Organizational Development

Lessons We Can Learn From ACORN

I often think about how to resist the powerful tide of money and media that props up the status quo.

I wonder how we can solve local or state issues, when our national politics continue to be deadlocked and politicians remain beholden to elite interest groups and the funding they provide.

I seek how we can address institutions of injustice that prevent people from experiencing their own potential.

Then I consider the void left by one organization, and realize that we may already have a model for disrupting our current systems and propelling us quicker along the arc of justice.

That organization is the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now (ACORN).

ACORN, one of the most successful anti-poverty organizations in the U.S.’s history, tirelessly fought for justice (e.g. affordable housing, workers’ rights, living wages, livable neighborhoods, etc.).

Unfortunately, those opposed to the political empowerment of low-income communities also noticed the rise of ACORN’s influence.

The Republican Party and conservative news media framed ACORN using deceptive journalism, and were helped by mainstream news who repeated rather than fact-checked the allegations.

There is a reason Republicans attacked ACORN so frantically and Democrats, more worried about their own elections than the people ACORN represented, allowed it to fall.

Now ACORN wasn’t perfect by any means, but ACORN did offer a model to amplify the voices of low-income communities, and also worked to elevate their interests to a level where they couldn’t be ignored.


Lessons We Can Learn From ACORN


ACORN did things well and also made mistakes. We should learn the lessons of what ACORN did well or should have done differently, to create a new set of resilient organizations that can strongly work for justice.

We need to learn to:

1. Build New Leadership


There is a big difference between recruiting existing leaders vs. training people to develop their own leadership skills.

Just think in your own organizing, how often are the same faces at every meeting? The people most impacted by injustice should be leading the charge.

Particularly in low-/moderate-income and/or non-organized communities, we need to create programs, host workshops, and work 1-on-1 to expand leadership capacity.

2. Tie National Organizations to Local Organizations – And Vice Versa


If ACORN was solely a local organization, it would have had a tough time standing up to bank that offered predatory loans. However, since it had such a robust network across the county it allowed ACORN to stand up to powerful interests of all sizes.

ACORN’s local groups had some degree of flexibility to focus on the issues impacting their own communities, which could then scale up to become national issues.

There are times when having a unified focus is essential to moving forward progressive issues, and then there a times the multi-issue approach works best.

3. Register voters


We need to conduct a disciplined and comprehensive voter registration drive to get more people to the polls.

Politicians need to be accountable to ALL their constituents, not just those with the loudest voice. By making sure most people register and vote, politicians will need to reach out to and listen to their base.

Even though ACORN had a well-trained voter registration drive, the media focused on isolated incidents and held them up as systemic issues.

Thus, it becomes doubly important to have discipline and accountability so as to be resilient to attacks from those afraid of registering low-income and disenfranchised voters.

4. Develop intersectional cross-issue plans


To solve issues of low wages, high incarceration rates, environmental degradation, attacks on basic rights, etc. we must look at them holistically.

People are impacted by a whole host of issues and most people have multiple identities (e.g. based on economics, race, gender, sexuality, ability, age, etc.). This is called intersectionality.

We ought to look beyond single-issue politics and engage in cross-issue plans that can propel significant victories against multifaceted problems (e.g. the Prison Industrial Complex, poverty, and poor educational outcomes).

 5. Provide political education


We need a truly grassroots organization that frequently engages people in political education.

Rinku Sen writes in Stir It Up these means we need to organize our members to “read, share information, understand history, bring people to speak to our groups, and talk with people in other places.”

A mass-based organization could engage people in actions for justice regardless of whether the truth is covered in schools, politics, or the media.

6. Grow media and research capacity


If an organization relies on the dominant media to relay their message, then they are constantly fighting an uphill battle.

Rinku Sen notes in Stir It Up (and implements it in practice with the essential role in media in all of our organizing efforts, and that we have to BOTH foster alternative ways to get our message out and better learn how to work with mainstream media.

This means building relationships with news outlets, focusing our messages on a specific audience, and developing our own media.

7. Coordinate multiple, long-term cross-issue campaigns


We need to be action-oriented in order to engage and educate people. We also need to work for the long-term (i.e. think beyond election cycles) to achieve larger-scale changes.

To be able to run multiple campaigns at the same time requires a lot of base building, but allows our organizations to gain a much higher capacity level.

To summarize all these points, I again turn to the wise words of Rinku Sen who writes we need to be “increasing our organizing among the people affected and then addressing their issues with sustained campaigns and the addition of research and media capacity.”

