Turning Mobilizing into Organizing

A selfie of two women at an abortion rights march. The woman on the left wears a gray hat, glasses and a blue surgical mask. The woman on the right wears a blue mask with a butterfly.

If you’ve ever organized or participated in a rapid response action, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

TL;DR

Skip to the bottom for five tips on turning mobilizing into organizing.

Responding to a Crisis

We’ve all thrown bodies at a problem because it was a crisis.

  • The legislature was about to kill our most important bill.
  • Our favorite candidate was about to lose.
  • That giant corporation was about to get its climate-killing wish.
  • Anti-abortion zealots threatened the only abortion care provider in town.
  • The police killed another unarmed person.
  • A resident shot another teenager for breathing while Black.
  • An employer fired yet another worker for organizing a union

Not to mention daily gun violence.

A crisis means we drop everything to mobilize.

We can’t ignore a crisis, even if we don’t have our organizing house in perfect order.

But we can do more than mobilize. Who said never let a good crisis go to waste?

Organizing is bringing people together to build power.

That power grows from relationships. So, use the opportunity of that rapid response to build and strengthen relationships.

Here are five suggestions for turning a mobilization moment into an organizing moment.

  • One-on-ones. Ask each organizer to identify five people who came out to the protest, picket or canvas to invite to a one-on-one meeting.
  • After-action debrief. Plan an evaluation meeting for immediately afterwards. Activists and leaders should know the debrief date at the same time they know the action date.
  • Keep track of who brings someone else to the action. They might be your newest leader.
  • Review social media posts, reactions and comments for potential one-on-one prospects. Same with sign-in sheets.

Here’s where it gets tricky. . .

Number 5 will be controversial –

Prioritize. Ask yourself if this action is strategic for the organization at this time. We’re so accustomed to jumping into action that sometimes it becomes automatic. If the action doesn’t help grow the organization’s power, you might not want to do it.

How do you turn mobilizing into organizing? Reply here or in the Comments on my LinkedIn post on this topic.

We Say It Every Year: THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION EVER!

volunteers preparing to canvass. About 100 people standing on grass in front of trees cheering with their fists raised in the air. There are a house and a canopy in the background and a canopy on the side. The sky is blue and clear.

In the 2024 election cycle, every race will have larger implications. Those candidates for tiny school board districts in your community? Their potential votes on policy will reverberate nationally. Think book bans, restrictions on access and misrepresentations of US history.

And don’t get me started on what’s at stake in state capitols and Washington DC.

Powerful Elections

Instead of telling voters, volunteers and activists – again – that THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION, let’s make it the most powerful election.

Let’s make it the year we organize in addition to mobilize.

Let’s build power in addition to winning.

Let’s plan the campaigns with the goal of bringing people together to build power, using the opportunity of the election to do it. Not the other way around.

What’s that I hear?

“We have a million doors to knock!”

“I don’t get what you mean by ‘build relationships.’ How does that get us to power?”

“Winning is the best demonstration of power.”

“We don’t have time to hold everyone’s hand. We have a campaign to win.”

All true. It’s hard to think long-term with an election-day deadline looming.

But would we be in this movement if we couldn’t do hard things?

Mobilizing ===> Organizing

Here are some ideas for introducing organizing tactics into a mobilization (election) campaign:

  1. A script that includes some deep canvassing elements. Sure a canvasser might spend more than 3 minutes at a door. The voter is more likely to remember the conversation and more importantly, the volunteer will feel less like a turnout machine and more like a community organizer.
  2. Plan some one-on-ones between organizers or campaign leaders and top volunteers. These convos can be recognition for super volunteers. More importantly, they can also help organizers identify new leaders. When a super volunteer starts bringing other people to shifts, you’ve found a new leader.
  3. A campaign debrief that brings everyone together to process the results of the election, their role and the implications. Win or lose, the more people can share their experiences, the closer they become. More importantly, they are more likely to remain involved if they develop relationships with other activists, organizers or leaders.

We want to transform our communities and win after election day too.

Organizing in the Red Counties

a diverse group of 14 union activists poses in front of a screen that reads SEIU 521: Bringing People Together to Build Power.

In Kern County (CA), we’re trying something new.

If we believe Kern County’s current elected officials and corporate power, it’s one of the most conservative places in California. (Yes, there are some.)

It’s the heart of California’s petroleum industry.

Big Ag reigns supreme.

And it’s the home of Kevin McCarthy. Yes. *that* Kevin McCarthy.

Like many communities, the people who currently hold power are not always aligned with the people.

Kern is full of working people, immigrants, and others who struggle under systemic burdens of corporate domination, racism, classism, and other impositions of dominant power.

That’s why I am so excited to work with leaders, members and staff of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521 to lay the foundation for relational power in Kern County.

In an earlier exploratory meeting, members identified three problems we need to solve in order for their families to thrive: healthcare, education and training for good jobs.

Over the next year, we’ll bring people together, build relationships, identify new leaders and learn about power in the region.

We’ll refine the problems into the issues that are most widely and deeply felt and create a strategy to win for working people, their families and their communities.

But we’ll do more than win.

We’ll build power.

Last week, we kicked off the campaign with a strategy meeting of long-time member leaders, new leaders and staff.

We know that a transformation won’t happen overnight. We know that it doesn’t happen in one year. But we’re laying the foundation.

For updates, follow @OrganizingtoWin on social media.

If you want to learn more about this campaign – and how it might apply to your organization’s  impact next year – use the contact form to get in touch!

Authentic Engagement Builds Power

A diverse group of Asian, Latina and white young people smiling. They are wearing white t-shirts with the words SF ONE and a map of San Francisco printed in orange. They are in an elementary school classroom.

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.

Self-Interest

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.

Erin vs. Norma: the Organizing Movie Throwdown

a horizontal mashup of movie photos from Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae. Top level: actor Julia Roberts as Brockovich talking with a neighbor. Bottom level: actor Sally Field as Norma holding a sign reading “Union”

Do you ever get this question? “What’s your favorite movie about [your work]?”

When people ask me about my favorite movie about organizing, they’ll often also say “I bet you love that movie Norma Rae!” (Depending on the questioner’s age. Norma Rae came out in 1979.)  

Norma Rae

In case you haven’t seen it, the movie “Norma Rae” is about textile organizing in the south in the 1970s. It’s a true story, if a bit Hollywood-ized. In one of the most dramatic scenes, Norma, played by Sally Field, climbs onto a table in the factory and holds up a big sign reading “UNION!” All by herself.  

She’s subsequently fired, walked out of the building and shunned by much of the community. That’s not organizing.  

Erin Brockovich

Organizing campaigns are more like “Erin Brockovich,” also a true story and also glamorized for the big screen. In the movie and in real life, the residents of Hinkley, CA are poisoned by a toxic substance called chromium 6, which leaks into the water supply from a nearby PG&E installation. (Californians’ motto for PG&E: the utility we love to hate.) Erin, played by Julia Roberts, goes door-to-door to build relationships with people affected by PG&E’s carelessness. She brings them together to share their stories and create trust among themselves.  

Only then do they take action. Together. They file a class action lawsuit, but the real movement comes from pressure they put on the company to force a settlement.

Organizing is Bringing People Together to Build Power

No one person could exert enough pressure on PG&E all by themself. It took the collective power of the residents of Hinkley to bring the company to the settlement table.

Just imagine what would be different if everyone at the plant stood on those tables with Norma.

The most effective organizing campaigns are about building relationships and taking action together. We build power by building relationships.

What could your community do with more relational power?