Principles of Organizing

By David Beckwith

What are these simple principles? What is the essence of the science of power, applied through the art of community organizing?

FIRST, people are motivated by their self-interest. This is important to motivating involvement from the community that’s being organized. It’s also key to developing effective strategies to pressure the opposition into giving up what the community wants. Many people are uncomfortable with self-interest. They’d rather focus on values, on selfless giving, or on mutual aid as the highest virtue. All these may be true, and we might hope that human beings could somehow be changed into angels. Human nature fails the angel test every time, though.

Effective community organizing can develop a broader sense of self-interest – this is where hope comes in to the picture. How can we broaden the sense of self-interest? Through a process of building up the horizons of the people we are organizing. It seems to me that people are taught everyday in countless little ways that the system is not going to change, no matter what they do. We learn to stand in line and fold our hands on our desks in school. We see politicians betray promises daily, with very little regard for the faith that voters place in them before the election. We see the rich get richer; the powerful escape the consequences of wrongdoing. In all these ways, we learn that nothing we do will change the way things are. Out of simple self-preservation, we begin to lower our horizons, to shrink into a world we define by our ability to have an impact.

Think about the last time you were in a meeting, and the room was too hot or too cold. You may have looked around for a door to open, a window to crack, or even a thermostat. I’ll bet, if you found none of these, you stopped being bothered by the room, though. What if you were right next to the thermostat, but it was locked? Wouldn’t the heat bother you more, and if you knew where the key was, or who could turn down the heat, wouldn’t the temptation to do something become almost irresistible? In the same way, our view of our own self-interest gets shrunk down to the arena in which we believe we can have an impact. Community organizing seeks to teach people, through experience, that they can be effective in a larger and larger sphere – their own block, their own neighborhood, their city, their state, and so on. In the process, we redefine our idea of self – who else is ‘us’ – and thus, of self-interest.

SECOND, community organizing is a dynamic process that requires constant attention and effort. It is impossible to use community organizing to get to a certain point and stop, or to build a community organization up and then stop reaching out for new folks and taking on new issues. The process of development that we described above – broadening peoples’ view of their own self-interest – is mirrored in the political arena.

We see this dynamic aspect in the initial stage of building a group. At first, some people will want to take on big issues, and some will identify more achievable goals. The organizer will push for a winnable project so that the group can get stronger slowly. The formula for building a new organization is: FWFWFLFH

This stands for Fight, Win, Fight, Win, Fight, Lose, Fight Harder. Any group that can pick its issues – and this is sometimes impossible – needs to take this process seriously.

What’s necessary in these early stages to grow a strong group? Although simpler, lower risk issues could be addressed quickly and behind the scenes, it is especially important that they be handled the same way the big ones would. For example, even if you know that the city will put up a stop sign upon request, you should still hold a press conference on the street corner and a march to city hall to demand it, then negotiate with the traffic engineer over which tree it will be posted on. A musical mom I know tells her children that ‘practice makes permanent – good practice makes perfect!’ If people in the early stages of a group learn that all it takes is a phone call to get things done, they’ll look to the same strategy next time. Community organizing is a process of teaching people to work together, and how to be effective.

THIRD, it’s important that, at an early stage of the development of any group, they learn to deal with conflict and confrontation. Some people see this as manipulation, as tricking people. Obviously, some groups and some organizers are guilty of this. In the final analysis, though, groups must learn confrontation and negotiation because they’ll eventually have to use both. Many of the problems that confront low income and minority communities can be solved by coordination and determination, simply by focusing people of good will on a commonly understood problem. But most of the fundamental problems are deeply rooted in greed and power, and there are those who benefit from the status quo. Slum landlords might make as much or more providing decent, safe housing, but not many will see it that way. If we are to build organizations that can have any serious impact at all, they will eventually have to come up against a situation where there will be winners and losers. The potential losers are not likely to lay down and roll over because of the righteousness of our cause. If the group has never stood strong before, if they have never made a demand before, if they’ve never faced a target that really had to be forced into complying, they’re more likely to back down when the going gets tough. If confrontation is not one of the tools in our toolbox, then we’re likely to ignore problems that require toughness to be addressed.

FOURTH, in selecting an issue to work on, every group has to take into account the fundamental definition of an issue. A neighborhood, a minority group, a group of workers or people who share any common complaint can be a community that wants to get organized. Typically, there is a tangled web of problems – complaints, irritations, bad situations, oppressions, difficulties, injustices, crises, messes. An issue is a problem that the community can be organized around. I learned a formula to describe this distinction from Stan Holt, Director of People Acting through Community Effort, in Providence, RI in 1971, when he gave me and another raw recruit our 6 hours of basic training before he sent us out door to door. He used the initials I S R on the chalkboard in the dingy little office at Broad and Public (I thought it was a pretty apt address for a community group – and I’m not making it up!). Immediate, specific and realizable. (I never could spell that last one) An organizer ‘cuts’ an issue – interprets or massages perceptions or manipulates situations until they fit these criteria as closely as possible. The thought process was to become automatic after a dozen years.

Immediate, he said, in terms of either the benefit folks would get from victory or, preferably, the harm they would suffer from inaction. ‘The bulldozers are coming and you’ll be out on the street tomorrow’ is far better than ‘would you like to be part of a community planning process’.

Specific refers to both the problem and its solution. Vacant buildings are a problem. That building that we want torn down by the end of the month is an issue.

Realizable (it’s easier to spell winnable, but it’s not the way I learned, what can I do?) is the toughest of all. It’s easy to describe the extreme, the global problem beyond the reach of a Block Club or a neighborhood organization. That’s not a good issue, especially not in the early stages. Most effective community organizations can point to victories that any sane person would say were far beyond their reach, though. Who would have thought that a handful of neighborhood folks concerned about their children would get the government to buy their homes and relocate their families, putting Love Canal into the language as a symbol of environmental disaster in the process. Who would have said that East Toledo could get agreement and construction on a $10 million dollar road project that would open up employment possibilities for their neighborhood, and only five years from concept to construction? It remains true, though, that calculating the odds on winning is an important first step.

The key to this aspect of ‘cutting an issue’ is calculation. The organizer – volunteer or staff – has to look with a cold, hard balancing of accounts at all the factors on our side and their side of the issue, and determine whether it’s worth starting out on. Some factors to consider include: who is affected by the problem, and can I get to them? How much does the problem hurt them, and how hard are they likely to fight? Are they able to escape easily, or is standing and fighting their only option? What resources are we likely to need and can we get them? On the other side, who benefited from the problem the way things are, and how much? Could they easily give us what we want, or would it cost them, and how much? Who else is peripherally hurt – or helped – by the way things are? How would the solution we seek change this equation? Could we go after something that would help us just as much, but get us more friends? In the end, all we can do is step out. The more we’ve tried to peer ahead, the less likely we are to stumble.