline was that they were organizing in progressively more challenging conditions, but had not been trained in the fundamentals of organizing.

Sitting in a coffee shop in Wisconsin, I asked a few organizers about their experience bringing people together who might agree with progressives on some issues, but sharply differ on others. They looked at me as if I’d asked if they’d been to the moon recently. One organizer earnestly replied, “Is that even a thing?”

When we asked organizers, even lead organizers and organizing directors, about their process for cutting issues—taking a big problem and breaking it down, finding a clear solution, making it a demand and identifying the decision makers you need to move to win—people said they’d never been taught to do this.

In our training, we described a model of organizing that started by listening for the most widely and deeply felt issues in the community and organizing around those.  Trainees asked, “How is that possible?” They shared that they had come on board to work on issues connected to specific grants with existing deliverables. There was no space to ask people what they wanted to work on. The issues and demands had already been determined. But, you could also see in their faces a sense of wonder. They knew they would be more effective and bring in more people if they could do this style of organizing.

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When we showed trainees all of the leadership development opportunities available in just one community meeting, like securing the meeting space, making reminder calls, or running the evaluation, most confessed they were doing these things themselves. They did not know these were tasks they could and should ask members to do and then prepare them to do well.

While finding our craft in this condition is frustrating, it’s not shocking. These organizers came of age during an era of constant crises, one in which these fundamentals have not been standard practice. It is certainly not their fault they do not know these things.

Holding onto fundamentals as we evolve the craft

We are in a period of constant disruption. It is hard to name a single aspect of society that has not been touched in some way or another. That includes the craft of organizing. Much of that disruption was deliberate. Some, myself included, sought to evolve a craft that was often built to win the best thing possible within the existing landscape, to one that could remake that landscape altogether. We sought to win the battle of ideas, build electoral might, and rewrite the rules of power altogether.

Others sought to build power through the movements of the era, and adapted their organizing toward an absorption model, seeking to absorb people energized by the moment.

Still others saw “narrative change” as an essential precursor to electoral and policy change and placed their emphasis here, whether through organizing in the streets or popular culture.

I could name others, and each is worthy of a larger discussion. At many levels each of these interventions and adaptations made sense.

It would have been a mistake to continue to slug it out within the existing landscape. We had decades of evidence of the limits of so-called “stop sign” organizing–building campaigns around lowest-common-denominator, easily winnable demands.

On the question of absorption, it would have been an odd choice for the field of organizing to sit out some of the most significant movements in a generation.

Finally, the newly built power to advance big ideas and shape worldview through organizing and popular culture (at least within a portion of the country) would have seemed dreamy a decade ago. It is good there is more focus here.

There is much to be celebrated about the ways in which the craft of organizing has evolved. And yet, as happens in periods of great disruption, good stuff gets lost.

In the case of community organizing, many of the very elements that made our craft so powerful and life-giving in the first place have been displaced. What were once bright markers along the trail now resemble breadcrumbs scattered here and there. In the push to evolve, we became heavy on theory and light on craft. Fortunately,  there’s a budding movement to revive the craft before the breadcrumbs turn to dust.

When I was coming up in Southern Indiana, organizing pamphlets were lifelines to the craft. With that in mind, Jenn Carrillo and I created a small book that spells out three dozen fundamentals of the craft that have been essential for me, Jenn, and many others.

Below are five of the fundamentals from the book. If you are interested, visit our website to get your copy of The Fundamentals of Community Organizing today.

From The Fundamentals of Community Organizing:

Organizing Is More than Activism

You have not chosen the quickest path to power. I hope you know that. You could build power for yourself more quickly if you won an elected office or became a social media star. Instead, you have decided to do something different: to build the power of many people, with many people. It is simply a different thing.

Activism is in vogue these days and we’re better for it. But let’s not mistake activism for organizing. An activist is active in the fight, maybe even leads in it. An organizer develops the power of others within that fight. Often one by one, sometimes many at a time. You do many things in this work, but if you are not developing other people, you are not organizing.

If you are developing others, when you are done, there will be victories people can point to, yes, but also souls changed in ways everlasting. That’s what most separates organizing from activism.

All Organizing Is Reorganizing

Power is organized in a specific way—whether in a neighborhood or school; a city or state; a sector of the econ­omy. The way power is currently organized is most often not good for a specific group of people. That group could be people with low incomes, people of color, women, rural people, disabled people, or working-class people who have all kinds of other identities.

Say we are preparing to build a new organization in a city. Chances are that real-estate developers run the show. They plan to divest in some areas and gentrify others and are working in tandem with elected officials to have their way. We will find that districts are drawn to protect the status quo, and working-class people have been divided along racial lines. This arrangement is not random. It has been organized for the benefit of the few, at the expense of the many.

Organizers are here to disorganize this configuration of power and reorganize it into something more just. To do this, we grow the power of people who have been on the receiving end of evil acts and reduce the power of those perpetrating them. All organizing is reorganizing.

Make the Complicated Simple

If the people we’re organizing have to Google what we’re saying, we are in deep shit.

The people who abuse power deliberately make things hard to understand as a way to remain in power. If things are too complex, we start to believe that they are the experts. The organizer’s job is to call their bluff and flip that belief on its head: To make the complicated simple and remind people that we are the experts on our realities.

There’s been a tendency lately to do the opposite—to instead make the simple, complicated. To lead with words—both technical and ideological—that leave lots of people scratching their head, wondering if they came to the right meeting.

This doesn’t mean the ideas or vision inside the big words are wrong, but how they are introduced matters. We are here to make people feel powerful, not stupid. Keep it simple, build with people, and then when the time is right, fold in the more complicated language and frameworks—and then only if it makes the work stronger.

The Organization Exists for the Members

The organization exists for the members. Assuming it has paid staff, it should treat them well, in line with the values we seek to move into the world. But the organization does not exist for the staff, even if we are of the class of people we organize.

We are here to advance the power and interests of the members. The agenda is set by the members, the governing body is elected by the members, the language of the organi­zation should resonate with the members. Our best organiz­ing happens when the members are our compass.

We are blessed to be in partnership with and in service to people who need and want to organize. People have signed up—as volunteers—to invest and risk their time, talent, and money in the organization.

If the organization begins to exist for the staff at the expense of the members, we are no longer organizing.

Agitation as an Act of Love

Don’t overthink agitation. It is simply the act of creating tension that inspires people to act and act differently.

We humans can become comfortable in our discomfort. Unable to see a path toward change, we settle and adapt, often at great cost. Organizers are here to create a new dis­comfort. We have come to call the question about the sys­tems and stories that rule our lives. This is among the most liberating acts we, as organizers, perform.

We all have limiting beliefs about ourselves. “I am not a person who rocks the boat.” “I am not a leader.” “I am not someone who speaks to crowds.”

These limiting beliefs extend to what we believe our community is capable of. For instance: “People here don’t want to come together.” “Our community will always be this way.” “We will never have power.”

That people believe these things is no accident; it’s by design. These myths maintain the status quo, serving only those who abuse power. Our job is to expose all of it—the gap between how things are and how they should be; where each of us is now and where we could be.

Done right, agitation is an act of love, in service of new possibilities. Done wrong, agitation is clumsy and aggres­sive. Be sure you know the difference.

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