Organizing as a Culture

Organizing is a culture. It’s not a tactic, a speech by a charismatic leader, or a department. “It’s a culture, and it’s what we do and don’t every single day,” said Michael Gecan, co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation. Gecan addressed the crowd this morning on the third day of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition’s annual conference.

But like any culture, he said, “it has habits and patterns and it only works if it practices constantly and is refined and modified as we go along.”

Gecan, who also authored Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action, outlined four key relational tools in building power that include the individual meeting, power analysis, teaching and training, and action. Though by far, he said, the most important component is the individual meeting, and something that can be easily forgotten day to day.

The individual meeting is the heart and soul of effective organizing and without it, we don’t see how an organization can get any depth. Listening to people, hearing what they care about, what motivates them, and how they see the world is essential.

The relational meeting is the most radical things we do — all real change starts with listening to people in our communities.

This is not necessarily a new take by Gecan. In his 2002 book, Going Public, he emphasized that very point:

“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.”

But the difference these days is that the power analysis has changed, and the various forces are in flux. “There are movements in the country that weren’t there three or four years ago [and] there are constant “new days” by people who operate in the real world and operate within reality. Knowing where you are, and what you’re about are [essential] for people of all ages,” he said, pointing to what has been an effective organizing campaign on the right.

We’ve seen people in the conservative part of the country organize very effectively, and bring people and money together in a short peoriod of time. The answer to that is organizing just as effectively to make sure there’s power that backs up our interests.

Gecan also emphasized the advantage of having a few powerful allies over many fragmented, weaker allies, as well characteristics of being an effective organizer:

A good organizer has to have some anger: some sense of loss. This isn’t a nice, civic activity — this is a struggle. They have to appreciate what’s going on. They have to have humor, irreverence, objectivity, and be willing to take risks – not reckless, but take risks. You also have to respect people and understand that the answer is not in your head, but with the people you’re meeting.

Matthew Brian Hersh served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics.


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