A continuation of some things I’ve picked up in my former life as a community organizer. I’ve had people ask why I say I’m not about that life anymore. I burnt out and hard. I said yes too often. I stayed late and came in early, and I lost the joy. I turned my passion into my career, which in theory sounds great but in practice can be sad. When you turn your passion into a job then you need to take the time to find new passions, and I never did. I will probably write about burnout and how I got here at some point. It is a little too fresh right now.
Just know that this work can be sustainable. If we prioritize our joy, we can do it for years and years and not burnout. I’ve met people who were able to do that. I might not be in the thick of it anymore, but I believe that it is critical work. Hopefully, these tips can make things better for you than it was for me.
You did not invent this work
No matter how innovative or fresh your campaign might seem, you are the new kid on the block. We are on stolen land. If you don’t think that indigenous folks were organizing against the colonizers way back, then you don’t understand how any of this works. Our ancestors organized our ability to walk on this planet. Our ancestors organized against systems designed to murder them and their dreams of us and fucking won. When I look at the hard issues, and I feel like it is impossible, I think of my grandmother’s grandmothers and how their hushed voices and planning and fearlessness are what make my bones. When I think of them, I know that I ain’t shit and what shit I am is because of my angels. It is hard to accept that even our best ideas are old news. Yes, we can come up with innovative ways of doing things, but at the root, everything we do in organizing has been done before just under a different name.
Another way to think about this is that *usually* someone has already tried to address the social issue you are trying to address. There is nothing that makes me roll my eyes harder than when someone from a position of privilege is like, “Hey I think we should do something about <insert oppressive structure here>.” Girl, we already know. Just because you do not see people working on specific issues in the spaces you frequent, doesn’t mean that work isn’t happening. Do the research if you want to get involved. Likely, people are doing some badass organizing that is flying under the radar, and your job is to leverage your privilege and tools to support it.
Don’t expect people to come to your shit if you never go to theirs
When I was a kid, I didn’t like anyone at my school. Ok, maybe like three people. There was this rule that you had to invite every kid in your class to your birthday if you were going to hand out invitations at school. I got lots of invitations that I wouldn’t have otherwise received without this rule in place. I never went to any of my classmate’s parties. My mom would try and try to convince me to engage with the kids around me, but they were boring and didn’t know anything cool. Then my birthday rolled around, and I was convinced by my mother to have a party under the guise of getting more presents. The pinata was ready, the cake was iced, and no one showed up.
Little Alanna was disappointed but ultimately happy to get to eat all the cake and lay on her bedroom floor and image being famous or something, but that is beside the point. The point here is, no one came to my party because I didn’t go to theirs. This life lesson applies to childhood functions as much as it does to community organizing.
As an organizer, you should be well versed in the meaning of intersectionality, not just as a vocabulary term but as an active verb in your life. You should be at other people’s shit. I always refer to my goals when deciding what events to attend. If I want to build with the disability rights community, I’m going to go to as many events put on by folks in that community as I can. And when I’m there, I’m not going to say anything. I’m there to listen and absorb and write down things to look up when I get home. I’m not there purely to invite them to come to an event I’m throwing or asking them to educate me. I’m there to build.
Centering your goals at another person’s event is like going to a classmate’s birthday party and spending the whole time talking about how much better your birthday will be. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been busting my ass working on pulling an event together and then 20 minutes before it begins some asshat asks if they can make an announcement about their event. No. Sit down. Listen and learn. Build relationships with people so that you can ask them at a more appropriate time. Go to people’s shit and be a good guest if you want them to show up to your shit.
Organizing vs. mobilizing
This concept has taken me years to understand, and sometimes I still fuck it up. For years, I thought that what I was doing was organizing when I was mobilizing. Organizing is the long term work of building people power. Mobilizing is the short term work of gathering people in their power. People can mobilize organically or as the result of a call to action. When people mobilize, they are drawn to an action: making phone calls, going to a rally, signing a petition. When people organize they are drawn to build power: long term campaigns and strategy, internal and external education, planning actions. The most effective type of action is one in which organized people are mobilized to make a demand of their target (discussed in the last post if you need a refresher).
