Organizing Rules to Live By

image with green background. Photo of Frederick Douglass with quote "Power concedes nothing without a demand" in white letters. Photo of Fred Ross Sr. and Dolores Huerta, with quote: "The mark of a good organizer is the attention she pays to the smallest detail" in white letters. Words read: Organizing Rules to Live By in grey letters.

Originally published in January 2022

Recently, I was part of a facilitation and coaching team for a multi-month training program for new organizers in the education space. As a training team, together we have over 150 years of organizing experience. What I learned from that team . . . Wow. Can’t be found in any book.

Over six months of the training, I heard us share many traditional and not so traditional organizing truisms.

I call them “Organizing Rules to Live By.”

With appreciation and thanks to the Community Organizer Training Program facilitation team, here are the top 10, with attribution where appropriate.

  1. Iron rule: Never do for someone what they can do for themself. (Industrial Areas Foundation)
  2. “The mark of a good organizer is the attention she pays to the smallest details.” (Fred Ross, Sr.)*
  3. People are experts in their own lives.
  4. We can’t be afraid to talk about power.
  5. Solutions should be led by those closest to the problem.
  6. “Organizing is transformational.” (Cathy Sarri, my first organizing supervisor)
  7. People do things when we ask them.
  8. Never thank people for doing something that benefits them.
  9. “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” (Frederick Douglass)
  10. Organizing is bringing people together to build power.

You will also see these rules on social media (@organizingtowin).

Post your own organizing rules to live by in the comments!

*Yes. Fred Ross said “she.”

Health, Justice and Victories

Organizing to Win logo with confetti and streamers. Marching women figures are making a champagne toast and holding banners. Text reads Happy New Year 2022.

Originally published in December 2021

Remember all those memes from the end of 2020? When we thought “Whew. 2020 is done. Come on 2021!” And we thought it would be all over, like a bad dream.

As it turns out, 2021 was a little rocky.

Good news: Joe Biden won! Bad news: So did almost every other Republican challenger.

Good news: kids went back to school! Bad news: Delta and Omicron.

Good news: guilty verdicts for Derek Chauvin and Kim Potter. Bad news: police still killed Black people at a rate that is twice their representation in the population.

Good news: 204 million people in the US are vaccinated against Covid-19. Bad news: Don’t visit Idaho, Wyoming, Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama.

Good news: unemployment is down to 4.2% Bad news: inflation

Good news: workers at Kellogg, John Deere and Nabisco and members of IATSE won strikes! Bad news: employers still act like employers.

Both good news and bad news can inspire us to greater action. In 2022, I look forward to working with education, climate change and democracy protection leaders and activists to build power for justice.

We have the opportunity to build relationships and power in communities that are historically excluded. We have the opportunity to protect ourselves against oligarchy and build our democracy. We have the opportunity to organize to win.

Thank you for your endless support in 2021. I am grateful for the conversations, introductions to new people, generosity with your insights and good will. I hope to return those favors next year and every year after.

May your 2022 be filled with health, justice and victories.

What Are We Willing to Question?

Rally main stage with a purple banner that reads "We Won't Go Back!"
Main stage at 1992 reproductive rights march Photo credit @kvelte

Originally published in November 2021

Earlier this year, I started to think about what I had done in past in campaigns and projects that perpetuated, rather than disrupted, white supremacy, even if I didn’t know it at the time. Most of us do it because we’re conditioned to think that certain practices are normal or “the way things are,” when they are really legacies of white supremacy.

An example? Sure.

In the early ‘90’s, I organized college speaking events for the officers of a national feminist organization, as part of the organizing plan for a reproductive rights March in Washington DC. In Pennsylvania, the president did a week-long organizing tour. I don’t remember all the schools where I arranged a speech, but the list looked something like this: Bryn Mawr, Bucknell, Carnegie Mellon, Franklin and Marshall Colleges, Gettysburg College, Haverford and Swarthmore.

Notice anything? Yep. They’re all private. And then we wondered why the campus delegations to the March were so overwhelmingly white and middle-class.

