Tradecraft‎ > ‎

Getting started

Some of the basics of tenant and community organizing (not as simple as pressing a button)

Lessons for a community organizer, some personal testimony

I remember my first real political campaign. I approached it like a community organizer. Talking to everyone on the block seemed like the right approach, sifting through all the “prospects” to find “voters”. My assumption was quickly challenged. For a candidate with a hard deadline (Election Day), there's an app for that. “Talk to everyone? Ha!” I was told. “That would take forever. Here's your list of Dems who voted in the last election, that's who we want to talk to.” Lesson one: your objective shapes your practice. A short term action requires mobilizing more than organizing.

Unlike a political campaign, community organizing (nourishing the grassroots for long term sustainable change) starts with building relationships that move "prospects" from members, citizens who find personal value in your issue, to activists. Think of each commitment to action being a series of small steps. Organizers call this the ladder of engagement. Part of the genius of organizing is designing action steps that are easy, meaningful and fun. Signing a petition, registering to vote, meeting with an elected official, talking to a neighbor are all action steps that require some preparation. This is where a group can help. The support of others makes each step easier to take. Lesson two: use relationships help members take action stepsMy mentor Charlene Watts calls this “acting your way into a new way of thinking.”

The organizer's role in the change effort is to manage the process by helping leaders and members understand how change happens. Many organizers use a three step model invented by Kurt Lewin in the 1940s: unfreezing, moving, and refreezing.

  1. Unfreezing is the process of undermining the present understanding about a problem or need. One example is changing the way that “the public” thinks about eviction. Unfreezing may begin with a book like “Evicted,” but challenging the local reality means assessing the forces for and against change and then weakening the opposition to change with personal, dramatic, local stories supported by data.

  2. Moving is the action phase where leaders and members promote a new consensus about what can be done to solve the problem that was redefined in the "unfreezing" phase. Goals in the moving phase could include proposing policy changes or new legislative protections or implementing new social service interventions. This phase requires the engagement of the leaders and members who “own” the issues. Organizers and advocates take a back seat.

  3. Refreezing may be the most important and most often forgotten phase of a social change movement. What happens after you win new procedural or legal rights or new programs, but no one knows how to use them? Sooner or later, the reforms become meaningless. In the years after the passage of the Ohio Landlord Tenant Law, many groups around the state began training tenants and landlords and testing the provisions of the law in order to make “rights” into realities. In the years after the passage of the Ohio Landlord Tenant Law, many groups around the state began training tenants and landlords and testing the provisions of the law in order to make “rights” into realities. Because opposition to rental rights is entrenched, that “refreezing” needs to continue with every new generation of tenants.

Lesson three: social change is a conscious process, not an emotional uprising. Contrast the outrage over the death of Trayvon Martin with the outrage over the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. One big difference was the emergence of Black Lives Matter (BLM) which helped to shape the issue and mobilize the community. At the BLM website is a photo of protester with the T shirt slogan: “This is a movement,not a moment.”

Easy-peasy, right? If only that were true! Organizers must be always aware of the fact that the consequences of social change, for better or worse, belong to the leaders and members. They alone take the risks and benefit from the rewards. Byron Kennard provides a lesson in the innate conservatism of leaders and members. “This protective mechanism should be appreciated for what it is by advocates of social change. If they despise and deride it, they may end up like the community organizer I once knew who complained to me that 'the people' had let him down. I told him I was unaware that 'the people' had ever promised to hold him up.” Lesson four: My mentor Floyd Hughey told me, "you can't move any faster than the mule that's pulling the plow."

Over the next several months, rhino!Up will feature one community organizing story each month. Last fall, RHINO members voted to make Place based organizing and advocacy training as “activities” for 2016. Share your organizing lessons with
posted June 5, 2016
  New Rules for Radicals

Rick Cohen at NPQ shares these thoughts about new rules for radicals originally published in Truthout. Rick observes:  "Robinson’s new rules for radicals in today’s era of technology and social media trace their roots to effective grassroots organizing tactics that have been practiced over the decades.
 #1: “The rules have changed.”  She foresees “a whole new political era, one that runs by an entirely new set of rules—and one in which a great many impossible things may, all of a sudden, become possible.”
#2: “No despair. Despair is a waste of time and energy.”
#3: Because no one really knows what will and won’t work—who would have ever expected Occupy Wall Street to accomplish what it has?—she advised, “try everything. Try it, even if you’ve tried it before and it didn’t work. Try it, even if it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Try it, just because it’s there. It’s going to take many thousands of experiments before we really understand the contours of this new political and economic reality we’re living in.”
#4. “Trust the vision,” she argues, meaning “a strong vision of what this nation can and should become.”
#5. “Focus on our goals, not on our enemies,” Robinson advises.
#6. “Expect resistance,” or as she says more colloquially, “whatever you do, you are going to piss somebody off.”
#7. “Find and nurture innovators,” she  says, referring to the “people in our midst who are really good at this stuff…comfortable taking a lot of risks, and not afraid of bombing out.”  
#8. “If there’s promise, stick with it, and give the innovator the chance to keep making it better.”
#9. “Celebrate every win, no matter how small. Every one matters.”  Even if the results weren’t totally what was desired, she reminds activists “to reward the politicians who actually managed to deliver the goods for once.”
#10. “Replicate success,” Robinson concludes, writing “if it works, use it. Good ideas belong to everybody, and nobody is going to flunk you for stealing them.”

 Notes & Links