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books Answering the Call: Strategy and Power-Building From the Bottom Up

The role of strategy in making social movements and organizations more effective, and who creates it, are the urgent questions four authors explore in three new books. Their answers will surprise you, as they surprised me.

Photo by Trintage on Unsplash // Reviews 4 Radicals,

First, what is strategy, and why does anyone need it? Aren’t social movements all about taking action to create change?

Deepak Bhargava and Stephanie Luce, who teach at CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies, tackle this question head-on. “How do oppressed people, facing far stronger opponents, sometimes win?” The key to an underdog’s success, they argue, is strategy. While long-term planning comes naturally to the wealthy and powerful, strategy is even more important for the dispossessed to achieve their goals. Yet if the stories of the less powerful are rarely told, their strategies are even harder to trace. 

“Underdogs have strategy as well,” say Bhargava and Luce, “but the transmission of the diverse lineages of their wisdom has too often been interrupted or lost due to state repression and violent attacks (particularly against Black freedom movements), through moral panics like the Red Scare purges, and through the genocide of Indigenous people.” 

This is the historical wrong Bhargava and Luce seek to right with their work. Because many of our most effective organizers were murdered and forgotten, their strategies were never recorded or erased. So rediscovering the lineages of good organizing and effective strategy, then pushing ourselves to go beyond our training and traditions, is essential to all modern-day practitioners of the craft.

Strategy, according to Bhargava and Luce, is a plan to achieve a goal with limited resources, under conditions of uncertainty, while facing opposition. Their book, Practical Radicals: Seven Strategies to Change the World (2023), explores the successful strategies of movements starting with Abolition in the 19th century through to the modern day, with real-life examples from Make the Road New YorkSt. Paul Federation of Educators350.orgGay Men’s Health Crisis, and many more. Practical Radicals plumbs the depths of each movement’s strategy, with sharp examples and vivid stories. It introduces readers to seven strategies and six forms of power framework analysis, with thirty-six essential tools, prompts, and resources.

The two figures whose legacies weave through the three books discussed in this review are Ella Baker, who organized (among many other projects) the founding conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky, whose 1971 book Rules for Radicals offered a blueprint to a new generation of organizers and change-makers.

All three works praise the enormous contribution Baker’s “spadework” approach to community organizing made to the civil rights and freedom movements, and the organizations they inspired. Bhargava and Luce also note that the “disruptive, raucous movements in the 1960s weren’t distractions from the “real” work of building mass organization, as Alinsky argued: they were essential fuel for the explosive growth of racial justice and community organizations.” 

Bhargava and Luce argue good organizers can, and should, find value in multiple organizing and strategy traditions: “Good underdog strategists can sense when it’s time to shift from spadework in the hard times to fanning the flames of disruption when conditions are ripe, as Ella Baker did.” They continue:

Many community organizations descend directly or indirectly from Saul Alinsky, who consciously developed the practice of community organizing as a reaction to the sectarian narrowness of the American Left, which had come to be long on radical rhetoric and short on organizing. Many of today’s community organizers have in turn reacted to Alinsky’s emphasis on self-interest and power by emphasizing vision and ideology. A new synthesis combining broad social vision with renewed rigor in the practice of the craft of community organizing is needed.

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In the Disruptive Movements chapter, Bhargava and Luce explain that “It was the systematic humiliation of poor women by the welfare system—even more than the paltry benefit levels—that inspired them to organize.” They tell the story of Johnnie Tillmon, whose 1972 article in Ms. Magazine shook up the women’s movement with a challenge to center poor women of color: 

Organizing has been portrayed as something done exclusively by paid, formally trained organizers. But poor women of color began organizing themselves years before the formation of the NWRO. Tillmon was a union shop steward in a laundry in Compton, Los Angeles. She stopped working there after she became ill and decided to stay home to care for her six children. Tillmon was outraged by the treatment she received at the hands of the welfare office, including inspections of her refrigerator, questions about her decision to buy a television, and midnight raids aimed at finding reasons to disqualify her from assistance. She organized a meeting of hundreds of poor women to found Aid to Needy Children Mothers’ Anonymous in Los Angeles in 1963.

While base-building and disruptive movements are only two of the seven strategies in Practical Radicals — the others being narrative shift, electoral change, inside-outside campaigns, momentum, and collective care — the generative power-building of community and worker organizing writ large is essential to each. They use a framework that includes six forms of power: ideological, political, economic, military, solidarity, and disruption. Each strategy can draw upon multiple forms of power. 