While I was proud that students represented about a third of the 750,000 people who came to the March, I’m not proud of my role in perpetuating such exclusion. The urgency of building a crowd can’t replace our anti-racist values of inclusion and equity.

Then I started to wonder where else I’d contributed to traditions of oppression and where I disrupted them.

That interest was the genesis for a workshop that I developed with Cat Shieh called “Disrupting Traditions of Oppression in Organizations.” If I was trying to re-examine my usual practices, maybe others are too. Cat had created innovative curriculum for ethnic studies classes and piloted anti-racism, anti-bias curriculum for students, making her the perfect partner for this work.

In the session, we lead a discussion of the characteristics of white supremacy in organizations. Then, we offer several (real-life) scenarios for an exercise we like to call “What’s wrong with this picture?” Participants identify the places where white supremacy rears its ugly head and brainstorm equitable solutions.

The workshop was very well-received at last year’s Organizing 2.0 conference and we look forward to facilitating it again for the Nonprofit Technology Conference in March 2022. (Read more and register here.)

To talk more about disrupting white supremacy in your organization, get in touch!

Sustainable Futures

Organizing to Win has joined with a new venture called Sustainable Futures (SF) to organize with historically excluded communities in Atlanta. Founder Adrienne Rice’s dream is to build “green economy pathways for ‘Black’ and people of color in the South by using the foundational methods of relational organizing.” SF is a Black-woman-led collective of expert organizers and veteran community leaders working to build power in marginalized communities to advance an inclusive economy and environmental justice.

The history of systemic racism in our culture means that any new industry is built by and for white (mostly) men. To fight the double-headed dragon of climate change and system racism, we must build power to create a green economy that is inclusive and equitable. It won’t happen by magic, but the opportunity of a new economy offers a chance to build it right the first time.

The first step is a campaign of house meetings to bring together community members in three or four counties around Atlanta, GA. Next, we’ll work with those community members to measure Atlanta area residents’ understanding of environmental and climate justice issues.

Image of climate stripes representing temperature change in Georgia since 1895. Colors fluctuate between light and dark blue, red and white. Dark red in the last several years. Image credit: https://showyourstripes.info/s/globe/

As the campaign ramps up, it will also be a leadership development opportunity for multiple classes of fellows from historically excluded communities in the Atlanta region. Fellows will learn transformative organizing skills, while building a sustainable future in Georgia. We hope to also introduce the fellows to leaders in the energy, climate justice and business sectors. Fellows will come from partner organizations and the community at large. Unlike many fellowship programs, this program is not limited to students.

I started Organizing to Win with a vision of bringing people together to build power. The SF model is so exciting because we are focused not just on influencing a politician, electing certain leaders or influencing policy. We are creating an entirely new economy, led by the people closest to the problem of that double-headed dragon.

Check back here or on the Organizing to Win social channels for updates -including the launch of SF’s social media and website.

Same Skill, Different Day

With guest co-author Ash Lynette.

protestors with heads down and fists raised
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash @clay.banks

As organizers, Ash and Mira see our roles as bringing people together to build power. Ash is a senior resource organizer at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC). Mira is the founder and organizer-in-chief at Organizing to Win. 

Mira recently tuned in to a video interview of an alumni director that reminded her of a conversation with Ash about how similar fundraising and organizing are. Mira expected to learn about alumni programs, but re-learned a completely different lesson. If she replaced the words “alumni” and “fundraising” with “members” and “organizing,” it could have been either of us in that interview!

In both EBC’s concept of “resource organizing” and traditional organizing, we are bringing people together to build power. Authentic organizing centers the people closest to the struggle; in the case of EBC, that’s mass incarceration. Activists organize peer-to-peer fundraising events to leverage not just their own money, but also their connections. This expansive view of fundraising shifts who has power in fundraising itself, just as organizing transforms power in society.

To be good at both kinds of organizing, we have to build relationships and partner with members and other stakeholders.

