Category Archives: strategy

Post-election thoughts

Like many progressives, I’m upset about last night’s election results. As a father, I worry about the country my daughter is growing up in when a man who brags about groping women can be elected president. I worry about friends who are Muslim, Latinx, transgender, and others and what this election will mean for them.

But, as Joe Hill said, “Don’t mourn, organize!” Here are some initial thoughts about where to go from here:

  • Solidarity: Some communities are especially vulnerable: women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ, low-income folk, etc. We need to stand together and defend the rights and safety of these vulnerable communities. This is especially important for those of us who are in not being targeted.
  • We need a better story: Hillary Clinton is a very technocratic politician. She knows the nuances and details of what can and cannot be done, and in that role never told a bigger story about where America is and where it is going. Donald Trump, on the other hand, told a very simple story, and he told it relentlessly, “The elites in government, media, etc. are corrupt. They are screwing you and this country. I’m the only one who will tell the truth and take them on.” He told this story relentlessly, and it resonated in a way the complicated but competent technocratic messaging didn’t. As we think of where to go, we need to find that simple, clear, engaging larger story to tell (as President Obama did in his first election).
  • We need to reach out of our comfort zones: Look at the maps. If we stay in our blue-district enclaves, we won’t win. Much of the outreach I have been involved in targets people who are already predisposed to agree. We need to go beyond that group and reach fence-sitters who are not there yet. This means, for example, doing diversity and inclusion work in communities that are not very diverse.
  • Anti-institutional sentiments are strong, have a basis in people’s real experience, and need to be addressed. From Brexit to the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign to Trump’s victory, we are seeing many eruptions of popular dissatisfaction with the technocratic solutions offered by our current institutions. I believe that part of the basis of this is a real instability from growing wealth inequality, rapid cultural shifts, and more. Falling back to technocratic answers of “trust us, we’ve run the models, this is for the best” don’t address the real anxiety people are experiencing.

Is there a new recipe for social change?

“The old model for coordination group action required convincing people who care a little to care more, so they would be roused to adt. What Hanni and Streeting did instead was to lower the hurdles to doing something in the first place, so that people who cared a little could participate a little, while being effective in the aggregate.” —Clay Shirky

picture of recipe card

How does the Internet change the way we cook up social change?

In Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky describes the new recipe for community organizing.

Here’s an embellished version of the old recipe: Continue reading

The limits of empathy

Is empathy always best for organizing?

Is empathy always best for organizing?

I’ve written before that “empathy is the core of organizing.”

Empathy has its limits, though.

Here’s an example. Recently the organization I worked for wanted to hang an anti-torture banner over Main Street in our city. The city permit process requires that such actions get approval from the area merchant association. When they received our request, the Main Street group decided to put all banner permits on hold while they reviewed if they could deny banners that are political in nature.

I was angry at their decision, but I also had empathy for their perspective. I want downtown merchants to do well, and I didn’t think that pictures of aborted fetuses, for example, would be good for business. I saw their side of the story.

Not everyone in the organization was inclined to be understanding. Some said we should march down Main Street with the banner they wouldn’t let us hang up (as a publicity stunt, this was a beautiful idea). Some had no patience for the merchant association’s concerns, and therefore they were willing to take a much more assertive approach.

Which disposition is the correct one? They both have merits. I have begun to re-think my advocacy of empathy over all things as I see that my respect for the business association’s concerns limited my ability to respond forcefully.

Still, I cannot bring myself to give up my general approach to see and understand my the perspectives of those I disagree with.

Demagoguery, de-humanization, and denial of other perspectives can be a powerful ways to mobilize people, but that is a road that I fear to travel. Instead, I remain committed to seeking empathy and understanding.

How it ended. We had so much else to do with torture awareness month, we never chose a path of action to deal with the merchant association’s rejection of our banner.

We did get to put the banner up, but not on Main Street

We did get to put the banner up, but not on Main Street

We did get permission to hang the banner on another street by a different merchant association. I am deeply uncomfortable with handing over decisions about what speech is permissible to a business group, especially if there are no clear standards for their decisions and no means for appeal. We have had some contact with local civil liberties attorneys and we have not ruled out trying to change the approval mechanism working either through our elected officials or through the courts.

What is the role of technology in organizing

technology can help, but organizing is all about people.

“Technology is a tool that supports mobilization, not a replacement for live personal contact and relationships” (Tools for Radical Democracy, Minieri and Getsos).

I’m on Facebook. I blog. I tweet. I’m doing the whole technology thing.

But it’s also important to recognize the limits of technology.

Organizing is primarily about relationships, and those relationships are mostly about people.

Technology helps organizing when it works within those relationships and strengthens them. Technology impedes organizing when the organizers starts worrying more about the technology than the people.

When I orient volunteers to use our database I tell them, “Our greatest resource are people: our volunteers, members, donors, and contacts. The database is a tool to help us keep track of this most valuable resource.”

What does this mean for organizing?

  • Connect with people personally. Face-to-face is best, phone is second, even in an online world;
  • Give personal follow-up to personal communication. Reply to those random emails you get. Reply to comments on your web site. People still want to hear from people.
  • On the other hand, don’t shun technology. Technology can be a great way to mobilize people you have a relationship with. Who wants to phone bank thousands of people for each event?
  • Above all, remember it’s about the people, not the technology. It’s about the people you serve and the people you organize.

know your limits, push your limits, don’t exceed your limits

In both organizing and weightlifting, you want to push your limits. But if you try to vastly overshoot your limits, you do more harm than good.

