Community organizing as a tool for enhancing democracy and strengthening civil society is more relevant than ever. One could argue that “Change” and “Hope,” two tenets of President Barack Obama’s campaign, stem from community organizing concepts. The power to change and the capacity to hope are developed in communities that recognize the need for individuals to articulate their needs and assert their own power.
In October 2009, RCLA’s Social Change Leadership Network hosted a day-long learning session on Community Organizing Basics. Joan Minieri, MSW, facilitated the training, along with SCLN director Amparo Hofmann-Pinilla. Joan is a long-time community organizer and co-author of Tools for Radical Democracy (with co-author Paul Gestos, Jossey-Bass 2007). [Click here to download the Introduction to Tools.]
Thirty people participated in the event, representing 23 organizations addressing a diverse range of issues: HIV/AIDS education and awareness, immigrants’ rights, community development, youth action and education, ex-felon re-entry, gender equity, and civil rights.
The workshop focused on defining community organizing, locating it among other approaches to solve community problems (such as service and advocacy), understanding the importance of power, and learning from real-time examples of how organizations can use organizing tools to create change in their communities. The group heard from Sarah Thomason, organizing coordinator for Community Voices Heard, and Priscilla Gonzalez, community organizer for Domestic Workers United, who discussed their campaign victories and the community organizing models they use to amass power.
For many participants, hearing from organizers engaged in the work was particularly helpful. One commented, “Power is hard to get a grip on. The campaigns are compelling in their detail and illustrate the concepts vividly. It comes alive for me there.”
Another participant noted, “The presentation of campaigns was powerful because it wasn’t a theory of it; it was actual organizers sharing current experiences.”
[Click here to access a video with social change leaders highlighting other tools they gained from the learning session.]
According to Minieri’s book, Tools for Radical Democracy, community organizing entails the participation of people in building active community institutions, whether at the neighborhood, city, state, national level or beyond. Organizers seek out people who are isolated and help them realize that they are part of a larger group experiencing the same problem. A central theme of community organizing is that people from all walks of life can organize on their own behalf and participate in the decisions that affect them. Additional elements of community organizing include:
• Shared problems/shared solutions. Community people name, define and understand their shared problems and pursue shared solutions to these problems.
• Leadership of constituents or ‘constituent-led.’ In community organizing groups, those who experience the problems most directly make the decisions about the group’s work and the group’s recognized public leaders.
• Relationships. People take the time to know and understand one another’s stories, needs and dreams, and to build personal relationships. People are accountable to one another for their activities on behalf of the group.
• Strategy. Community organizing operates from a deep understanding of social and political power, and each activity is grounded in a constituent-led plan to impact these forces of power. Collaboration and alliances are key to enhance the power of the group and to achieve successful outcomes.
• Action. Leaders and members of organizing groups both learn skills and demonstrate their collective power by engaging in strategic, public action such as meeting with public officials, conducting creative community surveys and holding large-scale events and demonstrations.
• Movement. Community organizing connects communities across the movement for social justice through shared campaigns and actions, political education and similar activities.
• Power. Communities organize not only to solve a specific problem, but in order to build their power. Power is the ability to act and to make things happen.
[Click here to access a video of social change leaders highlighting key elements of community organizing.]
The highlight of the workshop for many participants was the discussion on the last essential element of community organizing: Power. Conducting a power analysis is fundamental to community organizing.
The forces of organized power that manifest in our country are organized money, organized violence and organized people. Grassroots organizations working for social justice will invariably lack organized money and will not resort to organized violence. But these groups do have an essential asset that is their main strength: organized people who can build and share power by engaging in collective activity based on nonviolent tactics or peaceful direct action rather than guns. In community organizing, power exists in the form of a base of members who make decisions together and run their own organizations and campaigns.
[Click here for a video of social change organizers highlighting other key lessons from the learning session.]
As Wendy Pollack observed in a March 2007 Wall Street Journal blog, “Mr. Obama says that one of the lessons he drew from his organizing days is that in politics, what really moves things isn’t public interest or grand principles, but ‘money and votes and power.’”
A participant in the Social Change Leadership Network learning session echoed this sentiment, saying that the lesson from the workshop was, “Knowing little things count and being courageous to wait for change to be felt.”