I have a tattoo on my back as a reminder of why I organize. It’s an image of a woman pushing a boulder up a hill. It’s also a reinterpretation of the myth of Sisyphus, who was forced to spend eternity pushing a boulder up hill. When he reached the top, it rolled down to the bottom and he had to begin pushing again.
Since it is on my back, I forget about it a lot. In fact I need other people to remind me that it is there, which underscores for me the necessity and importance of organizing with other people: that we cannot do it alone. To me, organizing is the most specific and tangible way to make change happen. By working and struggling together with other people to create alternative solutions while at the same time, fighting the regressive and repressive laws and standards of the present, we offer new structures and systems while tearing down the old ones. Focusing on how to support and challenge myself and others to develop our organizing skills, confidence and political analysis has been my work for the past ten years and is the most effective way to make change happen.
There is this myth in Western culture of the Superhero: a masked savior who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and saves the day every time. The reality is that every time we see a charismatic leader, someone speaking the truth or telling things the way they need to be told, there is a beehive of activity supporting the person, nurturing her, and creating the context for the work that we see. For me, a lot of this is tied up in the process of how I moved from identifying and working as an activist to an organizer.
I became an activist to make change happen and try and affect the world. Activism is crucial and important work, and it is also pretty individualized. My transition from activism to organizing was based on the fact that as hard as I might work individually, I would never be able to make the change that I wanted to see happen in this country or the world by myself. In doing activist work, I definitely worked with other people, but felt that the struggle for political unity and a shared vision was less the focus then a short term goal or event. I realized that organizing was not just about creating or trying to actualize a vision for the world out there, but also for my own life. To recognize my perspective and its importance, but also to see the ways in which it is limited, and keeps the work I am trying to achieve from moving forward.
As a white, upper middle class, Jewish, queer woman, the oppression I experience- patriarchy, heterosexism, and anti-Jewish oppression- is tied inextricably to my white skin, upper-middle class privilege. I can never escape or forget how all of this fits together, and if I do, I deny a portion of myself, my family, and where I come from. But the fact I need to remind myself of this underscores the overwhelming normalization of my white middle-class privilege that I am encouraged to generalize from my experience to the world around me, and assume that people will know/understand/relate to it. One of the big lessons I have learned, is that to build trust with others it is necessary to know where we come from. It is hard to pretend to be something we are not, and people can see through it. But to have pride and respect for where we come from, can implicitly and explicitly value where others come from and the need for respect across differences.
At the School of Unity and Liberation, a training center focused on developing a new multi-racial generation of young organizers in Oakland, Calif., they have a saying that summarizes my perspective of organizing. “Unite to Fight!” I reached this perspective after organizing for the past 10 years. I started out working on sexual assault and rape in high school and college, doing counseling, workshops and other work to build communities against violence. At the time I did not consider this organizing and like many women, who enter activism through our relationship to personal and/or state violence under-valued it. But working mostly with other women, supporting each other, sharing skills, and challenging each other to stretch was how I learned to work in groups and support others to take on leadership. Leadership in organizing against sexual violence was not like anything I had experience or seen before. It was not about representative democracy or a few people having power over a group. It was about sharing power, supporting each other to take on tasks, roles, and take the lead on specific projects. We were working together to create a power with each other, that wasn’t about hierarchy, but about sharing the work and building out as more people and the possibilities of what we could accomplish grew.
Then I traveled around for three years doing electoral and community organizing on living wages, community gardens and housing issues. We lost a lot. At least that was the way I thought about it at the time. When I look back on it now, what I remember is the women, because it was usually women, who make change happen. I remember their stories, I remember a woman in the Five Points neighborhood in Denver who was 21 and had three children, and confronted the city manager about the lack of light in her alley and her right to take her trash out without fear. I remember the residents at a nursing home in the West Village of Manhattan working with neighbors they had never met to build a roof-top garden they still maintain to this day, I remember all the good meals and conversations and argument in Spanish and English about how change would happen and if it ever could. And all of that as cheesy as it may sound, feels like victory, in the relationships that were built between neighbors, the strength that people discovered or had affirmed in themselves, and the small changes we saw in policies that affected everyday lives.
For the past five years I lived in Massachusetts, organizing first with low-income women in Worcester, an industrial city in central Massachusetts, then working around the country with primarily white economic and global justice activists, and locally helping to build a Jewish social justice group.
In Worcester, I worked for a group called Massachusetts Neighbor to Neighbor, with primarily Dominican and Puerto Rican women in public housing developments around affordable childcare, living wages and against welfare reform. I spent a tremendous amount of time working with leaders from the community, building relationships with them and their families. This involved asking them questions about their lives and perspective and what they would like to change. I also organized meetings of women from different developments to meet and work together to create a plan for making changes in their lives and their neighbors lives through legislative and electoral work. When I say leaders in this context, it’s important to note that very few of them saw themselves as leaders, or had been in leadership roles before they began working with Neighbor to Neighbor. What they had was the potential to engage others, to share their stories, and to speak out.
Through this work, I came to the definition of organizing that I use now in trainings, based on the Midwest Academy definition. Organizing is moving people into action to build their collective power and achieve shared goals to take greater control of their own lives. Organizing happens through leadership development. Building strong communities from which leaders can be supported to develop their organizing skills, confidence and political analysis to recruit more leaders and build an organization and movement. Each of these areas is crucial to the creation and support of more organizers, which is a major part of building a strong movement. To find the people who are now leading Neighbor to Neighbor or any other group involved knocking on hundreds of doors, having thousands of conversations, and many long hours of follow-up and reminder phone calls.
