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Organizing to Win Governing Power

Progressive change can seem like one step forward, two steps back, but People's Action leader James Mumm shows how over time power has been steadily, doggedly gained by organizing out from the center -- amongst the marginalized -- and forward.

As we enter a perilous period in American history with Donald Trump’s bottomless insecurity fueling white supremacy and fascism on the one hand and environmental Armageddon on the other, there is an opening of historic proportions for mass revolutionary organizing. Will we break out of self-limiting orthodoxies, face oppressive structures head-on, and take risks that swing for the fences?

Over two centuries, the ambitions of people-powered organizing in this country have grown from stopping material suffering - as in the abolition movement- to winning freedoms (such as women’s right to vote, an end to child labor, civil rights, marriage equality), sharing abundance and advancing the common good (Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, and the right to organize). Today, the cutting-edge ambition is to step up and win governing power.

Three recent books by veteran organizers weave deeply reflective stories about breakthroughs in realizing their ambitions through scalable organizing. As we stand at the edge of a new era of the possible, these authors offer new rules for revolutionaries, roadmaps, and strategic conversations that point the way forward toward the realization of our own deepest ambitions. These are the hopes that we fear to speak aloud, tears of joy streaming down our cheeks, free at last in our lifetimes.

This opportunity is clear as day to Jonathan Smucker, the co-founder of Lancaster Stands Up in Pennsylvania. In Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, Smucker says that,

“Given our weak state of popular organization over the past few decades, the emergence of Occupy Wall Street was a beacon of hope for many in the United States, as it provided a powerful, popular counter-hegemonic narrative that aligned overnight a hitherto fragmented left and created a political opening to connect to far more popular audiences and broader social bases than we had had access to in decades.”

That is a rather long-winded way of saying that Occupy, the anti-Wall Street movement where Smucker cut his teeth, changed the debate and articulated a new sense of “we” among the 99 percent who don’t share our economy’s richest rewards.

In Stand Up! How to Get Involved, Speak Out, and Win in A World On Fire, Gordon Whitman, Deputy Director of the PICO National Network, faces the brutal facts:

“...when you combine all the social justice organizing taking place across different networks, issues and movements in the United States, it doesn’t match up against the forces we’re up against...To counterbalance their influence, we the people need to create a level of sustained mobilization, disruption, and grassroots political influence not seen on the side of social justice in the country since the 1960s.”

In Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, Becky Bond and Zack Exley, veterans of the New Organizing Institute, CREDO and more, lay out the challenge succinctly: ”Is it really possible to scale grassroots participation to a height that could actually let us go toe to toe with the billionaires and win?”

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These authors recount their formative experiences with Occupy, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and the rise of multiracial, progressive faith-based organizing. They are both liberated by these experiences and ready to write new rules, even as they acknowledge the contours and filters that shape their lives.

There is no blueprint that we can follow toward the revolution, though there is a starting point. Whitman is blunt: “No one is coming to save us. There’ll be no hero on a white horse. There is no app, no high-tech solution. All we have to fall back on is one another, our human capacity to organize ourselves to create a better society.”

That said, Whitman agrees with Bond and Exley on how technology can amplify and scale up good organizing as they assert that “in some ways, big organizing is what populists used to simply call organizing but with the potential for much greater scale thanks to new and accessible technology for connecting people.”

The printing press, they point out, allowed organizers (the vast majority unpaid) to organize to end slavery, win women’s suffrage, build the populist movement, and create a labor movement - among many others wins. Electricity, the telegraph, telephones, fax machines, mimeo machines and copiers, computers, and the internet are all technologies that organizers have used over time to connect to people. But these authors are clear that at no point has technology done the work of organizing: it has simply changed the nature of how organizers communicate with people.

There are striking similarities in these three volumes. They share a commitment to sifting through organizing methodologies to double down on universals and jettison outdated orthodoxies. Each points to moments when they trusted people to lead their own revolution, taking risks that led to innovation and breakthroughs. They also highlight how the old-fashioned tools of organizing - like the telephone call and barnstorm meetings - are still the most effective, even in the digital age.

But the differences between these authors are perhaps the most illuminating, as they shine a bright light on the fault lines in our movements, and offer some very thoughtful ideas on how to bridge them.

Opening Up About Race

Let’s start with race.

Whitman opens up early about the orthodoxies he was taught about race, how he has grown through his involvement with Faith in Action, and the centrality of ending structural racism and oppression at the core of organizations, campaigns and movements.

He starts by saying

“My ability to choose whether or not to talk about race and racism was part of the privilege attached to being White in American society. This privilege is toxic to making progress on social justice… To build a better world we need to construct a movement that makes space for everyone’s suffering and hopes, regardless of background, while also acknowledging the specific trauma and pain caused by racial, gender, and other forms of discrimination and exclusion that plague our society.”

I appreciate that Bond and Exley take the time to talk about the fault line of race inside the Bernie campaign, and cite his inability to make it a central issue of his candidacy as

“a fundamental shortcoming in his candidacy, especially in the context of the rise of Black Lives Matter, Bernie missed a crucial early opportunity to put race at the center of the message to everyone… Bernie and many of his surrogates primarily spoke to this through the lens of class without adequately addressing race.”