Organizational Development

How to Use Humor to Support Your Cohesive Team

There’s no getting around it…social change work can often be seriously draining. No matter what field you are in, there will always be those times when things get stressful.

I know that whenever I feel stressed, I’m not able to show my usual self and that makes things even more difficult.

So when I think about the work environments where I feel the most effective, they are usually the ones where the organization seeks to support all members throughout the year, and not only in stressful times.

One of the best ways to have a year-round encouraging organizational culture is one where people can express themselves and contribute their background to the organizational culture.

Whether this takes the form of creative design or finding ways to work beyond just the computer, the most important element is that group’s plan to bring out the best in their members.

In upcoming posts here at Organizing Change I’ll be looking at a few ways organizations can support member self-expression, but today I want to look at the role of humor and how it can help promote a more effective and collaborative team.

I used to have a strict division between work and the rest of my life when it came to using humor. I thought avoiding saying anything humorous would mean I was more focused and would help me accomplish my work better. Or I would think that it was “unprofessional.”

Then I realized I could use humor to actually support myself and my team.

I cannot remember the exact moment I started using humor more frequently, but I think it was around the time I gained more confidence in myself as an organizer. Once I felt more sure of myself at my work, then I slowly gained the ability to share my “outside-of-work” personality.

In my own small way I helped bring both a little humor to those around me and also encouragement for others to share a bit more of themselves. What made this work, was that I used a little bit of levity to elevate the level of energy in room, but without being a distraction.

Before I talk about how you can bring both high spirits and an increased focus to your group, let’s look at when humor can be detrimental.


When humor can have negative impacts


While my main aim with this post is to show when humor can be helpful to a group, there are also plenty of cases where it can be incredibly damaging. Below are a few ways and what you can do to counter the negative actions and language.

Humor can add to organizational stress. If the jocularity is ill-timed, forced, confusing, or communicated poorly then people can become frustrated or just be annoyed. Especially if things are already stressful, then you need to be considerate and use humor appropriately.

Humor can be oppressive. The Gender Blender Blog notes how humor often serves as a tool to normalize and perpetuate oppression. They continue by stating “Humor is used as a way to shame and silence people so that they fail to question or challenge the underlying meanings embedded in the oh-so-innocent joke.” In these cases we must be proactive in addressing the “jokes” and highlighting their impacts.

Humor can distract from the group’s main work. One of the most common reasons folks try to avoid humor is that they think it will distract from the task at hand, and in many cases it does. Excessive witticism should be tempered to a considerate level.

Humor can reduce creativity, if used to diminish an idea or forced. Humor can reinforce “the tendency to reject novelty and innovation” writes Wout Gijsbers. Or if forced, can be irrelevant and, subsequently, reduce others’ appreciation for your creative ideas. So we just need to ensure that frivolity is always genuine and supports those around us.


Why you should appropriately incorporate humor into your team


Photo: Sin Amigos via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Sin Amigos via Flickr (Creative Commons)

So now that we’ve covered some ways in which humor induce a negative environment, let’s see how to make it a wholly positive attribute of an organization.

Use genuine, consistent humor to decrease organizational stress. Getting people to smile can be a great way to help folks relax and thus be even more productive in their work. This in particular is an important way to limit the amount of stress before it even arises.

Stimulate learning by increasing laughter. A study published in the Monitor on Psychology found that classrooms that had the intention to make students’ laugh were helpful in “reducing anxiety, boosting participation and increasing students’ motivation to focus on the material.” These results directly apply to working with our teams.

Foster sharing and emotional expression through humor to build team cohesion. Wout Gijsbers notes that humor often serves as an “emotional glue” that unites team member during both good times and tough times. This occurs through “shared laughter” and “team spirit” that increase the sense of camaraderie.

Use humor as a tool for releasing creativity. It makes that if you’re less stressed then you’re better able to think of many different opportunities. That’s why humor has some of the most well-known cognitive benefits.

Every organization has a different culture, so you’ll need to carefully think about how it applies to your team. Just address negative humor and allow positive humor to express itself in the way that works best for your team

If you’re interested in looking at some other ways organizations can help support the self-expression of their members (e.g. spirituality, creativity), click here to sign up for updates on Organizing Change’s posts!

Organizational Development

Spiritual Practice and Social Change Organizing: Why You Should Connect Them

Photo: Wickerfurniture via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Wickerfurniture via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Spirituality, religion, faith, sacredness, and many more.

These words can quickly conjure up a strong response (both positive and negative) from those who hear them.

For myself, I know I thought issues of devotion should be kept strictly separate from the groups I was a part of and the work we did.