Organizing skills are the tangible building blocks of what it takes to make change happen. Organizing is not rocket science. It just takes consistency, patience and follow-up. Good organizing skills include planning, outreach, recruitment and development of new leaders, and time management. There are many different ways to do all of these things. For example, outreach can be going door-knocking systematically in one neighborhood and having conversations with each person about what they would like to see change or happen in the neighborhood. Or it can be talking to someone at an information table, on the bus, or anywhere else as long as we have a way to get in touch with them again and follow-up. According to Fred Ross, Sr., the organizer who recruited and trained United Farm Workers’ founder Cesar Chavez, “follow-up is 90 percent of organizing.” While most people know how to talk to people on the street, the difference is in the intent of the conversations.
I carry around a quote with me about organizing. I don’t know where it came from, but it says: “Ultimately, organizing is about the development of people. If you see that support it. Organizing elevates people…I believe in myself and I can make a difference.” This is the type of confidence organizers strive to build and support in the leaders we work with. Many people in U.S. society have extraordinarily low confidence, particularly if they are oppressed by race, class, gender, nationality or religion. Yet even for people with privilege, the domination of everyday life by corporate, economic and cultural forces keep us from believing we can make change happen. Dominant culture continually reinforces the need for “experts” to break down any political problem or situation. But when given the opportunity most people have tons of great ideas. Asking people what they would like to see change is a great first step. After that, it is a matter of helping people create, or plug in to a tangible plan where they can see short-term gains, work with others to build power and see themselves as having an important role in making change happen.
One time I took one of the leaders I worked with in Worcester to a week-long training about how to talk about the economy and its impact on peoples’ lives. We were driving back and she said, “I never realized the economy affected people everywhere in the same ways. I always thought it was just Puerto Rico or Worcester, the places that I lived.” I realized we had been making a huge mistake in the work we had been doing. We had been focusing explicitly on our campaigns and on supporting leaders to develop their organizing skills and confidence, without having any discussions about the big picture- how this struggle connects to all the other struggles around the world and across town for racial, economic, social and environmental justice.
A few years later, when I was working at United for a Fair Economy, I went back to Neighbor to Neighbor, and co-facilitated a series of workshops on the economy with their members. The most exciting one was about globalization and its impacts locally. The organizer had been worried, that it would be really intangible and not relate to lives of people in Worcester. But, it ended up being the best workshop of the series. How one family ended up in Worcester from the Dominican Republic, was clearly connected to the Converse factory that moved into their home town, destroyed the local agrarian economy. When the company left a few years later, the result was mass migration due to the lack of employment opportunities. By opening up a space for the discussion, and for people to bring in their own experience, the theoretical connections to their current campaign to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts were concrete and useful.
Working with white, middle class people, I had to learn to organize in a different way. Because of my white skin privilege, I tend to have less fear about putting out ideas, approaching strangers and trying new things. White middle-class people generally have a lot more confidence in our political analysis because it is reinforced constantly by the confluence of our experience and the corporate media culture. But the components white middle-class people have much more difficulty incorporating in specific and accountable ways into our work are the experience, knowledge and leadership of people of color, poor people, queer people, Jews, women, transgender people young people and elders and people with disabilities or different abilities. Having conversations with other white middle class people, learning about my own assumptions so I can work through them with others has been my primary work of the past three years.
A few years back, I was working on a campaign to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts. We were entirely focused on indexing it to the cost of living, so every time inflation went up, the minimum wage would rise as well. We ended up winning an increase in minimum wage to the highest level in the country. But as a group, we were so focused on indexing, that we did not see that as a victory. The fact that we had worked together, low-income women, social service providers, unions, and others, built relationships and struggled for unity, in our minds was not the victory that it should have, and ultimately was won.
Learning to follow the leadership of people who are most oppressed and learning how to struggle and build movements that are multi-racial and cut across class is an on-going and everyday experiment of making mistakes, building trust and struggling forward. So much of the work is not about a specific event or action; it’s about the process an individual or a group is going through in working together. To focus on the one event is beside the point. To struggle with people over things like political ideas is the best way to reach our goals. I believe this is how we see change happen. Without the basis of those solid relationships, any specific activity we struggle to accomplish will be short sighted and disconnected from meaningful work.
Leadership can be a difficult and frustrating word and concept to grapple with, particularly for people working or struggling to work in non-hierarchical anti-authoritarian constructs. Any type of organizing needs to begin with and constantly refer to a broad and deep analysis of power, where it lies, who controls it, what it reflects and where your work is systematically and specifically aimed as part of a larger movement of resistance. To build collective community power is a necessity for making change, but not the only part. Organizing is a way we get there and an invaluable piece of how we move forward in our work together.
For more information on organizing:
Detroit I do Mind Dying by John Greiger Organizing across the class divide by Linda Stout Organize! By Si Kahn
Much thanks to Chris Crass, Laura Close, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Jennifer, Jason Wallach from the Mexico Solidairty Network, Wanda Salaman, Micah Bazant, Kim Feicke, and Jon Hocevar.
“Solidarity is the tenderness of the people of the world” – Nicaraguan Revolutionary Slogan