I was a bit surprised by Smucker’s lack of racial-justice analysis in his examination of the successes and failures of Occupy Wall Street. I was hoping for a stronger take on Occupy’s racial dynamics and their interplay with the internal tensions of that movement to reconcile tendencies toward prefigurative politics and political action.

There will be a next time. And next time, multiracial movements have to be right on race.

Big and Small

Another faultline these authors highlight is between big and small organizing. There is a dynamic relationship between local and movement organizing.

Small organizing is derided by Bond and Exley as “...a plodding, one-by-one organizing orthodoxy… Small organizing drives a negative feedback loop where fewer and fewer people participate because the changes promised are too small to be worth anyone’s time, leading campaigners in turn to lower their expectations of participation.”

It is a common and lazy inaccuracy to attribute the small approach to organizing to Saul Alinsky, who founded the Industrial Areas Foundation to advance his model. Like most organizers, he was certain that his own model and approach was the best.

Alinsky influenced many groups and networks that formed at least partially out of his work, but nearly all of these draw on other traditions, such as the labor, civil rights, and women’s movements, and other post-1960s freedom movements. And there are many very successful movements and organizations that had nothing to do with him.

Deeper still, it is worth recognizing that Alinsky’s brand of organizing had its own roots in three traditions of institutional organizing -- organized crime through his university work on juvenile delinquency, the Catholic Church, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the multiple strands of workers’ movements therein.

It is true, however, that the organizing that emerged from the 1960s had a difficult time scaling to regularly and predictably achieving national and structural change, which stymied social movements after the end of the civil rights and anti-war mobilizations. This frustration led to forms of community organizing that favored concrete victories in local communities and the slow, deliberate construction of local and state power organizations over mass movements and moments.

Small organizing has led to big victories by building a critical mass of power that could win primarily transactional issue or electoral victories at the local, state or national level. In this sense, I would reframe “small” as relational power organizing and “big” to mass movement organizing. Neither has proven it can solve the problems of today at scale, so it’s time to try something new.

There has been a concerted effort over the past several decades by relational power organizations to discern the difference between the orthodoxies of this form of organizing and the universals.

From “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies” to “leave your ideology at the door” to “independence from politics,” and “small is beautiful” there are dozens of orthodoxies that relational power organizations have adopted and then shed over the past several decades. As with most growth, letting go is the path to finding the way forward that is grounded in the universals of organizing such as “all organizing is reorganizing” and “power comes from organized people, money and ideas.”

A Middle Path

The challenge before us is not to try to turn small into big organizing or vice versa. We should try to build scalable movement organizations that chart a middle path that can do what neither big nor small have done to date with sustained success.

Let’s take the core lessons from these three books, mix them up, and see what comes out.

First, let’s follow Whitman’s prescription to have “five conversations that can change the world and our lives.

1) Purpose--preparing emotionally for the fight of your life, 2) Story--building relationships that move people to action, 3)Team--finding a home base in a movement for change, 4) Base--recruiting a following you need to lead, and 5) Power--winning social change.”

Then let’s pour in the lessons from Bond and Exley. They describe how: “

The successful merger of digital campaigning and volunteer field efforts in Bernie’s distributed organizing...set down a new marker for organizing harnessing a powerful, tech-enabled, people-powered, model that is infinitely scalable and poses a potent threat to the status quo.”

And then Smucker brings it home (literally),

“If the next iteration of an Occupy-like movement is to succeed politically, it will need to effectively tap hundreds of thousands of people who are willing to give something. Millions of such folks are already “out there,” but organizers need to attract them and give them some direction and clear ways to participate.”

In Smucker’s case, he returned to his hometown of Lancaster, and in doing so has inspired dozens of successful small-town groups that are changing the face of rural organizing.

Added together, three lessons emerge for the next political revolution.

1) Build from the center out. This is how we institutionalize the leadership of frontline communities —people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and low-income people -- at the center of scalable movement organizations. The DNA of the organization and its leadership is either set with intention or it defaults to the norms of structural oppression.

2) Reach scale with soul. Investing in the leadership of volunteers and their self-interest in moving beyond their barriers to building collective power is how frontline communities can lead powerful and scalable organizations. Digital organizing is relational organizing too, and we should focus on the quality of relationships as well as the quantity of actions.

3) Operate from a long-term agenda. There are radical implications to embracing a long-term agenda for structural change that drive immediate decisions on where and how to build toward governing power. This means building and creating a mid-range agenda that is a compass — not a blueprint — toward long-term change based on an ongoing local, state and national power analysis. Organizations that embrace this strategic practice can build the capacity to change their culture and structure to the goal of winning governing power and a long-term agenda.

Middle-path organizing is what will achieve lasting, structural change that addresses the root causes of corporate power and structural oppression. This requires more people than “small” organizing currently reaches, and more of the right people than “big” organizing sweepsup.

We are thankful that Whitman, Bond, Exley, and Smucker have opened up this debate at precisely the right time, when we face unprecedented opportunity and equally formidable challenges.

James Mumm is the Chief Innovation Officer for People’s Action Institute ( James grew up in family of radicals, organizers and teachers. After serving as a local organizer in Chicago and The Bronx he joined the national staff to work with groups and campaigns across the country on a forty-year long term agenda for change.