Rules of Organizing: Like Organizes Like (except when it doesn’t)

One of the best ways to build rapport and organize a community is to work with an insider.

In fact, usually the best organizer is an insider. This is a fundamental rule of organizing: like organizes like.

African American organizers will have more success organizing African Americans. War veterans will have more success organizing war veterans. You can fill that equation with any group:

  • students
  • Detroiters
  • Catholics
  • homebrewers
  • retirees
  • old hippies
  • loggers

An insider knows the language. She knows the values. People of that community trust her because she’s one of them.

Like organizes like.

So, what do you do if you’re not in the community you’re organizing?

First of all, don’t give up.  There are many examples of successful organizers who aren’t part of the community. Unions, for example, hire a lot of organizers who have never worked on the assembly line, or as a janitor, or as a truck driver.

Likewise, at ICPJ, I’ve seen plenty of good organizing within faith communities from people with no particular faith affiliation.

Second, find an insider ally. Find someone in the community who will teach you the community norms, who will introduce you around, and who will use their insider credibility to help get you in.

Third, learn the community. Study it. If you’re organizing over-the-road truckers, learn the difference between a Kenworth and a Peterbuilt. If you’re organizing people of faith, learn each traditions’ holidays and religious terms.

Fourth, be honest about who you are. You should learn about the community you’re organizing, not fake it as if you were part of that community. Are you a white organizer in a Latino community? It probably won’t work to talk about your barrio. You’re job is not to “act Latino.” They know you’re not Latino. You’re job is to respect to the community enough to learn about it

Finally, remember that every rule has an exception. That’s why this post is titled “Like Organizes Like (except when it doesn’t).”

What best trumps the like organizes like rule is when someone makes a courageous break from their community for a higher purpose. That gives them the instant credibility to organize beyond their community.

That’s why peace groups are always working to get people from Veterans for Peace or Iraq Veterans Against the War to speak at their rallies. Their history as soldiers and current opposition to war gives them the instant credibility to organize pacifists, church folk, politicians, almost anybody.

Other examples include former tabacco company lobbiest organizing for smoking bans, former gang members speaking out against violence, and Republicans-turned-Democrats or Democrats-turned-Republicans.

Still, these are the exceptions. If you find this kind of exception, bonus. Until the, keep at it, find allies, learn about the community, and be who you are.

2 thoughts on “Rules of Organizing: Like Organizes Like (except when it doesn’t)

  1. TeacherPatti

    I’ve been thinking about this post, Chuck. One thing that bothers me about organizing is when people THINK they know what the “un-organized” group (for lack of a better term) want. I’ve been in several organizations that decided they wanted more blacks in the group. That in and of itself is fine. But what I didn’t think was so “fine” was the assumption that blacks WANTED to be in these particular groups. I’m not saying I know everything about Af-Am culture–of course I don’t–but it really bothers me for groups (which are almost always all-white) to just presume that because WE want to be in the Sierra Club (for example), so too must blacks (or any other “group”). I hope what I’m saying makes sense.

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  2. Chuck Warpehoski

    Good point, Patty. You have to accept and respect the agendas and perspectives of the people with whom we’re working. We can’t just assume that they will want to show up and take up our agenda.

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