In 1831, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to investigate American democracy. He worried that citizenship would turn into a series of arid exchanges between isolated individuals and a powerful state as political equality eroded social relationships rooted in family, church, and guild.
Instead, de Tocqueville found a vibrant society, sustained by civic associations that drew people from individualism into shared interests. The fact that these associations were voluntary meant that they could be a source of renewal of civic values. A combination of equal voices could, to some extent, balance domination by those with greater resources. Making democracy work required the creation of collective capacity.
This is what organizers do.
Organizers exercise leadership by taking responsibility to enable others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty. Unlike political “marketers” who sell causes, candidates, or commodities by appealing to the preferences of their customers; unlike philanthropic “providers” who dispense services to needy clients; and unlike social “entrepreneurs” who devise technical solutions to challenging public problems; organizers identify, recruit and develop leaders. They build community around that leadership and create power from the resources of that community.
Today the progressive movement is seeing a new resurgence of young adult organizers. Certainly, there is the Obama effect. His presidential campaign trained 3,000 full-time organizers, most of them in their 20s; it organized thousands of local leadership teams (1,100 in Ohio alone); and it engaged some 1.5 million people in coordinated volunteer activity.
Obama also managed to glamorize the art of community organizing in his memoir, Dreams of My Father. He wrote about meeting with people in their homes and churches, listening to their stories, the failures and the victories. Obama said: “it was the best education he ever had.” Young people see the experience Obama got from community organizing — his concern, the way he relates to everyday people — and they want those same skills.
But what skills are involved in community organizing, and how are young adult organizers putting them into practice?