Organizing to Win

Every day, people facing threats to their health and environment call CHEJ for help. They are looking for proof that all landfills leak, health studies linking incinerators to cancer, or the environmental record of a company that wants to build a plant in their community. CHEJ tries to provide those facts. But we also stay on the phone to help people through the realization that simply speaking the truth about landfills, incinerators, or previous violations won’t stop the poisoning.

The truth is only a start. In order for things to change, the truth has to be understood by a large group of people who then use this knowledge to fuel their efforts to win justice. The truth won’t stop the poisoning, but organizing will.

What is organizing?»

How do you organize?»

How do you set your organizing goals?»

How can your group operate effectively»

CHEJ Organizing Publications

Fight to Win: A Leadership Manual
Organizing Handbook
How to Win at Public Hearings
Research Guide for Leaders

The Center for Health Environment and Justice works to build healthy communities, with social justice, economic well being, and democratic governance. We believe this can happen when individuals from communities have the power to play an integral role in promoting human health and environmental integrity. Our role is to provide the tools to build strong, healthy communities where people can live, work, learn, play and pray. For more details on how we can help you click here.

What is organizing?

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According to Webster’s dictionary, organizing is “uniting in a body or becoming systematically arranged.”  Put simply, organizing is bringing people together for a common purpose and for mutual support to get the power they need to take control of their lives. In order to achieve justice in your community, you need power.  Organizing to protect communities from environmental harm means pulling together a large enough, diverse enough, active enough group of people to convince corporations and the government that they have to stop exposing people to toxic hazards.

Power is obtained in two ways, through people and money. Most community groups have very little money and are often battling huge corporations, who can always outspend citizen groups. That’s why we encourage activists to stress the “people power” side when organizing for justice. So the first step is “get more people.” The best way to recruit folks is with face-to-face communication. Talk to your friends/family and have them talk with their friends and family. Organize a group to go door-to-door in your neighborhood. You can also reach large numbers of neighbors by hosting your own community meeting or speaking at churches, clubs, schools and other group meetings and events.

Organizing is how we restore the balance between the rights of the people to safe food and healthy communities, and the rights of corporations to profit and pollute. We will never have as much money as the corporate polluters. We will never be able to afford their Madison Avenue media campaigns or their twenty-four hour access to elected officials. But we can build our own power to overcome their influence. We can do this by organizing to demonstrate the strength of our numbers and the righteousness of our demands. Successful organizing happens when a group of people finds visible ways to use the truth to wake up the conscience of a larger group.

“In opposing the country’s largest hazardous waste incinerator, we have learned that low income and communities of color are targeted for hazardous facilities that promise prosperity, but bring a health threat to families.  CHEJ taught us it is never too late to take back the government; that citizens through hard work and diligence can fight city hall.” Alonzo Spencer, Save Our County, OH

How do you organize?

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United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez said it best: “First you talk to one person, then another, then another…” It starts by knocking on that first door, holding that first meeting, and harnessing the power of people just like you. More often than not, you don’t need a lawyer, professional expert, fancy technology, or even lots of money to achieve victory. All you need is the support of your neighbors, hope, courage, and a lot of fire, emotion, anger, and spirit! One of the more popular organizing tools is the petition. Petitions are not often effective in getting government or corporations to take action, but a good petition is a great way to educate people on the issues, generate a mailing list, and make people feel involved. A good petition is short and simple, and always includes a supportable goal.

After years of doing it, CHEJ has come to the conclusion that organizing is more of an art than a science. It’s more important to be in touch with what is happening in your community and to respect and include your friends and neighbors than to follow a set of rules. But at the same time, there are some basic rules for organizing that usually hold true. These rules aren’t always applicable, but they are right often enough that you should consider them as you start to get organized around an environmental issue in your community.

Here are some of those rules to keep in mind.

  • Power determines the outcome. If two or more groups care about an issue, and one of them has a lot more power, that group will get what it wants, no matter what the facts are or who will be hurt.
  • Our power comes from people, while corporations and government’s power comes from money. Communities need to use strategies that depend on people’s creativity, courage and caring. The corporations and government will use strategies that depend on things which can be paid for, like experts and lawyers.
  • Polluters and government agencies write the rules so they can win using the experts and lawyers which are their strength. You can assume going in that if you play exactly according to the rules of their game, you will lose most of the time, whether you are at the slot machines in Atlantic City or the hearing process of your state environmental agency. Create your own rules instead.
  • To win, communities will have to work harder than polluters and government agencies do. Polluters and agencies are doing what they do because they are paid to. They’ve done it before, and they know most of the facts before the fight even starts. You are opposing them because you believe your health and your community are at risk. This gives you an unmatched motivation for working harder than they do.

These rules may seem harsh and they are. And sometimes things turn out to be easier than these rules would lead you to expect. But when our communities are at stake, it’s important to start out vigilant, alert and ready to face the challenges ahead of us.

Experience has taught us that organizing isn’t easy. Recognizing this should help us to be forgiving of each other and ourselves. We are trying to build a democratic society without adequate blueprints and models, so our trial-and-error method has to leave room for experimentation and mistakes. And recognizing how necessary organizing is should help us to be inclusive and persistent. There are no magic facts. There are no perfect heroes to give perfect speeches that will convince the polluters to stop polluting. There is only the dogged determination of people working together to protect their own health, their families’ health and the health of their communities. This is why we organize.

“If there is not a strong and strategic grassroots component, you don’t win.  To achieve environmental health protection, it’s absolutely essential to have a grassroots organizing component, and that’s why CHEJ is so essential to the work being done in communities around the nation.”

EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck, NY

How do you set your organizing goals?

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It is important to define and be clear about what your community group wants to accomplish. Be realistic in setting your goals. Pick goals that you can win. One or two are enough, but don’t choose more than three or four.

The four basic steps to achieving your goals are:

1. Organize a community group;
2. Decide what you want and set your goals;
3. Find out who can give you what you want, such as key decision makers; and
4. Decide how to make them give you what you want, such as working with allied groups and others to pressure the key decision maker.

Once you’ve organized into a group, defined your goals and identified what government or corporate decision makers you need to pressure, your group must draw-up a battle plan outlining which steps you will take to achieve your goals.

One of the consistently amazing and inspiring aspects of CHEJ’s work with community groups has been the incredible talent, energy, and imagination groups have shown in carrying out their campaigns to force government and industry to accept environmental justice.

How can your group operate effectively?

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Once your group has set goals, you must decide what work needs to be done to achieve them. Committees are usually the best way to share the workload. You may set up committees for key work, such as media, research, action, legal/technical, fundraising, community outreach, and so on. Encourage everyone to sign up for at least one committee; remember people come to these meetings to help and become involved.

Be innovative

Experience has shown us that the “system” that government and corporations say you must follow is designed to frustrate community involvement. Do not accept the role they try to define for you. The courts rarely offer justice; public meetings traditionally ignore the public, and most corporate deals are made in backrooms where government and industry talk about money; not health, fairness, or the common good. Be innovative with your group’s actions to pressure decision makers, reach out to the media, contact possible allies, such as civic, religious, labor, parent and health groups, and make sure all your members stay involved and informed.

CHEJ has found that victory is achieved when people build powerful, organized groups, play by their own rules, and make government and corporations answer to them! We have helped over 12,000 community groups. Yours can be the next success story.