Mira recently applied that lesson to raising money for a volunteer organizing committee. This ad-hoc group of strangers came together to organize a local action that was part of a national Day of Action for voting rights. After humbly bragging about her extensive experience organizing large actions, the team realized that their greatest need was money, not renting porta-potties or negotiating permits.

Remembering several conversations with union leaders about their mutual values of equity, justice and people power, Mira reached out to talk about the action. Several conversations later, she had raised almost half of the budget.

At EBC, the Resource Organizing Crew (including formerly incarcerated people and supporters) creates messaging and outreach tools to support members in their peer-to-peer campaigns. They created a toolkit, sample social media posts, and a webinar that walks new volunteers through how to run a peer-to-peer campaign.

The strongest campaigns start with the strongest relationships. Whether we’re bringing people together to build power or raising the resources to make it all happen, our ability to build authentic relationships matters most. 

Building relationships and asking people to take action are fundamental skills for successful fundraising and organizing. If you’re an organizer, check out the EBC Resource Organizing Crew page to learn how fundraisers apply the concept. If you’re a fundraiser who wants to build a deeper organizing culture at your organization, let’s talk

Ash Lynette (they, them) is a proud resource organizer in the Bay Area, California. At the Ella Baker Center, Ash works with EBC’s supporters to help folks draw the connection between their political work and their efforts to fund the movement. They love going on hikes, thinking/talking about the end of capitalism, and hanging out with their tiny dog. 

Nine Minutes and Twenty-nine Seconds

"Justice for George Floyd" in script lettering on a portrait of George Floyd mounted on a tall steel fence. With red fluttering decorations hovering around him.

Have you been following the Chauvin trial? I sure have. It’s actually news. It’s so rare that a white police officer is held accountable for murdering a person of color.

As I’m following the testimony, I have a couple questions.

First, at least six Minneapolis police officials have testified against Chauvin – in one day. One of them is the chief of police. Where have these people been???? Are there really only six cops in all of America who want to see justice done? Only six who value honesty more than a unqualified fellow officer? Only six who think the department’s reputation with the community is more important than the “thin blue line?” Or is it possible that the racial justice awakening of the last year got to them too?

I’m glad to see this new attitude, if there is one, but how many people had to die first? Surely there would be more trials and more convictions – and probably less death – if more cops would speak the truth instead of protecting questionable co-workers.

Also, are we worried that even if Chauvin is convicted that the response will be “See? The system works. The one bad apple was convicted. Done.” Yes, a conviction will send a message that even white police officers must obey the law. So, I do hope for a conviction. (Come on! A knee to the neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds? How does that not result in death?)

My concern is that the problem is not just one bad apple. It’s 400 years of treating people of color as if they’re guilty until proven innocent. It’s a system of “public safety” that’s not safe at all. It’s socialization that teaches us that people of color are scary and dangerous – especially Black people. It’s tacit and explicit permission to use official violence against people of color because there are rarely consequences. One conviction might be a step in the right direction; we have so much more work to do to rid ourselves of this system of white supremacy.

I’m bracing myself for the defense witnesses. Let’s see how many ways the defense can try to convince us that what killed George Floyd was his high blood pressure. Or previous drug use. Or an unruly crowd. Instead of a knee to the neck for #9minutesand29seconds.

Organizing to Win

After the 2018 mid-term elections, I was talking with a consultant who had helped a Democrat win a traditionally Republican US House seat. In our exuberance about the Democratic wins that year, we both shared stories of volunteers who had knocked on doors for the very first time. “They want to keep going, but we just don’t have anything for them to do!” she said.

Oh, but you do, I thought.

So, then I got to thinking. . . these red-to-blue House seats are not ours forever. Some of those voters went blue for the first time ever. They are never going to agree with the Democrats on the issues, so there has to be some other way to authentically connect with them if we want to keep winning.

Also, there are potential progressive voters who believe that politics just isn’t about them so they don’t bother. We can show them memes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King all day, but without a relationship, they still feel in their hearts that their votes don’t matter.

Then I started thinking like an organizer. I bet we have experiences and values in common. If Democrats wanted to win again in 2020, they must start building relationships with voters. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t.)

