Organizing is a practice aimed at helping people create the social movements and political organizations necessary to wage campaigns and win power. How do we make real the promises of democracy? Organizing is a time-tested strategy for empowering the people.
Organizing Relies on Action/Movement/Experience
The great American thinker, W.E.B. Dubois wrote:
The theory of democratic government is not that the will of the people is always right, but rather that normal human beings of average intelligence will, if given a chance, learn the right and best course by bitter experience. (emphasis added)
“The people…will, if given a chance, learn the right and best course by bitter experience.” Experience is the teacher, the movement is the school, organizing is the method.
“The organizer’s work is designed to produce social action because it is in the tumult of political life that leaders emerge, relationships develop and transformations in consciousness are realized.”
Organizing depends on experience and experimentation rather than doctrine or ideology alone. Ideas are best proven or disproven in action rather than in debate. Words are important yes, but actions speak louder.
“Organize the Unorganized!”
When the Industrial Workers of the World, set out to unionize big industry for the first time organizing became a make-it-or-break-it proposition for the movement. The Great Steel Strike of 1919, raised up “Organize the Unorganized” as the battle-cry of the class struggle. Organizing was the way forward but was also the best defense against the deportation of immigrants, scapegoating and attacks on radicals, blacks, workers and anti-war activists that was all part and parcel of the first “Red Scare.” Sound familiar?
Today, organizing remains as the most basic task ahead and the greatest contradiction: how to build a movement of people not currently active. It seems so simple: movements grow only when they attract people who are currently not involved or disagree. But that means organizing demands that we work with people we do not agree with. Even if millions have a rough agreement with our values, why are so few activists? Even if people agree on paper, we disagree with their passivity. And that is a far deeper disagreement than a matter of ideology.
For organizers, politics is about disagreement as much as it is about agreement. How do we deal with disagreement?
Telling people that they have been duped or turned into fools and that we are right is not the organizer’s way. We do not call people out. We call them in to activity. Organizers are wary of exclusivity. We aim to include rather than exclude.
“Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think, or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.” — Malcolm X
It’s important to be mindful of barriers to entry. Almost all political organizations consciously or unconsciously erect barriers to entry. It is our duty to help people overcome the barriers to entry. We should not expect conversion experiences. What are the intermediate steps? Even vanguard parties created front groups. Even in union organizing it’s often necessary to do “vestibule” organizing — can’t get them in the church right away, talk with them in the vestibule.
Units of Power/Serve the People
One answer to the problems we face is to create organizing projects that build political structures or what Martin Luther King Called “Units of Power.” Here is King’s critique of his own work:
“Our most powerful nonviolent weapon is… also our most demanding, that is organization. To produce change people must be organized to work together in units of power.
[I]t is necessary to acknowledge that the torturous job of organizing solidly and simultaneously in thousands of places was not a feature of our work.
Many civil rights organizations were born as specialists in agitation and dramatic projects; they attracted massive sympathy and support; but they did not assemble and unify the support for new stages of struggle.
Recognizing that no army can mobilize and demobilize and remain a fighting unit, we will have to build far-flung workmanlike and experienced organizations.
“To produce change, people must be organized to work together in units of power. These units might be political, as in the case of voters’ leagues and political parties; they may be economic units such as groups of tenants who join forces to form a tenant union or to organize a rent strike; or they may be laboring units of persons who are seeking employment and wage increases.”
Units of power also take the form of projects that serve the people and enhance their survival.
While they were famous for black berets and self-defense, the Black Panthers built a solid base with service work. They helped to create an enduring model for successful community organizing. This excellent short video looks at the Panthers’ health care programs but they also had a breakfast program for kids, food for elders, schools and legal clinics. These programs became known as “serve the people,” or what the Panthers thought of as “survival pending revolution.”
Bill Whitfield of the Black Panther chapter in Kansas City serves free breakfast to children before they go to school, April 16, 1969. Photograph by William P. Straeter AP
The same approach was used by white commmunity organizations you can read about in Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times. One of the most influential community groups was started by radical students that named the organization JOIN for Jobs Or Income Now. A noble goal but the people decided immediate survival issues were far more important. Housing was expensive and rundown, so tenant unions were organized. The young were harassed by police so JOIN formed a committee to resisted police brutality. The poor found the welfare system confusing and demeaning so JOIN fought for welfare rights.