In both organizing and weightlifting, you want to push your limits. But if you try to vastly overshoot your limits, you do more harm than good.

When I was in high school, I did a bit of weight lifting. (Being more bookish than physical, though, I actually spent more time reading weight lifting magazines than I actually spent working out).

Here’s how weight lifting makes you stronger. You lift weight that is just at the limits of your ability so that you have to struggle to lift it ten times.

Your body says, “this is hard, I had better get stronger so I can handle I’m being asked to do.”

It’s a dance where you are operating just at your limits, slowly building up strength and pushing your limits.

There is a temptation to try to do too much too fast, to lift more weight than you are ready for. It usually ends in injury.

Trying to do something far beyond your capabilities doesn’t make you stronger, it makes you weaker.

The same is true in organizing.  You want to challenge yourself and your organization. You increase your strength and influence. And you do this by taking on larger and larger challenges.

In Tools for Radical Democracy, when Minieri and Getsos talk about choosing actions, they say an action should be “within your capacity. You only choose actions that your organization can run effectively.”

Know your limits. Expand your limits. Respect your limits. It takes a long time to recover from a strained tricep. It also takes a long time to recover from a “mass rally” that only fourteen people show up for.

What should your demand be?

“You establish realistic demands so that targets take you seriously, and you leave room for negotiations.” (Tools for Radical Democracy, Minieri and Getsos)

Let’s start with two examples of bad demands:

  1. We demand the immediate dissolution of the capitalist/white-supremacist/patriarchal/militarist state
  2. We demand a .0001% increase in wages to be made up for by workers skipping lunch.

I often see groups argue over what they should ask for in a demand. The debate often goes between “realists” and “idealists.” And, as is often the case, both have a bit of the truth.

The idealists see the grand goal, and they are impatient to get things over with and fix all that is broken in the system.

The realists want to see some progress, and they don’t want to have what progress they can achieve undermined by asking for too much.

How can find the right spot between demanding too much and too little?

Michael Donaldson’s book Fearless Negotiating (commented on here) gives a simple 3-step method to help you figure out that point. You need to figure out 3 things:

  1. What your best case scenario is (your “wish”)
  2. What you think you can get (your “want”)
  3. what’s so little that you won’t accept it (your “walk”).

It’s easier to ask for too much or too little. To ask for just the right amount takes more work, but I think it’s worth it.

The importance of a plan

Okay, you’ve researched and you’ve picked a strategy.

Now it’s time to plan what you’ll actually do.

Again to Tools for Radical Democracy by Minieri and Getsos, “Without a campaign plan, you are more likely to engage in unfocused activities that do not contribute to getting targets to meet your demands.”

There are many formats for campaign plans out there. I’m very impressed with the The Just Enough Planning Guide. Which planning format you use matters less than that you create a plan. It should include:

  • Your goals;
  • A roadmap for how you will get those goals met;
  • A timeline with objectives that you can measure your progress against;
  • Your message;
  • What resources you have;
  • What allies you want to bring on board and what adversaries you will have to deal with.

The important this is that after you create this plan, you keep looking back at it.

Yes, it will probably change as you move forward, but looking back at it will make sure you don’t spend three weeks trying to get a visit with a newspaper’s editorial board if your plan tells you that getting the support of union reps is more important.

Research. Choose a strategy. Plan your actions.

Then do!

Choose a strategy based on what outcome you want, not what actions you want to do

Tools for Radical Democracy by Minieri and Getsos has a great chapter on strategy. To define strategy, they explain:

Campaign strategy is the way or ways that a  community power-building organization uses its power to win a demand. . . . If the organization just plunges into action with no clear strategy, it goes from event to event with no deep payoff.

This is key. Choose a strategy based on your best analysis of if it will give you what you want.

Don’t choose it based on what you want to do. Or what another group is doing. Or what you’ve done before.

Of course, this takes research into your issue, your target, and how you can actually have the impact you want.

Rallies and sit-ins can be fun. Media activism can feel empowering. Legal strategies have generated great wins. But this doesn’t mean that any of these are right for your specific issue.

Minieri and Getsos list seven different strategies:

  1. direct action
  2. disruption
  3. legislative
  4. advocacy
  5. alliance-building
  6. media
  7. public education

Each of these  have their own benefits and drawbacks. And no, you can’t do them all at once.

If you’re building a house, you have to know when to use a hammer and when to use a saw. Likewise, when fighting for social justice, you have to know when to sue and when to sit-in.

Don’t just act, research and plan

It may not always be fun, but to succeed in your campaign you have to do your homework

It may not always be fun, but to succeed in your campaign you have to do your homework

One of the things I really appreciate about Tools for Radical Democracy is that it puts a lot of emphasis on researching and planning campaigns and actions.

Take for example the chapter “Researching the Politics of an Issue.” Minierni and Getsos talk about the need for thorough campaign reaserach: going to the library, talking politics with people, going to political meetings, etc.

All this needs to hapen early, before you start putting pressure on a target.

You know what? This kind of planning and preparation is hard work. It’s takes time. It slows you down. Many people find it boring.

And this kind of planning and preparation is absolutely essential if you want to be successful. You need to know your issues, the people and the communities involved,  and the poltical landscape.

Your mother was right, y0u need to do your homework if you want to pass the test.