A Word of Caution: The Forgotten Photograph

The trouble with many of us, and with our culture as a whole, is that we don’t take time to “relate,” to connect formally but meaningfully with others … We forget or deny that the appetite to relate is fundamental, and that the willingness to relate is nearly universal. People who have ideas and drive are on every street, in every project, every workplace and school, waiting in the wings, ready to be discovered. Someone has to reach them and recognize them. Someone has to ask them to step out, not to be consumers of props or spectators but to be players in the unfolding drama of public life. And that someone is what we call a leader or organizer. — Michael Gecan

As discussed in the previous chapter, direct action is the visible muscle of organizing, the brawn of protests, pickets, and chanting that most people associate with social movements. But just as with bodybuilding or running a marathon, this brawn doesn’t come about organically — it must be developed through dedication and long hours of effort.

On a day-to-day level, these long hours get to the core of community organizing. Peeling off the romantic layers of the left, forgetting for the moment terms like struggle and solidarity and justice, one is left with a very important and often overlooked aspect of organizing and the making of social movements: relationship-building. Of all the tasks that an organizer engages in, by far the most hours of each day are spent building relationships with new people and deepening relationships with those one already knows. The adrenaline-inducing excitement of direct action, in fact, probably makes up less than 0.5 percent of any organizer’s time.

Above my desk I have a photocopied picture from an anthology of the civil rights movement. It is a photo taken during the early 1960s in Georgia. In the photo, two African-American organizers from a civil rights group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), are hanging out on the porch talking to a family about the need to register to vote.

I had this certain book for years before ever paying any special attention to the photo. It is entirely unremarkable; one can feel the heat from the Southern sun, the relief of the thick shade offered by the porch, the deliciousness of a glass of cold water. It is dwarfed by the more dramatic images of sit-in students being beaten and drenched with ketchup, or King leading marchers across the Selma Bridge. There is no denying the sheer photogenic quality of the era, and progressive forces used the media with admirable skill to sway public opinion to their side. If there were a hall of fame for revolutionary images, the walls would be lined with photographs from the civil rights movement.

But the overlooked photo represents an important omission. The civil rights movement sought to alter revolutionarily the status of poor African-Americans in the South — who were one of the most institutionally powerless groups in America. What SNCC and other civil rights organizations needed to do was communicate a message of hope to these Southerners, to work to establish relationships with them and convince them that the time to agitate for change had come. Even when the organizers were from the South and familiar with the locals, they had to work to overcome the years of distrust and fear that had built up in African-Americans who had suffered from white abuse. It was a task that only community organizing, with its emphasis on grassroots education, training, and involvement, could have accomplished.

Behind revolutionary jargon lies the very ordinary and labor-intensive task of talking to people, gaining their confidence, and recruiting them to become active members of an organization. It is easy to become so enamored with activist rhetoric that one forgets how things actually end up getting better: a lot of grunt work, usually unrecognized, undertaken by unknown folks. For those with romantic illusions of nonstop action and spectacular victory upon victory, this chapter paints a more cautionary yet at the same time hopeful picture.

Relationship-Building and the Creation of Hope

Think for a moment about the phenomenon of team sports. A successful coach motivates players to perform at their best, and as the players become closer to each other, they construct a team culture that enables them to succeed. The players usually have a simple goal — to score more points than the other team. As the team puts in hours of practice, they learn more skills and find themselves achieving some level of mastery. As they win, their belief that they are going to continue to win grows; the team becomes confident. Organizing follows essentially the same format. Bring people together, develop relationships and trust, build some skills, win small victories, win bigger victories, and change some institutions in the process. Sounds good.

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