Organizing Strategy


The organizing cycle portrayed by four yellow circles arranged in a diamond shape with dotted lines connecting them into a circle. There is a line drawing of a handshake above the first circle. That yellow circle reads Outreach and Listening Build relationships, leaders and power through one-on-ones, canvassing, and house meetings. Moving clockwise around the circle, the line drawing above the next yellow circle is a fistbump. The words in that circle are Research Move from problems to issues. Issues are specific, measurable and can be linked to a person or people responsible. The next line drawing is five fists raised in the air. That yellow circle reads Action Come face to face with the person and/or people who have power to address the issue. The final line drawing is a set of fists in a circle. That yellow circle reads Evaluation What did we win? What did we do that worked? What could we do differently? What's next?
credit: NEKO

Recently a very good friend and political campaign ally said that sometimes she doesn’t know what I’m talking about:

“I have to admit, sometimes, even I don’t see it. I mean, how does bringing people together build power the way you talk about it?”

That’s the thing – organizing isn’t visible.

The rallies, voter turnout, lobby days at the Capitol, marches, civil disobedience – that’s all mobilizing.

When I meet with leaders of social justice organizations, unions and other nonprofits to talk about working together, I usually hear about one or more of these situations:

  • A pivot from advocating, lobbying or canvassing to a long-term organizing plan.
  • Frustration that their work to engage members and community leaders has not been successful.
  • A vision of member leadership structures like an organizing committee or regional action teams.
  • Organizers and organizing directors who need support building skills, confidence and strategic vision.

The Organizing Cycle

To address these situations, I develop a strategic organizing plan based on the organizing cycle. (The image above comes from a traditional cycle that many organizers use to plan their campaigns; credit for this version goes to NEKO.)

The rest of the cycle is where the organizing happens –

  • Building relationships
  • Surfacing the most important issues
  • Finding the strategic leverage to win
  • Taking public action together
  • Reflection and evaluation

Building Power

How do we know when we’ve built power? It’s a hot topic for social scientists, campaign analysts and pundits these days. Here are a few signs that your organization is building power:

  • Decision-makers come to you to discuss big ideas.
  • Decision-makers meet with member leaders and activists.
  • Your opponents get less oxygen for their terrible, no-good, very bad ideas.
  • Your members get shout-outs at public event
  • Your members get a nickname (for better or worse).*
  • Candidates come to you for endorsement and volunteers.

Will all of this transformation happen in one campaign? No. A member leader of an education justice organization recently said it took a year and a half to get to their first victory.

If we’re going to transform our communities, we have to invest in them. In addition to money, that means time, brainspace and maybe even internal political capital.

When my friend asked that question, I wasn’t surprised. It helped me think of better ways to talk about organizing strategy.

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.

2023 at Organizing to Win: Bringing People Together to Build Power

In 2023, I continue to recognize all the blessings and just plain good luck in my lives.

❤️ An endlessly supportive family.

💙Good friends I can always count on.

✊🏻Organizing co-conspirators with vision, talent and unwavering commitments to justice.

Here are a few highlights from 2023 at Organizing to Win:

a head shot of a white woman in her mid-fifties, with blond hair, wearing a black jacket and burgundy blouse. There’s a US flag in the background. In the top right corner is a campaign logo for Stephanie Wade for Seal Beach City Council.

Stephanie Wade’s ground-breaking campaign for city council. As a trans woman, Stephanie built relationships and showed Seal Beach a campaign like they’d never seen before. The city will better for it.


a grid of 9 photos of organizers from Virginia Interfaith Power and Light. The Organizing to Win and VAIPL logos appear below the photos.

Organizing education with the team at Virginia Interfaith Power and Light. This team is ready to build power for climate justice in Virginia! After our final workshop, one of the organizers wrote “Mira was enlightening and encouraging. I understand better what is expected of me as an organizer. The strategies Mira showed us how to develop for organizing will help us build our power structures and bases!”


Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez, a young Latinx-Afro-Indigenous woman, smiling, wearing a white shirt and black and white checked jacket. She stands in front of an outdoor mural with red lettering that reads Growing our roots reclaiming our Fruitvale. Additional colors in the mural are yellow, brown, green, red and grey.

Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez’s campaign to improve parent engagement at OUSD. And oh yeah, for the school board. Sasha became a US citizen in November and filed to run for the school board in January.


abstract image of a scared-looking white woman on the phone and text that reads Someone Always Calls the Cops: When Karen or Chad Dials 911 on Your Canvassers" Netroots Nation July 13, 2023 Chicago.

Facilitating a workshop called “Someone Always Calls the Cops: When Karen or Chad Dials 911 on Your Canvassers” at Netroots in Chicago.


color map of the state of Utah. A silhouette of a fist holding a pencil is superimposed over the map.

Facilitating organizing education workshops at Raise Up Utah as part of the Innovate Public Schools team. The parents, teachers, students and community members who participated in the weekend-long organizing intensive are on their way to impactful campaigns for education justice in Utah.


an active volcano seen from the top of an adjacent hill. Red hot lava flows in rivers, surrounded by hills, with steam rising from the edges.

That awesome Hawaii trip with my best friend. (Where sadly, I still had a signal at the bottom of a cliff at the beach. ) The fiery red light in this photo is flowing lava!


What will the new year bring?

Well, for starters. . .

👍🏻A refreshed Disrupting White Supremacy Culture program

👍🏻A series of union jargon explainers

👍🏻Building power in Kern County with members and staff of SEIU 521.

👍🏻A brand new election season

And much more.

I hope 2024 brings you peace, health and justice.

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?

American Capitalism vs. Humanity

image in the style of a Tarot card. Grey top hat with a dollar sign and red band. Roman number III and a lightning bolt at the top with grey clouds framing the corners. Raindrops fall around the hat. Stacks of golden coins and the words The Capitalism along the bottom.
Image credit: @teenvogue

Trigger warning: there is some graphic language about the violence of slavery and the treatment of Indigenous people.

The bedrock of the American economy is the belief that everyone can be rich if we just work hard enough. For example, if you’re poor, you must be doing something wrong. Are you too lazy to get a better job? (See also: health care.)

Why? Because. . . slavery.

Not Just the South

As Matthew Desmond writes in the 1619 Project, American capitalism is based on the plantation economy. His essay is titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” In it, he details the unholy alliance between enslavers, creditors, northern textile factories and the US government. This alliance developed the US cotton market, on the backs of indigenous people whose land and culture were stolen and enslaved Black people who were brutalized, all in the name of profit. 

How did these people live with themselves? How did they sleep at night, knowing that they’d exploited millions of people for their own gain? Where was their conscience? 

That’s where American capitalism collides head-on with humanity. If we can deny the humanity of people, then we can do whatever we want to them. Kidnap them, ship them across oceans in horrid conditions, sell them like livestock, torture, rape and kill them. We can spread disease and violence across thousands of miles, uproot people from their ancestral homes and rip children from their families.

Aren’t We Done With Slavery Though?

This capitalist denial of humanity is the root of oppression in the United States. It continues today in the form of police murder of people of color, denial of health care, the school-to-prison pipeline, the emotional labor we expect from people of color, dangerous border camps and so much more.

To believe in brutal American capitalism is to deny the humanity of people. For example, if we truly respected the humanity of immigrants, we could never force them into dangerous limbo in tent camps in Mexico. If we truly respected the humanity of Black people, the police wouldn’t shoot first and ask questions later (if they ask questions at all). If we respected the humanity of Indigenous people, thousands of Indigenous women wouldn’t go missing every year. (Talking about women, if we respected the humanity of women, there would be no rape.) Here’s one I bet you didn’t expect: If we believed in the humanity of rural, conservative people, we wouldn’t categorically dismiss them as ignorant and write them off.

