Social Justice Thoughts

Organizing Tips: Part One

I didn’t post last week, and I hate not doing things that I say I’m going to do. Still, I’ve had an amazing few weeks, and this weekend my daughter got to come home for the summer. I am so grateful to my friends who contributed to making her homecoming a reality. I’m so happy to have her home, and I know that taking care of her is going to add another level of things I have to accomplish in a day to my life. Future Alanna: If you don’t get something written and edited every week, it is okay, you do a lot of stuff, and honestly, you are the only one who cares so chill. Don’t want to speak too soon, but I think my curse might be broken. 

I am a retired, issue-campaign, social justice organizer. I started my career as a volunteer activist interested in raising hell with my community to make sure all of us could live lives filled with joy and dignity. Then somehow over the course of a decade, I turned that passion into my job. I have had the honor of working with some amazing people who have been kind enough to share their wisdom with me. I have been given incredible opportunities to dream big and create campaigns rooted in the stories of my community. Sometimes I had big successes, and sometimes I had massive failures. I’ve been a good organizer and a very shitty organizer. I’ve learned a lot. I could go on and on about my thoughts on the current state of professional organizing within the nonprofit structure, but I will save that for another time (spoiler alert: I’m fucking pissed about it, and everything is terrible). 

Over the course of a few posts, I want to share some of the tips that I’ve learned, often the hard way, which has made me a better organizer. This list grows with every organizing experience I have and is in no way exhaustive. Everyone approaches issue-based organizing through the lens of their experience. What works for me, might not work for you, but I think it is important that we all share our practice, so the good ideas become contagious. Now more than ever, our communities and the organizers within them need new and good and creative and bold ideas, and we can only get there by sharing and examining what works and what doesn’t.

All spaces should be accessible to all people.

Everyone you want to come to your meeting or event should be able to attend and fully participate in a way that makes them feel comfortable. If we don’t share them, we might not see the barriers to participation created in physical spaces or in the atmosphere creates within that space.

Childcare is often overlooked. When childcare is acknowledged as a need it is considered too costly to provide for regularly occurring meetings. Providing childcare at a meeting doesn’t mean hiring childcare providers by the hour, although if that is within your budget, it would be great. Childcare can be as simple as gathering up some coloring books and toys and getting a volunteer to be in the space. As someone who has often had to take my daughter to meetings with me, it can be frustrating when organizers say they are welcoming of children and just to bring her along. Now she is good at entertaining herself with coloring or playing with a toy, but when she was younger, she would be crawling all over me and wanting my attention. It made it hard to participate. Separating off a part of the room and having easy activities for kids can make parents feel much more able to take part without worrying about if their kid has located every potential electrical socket that would fit their fingers.  

Do homework on your space. Go there and take note of accessible parking, any stairs or raised entries. If I’m going to a new space, I like to visit it in advance and make a mental note or a drawn map of entrances, exits, bathrooms, and parking. Ask about the indoor heating and cooling units and if they are loud or making a humming noise. A noisy AC can make meetings frustrating for people who are hearing impaired or can be a trigger for someone with epilepsy.  I always recommend putting as much space between tables as possible to make navigating between them easier. Taking the time to research a space can make for better meetings. Always include questions about space accessibility as part of meeting evaluations. If you are presenting to a large audience, have options to amplify sound. When using a visual presentation, keep the text on slides minimal so that you can use a larger font. Look into downloading a font that has been designed specifically for dyslexic readers. I’ve had folks recommend Arial, Comic Sans, and Verdana.

If serving food at a meeting or even, try to set something up that allows people to build their meal. Something like a taco or salad bar can make it easier for a person with food allergies or dietary restrictions to find something to eat without having to ask a bunch of questions. Separate each food item out and label everything. Doing this won’t guarantee that everyone is accommodated, but it will increase your chances of being able to feed everyone. Whenever possible, ask about dietary restrictions in advance.

Translation is important, especially at large public events. Many organizations that work with communities whose first language is not English have those little translator boxes. Reach out and offer money to rent them for the night. If you have a speaker that prefers to speak in a language that your audience might not be fluent in, ask them if there is someone they feel comfortable with translating for them and offer to pay that person to translate your event.

