Campaigns and Planning

How to Expand on These 4 Community Organizing Fundamentals

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

Photo: Ella Baker Center via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Ella Baker Center via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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


5 Empowerment Principles to Instill in Your Organization

I remember a few years ago while talking to a friend and and I said “I’ve never really being an organizer before.” My friend immediately responded “I don’t believe that.”

My friend immediately stopped me and made me think of all the experiences I had organizing people in my past. I realized that throughout my life I have been organizing people, from getting together a group of friends (i.e. coordinating) to asking people questions about what we should do that afternoon (i.e. facilitating).

The actions I had always considered to be just a part of my day, were really the experiences that gave me the skills to organize for change. I always had trouble feeling confident about myself and my role in groups.

Even when I began to work on issue campaigns (e.g. climate change legislation and opposing dominant narratives) and facilitate meetings, I never looked at myself as a “leader” or someone who was organizing others. However, once reminded that I was, and am, an organizer, it was much easier to gain confidence in myself.

Instead of thinking of “empowerment” as something we need to instill in someone, this frame looks to “release” or recognize (as my friend made me realize about my organizing history) the power already inside all of us.


Reframing “Empowerment”


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

While both myself and others I have worked with have aimed to make sure we only provide opportunities for an individual to accentuate their own skills, I know we have fallen for the trap of thinking “I know how I can empower them.”

We need to provide these self-growth chances, but we also have to remember our role is to always show our commitment to the individual and our belief in their current abilities and their potential. We cannot foster paternalistic attitudes that lead us to “know” the best process to help someone grow.

What I’ve learned, after support from many incredible folks who have helped me develop my own confidence and understanding, is that those of us aiming to “release” the power of another individual need to think of ourselves as mutual participants in the process and not as the leaders of the process.

Our path toward “unleashing our potential” involves many elements in our lives such as our community, the world around us, and ourselves. This demonstrates we need numerous entities to foster our self-power, not only those doing “empowerment work.”


5 Principles of True “Empowerment”/Releasing Individual Power


This frame of empowerment, has a whole new slew of opportunities and challenges we must make sure to consider. Below are some ways that other changemakers have sought to work through the complexities of empowerment.

1. Work with individuals and/or communities to develop their capacity

The Community Workers’ Co-operative writes “It is about working with people to enable them to become critical, creative, liberated and active participant in taking more control of the direction of their lives.” This means folks should be developing their own self-managed programs/organizations, instead of being led by the outside.

2. Aid people in increasing their own self-confidence

“Confidence is affected by such conditions as isolation, integration within a social group, level of functioning or degree of independence” notes Jayne Leone. Thus, we have to end stereotypes that continue the perpetuation of discrimination and self-marginalization.

3. Provide opportunities for people to identify their own power

Maintain leadership development programs, trainings, reduce hierarchies and have numerous leadership positions, etc. The Climate Justice League taught me these techniques, which they state as “Give people the space to succeed and grow.”

4. Institute just power relations

Again, the Community Workers’ Co-operative has great thoughts and writes we should be “addressing the unequal distribution of power.” We have to dismantle all forms of injustice that stand in the way of illuminating true empowerment.

5. Implement flexible systems and programs

Recognize that some of the dominant ways of organizing often exclude many groups of people. So we need to be conscientiously designing our organizations to eliminate this exclusion. This means we cannot be tied to one way of doing things especially if it continues institutionalized “isms.”

While I was lucky to have someone who was astute enough to tell me that I’ve always been an organizer in some fashion (after which I really started to take on more challenging projects), not everyone will have the same catalyst for “unleashing” their empowered selves.

Empowerment takes time, thought, and dedication from many different areas of our lives. Often it’s just the realization “I can empower myself” that sparks this change.

What ideas do you have for those involved in empowerment? Leave your thoughts below!