Organizing Strategies

FROM ISOLATION TO ACTION

VOICE:

Most people — including young people — struggle in silence.  We deal with everything we experience in our lives and everything we see in the world MOSTLY in isolation.  Change begins when people find their voice.  Having a voice might be anything from talking to friends and family, testifying publicly at hearings or conferences, rhyming or singing about conditions, writing poetry or stories about experiences and feelings, (etc).

Unfortunately in the u.s., where consumer culture collides with the rights of individualism, almost all our talking is focused on blaming or exposing the individual person, and on fixing you — instead of on exposing unjust conditions and the inhumane treatment of people and fixing the system.

So, the whole industry of psychology, psychiatry and talk shows dominates voice in America.  Having a voice in this context doesn’t often lead to a conversation about oppressive conditions or on the race, gender, class (and other) inequities that sustain this oppression.  In other words, having a voice doesn’t guarantee that a person will fight for personal or community liberation.

For most people, having a voice is as far as it goes.  But, several things enable or inspire people to move from voice to:

ACTION

Action looks different and develops differently for different people. However, some patterns persist:

1. TRIAGE
People see suffering or injustice and try to ease it.  Hopefully, over time they work to build the capacity in people and communities to address things on their own. For example, this is how the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) would see our service work such as the legal education, street outreach, peer support, housing and court support people are currently engaged in, as well as the alternatives to arrest, court and incarceration people are developing for the future.  For organizers, the goals for this work are contrary to traditional social service or missionary models that often build dependence on programs and institutions rather than independence.  Organizers usually try to teach service while doing it, and raise the expectation that what you gain, you then have a responsibility to pass on to other people.

Service work continues, because there are always new people to reach out to, and you have to meet people’s immediate — sometimes crisis — needs before they can fight to change the conditions that cause suffering in the first place.  But…

2. Eventually,  people get a sense that
the root causes of problems must be addressed.
Power needs to be challenged, upset and redistributed.  At this time, people start…

3. TALKING ABOUT POWER.

FOR THE YJC, WE ARE BUILDING AN ORGANIZED SPACE FOR THIS DISCUSSION THROUGH:

[A] STREET, JUVENILE HALL and prison OUTREACH and education.

[B] POLITICAL EDUCATION INCLUDING: 1. SYSTEMS OF OPPRESSION, 2. LAW ENFORCEMENT HISTORY, 3. BUILD-UP OF PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX, 4. JUVENILE AND CRIMINAL INJUSTICE POLICY AND PRACTICE; AND 5. HISTORY OR PRISONER RIGHTS AND OTHER SOCIAL JUSTICE MOVEMENTS.

[C] YOUTH ORGANIZER APPRENTICESHIPS.

[D] LEADERSHIP TRAINING INCLUDING ORGANIZING SKILLS, TOOLS AND TACTICS.

[E] READINGS AND FILMS.

[F] DOCUMENTATION of issues, experiences and conditions.

[G] ANALYZING MAINSTREAM MEDIA and its messages. and…

[H] THE CREATION OF ALTERNATIVE MEDIA.

4.  THROUGH THIS RESEARCH, EDUCATION AND REFLECTION people go from analyzing power to…

CLAIMING OR TAKING IT!

This is when people get into developing an ACTION PLAN for the work that includes identifying the problem(s) and root causes; conducting research on the corresponding issues and contributing factors;  establishing goals for a campaign; identifying a target or targets (the people who have the power to give us what we want);  and conducting an analysis of their and our power, allies, vulnerabilities, etc.; selecting campaign strategy/strategies; determining tactics in order of escalation (from least threatening to most confrontational);  listing resource needs; and establishing a task and timeline.

These steps put together make up an ORGANIZING CAMPAIGN PLAN.

ORGANIZING either seeks to push the system — with a goal of REFORMING institutions, services and/or policies; or to rock the system with a goal of DISMANTLING OR REVOLUTIONIZING institutions, services and/or policies.

Most organizers rely heavily on three strategies in their organizing:

CONSTITUENCY BUILDING: Mobilizing and educating people on the issue, and supporting them to develop and implement an action plan in response.  Almost any event organizers do — workshops or conferences, street or door-to-door outreach, an action or a march, even a cook-out — is intended in part to build and educate constituency.

COalition BUILDING with allies — often other youth and adult activist groups — to build a stronger voice to push for the campaign’s goals.  When doing coalition work, organizers often rely in some members to do the insider work — (less confrontational, consensus building work with the targets).  Other members on the coalition keep pressuring the targets through direct action.  All members mobilize their constituencies to make some noise — (such as through press conferences, rallies, letter writing, petitions, legislative visits, etc.)

ADVOCACY: Through constituency and coalition building efforts, organizers are also able to push policy makers to back the demands of a particular campaign.  Sometimes, policy makers become allies.  Sometimes, they are the main or secondary target of a campaign.  Their place is determined through research and power analysis conducted during the action planning process.