As it turns out, I was right. Democrats lost 11 seats that they’d flipped in 2018.

Seeing those results, a plan started to take shape in my mind: engage energized and inspired volunteers to bring people together to build relationships with Democratic leaders and potential candidates.

Step One

Train volunteers on deep canvassing techniques. This tactic involves engaging a voter in a conversation. Really. Standing on the front step talking for about 15 minutes. By itself, this conversation can open a space for people to change their opinion. When national organizing network People’s Action opened their deep canvassing results to an evaluation by data scientists, the scientists found that 3.1% of voters moved to Biden support. The conversation moved 8.5% of Independent women voters. (Read the whole 14-page report.)

Step Two

Invite those deep-canvassed voters to a community meeting. Taking the building-relationships theme up a notch, these meetings are small group conversations, not town halls. In each small group, a facilitator asks discussion questions that provide opportunities for participants to tell a story. The facilitator guides the discussion so everyone has a chance to speak and the conversation doesn’t go off the rails.

After the small groups have finished and the groups have come back together, a speaker asks for reports back from each group. In that way, that leader has an opportunity to connect with everyone in the room by telling their own story to relate to each group.

Would this plan lead to a tidal wave of support for climate change measures or abortion rights? Probably not. But that’s not the point. The point is to build relationships.

One of the most important lessons from the Georgia runoff this year is about off-year organizing. We can’t parachute into neighborhoods four months before an election and expect to keep winning. Building real strength requires investment.

If all we do is scramble to win elections every two years, that’s all we’re ever going to do. If we invest in building relationships with voters, we will not only win, but we might also win on the issues that brought us in to politics in the first place. Let’s invest in building sustainable, lasting power.

A plan for a pilot project is coming together. To get involved in building this experiment, email mira@organizingtowin.net. Or fill out the contact form.

Organizing Is Bringing People Together To Build Power

With guest co-author Ken Fujimoto

In Mira’s piece about online and IRL organizing, she referred to a difference between organizing and mobilizing and promised (threatened?) a follow-up piece.

Mobilizing is reaching out to voters, activists or volunteers to move them to do something your organization or campaign has already determined is the right course of action. Like voting for a candidate, canvassing, filling a committee room or speaking at a hearing. Your organization is probably right about that course of action and members have entrusted leadership to make those decisions. So, great work!

Organizing creates a deeper and more fundamental change. A strategic organizing campaign accomplishes several purposes all at once. Organizers not only win on an identified issue, but they also build power. 

Or as my first organizing supervisor puts it “Organizing is transformational.” 

What about social media, email, mobile, mass text and recruitment apps? They all help build the crowd, fill volunteer shifts, build a meeting, get out the vote, etc. But is that organizing? It can be. It’s only when all those people come together that they have the opportunity to share experiences, build trust and start that all-important relationship. The stronger the relationships, the deeper the transformation. 

Organizing is bringing people together to build power. That act of building power involves consent, consensus and agency. 

In the strongest organizing campaigns, the people most impacted by injustice are the leaders. Not just the face in front of the cameras, but the people who make decisions, identify the key issues, build consensus on the solution and own the campaign to win. They’re also the faces in front of the cameras because they are the subject matter experts on their own lives.

Organizing staff bring people together, provide a forum for building relationships, provide training and coaching and facilitate decision-making. They don’t determine the issues, create the strategy or tell people what to do. 

We organize so we can mobilize a constituency to take action. We cannot mobilize anyone if they were not organized previously; or in other words, if that constituency hasn’t already built power. Mobilizing is the unleashing of that power. Organizing is about building an ongoing constituency. Build power, then mobilize that power.  That’s organizing.

Co-author Ken Fujimoto is a social justice advocate who focuses on the development of people who aspire to take responsibility for a leadership role in public life. His mission is to identify, train, and develop these leaders to take on the world. His guiding question is “What is the legacy we are leaving for our children?”

What are we willing to question?

