Organizing lessons

Over the last year I’ve been doing a bit of grass roots organizing. Although organizers these days have some nifty new tools, I suspect that the basics of organizing are fundamentally the same as they’ve been for ages. Lately, I’ve been reading some books on the history of the US civil rights movement, for remedial education, and insights into principles of organizing.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve taken:

*Organizing traverses existing groups and social networks.* Aldon Morris’ book describes how the civil rights movement spread within African-American churches, protests were organized in church networks, and practices were shared across geographical areas through networks of ministers. Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander School, observed how movements spread across a wider variety of groups, such as union committees, coops, and community organizations.

Some social media fans believe that the age of groups is over and done with; from now on, movements will spread only through personal social networks. I find this hard to believe; personal networks are great for spreading ideas and attracting new people, but groups are still important for people to affiliate, for sharing culture, and for organizing complex practices. Individuals will invite their friends to a bike ride or share a link to call legislators to protect bike lane funding. But a bicycle group is helpful for holding parties, for providing city cycling lessons, for coordinated advocacy over time.

* Organizing is work.* There is a myth that the civil rights movement represented a spontaneous overflowing of emotion. But the day after Rosa Parks was arrested, organizers had 35,000 mimeographed flyers with boycott instructions ready to go. The organizers had already created detailed plans for the protest, building on a previous bus boycott.

* Build local leadership, and a network of leaders* The philosophy of the Highlander School, and SNCC from Highlander, was to cultivate leadership among people, and train trainers. This helps the movement spread, and sets the stage for longer-lasting change.

The needs for capacity, leadership, and network building were notable in their short supply, in a set of events on Bay Area transit and land use planning that I’ve attended. The events, led by different organizations, provided professional-quality presentations, and gave attendees opportunity to discuss and express opinions. But there were no ways to attract interested, capable people into new organizing roles, nor were there good ways for people to initiate action based on the discussions. The events were top-down organized ways of soliciting public opinion, but did not catalyze new leaders and new action. When I asked someone who had reviewed the proposal for one of the events, she observed that “follow-up was not in the grant.”

* Methods depend on the situation.* This is a crucial lesson. Disciples of a movement or leader often seem to imitate the tactics of their heroes. But their heroes themselves chose tactics for the specific circumstances.

Writing about the influence of SNCC on SDS, the largely-white student radical group, Clayborne Carson says that in their idealization of civil rights protestors, the anti-war radicals didn’t realize that SNCC’s protest tactics were aimed specifically at sparking violent opposition from segregationists and triggering rescue intervention from the federal government.

Observing the success of the protest tactics of the civil rights movement, Aldon Morris concludes that direct action protests are more effective than NAACP’s efforts to work through legal channels. But even Stokely Carmichael favor of going through official channels when the petitioners have the power to do so. Once, in an region where black people had already gained influence, Carmichael was approached by a group wanting a road paved. He told them to go to the courthouse instead of holding a protest.

In order to teach African-American adults to pass the literacy tests required for voting, Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins didn’t hold a protest, and they didn’t petition the education system. Instead, they created their own “Citizenship Schools”, taught by literate adults, with curriculum materials designed for the interests of the students, who learned to fill out Sears Catalog order forms and job applications, and learned to read the state constitution.

A protest is warranted when when going through channels won’t work, when there are people in power who are in a position to grant the request, and when the demand is something that one needs to ask for and can’t create oneself.

Attention-getting media tactics work when the story is new and newsworthy, and when the mass media audience will be brought to sympathize with the protest. The 15th annual march for xyz cause isn’t news. And disruptive tactics that an audience will find repellent or annoying are unlikely to have desired results.

*Patience and impatience* The toughest issue to get a handle on is timing. When to be patient, and when to be impatient. In his autobiography, “The Long Haul”, Myles Horton wrote about pushing students at the Highlander school, but also not pushing people further than they could go. The decisions here are based on gut feeling and intuition, and only distant hindsight can say what was successful.

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