When you’re an organizing leader, these frustrations come up a lot:
“We can’t get people to come out to a meeting.”
“Why don’t members vote? It’s their own jobs at stake!”
“It’s always the same people who do everything.”
“Why are members so apathetic?”
“Do they just want someone else to do it all?”
And worst of all, “are the current leaders going to burn out?”
The reality is, they’re not apathetic and they don’t want someone else to do it all.
A lot of organizing directors tell me that members or workers are reluctant to engage. But maybe there’s a reason: they don’t see their self-interest represented in the campaigns. Self-interest is more than how much money they make, their position on an issue or who to vote for.
Self-interest is also about values, experiences and relationships.
Several years ago, I organized with teachers and former teachers who were trying to build momentum for education justice in their communities. They were having trouble engaging community members and parents in a campaign about the district’s school assignment system. (TL;DR – incredibly complicated, record segregation, inequitable distribution of resources.)
To better understand parents’ and students’ experiences, we began a series of canvas weekends. Leaders knocked on doors, prepared with a script that would launch conversations about what came to mind when residents thought about the education system in their city.
What did they learn?
Almost no one mentioned the school assignment system. Parents wanted high quality schools in their neighborhood. It didn’t matter if their kids got into the highest rated school in the city if it was all the way across town.
When leaders started to talk about how to fight for higher quality schools in their neighborhoods, more parents and other teachers engaged.
When leaders create opportunities for members, activists and volunteers to build relationships and take action based on their values and experiences, more leaders surface. More members join. More volunteers engage for longer.
Space to Build Relationships and Power
If we’re deliberate and intentional about creating space to build relationships, grow leadership and surface the issues that are most widely and deeply felt, then we can build power.