Mobilizing without organizing is virtually meaningless. It is rare that one large action will result in structural change. I’m sure we have all had the experience of going to a large rally or protest and being inspired by the number of people taking action, only to never see even a quarter of those people at ongoing community meetings. It isn’t possible to organize the thousands of people who might show up to a rally. It is possible to pull in a handful of those people to organize in the hope that at the next large protest or rally, they will have the tools they need to pull in more people to create a steadily growing base of people power.
Focusing on mobilizing rather than organizing can be very tempting. News crews don’t show up to strategic planning meetings, but they will come to see thousands of people marching in the streets (also, fuck catering any work to grab the attention of the media – possibly more on this if wanted). Mobilizing is flashy and provides instant gratification. Organizing is slow, agonizing, and annoying. It means spending a lot of time with people, some of whom you will like and others who you won’t.
I came to community organizing work through the death penalty abolition movement. On average, states who have abolished the death penalty had people actively organizing for over a decade. A decade of work and having to watch people be murdered by the state and people still kept plugging away through their pain. They wrote and rewrote bills. Often victim families would have to recount the death of their loved one over and over and over to people in an attempt to make others understand why, after experiencing something so devastating, they still do not think the person who murdered their family member should die too. That is fucking organizing. That is what building power does. Building power gives people the ability to do that. I still remember every execution that happened during my heaviest involvement in that work. I remember last words and how the media covered it and I remember the feeling of hopelessness. But I also remember waking up the next day and being surrounded by a community of people determined that execution would be the last. That fed me to keep going. Yes, a big rally in front of the courthouse feels good and might inspire people to sign a petition, but it cannot do what organizing can. Mobilizing cannot feed your soul when we lose, and without a doubt, there will be losses in any movement.
Relational vs. direct ask
I learned about this at Midwest Training Academy (which was a dream come true to attend and taught me so much but also left me wanting so much, also happy to talk about this experience if anyone even cares). As related to showing up to other people’s stuff, you can’t just be out here always asking people for shit. If every interaction is asking your volunteers or the community to do something, you can’t be surprised if one day they stop showing up. If the only way that you interact with your community is to ask them to donate, to volunteer, to sign a petition, to show up to an event, then don’t be surprised when they stop engaging with you.
Think of it as being in a relationship. If your partner borrows your car, uses your credit card, never does the dishes or buys groceries and on top of all that, they show no interest in you as a person, are you really tryna stay there? Now imagine if your partner was useless in all the ways mentioned above but they also took the time when you got home to ask about your day and seemed to care about your spirit genuinely and apologized for how useless they were, would you maybe want to stick it out? Taking the time to get to know the people and community you work with and for is the key to doing a good job.
For every meeting you have focused on asking someone to do something, you should have two where you just hang out. If your organization goes longer than four months without throwing an event just to give the community something joyful, then you need to reevaluate why community organizing is part of your strategy. Have an event where there is no petition, no asks, no speeches where you talk about how great your organization is; just dancing or just art making or just laughing. Try it, and I promise you will see results not only in who engages with you but how. Invite people for coffee and drinks just to hang out. Ask them where they like to eat and then eat there and tell them about it. Remember their kid’s names. If we only look at the people we work with as resources rather than people; we should just pack up and go home.
We have to invest in the joy of the people we work with to be a good organizer. We don’t have to like the people or love them, but we do have to see them as people deserving of dignity and respect and laughter and dancing and someone who remembers their favorite Starbucks drink. We all deserve that.
I’m going to be trying something new with this blog in the next few weeks that I think everyone will hate, but that I want to do. I’m going to continue writing up organizing tips as I think of ones that I want to share. If you have some suggestions or maybe something you want to discuss, please share in the comments below or chat me up on social media.
Anyway, I like Lorde’s new album. Here is a bop: