The ABCs of Organizing

I left a perfectly good job in a curtain factory in Holyoke, Mass., in 1971 to work in a neighborhood organization on the south side of Providence, Rhode Island. I received no formal training or specialized education on the subject. In fact, I was released into the world as a trainee organizer after an intense two-hour orientation in a coffee shop.

I learned from my mistakes, which were embarrassing and many. I apprenticed for a year before becoming the director of my own group, the Neighborhood Organization of Italian-Americans, in Providence’s highly ethnic Italian immigrant Federal Hill neighborhood. Three years later, I became the first director of the New England Training Center for Community Organizers, planting and supporting new groups in an eight-state region. I spent the next 25 years doing one community-organizing job or another from Washington, D.C., to Toledo, Ohio.

I learned community organizing from Stan Holt, the executive director (and fundraiser, chief strategist, administrator, and trainer) of People Acting through Community Effort. He learned the craft from the legendary Tom Gaudette, founder of the Chicago-based Mid-America Institute for Community Development. Gaudette worked directly with Saul Alinsky. Stan Holt taught us largely on-the-job. He advised his trainees to read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, then learn from the real world for six months to a year. His attitude toward learning about organizing from books was a cautionary one.

Over the years I have written a lot of training manuals and a few guidebooks on organizing, but there hasn’t been an extensive supply of books on the subject. That trend may now be changing, based on the recent publication of three excellent books by three organizer/authors. These books are being used in training sessions, college classes, and organizing workshops across the country.

The first, Building Powerful Community Organizations, is an earnest book that tries for completeness – think Joy of Cooking. Author Michael Brown shares mistakes and lessons from his own experience: “This is what I did, how I felt, what I did next.” It’s an important message, Brown says, because the story of organizing isn’t widely known. “We don’t see ourselves on TV,” he writes. (It’ll be interesting to see if this invisibility changes as Barack Obama – who regularly cites his time as a community organizer in Chicago as fundamentally formative of his values, worldview, skills, and approach to governance – gains a wider hearing.) (See “Obama’s Third Way,” SF, Spring 2007.)

The storyline builds on the process of building a strong organization, not just winning issues, or getting people involved. Building Powerful Community Organizations demystifies many of the hidden arts of organizing – the one-on-one, the debrief, the meeting prep, the action plan. Brown addresses race and class issues head-on and relates the tensions, opportunities, and problems they present in real-world organization-building. In the section called “Where Do We Go From Here,” he invites readers to share their stories by holding house meetings, by posting them online, or by submitting stories for the next edition of the book.

There are a couple of quibbles. Occasionally you’re left hanging with vague directions for a complex task or simple instruction – much like a cookbook that tells you to “Add enough flour” or “Cook until done.” This is a big book with a big vision; so don’t expect it to do all the work for you. Building a powerful organization is like opening a restaurant, and no guidebook can take you all the way through.

The second edition of Lee Staples’ Roots to Power is more like a how-to manual. It is interesting to see how much has not changed since the release of the first edition in 1984. Staples, who has a distinguished record of raising hell effectively, teaches at the Boston University School of Social Work. He is an active adviser to groups such as ACORN, the Committee for Boston Public Housing, and the Chelsea Collaborative. He also has done work with NGO’s in Croatia and Bosnia. He draws lessons from the experiences, causes, and campaigns of interest groups and community-based organizations to show us the hows and whys of organizing – how it has been done and why it was done in specific ways. His examples grow out of a rich and varied experience.

Roots to Power takes up such topics as the philosophy of organizing and the role of the organizer, and offers ways to choose issues, plan strategies, and motivate people to fight the fight. There are a series of essays by other organizers and trainers that address the important elements of organizing: coalition work, fundraising, media outreach, and meeting management. (The appendix includes sample materials such as meeting agendas and fliers typically used by ACORN.)

By grounding this book in real events, Staples shows how organizing efforts can take on important issues and powerful targets to win tangible benefits for communities. “There are no shortcuts, no easy routes to power,” he writes. He illustrates this by dissecting ACORN’s campaigns. One example is the Household Finance fight that began in 2001. ACORN found that all over the country, their members were being tricked and pressured into home-loan schemes they could not afford and were losing their homes. In the end, Household and other lenders changed their practices, and ACORN recovered millions of dollars paid to predatory lenders by naive or cash-poor homeowners. The research, issue development, and campaigning that went into that effort provide a vivid picture of how to organize.

Although heavy on fundamentals, there’s a lot here for experienced practitioners. The essay on negotiation takes a complex look at one of the toughest parts of a campaign. Mark Splain, who wrote the essay, lists a “dozen dialectics” that he identifies as important skills for good negotiating-for example, when to “reveal vs. conceal your bottom line,” making “extreme vs. moderate demands,” and using “soft vs. hard styles.”

Roots to Power sheds light on what organizing is all about at every level. It captures the personal transformation of leaders and stresses that organizing is about building institutions and organizations, not just about winning issues. This book takes the organizer seriously, but only a small nod is given to other types of organizing. It’s a respectful nod, but those who do faith-based community organizing and institution-based organizing won’t find much of their work here.

For those more oriented to the political process, Politics the Wellstone Way is a more advanced digest for students of organizing. The ghost of the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota inhabits this book. Wellstone Action, a nonprofit organization that continues the senator’s progressive work, published it and uses it as the textbook for Camp Wellstone, a weekend-long political-training program for citizen activists, campaign workers, and people interested in running for office. This book explains not only how to “do” politics differently – the Wellstone Way – but also why it should be. The authors tell us, “The foundation of that model was his core belief in the power of collective action and the capacity of regular citizens, acting together, to achieve a common goal.”

According to my daughter Schuyler, who works on political campaigns, “It could be a very useful tool for anyone doing campaign politics. It’s not just showing people the basics of how to deal with certain situations, [or] how to run a good campaign, but [it gives] motivation from a really great person – Paul Wellstone.” His method is marked by hand-to-hand, door-to-door campaigning, with a lot of connection between the candidate and the people. The campaign is seen as a process of leadership development, of political education, and of skill-building – not just using people to win.

The section on public policy presents the core message that organized people are indispensable to the process of changing policy and holding on to those changes. “Making good public policy requires a combination of organizing, lobbying, and external communication.” Wellstone knew the importance of helping people understand that they, the organized people, were important. He’s quoted in this book as saying, “If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.”

There weren’t many tales of disaster in Politics the Wellstone Way. The idealized stories are inspiring and encouraging, but it would be helpful to hear more about what can go wrong and how to deal with it. We all learn best from our own experience, but it’s useful to hear about other people’s experiences – good and bad.

Books are valuable tools for learning any subject, but it is important to remember that the dish never looks as good as it does in the cookbook picture. So don’t worry if your organizing work doesn’t match the examples found in these books. All three of these books recognize this core message: Get going. Politics the Wellstone Way says, “The work ahead is indeed enormous, so get started!” In Building Powerful Organizations, Michael Brown says, “This is a workbook, not an instruction manual. Expect to work your way through this book.” And Lee Staples says it best in Roots to Power: “But a book can only point the way. It can’t take action. It can’t fight for economic and social justice…. Organize! Struggle! Become powerful!”

And keep on raising hell.

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