The best investment funders can make is in community organizing
For at least the last twenty years, organizers, activists, donors and communicators have been arguing about the best messages to win elections. Should we focus on shoring up the base, with broad progressive messages that excite the already-convinced with the vision of a much more perfect world? Or should we focus on narrowly targeted messages that might inspire swing voters to come our way, without asking them to swing too far in the direction of leftism?
The reality is that no message is enough to win an election, particularly if it isn’t coupled with actual, on-the-ground organizing that helps to show people how to win much more than just a contest between two political candidates. And voters who are engaged in long-term organizing campaigns develop a fundamental understanding of just how important winning elections is—and more importantly, they develop the resilience that is necessary to make fundamental change to a system.
Let’s take a look at how a person might get engaged in organizing. Meet Andrea.
Andrea is a single mom who’s lived the same community for her whole life. She works as an instructional aide in the same school district that her kids attend, which gives her the flexibility of having most of the same days off that they do—and during the summer & school breaks, she earns extra cash by watching 3-4 other kids in her neighborhood, while their moms are at work.
Andrea lives in a place that lacks robust public transportation, so she has to have a car to get herself and her kids around. Her car is on the older side, and breaks down from time to time, but that’s just the price of life, right? Andrea knows her life would be easier if there was a bus that she could count on when she needed it, but she doesn’t really have any idea how to go about making that happen—and she’s just one person.
But one day, her neighbor Tiffany knocks on her door, and asks if she’s got a minute to talk. Andrea invites her in, and Tiffany wants to know if she’s ever had a problem getting to work? She explains that she’s been talking to a local group, the Bus Riders Association, about how to get a bus stop on the corner, near her house. The organizer of the BRA asked her to find ten other people in the neighborhood to come to a meeting about it—so she’s been knocking on doors, looking for folks to join her. Andrea isn’t that sure that she has time for a lot of meetings, but she’d really like that bus route—and Tiffany is her friend—so she agrees to come meet the organizer.
The day before the meeting rolls around, and Tiffany calls Andrea to remind her about it—and to ask her to bring two chairs from her house, because Tiffany doesn’t have enough. Andrea agrees, and the next night, she packs up her kids and two chairs, and heads next door to Tiffany’s house, along with twelve more people from the neighborhood. The BRA organizer, Erica, thanks everyone for coming, and asks them all to talk a little bit about what happens when they don’t have reliable transportation. Corey talks about how he got fired from his last job, because it took him three hours and two connections to get to work, after his car broke down. Brandon shares that, without a car, he has a hard time taking his son to the doctor for asthma treatment. Corrine tells everyone that she works second shift, and she doesn’t feel safe walking home at midnight, but the alternative is to get home at 2 am riding the bus.
Erica explains that the small group gathered at Tiffany’s house that night isn’t enough to get the Transit Agency to change a bus route all by themselves—but that they do have the power to start a campaign that could win. The group begins to make a plan to find more neighbors to join them—and the following weekend, they start knocking on doors in the area.
Andrea, Tiffany and their friends chart out the neighborhood, so they know which streets each partner team will be on. They use a simple script that they developed with Erica’s help, using the “problem/solution/strategy” framework (some might say “anger/hope/a plan”)—identify a common problem (in this case, inadequate buses), propose a solution (get a new bus route set up!), and outline a strategy for winning (lots of people sign a petition to the Transit Agency). After a few hours of door-knocking, the original group of 15 has gotten 120 signatures on their petition!
Our intrepid crew hits the doors again the following weekend, and the next, and in a month’s time, they have 500 signatures demanding a new bus route. Along the way, they’ve also developed some new volunteers (and of course, some of the original crew has fallen away, caught up with work or school, or just life). The Transit Agency has a public board meeting scheduled, and Erica helps Andrea and Tiffany sign up to speak, so they can present their petitions and make their request to add a bus route.
The two women make impassioned speeches about why they need better public transit—and they tell the stories of some of the people they’ve met, knocking doors in their neighborhood. A clerk accepts their petitions, and then…the head of the Transit Agency says, “I’m sorry, we just don’t have the money to add more routes right now,” and the meeting moves on to other business.
The group is disappointed, but most of them show up for an organizing meeting the following week. Erica leads them in a discussion about what felt good in the hearing, and what they’d like to see happen differently next time. At a pivotal moment in the meeting, Andrea realizes—just having two people there to represent the group (even with the 500 signatures) wasn’t enough. “We need more people!”
Over the course of the next few months, the group—led by Tiffany and Andrea—continues to meet. They work with Erica and the Bus Riders Association to map out the board of the Transit Agency—and discover that two of the three members are a local City Councilperson (Ms. X), and a State Representative from the area (Mr. Y). They match their list of members to the voter file, to figure out whether any of their members live in these districts, and discover that they have 20 members in the City Council District, and 40 in the State House District. Andrea puts together a phone bank, and their volunteers call those 60 people to see if any of them would be willing to come to a meeting with their elected representatives. Tiffany pulls together a canvass, to generate more signatures and find more volunteers in those two districts.