Most of the people I know express unqualified support for Black Lives Matter and defunding the police. Me too. However — and there’s always a but — is that enough? The problem isn’t that our entire criminal justice system is shot through with racism, from the “suspicious activity” that is reported to police to the extreme inequities in sentencing.

The problem is that our entire culture is shot through with racism. So many of us learn from birth that the face of danger in America is Black. We teach hate and fear, consciously or not. If we (mostly white people) don’t actively confront that learning and unlearn it, we’re contributing to the problem. If we really want to disrupt systemic racism, we have to be willing to question everything we know is true.

I’m willing to question the truth that I have a comfortable life because I’m smart and I work hard. I’m willing to consider that I might have a comfortable life at someone else’s expense. Were my parents able to buy a house in a good school district because of the legacy of housing covenants? Maybe. (Although we are Jewish. A housing covenant would have kept us out too.)

I’m willing to question the truth of history that I learned in school. Do I benefit from history textbooks that portray the Nat Turner rebellion as an unjustified bloody terrorist attack? Or paint John Brown as a wild-eyed traitor? Or present Indigenous people as passive victims with no agency? Or devote a grand total of one paragraph each to game-changers like Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez (if they’re mentioned at all)? Probably so, because it teaches us that American history is the history of white people. (Note the glaring absence of women too.)

I’m willing to question my assessment of “angry Black women” who confront store managers or bus drivers when they’ve been mistreated. Would I be treated with the same hostility or dismissive attitude (over and over and over again) if I complained? Probably not. (For searing testimony about the effects of daily racism and sexism on many women of color, read This Bridge Called My Back.)

I’m willing to question the existence of “proper English.” Maybe that’s just the English that middle-class white people speak in the 21st Century.

Dismantling racism is about more than passing better laws and electing different people. We have to change culture too. Sometimes one leads to the other, but not by magic.

What are you willing to question in order to help dismantle systemic racism?

I’m a Justin Amash fan.

There. I said it. I’m not voting for him, ever. However. . .

This Politico piece, by Tim Alberta, about Amash is very insightful. For anyone who is tempted to think that he’s on your side because he’s against Donald Trump, don’t. However, he has a lot of great things to say about partisanship and economic disaster recovery. The piece is also a flash reminder of how sexist our politics are.

Amash spends four paragraphs hitting the nail squarely on the head about the similarities and differences between Biden and Trump and Democrats and Republicans. He sounds an awful lot like left-wing activists who complain that there is no difference between the parties. His comments about purity are particularly striking:

“When you get on the wrong side of people on the left, a lot of it sounds like things I hear from people on the right.”

“What they don’t recognize is that [Trump]’s a creature of this system where everyone is hyperpartisan and hates each other and where they’re told repeatedly, ‘If you don’t vote for our party nominee, you are selling out your family, your friends, your country to these people who want to destroy it.’ And that’s what both sides are told.”

Don’t worry. I’ll do everything I can this year to #VoteBlueNoMatterWho. But it has to be said: the polarization is not just their fault. We have purity tests too.

The surprising part of the interview was Amash’s advocacy for handing out cash. He has (justified) harsh criticism for the tendency of relief plans to reward giant corporations and wealthy donors of both major parties. The surprising part for a libertarian was this:

“If they did something like, let’s just send everyone some money, direct cash payments, as I suggested, universal monthly cash relief, there’s only one constituency for that. That’s the entire public. And they’re not getting much out of that in terms of politics.”

What populist, progressive, capitalism-questioning, near-socialist doesn’t love that idea?? (He lost me a little later on, with the typical ultra-conservative disparagement of the role of the federal government and the UN.)

Finally, another significant part of the piece is less about Amash and more about the sexism in politics. He spends most of a long paragraph talking about how great he is. He starts six sentences with “I am [something great about Justin Amash.]” What would we say about a woman who started six sentences in one paragraph with “I” instead of “we?” And listed all kinds of ways she’s great? Spoiler alert: it wouldn’t be that she’s a great leader.

In a time when everything is us vs. them, I hardly expected to have so much in common with a libertarian, right-wing, Tea Party, Freedom Caucus true believer. But here we are.