Thirty-Five Years of Building Citizen Power

The 2008 presidential contest vaulted community organizing into the national limelight, as the McCain campaign sought to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s background in the field. Spurred by their newfound visibility, organizers anticipate an upturn in activity as thousands of Obama activists seek ways to continue their social change activity.

It’s not surprising that we at the Midwest Academy, celebrating 35 years of training organizers, are frequently asked what major changes have occurred over that period. One might as well ask whether there is anything that hasn’t changed since the early days of our work.

It was 1973 when the Academy, founded by Heather Booth, started its organizing classes in Chicago. Richard Nixon was president, and the Vietnam War dominated the political debate. The people who attended our first sessions came mainly from the new, small, struggling organizations that developed from the turbulent movements of the Sixties, as well as organizations such as 9to5, the association of women office workers, and the National Organization for Women (NOW) that heralded the emerging women’s movement.

In fact, there is one thing that has stayed the same over the years, and there have been three major shifts that are worth noting.

What has not altered over the past three decades is the Midwest Academy’s emphasis on Direct Action Organizing, which means that in addition to building powerful organizations, we focus on winning and institutionalizing specific changes that will improve the lives of the people involved. The word “win” implies that there are at least two sides and that when one side wins, another loses. Consequently, the core of the Academy program has always been on teaching the development of strategy, a word that derives from the Greek strategos, meaning a general in the army.

Academy students learn to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents as well as those of their own organizations. The organizations can then develop tactics to concentrate their strength on the weakest points of those who have the power to give the group what it wants. For example, in one exercise, students analyze a fictitious congressional district in which the incumbent Republican wins repeatedly with percentages in the high sixties. Their goal is to develop a strategy to get the congressman to vote yes on national health-care legislation.

The seat appears completely safe and its holder unmovable. It is only if students go further to look at party enrollment figures and past presidential election returns from the district that they will realize that the congressman wins by drawing Democratic and independent crossover voters. This leads to tactics through which an equally fictitious organization in the district can locate large numbers of people who both want health care and voted for the congressman.

Among the major changes we have seen, the most gratifying to us is just how mainstream our approach to organizing has become. If the organizations we trained in our first 10 years had one thing in common, it was that they had little to lose by taking a direct action approach as distinct from, say, the safer course of doing research or providing a service such as job training. As more and more organizations reached the limits of what could be done through conventional methods, they combined their programs with direct action organizing. The Academy has now provided training to such groups as the Sierra Club, AARP, The American Cancer Society, the National Education Association, the NAACP Voter Fund, Planned Parenthood, the American Medical Student and the United States Student Associations, USAction, the Service Employees International Union, Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union, to mention just a few.

The second change we have seen is the end, with no apparent winner, of the longstanding debate among organizers over what constitutes the best kind of organizing. Should organizations form coalitions or organize individual membership groups? Should they be national or local, top down or bottom up, church-based or labor union-related, composed of poor people or the middle class, cultivate deep personal relationships or have millions of members on an email list, always engage in electoral politics or never touch politics? These are only a few of the divisions that have grown out of different organizing philosophies but are no longer debated as the experiences on which they were based recede into the past.

At one time or another, all of these approaches have succeeded and all have failed. No one philosophy has proved to be more durable, more powerful, or more conducive to growth. Believing that all have their place, the Midwest Academy has never advocated any single kind of organizing. Instead, we have said that all organizing groups have the same need to think strategically, and that the more we can provide a common method and language for developing strategy, the more easily different types of groups will be able to cooperate.

The third major change is the development and expansion of online organizing — a new medium for political action with the kind of revolutionary impact wrought in previous eras by the telegraph, radio, and television. Starting with the pioneering work of MoveOn.org and taken to even greater heights by the Obama campaign, online tools now exist that enable local groups and individuals to self-organize with little or no presence of paid staff, and yet to be part of a nationally coordinated issue or election campaign. Masses of people were able to turn their living rooms into phone banks; canvassing trips to key areas were organized as were a multitude of house meetings. People raised money, conducted visibility events, sent text messages, and downloaded campaign materials at a rate that previously would have required a huge organizing staff. Indeed, the activities of many long-established traditional organizations were simply dwarfed by this electronic campaign, and one has to ask if the role of traditional organizations will be totally changed by Internet mobilization.

The answer is not yet — not until the creation of interactive Web sites that can help people collectively develop strategy for local campaigns. Then, we can hope to see a new phase of democracy in which people quickly come together to respond to a local situation and just as quickly disperse to coalesce again around a different problem. Organizations of the future will put less resources into mobilizing, which will have become easier, and more resources into finding and advocating real solutions to global warming, affordable housing, job creation and training, and the crisis of capitalism — all of which will become harder as these problems deepen.

The country is now primed for moving in a new direction. We progressive organizers are no longer just laying the groundwork; the time has come to put forth our boldest programs and farthest-reaching conceptions. At the Midwest Academy, we are proud to take our place alongside all of you in this great effort.

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