The group grows again, and Erica helps the team set up meetings with both of the elected officials. Andrea works with a new volunteer, Frank, (who was found by Tiffany’s canvass) to be the spokesperson with the City Councilperson. “It feels scary, the first time,” she says, “but at the end of the meeting, you’ll feel good that you did it.” Frank leads the meeting, and the City Councilperson isn’t exactly delighted to be facing a group of her own constituents who are well-educated about the issue, and demanding change—but she does agree to put forward a motion at the next Transit Agency board meeting to study their proposal for a new route. Erica brings in Veronica, a long-term activist with the BRA to help lead the meeting with the State Representative. The BRA has been working to move the State Rep to a supportive position for years—but he’s the kind of fiscal conservative who never wants to spend money on things that help working people—just big corporations. The State Rep refuses to support the motion that the City Councilperson has agreed to bring forward.
During the course of the next six months, our scrappy group of transit activists continue their campaign to win a bus route. They spend some time researching the kinds of tactics that have won community organizing efforts in the past—should they boycott the Transit Agency? picket outside the State Rep’s office, or hold other earned media events there? engage in online organizing to convince other bus riders to support their petition? perform civil disobedience, to protest the fact that they’re locked out of work due to a lack of access to transit? And while they try different things to move him, the State Rep is intractable.
It’s been a year of working to win this bus route, and the group has grown closer together. The press has started to cover their actions regularly, and the city paper has reassigned a reporter to cover the transit beat, because so many people have gotten involved and started coming to Transit Agency meetings. Andrea and Tiffany have emerged as clear leaders, and their friendship is also stronger than it’s ever been. One day, Veronica calls them, and asks them to have coffee with her. “The two of you know how frustrating it’s been to have State Rep Y give us so much trouble. He isn’t going to change his position—so if we want to win, we’re going to need a new state rep. That’s why I’ve decided to run against him.”
Andrea and Tiffany haven’t ever known anyone who ran for office. In a weird way, they kind of didn’t think it was possible for people like them. But they are positive that Mr. Y has to go—and they know that Veronica, if she wins, really understands their community. Veronica tells the two other women, “Look, we might not agree on every issue—but you know that I will be there on expanding public transit. And we trust each other to keep talking about all the other stuff. Will you support my campaign?” Andrea & Tiffany are in, and they start to plan that night.
During the campaign, Andrea becomes the de facto volunteer coordinator. She’s always there helping with the evening phone banks, and her two kids get used to having campaign-provided pizza for dinner while they do their homework. Tiffany is a super-volunteer, knocking on doors every weekend. The local paper holds a candidates’ night, and half of the people who show up to ask a question have some concern about transportation that they want to express. Mr. Y outspends Veronica 2:1, but almost all of his budget goes to funding one very expensive TV ad—which, while nice, does not inspire voters to go to the polls. Veronica’s team keeps their heads down and does the work of organizing voters. When Election Day rolls around, Veronica squeaks out a narrow win over Rep Y, and in her victory speech, she makes sure to shout out Andrea & Tiffany—because it is clear that a well-run field campaign is what made the difference.
After she is in office, Veronica gets herself appointed to the Transit Agency board, and at the very first meeting after she’s sworn in, the motion to study the new bus route passes! Andrea & Tiffany know that their work isn’t over, but it just got much easier. With the continued help of Erica and others at the BRA, they will push the envelope of what’s possible for bus riders all over their community.
As you can see, over the course of a long community organizing campaign, Andrea and Tiffany learned a lot of stuff from Erica and the other staff at the Bus Riders Association—and from each other and their fellow BRA members:
- The skills of canvassing, phone banking, one-on-ones, house meetings, and other kinds of outreach that cross over between issue-based organizing campaigns and electoral ones;
- The need—and how–to change tactics, when confronted with an oppositional power structure or person in power;
- An understanding of the complicated and sometimes interlocked relationship between government officials at different levels and public agencies;
- How to structure an organizing conversation, in order to find out what the other person needs and hopes for;
- An understanding of the power structure in their local communities—especially how private sector power is influencing public sector decisions;
- How to hold that power structure accountable to the people who elect and pay for it;
- How to support and hold accountable other activists, in the struggle for social change;
- Victory isn’t just winning the election—there has to be progress on the core demand of the campaign; and perhaps most important
- The resilience that it takes to keep persevering, even through temporary loss.
Community organizing campaigns are messier and less linear than electoral ones. But they play an important role in developing leadership in a democracy—and in teaching people the necessity of sustained action over time. An organization that wants solely to win elections for partisanship’s sake will have a much harder time developing leaders who are in it for the long haul, because they aren’t teaching people that the skills involved in winning elections are only part of the toolset that you need to create real, democratic change. Compare Andrea & Tiffany’s experience to that of a volunteer who gets energized by a presidential election, but then doesn’t hear from the campaign again for months. Which of them is more likely to be engaged in down-ballot activism, or pushing for state legislation?
A movement that is structured around building real power for people who feel like they have none, on the other hand, is constantly teaching people both a strategic power analysis that gives them a new lens to look through, when viewing their world, as well as a set of tools and iterative organizing strategies that give them what they need to win.
Andrea, Tiffany & their kids—and the dozens of people they’ve organized together—will never go back to seeing themselves as powerless actors in a political system that is stacked against them. They’ve earned the knowledge, understanding, and skills that will allow them to make long-term change in their community.
*Several people gave me early feedback on this piece–thanks to Nijmie Dzurinko, Amy Fetherolf, Eric Rosso, Hannah Sassaman, Alina Sipp-Alpers, and Marcus Spivey for helping make it stronger!