Capitalism with Guardrails

Our capitalism needs guardrails precisely because we don’t respect fundamental humanity. 

As Representative Katie Porter says, “Capitalism needs guardrails to work.” 

(Hint: a federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour and laws that permit employers to fire workers for organizing a union are not guardrails.) 

I suspect that if you read this far, you were hoping for some neat resolution. For a happy ending where there’s an intersection between American capitalism and humanity. 

But there isn’t. The two are incompatible.

If we believe in the humanity of all people, we couldn’t possibly exploit them enough to maintain our capitalism without guardrails. Guardrails can look like unions, restrictions on the greed of giant corporations, a living wage, universal health care, student loan forgiveness, an end to subsidies for planet-killing industries and more.

I prefer to deny American capitalism (which is a difficult position for a small business owner). I don’t really know what the alternative is, but I know that when workers and working families have power, things get better. 

So let’s get busy building guardrails and building power.

Doubling Down on Organizing

The end of the year is often about taking stock, regrouping and refocusing.

While election work this cycle was important, it reminded me that the real work of Organizing to Win is about more than winning elections. It’s about building power. That’s why in 2023, I’m doubling down on outreach to organizations that want to build or strengthen organizing infrastructure.

Organizing requires holding two sometimes contradictory ideas at the same time.

Creating the Vision

On one hand, we keep a vision in mind. I’m working with a staff person from an organization that is in the beginning stages of transforming their organization from direct-service provider to power-builder. To keep us focused on this transition, I often ask her “what does it look like when workers have the power to hold their employer accountable?”

That question conjures up inspiring, visionary answers.

Planning the Work and Working the Plan

On the other hand, even the most meaningful vision won’t become reality by magic. That transition requires a plan, with specific steps, goals and metrics. Planning the work and working the plan isn’t always glamorous or inspiring.

Working that plan is what creates the magic.

The two concepts are sometimes hard to hold at the same time. There’s a risk of getting caught up in our own visionary rhetoric and forgetting the reality of work on the ground. There’s a corresponding risk of getting mired in the details and forgetting why we do this work in the first place.

Visions and Plans in 2023

In 2023, I’m looking forward to working with organizations on creating visions for power and building their organizing infrastructure to achieve them.

If you or a colleague is thinking about how to expand your organization’s vision, let’s make 2023 the year we work some magic to make our visions of justice into reality. Comment below or get in touch to find a time to talk.

May your 2023 be filled with visions and reality of equity, justice and happiness.

Are you a Witch?

four women holding blue abortion rights signs with fists raised in the air
photo credit: @AFPandrew @AFPphoto

Don’t you love Halloween? The costumes. The adorable kids. The candy. (The day-after-Halloween candy sales.) The silliness.

I especially love all the witches. And by witch, I mean:

Woman

In

Total

Control of

Herself

Since June 24, there are a whole lot of witches out there. We’re marching, raising money, speaking out, knocking on doors, making noise and running for office. We’re also organizing.

When women, or members of any historically excluded community, take control of ourselves, big things happen.

And that’s what organizing is all about. Every organizing campaign is about more than winning. In the very process of organizing, we transform ourselves and our communities. We take control of our lives and our future. Ask any worker who has organized a union at their workplace. The change is not just about the legal ability to negotiate a raise or better hours. The victory is in the transformation of the workers and the workplace into one where workers have some control.

When I worked with women union members in Florida during an election campaign, it was immediately obvious which members had organized their union and which had inherited it. Many members at long-time-union workplaces already participate in campaigns and contract enforcement.

Workers who had organized their union felt the collective power because they had built it. They were the first to sign up for volunteer actions. Every single member in that unit joined the political action fund. They surpassed their goals for engaging their co-workers and friends in the campaign. They were in total control of themselves.

Organizing is bringing people together to build power. When we have power in our communities, we take control of the decisions that affect our lives.

Be a witch. 🧙‍♀️