Chapters in Practical Radicals end with a chart of the key components of the model, identifying the form(s) of power used, theory of change, narrative shifts, examples, protagonists and structure, goals and methods, tactical repertoire, what does winning mean, time horizon and when the model is most effective, how it works with other models/movement ecosystem, strengths, weaknesses, and the tools that best advance the strategy. Within this novel structure is freedom, as Bhargava and Luce deftly weave theory with practice through the stories of modern day organizers and insights from our various traditions. 

The under-told stories of nine movement women that weave together many of these strategies and forms of power are the heartbeat of Lynn Lewis’s Women Who Change the World: Stories from the Fight for Social Justice (2023). All nine of Lewis’s oral histories—Vanessa NosieRoz PellesYomara VelezBetty Yu, Loretta RossTerese HowardMalkia Devich-CyrilPriscilla Gonzalez, and Hilary Moore—include fascinating origin stories. Most of the women credit their parents and communities as their inspiration and first teachers in strategy and organizing (in a minority of stories women were reacting against their given families and communities). 

The resonances between the seven strategies and six forms of power in Practical Radicals and the oral histories in Women Who Change the World are not surprising. Women have always played versatile and essential roles as organizers and leaders of movements and organizations, sometimes forced into such roles due to discrimination on the basis of race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation, and other times because their talents allow such fluidity. Vanessa Nosie, for instance, is Chiricahua Apache, enrolled in the San Carlos Apache tribe. As an organizer in Apache-Stronghold, Vanessa’s work resonates with the strategy of Collective Care as she manages schedules, cooks, and takes care of elders. She also co-leads the organization’s participation in the Poor People’s Campaign—Solidarity Power in Bhargava and Luce’s framework. 

Vanessa started having “intimate talks with my dad and my grandmother about who we are, the genocide that happened to our people, and the ongoing fight for our survival.” Vanessa describes receiving teachings that her ancestors gave her great-grandmother, grandmother, and father who passed it along to her as she has passed them to her own children. She took her first action at 12 when she refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in school. 

Roz Pelles’ oral history repeats this pattern. She credits her father, who “taught me at a very early age that if you see something wrong, it’s your responsibility to do something about it. This is a daunting thing to hear if you are a four- or five-year-old. But if you live into that, it really can be a guide.” Roz was called to action at 13 when her church in Winston-Salem, N.C., became the headquarters for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She describes how: “We were trained, and we were on the picket line, and it was a scary thing if you’ve never done it. But there was a spirit that just made it all right. There was the singing, there was the camaraderie, and there was the confidence that we could win.” 

The core lesson I draw from these and other stories in Women Who Change the World is a universal of organizing: the equal and opposite reaction to oppression is resistance. We may receive encouragement from our families, or we may break with them to do this, but inevitably, people organize against oppression. And they do so through diverse given and adopted traditions.

Clément Petitjean’s Occupation: Organizer: A Critical History of Community Organizing in America (2023) stands in stark contrast to both works, in the way it focuses on the importance of “professional” organizers, which I find both reductionist and flat. Yet there are valuable nuggets once you get past Petitjean’s reeking cynicism; don’t worry, we’ll dig them out. 

Occupation: Organizer is primarily concerned with the development of a professional class of community organizers in the United States starting in the 1970s. He argues community organizing is now a “semiautonomous entity transcending individual organizations” which is structurally subservient to philanthropy, on the one hand, and in his opinion dominates rank-and-file members and masses on the other. This rankles Petitjean to the point of distraction. 

Petitjean posits that the “body of knowledge and know-how that was believed to legitimize the superiority of organizing came from two different sources: the IAF’s expertise in fostering militant voluntary association and the experiential know-how about politicizing spadework that was passed on from the sixties.” What really seems to get under Petitjean’s skin is Alinsky’s public rhetoric as an anti-fascist and radical. This leads to a very French analogy, and the most unique epithet I’ve heard hurled at Alinsky: crème brûlée (a hard crust of faux radicalism concealing a soft inner cream of liberalism). 

I think professional organizers are more like the versatile shortcrust pastry. Shortcrust pastries can be savory or sweet. You can make flan. Or tarts. Pies or quiches even. Professional (and unpaid) organizers who draw on multiple strategies and forms of power give shape to the pastries (i.e. organizations and campaigns) that the chefs (organizers and member-leaders) require. Let the battle of French pastry analogies begin!