Honestly, I was probably scared of these discussions so I just avoided them or stopped listening when they came up.

It seemed fine for other folks to have their own beliefs, but to actually have some form of spiritual practice integrated into the group? That was a completely foreign concept.

So why am I bringing these words of the soul up in the context of organizing?

Over this past year I began to notice a few activists here and there, in person and through their written works, stating the need for organizers to incorporate some level of spiritual practice into their work.

I want to highlight some of these activists and show why spirituality (or whatever you choose to call the understanding of meaning in personal and collective existence) has a strong role to play in supporting our changemaking work.

Through the words of these changemakers, I’ll illustrate how these practices could help mainstream organizing better learn to aid its members, build a more resilient movement, and be in line with the world we aim to create.


Why we should be incorporating spirituality into organizing


“Faith and spirituality can provide us with a new foundation for our work, by shifting our perspective of what is possible” ~ Adjoa Florência Jones de Almeida in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded

While some communities and groups have consistently approached their organizing with a look toward their cultural/spiritual beliefs, the dominant organizing movement has been much more reticent to adopting this manner of operating.

Adjoa Florência Jones de Almeida notes that one reason for this is “Among activist circles on the Left, there is often a silent, sometimes condescending disapproval of talk about faith. In part, this is due to the association of religion with fundamentalism…”

However, there are clear oppressive issues entrenched in some outputs of religion/spirituality, that doesn’t mean we should discount all of spiritual practice (just as we don’t disengage from other systems, we work to make them exemplify justice).

We need to move beyond this false assumption that religion must equal fundamentalism.

Elizabeth Martínez, in De Colores Means All Of Us, gives the stark assessment that this aversion to incorporating spirituality in leftist circles “has opened the door wide to right-wing manipulation of spiritual hunger.”

She continues by writing “[this open door] undermines the possibility of mobilizing masses of Latinos/as for whom faith has been an affirmation of heart in a heartless world.” This analysis also applies to any other person with a “spiritual hunger.”

Instead, we should proactively find ways to incorporate spirituality as a propelling force in our activism, as opposed to pushing away the sacred to reactionary entities.

As the quote at the beginning of this section promotes “spirituality can provide us with a new foundation for our work.” For those of us without as much experience combining the spiritual and changemaking, the opportunity now is to figure out how to do so.


5 ways to incorporate spirituality into your activist work


So if you are a little curious about the idea of incorporating spiritual practice into your changemaking work, the following ideas give a few concrete practices to consider.


1. Support holistic self-fulfillment and spiritual expression

“We must first practice mindfulness and grow compassion in ourselves, so that peace and harmony are in us, before we can work effectively for social change” writes Thich Nhat Hahn in Creating True Peace.

How often do we see or feel “activist burnout?” Thich Nhat Hahn’s point shows us that there is a another way to facilitate our organizations.

We must build in organizational structures to aid people in meeting their own needs, both spiritual and otherwise.


2. Find common ground with religious institutions

Faith leaders from many religious backgrounds show how spirituality can play a vital role in bringing about all forms of justice, from environmental to economic.

These religious representatives show that some from institutionalized religions have a clear recognition of systemic oppression and are working to undermine it.


3. Continue to challenge oppression as you adopt spiritual practices

Divinity is not immune to institutionalized “isms.”

As the previous point shows, many from established religions seek to dismantle oppression, so we have many supporters as we respectfully and conscientiously address unjust attitudes and actions.


4. Learn about the history of spiritual activism

As I mentioned earlier, spirituality has frequently been embedded in activism. We must understand how to authentically reconnect the issues of the spirit and the issues of injustice.

This also means we have develop our skills in applying spiritual practice to our changemaking work.


5. Have discussions about spirituality/religion

Like so many other barriers to liberation, we must break the “silence.” In this case around talking about spirituality/religion within our organizing groups.

With preparation, intentionality, and practice you’ll be on your way to invigorating conversations about faith and life.

Now it will take a lot more than just a few discussions to truly integrate spirituality into our organizing efforts.

We must continue to seek out new ways to reduce the disconnect between activism and our personal lives.

It’s essential to support our spiritual and personal lives if we want to continue this organizing work for the long-term.

So hopefully the next time you hear someone have a negative reaction to the word “spirituality/religion,” you’ll have a few ideas to show them a different way of making change.

As many topics here at Organizing Change, incorporating spiritual practice into our organizing is a tough subject.

What thoughts do you have about how we can better adopt spirituality into our organizing work? Leave a comment below!