The New Generation of Organizers

The progressive movement is seeing a resurgence of younger organizers thanks, in part, to the "Obama effect" of the 2008 campaign, and a renewed attempt to articulate values and build authentic relationships.

A Team Approach

Structured leadership teams encourage stability, motivation, and accountability, using volunteer time, skills, and effort to effectively advance the team’s goals. Teams create structure in which energized volunteers can actually accomplish real work and communicate a practical vision of leadership that can often result in shared purpose, clear norms, and well-defined roles.

Carlos Saavedra, a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant organizer and the son of a professional Peruvian soccer player, grew up in Lima before his parents moved him to Boston, Massachusetts. At age 16, Saavedra got involved in a campaign to grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants through the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA). In 2004, although the bill passed both chambers of the state legislature, Gov. Mitt Romney vetoed it. Saavedra recalls that the campaign leadership left after the loss, invoking a sports theme inherited from his father: “There is a big difference between playing a game and playing on a team…And we needed to structure a team so we could play to win.”

Saavedra now works in Washington, D.C. as the national coordinator of the National Dream Act campaign, organizing teams of young adult immigration reform organizers. Saavedra structures teams as the fundamental organizational unit on which the campaign structure is built. Each team, in turn, accepts responsibility for achieving the shared purpose of mobilizing volunteers within specific turf. Ultimately, Saavedra’s goal is to see an army of young adults developing their leadership skills and working together locally, regionally and nationally to solve the problems that their communities face by generating collective power.

Form a Strategy

Challenging the status quo requires making up for a lack of resources by creatively using available resources. Power depends on the participation of the powerless; and strategy is most dynamic when the group responsible brings diverse experiences, background, and resources together. As organizers work toward clear outcomes, they learn from successes and failures to adapt tactics.

Erin Sweeney, 26, is a strategizer who grew up in a working class community in rural New Jersey. She entered the Foreign Service to pay for her college tuition and while working for the United States government, she had to be strategic in how she organized local leaders in Lagos, Nigeria, the location of her first assignment, where resources were lacking. Each day after work, Sweeney built relationships, developed team structure, and strategized with Nigerian consulate staff; and together they organized a three-week effort to renovate a dormitory for troubled girls and orphans in September 2009. Awarded the Secretary of State Award for Volunteerism, Sweeney and her team made up for a lack of resources in Lagos by creatively using available resources within her new community.

Take Action

Organizers take measurable action, allowing for evaluation, accountability, and real-time adaptation based on experience.

There is a big difference between making something actually happen, and hoping, wishing or dreaming that it will happen. Engaging teams in collective action poses particular challenges that require greater craft than organizing as a “lone ranger.” Moving significant numbers of people into coordinated action requires doing detailed thinking, anticipating contingencies, providing accountability and support, conducting training — all “craft” activities that need to be viewed as central to the action itself, or there is likely to be no action. To bring “craft” to organizing work, it is important to focus on measurable outcomes, numbers of specific commitments, deadlines and responsibilities.

Action-based measurements appeal to Nicholas Hayes, a 23-year-old organizer for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts Hope in Action campaign. Working as an intern in the Diocese’s Relational Evangelism Pilot, Hayes is organizing a team of college students at MIT’s Episcopal Chaplaincy to mobilize MIT community members to give one percent of their annual time or income to poverty-alleviation.

Hayes sees himself as an organizer who is “calling individuals to form a community that heeds our individual and communal responsibility to address social injustice (which nominally, Christians — and progressives, for that matter — are supposed to care about) by taking action.” Hayes is “part of a church that is learning to take literally Jesus’ injunction to love him by ‘feeding the hungry and clothing the naked,’ not out of a spirit of condescending ‘service’ but of brother- and sisterhood.”


  1. These organizers have taken advantage of the internet and really used their skills to get their message across! This is really amazing to me and hopefully I can be as good as they are.

    Thanks Kerrie Evans

  2. I think this article is spot-on. Obama has certainly raised awareness among youth to become active in civil aspects such as this. Its about time a new generation of those who want to “get involved” emerge – and it appears that is just what is happening. challenge coins


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