Less blatant bias and cynicism and more academic rigor would have made Petitjean’s book a must-read instead of a chore. The distinct lack of geographic, racial, and gender diversity in this Chicago-centric book’s interviews and sources is striking, and in his quest to take down the professionalization of community organizing, he pays less attention to the craft itself. 

In the end, Petitjean concludes that a revolution is not in the offing, and the best option is to de-specialize and de-professionalize the field of organizing, turning professional organizer roles into temporary positions and organizations into “group-centered leadership,” modeled on Ella Baker’s spadework. These are provocative ideas, but they still must answer the core questions the field is currently wrestling with: how can we build more power and what strategies will lead to transformational change?

Petitjean’s core concerns — about the relationship between organizing and philanthropy and the relationship between professional organizers and members — are legitimate. Their solutions may come from experiments in independent resource generation like those championed by the Progressive Multiplier Fund and innovations in base-building organizing by the groups calling for an Organizing Revival, Social & Economic Justice Leaders’ Strengthening Organizing Project, and the Leadership Center for Democracy and Social Justice

I don’t foresee a change to the core dynamic in community organizing: building power that centers the virtuous cycle of developing volunteer leaders who can organize others, developing lead organizers who can train new organizers, and ensuring robust local, state, regional, and national training programs. Nor am I bothered by the professionalization of community organizing when we perform the craft with authenticity and integrity as Deepak Pateriya discusses in A Sacred Trust: Being a Paid Staff Member of a Base Organization (Convergence, 2023). 

This brings us back to Bhargava and Luce’s call for a movement-wide upgrade in strategy development. The last section of their book urges us to learn from history and avoid the pitfalls of the past, with pieces on building trust and unity, investing in creativity, learning from our opponents, and mastering the rhythms of social change. 

I particularly loved their final chapter, “Why We Argue.” This digs into the changes that we need to make to our collective practice: deeper power analysis, sharper conjunctural analysis, exploiting and creating fissures in the overdog coalition, creating new strategy hubs, generative conflict and principled struggle, and investing in the strategic capacity of organizers, leaders, members, and volunteers. 

Understanding the conjuncture, our analysis of the present moment and our predictions and vision for the future, are the keys for organizers and change makers to use multiple strategies and forms of power in order to develop strategy and win transformational change. We are neither beholden to the past, nor prisoners of it. This includes our own histories and traditions as Women Who Change the World makes so clear.

We can all be practical radicals, but we are going to have to embrace complexity if we want to build multi-racial majority coalitions that can win governing power (the north star of an increasingly large segment of the Left and the organizing sector). Being an organizer and volunteer member-leader — and developing into strategists — requires drawing from multiple traditions. It is a constant struggle for the organizers and change-makers of the day to distinguish between orthodoxies and universals, the calcifications of traditions that are no longer useful and the truths about organizing that don’t change. 

Bhargava and Luce point to a hopeful sign here: “Sulma Arias, the executive director of People’s Action, has rightly called for an “organizing revival” to renew the tradition. A new synthesis, modeled by groups featured in this book, that brings together bold vision, rigorous strategy, and recommitment to the fundamentals of the craft, is emergent.”

All three new books contribute to advancing organizers’ understanding of their craft, where it comes from and where it can go. Our last word goes to Lewis, whose deep listening in Women Who Change the World is an invitation for us to open our ears, not our mouths, if we want to forge the building blocks of the changes we seek: 

Community organizing at its most powerful compels us to listen, learn, and support the collective analysis and action of the many, not the few. Because of them, the rest of us have more choices. Because of them, the rest of us have more rights. Because of them, the rest of us live with less danger, and because of them, we are more free.

First published in Social Policy: Organizing for Social and Economic Justice (53)4.

Books Reviewed:

Bhargava, D., Luce, S. Practical Radicals: Seven Strategies to Change the World. New Press, 2023. 

Lewis, Lynn. Women Who Change the World: Stories from the Fight for Social JusticeCity Lights, 2023. 

Petitjean, Clément. Occupation: Organizer: A Critical History of Community Organizing in America. Haymarket Books, 2023

[James Mumm​​​​​​ is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at 22nd Century Initiative. James brings more than thirty years of experience to this role, with deep community organizing experience in Chicago and the Bronx, as managing director of People’s Action, and most recently as National Campaigns Director for Greenpeace USA.]