Making spaces accessible can seem like a lot of moving pieces, but it is critical to building trust between you as an organizer and your community. Do your research and be prepared to get it wrong sometimes. There is always something you will think about five minutes before your event begins so have a way to keep track of ideas, like in a notebook or on your phone. Take criticism of what you have missed as a gift.

Assess if you are the best messenger.

Just because I know and care about an issue, doesn’t mean I am the best person to educate the community on that issue. I have had the opportunity to share knowledge with my community on a lot of different issues that directly impact my life. I’m almost always willing to talk about my abortion, about being a single parent, about media literacy concerning race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. or about my relationship with my body.  On those topics, I feel that I am a good and useful messenger. Obviously, my ability to be a good messenger is dependent on my audience, but generally speaking, I feel that I have the potential to connect on those issues and have researched and done the work I need to do emotionally to deliver information in a way that can be helpful. I do not often talk about my struggle with addiction or my immigration status because I know that I have more work to do within myself to be able to share on those issues in a way that is useful. I am impacted, yes, but in ways that I struggle to understand fully and in a very different way than others in my community who are living the same experiences. The same can go for organizations. Just because an organization has the resources to run a campaign, doesn’t mean they should.

Working to remove ego from my work allowed me to see that while my story might move ten people, there was someone whose story could move hundreds. My job as an organizer was to give others the tools they needed to tell their stories. It can be harmful to get up in front of a room and spout off a bunch of things that you might think and feel about an issue. Harmful to you in the aftermath and triggered to folks in the room with you. Reading a couple of reports on a subject doesn’t make anyone an expert in the lived experience of others.

Know your audience.

Have you ever been to an event advertised as educational but then you show up, and everyone in the room is the same people who are always at those events and who already know the issue? Events like this happen when people don’t know their audience.I’m going to run through some examples to try to illustrate the difference between audience, target, and, what I think of as, messengers. I have tried to do this before with varying success. If it is confusing, let me know in the comments. I have considered making a video to illustrate this visually and would be happy to do that if anyone thinks it would be helpful.

As our first example, let’s imagine that I am working on a campaign about raising the minimum wage. I want to figure out if my audience is workers, managers, elected officials or other decision makers, companies, or the families of workers? The answer is highly specific to the campaign goals. If my goals are to educate people about minimum wage and how it is designed to keep people in cycles of poverty while allowing corporations to make millions, then my audience is not the worker because they already know that shit. They live it. It might seem like you are “educating” them, but you are just force feeding your vocabulary to them for things they already understand. 

In this case, my audience could be elected officials or other decision-makers. My audience could be people who frequent stores or restaurants that do not pay minimum wage. The workers are messengers: leaders, organizers, and educators on the issue. They are not my audience. My job is to organize the messenger (the people who are most impacted). The next step in my job is to mobilize the messengers that have been organizing with to educate the audience (people outside the impacted community that can have sway in the form of money, votes, or influence over the target) about how to get the result we want from the target (the person or group or decision-making body who can make the change you want). I will also add here that sometimes the audience can include individuals who are part of the impacted community and disconnected from the issue. In the case of these folks, the organizer’s job is to give them the tools to transition from audience to messenger.

If your goal is to organize people to boycott corporations that do not pay a living wage, your audience is not the corporation or its stakeholders. They already know they do wrong and are too invested in what they have built to make changes. The employee, again, is more than aware of how shitty their employer is and they can become great messengers. The corporation is your target. Your audience is the people who spend money. You could even drill this down further and say that your audience is people who have money to spend that they could easily take to another store that does pay a living wage. This is an important distinction to make. People shop at Walmart because they can get the things they need at a lower price than other places or they might live in a rural area and have nowhere else to shop. If your audience is people who live in a rural area with few other options, your organizing approach is worlds apart from if your audience is middle-class to wealthy people who live in urban areas and can afford to shop somewhere that might be slightly more expensive but is more align with their values.

Know your audience like the back of your hand. Know what music they like, what kind of movies they watch, what kind of things they like to do for fun. Your audience is your best friend because they are the most mobile group. If you can turn your audience into messengers, activists or voters, then your target doesn’t stand a chance.

Okay. That is all I have for this week. Next post I’ll be covering the difference between organizing and mobilizing and looking at ways to balance relational meetings with direct ask meetings with decisions makers and with potential volunteers. Is this boring? I don’t know. Maybe. But maybe it will be useful. Anyway. Here is a music video that I love a lot right now.