Recently I was preparing a training for a fantastic group of folks at a growing civic association about the core components of community organizing.
I thought it would be fun to highlight a community organizer/organization that really represented each of the 4 main elements I covered, along with expanding on ways the group could really practice these important principles.
I was so energized by creating the training I thought I would share it with all of you! Let me know your thoughts on how you would expand on these fundamentals in the comment section below!
1st Fundamental: Leadership Development
Leadership development is about increasing an individual or group’s skills to demonstrate their own abilities.
One of most influential, but little known. initiators of leadership development efforts was Ella Baker. Ella Baker was a hero of the civil rights movement by helping grow the capacity of numerous new leaders (e.g. through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).
Potential processes/techniques for you to continue, expand, or adopt
Recognize leadership in multiple forms – not everyone is a great speaker, but they can still be a great leader! How can you encourage all organization members to grow?
Prepare for leadership rejuvenation – how can you start preparing people to be leaders before an opening arises (e.g. start encouraging someone to think about joining the leadership team before there is an opening)?
Expect and push for the best from people – even if someone doesn’t think they can “be a leader” or achieve something, we must never forget to show our dedication and belief in an individual’s ability to be who they wish to be. How can you identify in advance how someone wishes to be “stretched” in their abilities?
Develop leaders instead of identifying leaders – In Rinku Sen’s incredible organizing book Stir It Up, she describes that instead of just picking out folks who’ve had the opportunity to express some level of leadership, we need to invest significant resources to build confidence in people who wouldn’t have considered themselves “leaders”
Build collective leadership (i.e. many leaders with less hierarchy) – Ella Baker said “Strong people don’t need strong leaders,” which highlights this idea that we should rely on a committed team, not just a few individuals. How can you build a strong team where everyone contributes equally?
2nd Fundamental: Base Building
After a major campaign victory feelings of elation, hard-fought joy, relief, and a sense of accomplishment fill the room.
Especially if you’ve been working for months or years on a campaign, it’s the time to celebrate and recognize those on your team for their constant dedication.
You may know that this “victory” is just a small step forward and there is still a lot of work to be done.
But does the rest of your team and the media have the same idea that “the campaign must continue?”
It can be easy for the media, and even some folks on the team, to accept the work as “mission accomplished.”
Even if they know there is still “work left to be done,” people may feel like they finished the major work and it’s only a matter of time before the rest “falls into place.”
This period of slight shifting down the campaign’s momentum, whether intentional or not, can have a few negative consequences ranging from losing committed volunteers to the opposition implementing stall tactics.
For this reason, we must be prepared to push the rest of the campaign and convince the broader public of the urgency of continued action.
By fostering a strong desire to propel the campaign forward, even after “winning” the big victory, we can make sure the end results are long-lasting.
Post-victory: campaign pitfalls and how to neutralizes victories
What should we be aware of in the wake of a victory? What would you try to do if a campaign on the side of institutional oppression won?
Below are a few examples of could be done to minimize a project’s progress, whether you are the one trying to push forward or if you’re trying to hinder regressive developments.
1. Stall tactics.
One of the most common ways groups on all sections of the political spectrum use to reduce the impact of a campaign.
This can range from environmental groups using stall tactics (e.g. tree sitting and human barricades) in order to bring attention to an issue, have time to issue a lawsuit, or change a piece of legislation to groups keeping proposals “in committee” or have a big media event saying “steps will be taken/the issue is being looked into.”
2. “Pouncing” on slowed momentum
Many organizers know that the real work often begins after the celebratory victory; however, sometimes other priorities or reduced enthusiasm can keep us from propelling the struggle.
This “slowed momentum” can be either real within the organization or perceived by the broader public, but what matters is if you’re ready for both.
If a group’s prepared, then they could take advantage of this dip in a campaign’s efforts to go on a quick offensive and really slow or even reverse momentum.
3. Bypassing the victorious campaign
Even if a campaign achieves it’s intended outcome, that still leaves room for the opposition to just find another way around it (though it may be significantly more costly for them).
In this case I have no doubt that no matter what those fossil fuel corporations try to do, those dedicated activists will continue the struggle! But this shows how carefully we need to consider alternative options the opposition may take to “bypass” our victories.
4. Co-opting success
The tactic of “co-opting success” occurs when an individual or an organization “accepted defeat,” but in actuality transform a victory away from the original intent of the activists to fit their own ends.
Elizabeth Martinez gives a clear, but disappointing example, in her book De Colores about the triumphant 1993 student protests for a Chicano Studies Department at UCLA.
Martinez writes “By spring 1998, the UCLA Chicano Studies struggle had come to seem like a classic case of those who win a victory being shoved aside by the administrators of that victory, who then betray its purpose…At every step, students were being neutralized and their promised advisory role blocked.”
This shows the administration used the students’ success to further their own goals instead of respecting the intentions of the broad-based student mobilizations.
5. Continuing the struggle!
Not giving up and escalating your efforts is one of the most important ways to diminish a negative/oppressive “victory.”
This is also what we must do even when we win (e.g. activists pushing for marriage equality AND other equal rights issues such as employment immediately after the recent Supreme Court decision).
After going through this list of what happens when campaigns appear to “slow,” it shows we must prepare our campaigns to “keep pushing” to ensure our accomplishments last long after our organizing!
Your activism can look very different after the “victory,” but the important element to keep in mind is to find ways to both show your internal organizers and the external public/media that you’re going to continue this work for the long-term.
So let’s still make sure to celebrate huge accomplishments and recognize the hard work we put. But let’s also create a culture where folks understand the “big victories” are just part of the process and we’ve got to “keep pushing!”
What are your thoughts on what else we should be aware of when pushing forward our campaigns?
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