5. MOVEMENT BUILDING

There are several ingredients needed to support movement building.  The success of social justice work over the long term depends on activists’ abilities to build these supports:

[A] Identity Building: Identifying constituency, who we are, what we believe in, what are our principles of unity.

[B] Ongoing Constituency OUTREACH and Education: Recruiting, orienting and training new members.

[C] Accountability: Clearly stated members’ rights and responsibilities; clear decision making structure; clear processes for holding leadership and other members accountable; constant communication to membership; maximum involvement of members in visioning and decision making.

[D] Leadership Building and Rotation: Supporting horizontal decision making, shared power, transition of power to new generations of leadership, while still valuing and sustaining long-term involvement of members.

[E] Research: of conditions; constituency views and experiences; constituency hopes and vision for change; geographic mapping of resources and threats; demographics; parallel research done by others who have engaged in similar work; and research on targets (their vulnerabilities, agendas, supporters and influences).

[F] Power Analysis and Action Planning.

[G] Outcome-based evaluation, including self-critique as a regular part of our work.

[H] Media Messaging and Marketing: Impacting the mainstream media to more effectively cover our issues; holding mass media accountable for their product and its impact on our communities.

[I] Building Indigenous Media: Creating movement media that promotes a youth voice and vision; educates, connects and mobilizes the membership; and builds and celebrates community.

[J] Public Policy Development, Advocacy, Electoral Power: Building the ability to register, educate and mobilize voters; draft legislation and ballot initiatives and get them passed; hold elected officials accountable; and train and run candidates, both expanding the work conducted by 501(c)(3) organizations and establishing new institutions.

Often, this is where organizing work stops.  PEOPLE GO ON TO THE NEXT FIGHT.

BUT, organizerS HAVE FOUND THAT THEIR VICTORIES DO NOT NECESSARILY LEAD TO LONG-TERM CHANGE.  POWER VACUUMS ARE frequently FILLED BY PEOPLE WHO ARE NEITHER MORE EFFECTIVE nOR MORE ACCOUNTABLE THAN THE LEADERSHIP OF THE PAST.  SO…

6.  increasingly, activists are working to:

PREPARE PEOPLE TO GOVERN

Activists work to dismantle institutions, change policy, kick incompetent

or oppressive officials out of office, and in some cases topple governments.

But, then what?  Perhaps an even more difficult challenge is envisioning — and then building and running — something new.

Through the work to develop the YJC, several goals have been identified that would support this effort:

[A] Building social justice institutions that survive over the long term. Institutional capacity building while movement building has become important as people have seen gains dissolve and institutions either become more conservative or disappear over time.

For our communities to engage in the struggle for racial and economic justice,  our member agencies have to gain strength, wealth and power through their movement work. This is key in sustaining the involvement, effectiveness and political independence of organizations over time.

[B] Building supports necessary to provide activists with the salaries, health insurance, educational opportunities and other supports (such as housing, substance abuse prevention and treatment, day care, etc.) that will enable our long-term commitment to social justice work.

[C] Taking control of local institutions and government.

Training and supporting people to run for office; to claim leadership of government and community institutions; and to fill key decision making posts within schools and communities.

[D] Continuing to build constituency in order to support new generations of leadership, and to hold current leaders — whether within our own institutions, within other community institutions, or within government — accountable.

Throughout this work, keep in mind the following:

[A] THIS WORK IS NOT LINEAR. ONCE ORGANIZATIONS OR MOVEMENTS HAVE DEVELOPED IT HAPPENS SIMULATENEOUSLY — AND NO ONE PART OF THE WORK IS MORE IMPORTANT OR MORE LEGITIMATE THAN ANY OTHER PART.

[B] BE HUMBLE AND INCLUSIVE. OFTEN ORGANIZERS LIFT OURSELVES UP AS THE TRULY REVOLUTIONARY PEOPLE.  BUT, WE CAN NOT DO OUR WORK WELL WITHOUT HAVING PEOPLE WHO DO SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS AND LIBERATING SERVICE WORK WITH YOUNG PEOPLE AND COMMUNITIES.  For example, there are a lot of people doing youth development within a social justice framework that works to challenge both internalized and institutionalized oppression.  AND AFTER ALL — PEOPLE NEED TO EAT. THEY NEED AN EDUCATION.  THEY NEED A JOB THAT PAYS ENOUGH TO LIVE ON.  (The Panthers, Young Lords and many other revolutionary groups fed people, gave out free clothing, started schools.  Why do so many of us pretend that this work is not still an essential part of the struggle for liberation?)

[C] Seek out and build with institutional progressives — teachers, politicians, bureaucrats, etc. — who work everyday to upset the system from the inside.  Unless we’re planning on realizing all of our victories tomorrow, we need to respect, support and build with people in other fields who are also fighting for youth and community justice.

[D] As part of this, we need to check ourselves on labeling. Are many of us in the U.S. truly living as revolutionaries?  Are we really in a place to challenge anyone else on how radical they are?  We can move people in all areas of youth and community work to focus more on social justice.  When that happens, in the past and today, then we will begin to see greater movement.