Today, organizing continues in all kinds of projects around the country. A recent union drive at Stamford Hotel used deep organizing methods for a big win. The Democratic Socialists of America are engaged in a very promising effort to build a base using a deep organizing strategy. Teachers self-organizied the historic West Virginia strike.
We also have a powerful new source for contemporary community organizing in Rising Jackson: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson Mississippi. Cooperation Jackson is a network of worker cooperatives and democratic institutions that grew out of decades of organizing.
All serve the people, all are units of power — this is how we overcome.
Organizing Demands Engagement
Engagement is true politics and the starting point for transformative change. If there is no engagement there is no discussion and without discussion there is no movement. Talking with strangers is one of the core revolutionary practices of the organizer’s world.
Saul Alinsky, born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, founded modern community organizing in the 1930s. While Rules for Radicals is his best known book, organizers also turn his earlier and more helpful work Reveille for Radicals. Alinsky schooled thousands of activists. He captured the kernel of organizing wisdom when he wrote:
“As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be.”
The world “as it is” means starting with the people as they are. Then we move forward together.
Organizing focuses first on the people, secondly on those in power. In choosing tactics, campaigns, or language the need for engagement with people takes center stage. Speaking truth to power only works once you are well organized and have spoken truth to the people.
The organizers most important target then is the enemy within: fear, fatalism, denial, and distraction. By engaging people in gradually escalating action we diminish fear and fatalism and all the forms of social control that keep people in their place.
A good organizer is one step ahead of the people — always one but only one.
Relationship Building and Leadership Development
Ella Baker said, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
Ella Baker, was the greatest organizer of the civil rights movement and one of the most influential activists of the 20th Century. Ella worked closely with many of the great leaders including Martin Luther King — who she did not always see eye-to-eye with. King was the charismatic leader — Baker the classic organizer. Ella did a lot of the invisible work of bringing people together. Her greatest achievement was that she helped organize the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC was the bridge between the civil rights moment and young people that propelled the upheavals of the last revolution. Baker mentored a generation of leaders and championed an organizing perspective.
She argued that the movements needed:
“the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people.”
It is the organizers job to be aware of an individual’s strengths and skills and to help them find political work that matches and enhances their abilities. Baker’s vision was that everyday people had the capacity to understand and change the world.
Participation, Democracy and Self-Determination
It’s the people’s right to decide what is to be done. The organizer helps the people do it.
SNCC’s slogan was: “Let the people decide.”
As Ella Baker would have it: a good organizer helps people “see their own ideas.”
How is this done? The movement in Iceland today has given new life to an old radical idea. “From the people to the people.” Listen. Refine. Return. Repeat. But stay true. If the people can “see their own ideas” they will lead, if not — you will be on your own.
“The key to organizing an alternative society is to organize people around what they can do and more importantly what they want to do.” — Abbie Hoffman
Huey Perry an unsung Appalachian organizer:
“A community action group consists of low-income people organized together to identify their problems and work toward possible solutions….I feel it is necessary that we take our time and build an organization that involves the poor in the decisions as to what types of programs they want, rather than sit down and write up what we think they want.”
The organizer yields power to the people as a strategy for winning power for the people. This is the deep dual meaning of the classic slogan “Power to the People.”
W.E.B Dubois taught that only “Liberty trains for liberty.” Democracy trains for democracy and power for power. There are no substitutes for experience and action.
“Give light,” Ella Baker said, “And the people will find the way.” Democracy is the “light,” finding “the way” is self-determination.
Organizing is a democratic means in keeping with democratic ends. There are plenty of shortcuts but they just won’t get you there.
 W.E.B. Dubois, The Negro
 William Z. Foster was the son of radical Irish immigrants. He had a long, distinguished and checkered career rotating through the revolutionary movements of his time. Most important he was the most notorious leader of the Great Steel Strike. His pamphlet “Organize the Unorganized” sets out a revolutionary strategy for the period, but is also full of lessons for our own.
 MLK, Where Do We Go From Here?
 MLK, Nonviolence, The Only Road to Freedom
 See also Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement