What is organizing? The legendary community organizer Fred Ross once declared, “A good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire.”
That so few people have heard of Ross despite his enormous influence on community and labor organizing in the United States is itself a lesson about what organizing is, and what it is not. These days, organizing—or at least talking about it—is having something of a renaissance, and many of today’s young progressives and radicals will tell you about the need for it.
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But still too often, we don’t hear exactly what they mean by organizing. It is easy, after all, to make pious declarations about the need to organize. The hard part is doing the work.
Organizing is about having skin in the game and convincing other people that they do as well.
Organizing is fundamentally about bringing people together, transforming their relationships into something living and load-bearing, and directing the weight of all those relationships toward a political goal. Organizing is about power. As Jane McAlevey writes in No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, “In the organizing approach, specific injustice and outrage are the immediate motivation, but the primary goal is to transfer power from the elite to the majority, from the 1 percent to the 99 percent.”
Organizing is about having skin in the game and convincing other people that they do as well. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders famously spoke about “fight[ing] for that person you don’t even know.” This idea was repeated over and over again as hopes for Sanders’s movement waxed, waned, and were eventually dashed. Lasting organizing is rooted not in a charitable impulse but in solidarity, which is a deeper and more direct relationship between yourself and those you’re fighting for. Or, as Gabriel Winant put it, “Fighting for someone you don’t know is a beautiful idea; fighting for someone you do know is how you win.”
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But these too are just pretty words. What does organizing actually look like on the ground? It looks like messy, rambling personal conversations on a doorstep and over coffee and in the break room. It looks, often, like tears. It looks like another evening meeting when you’d rather be somewhere else.
Organizing, as Alyssa Battistoni wrote, is about finding out what people want to be different in their lives, and persuading them that they can do something about it. “This is not,” she noted, “the same thing as persuading people that the thing itself matters: They usually know it does. The task is to persuade people that they matter: They know they usually don’t.”
Organizing is designed to build a growing community—we often call it a “base”—that is not made up of pre-selected activists but rather of everyone who has a stake in seeking a shift in power. In our unequal world, the challenge is to reach across divides to build bridges so that relationships of solidarity can expand, and we can begin to see ourselves in the faces of people we don’t know.
This doesn’t mean that organizing isn’t about confrontation; it doesn’t mean shrinking oneself in order to find the lowest common denominator. Some of the most effective movements in U.S. history—like ACT UP and other groups in the movement to end HIV/AIDS—relied on shock as often as sympathy.
In building deep relationships with one another, people created the capacity to weather those conflicts, and demanded the rest of the world see their full humanity. They built a community strong enough to raise hell—and to know that doing so would be OK.
This issue of The Progressive presents an array of stories about organizing. Laura Packard writes about the struggle for health care in the United States. It is, she notes, “led mostly by women and people with disabilities, marginalized people who stepped out of the margins. . . . We advocated for them as well as for ourselves, and in the process we were brought out of the margins into the community, and discovered our own power.”
The struggle for health care has also been led by the people who provide that care: the nurses and home care workers who put their own safety at risk to continue working during the pandemic. They often had to press their employers simply to provide adequate personal protective equipment, as Sharon Johnson writes, and health care unions around the country have seen a surge of interest in organizing after almost two years of hellish working conditions.
During a union drive, Johnson notes, the employer often tries to portray the union as a third party, an outsider getting involved in what should be a simple employer-employee issue. But “union” is in fact the name for a body of workers, organized; it’s what we call the relationship between workers who have decided to stand together and embrace the labor movement’s oldest maxim: An injury to one is an injury to all.
There is no more obvious demonstration of the need for such solidarity than the danger posed to care workers during COVID-19. Alongside health care workers, food service workers faced newly hazardous working conditions. One study found that line cooks had the highest risk of mortality from the virus—even more so than hospital staff. It is not surprising, then, that, as Natalia Tylim writes, restaurant workers face a “generational opportunity” to unionize and challenge the norms of an industry that has long been insecure. We’ve heard a lot about a labor shortage in recent months, but the reality, Tylim notes, is that “the pandemic has prompted a long overdue collective reckoning about restaurant work, bringing thousands of individual grievances into a discussion that is currently unfolding in mainstream news, social media, and workplaces.”
Organizing isn’t just in the workplace, of course—Mike Ervin reminds us of the joy and power in street protesting, and Emilio Leanza takes us inside the tenant organizing that is grappling with an entirely preventable eviction crisis. John Nichols warns us that, as the eviction moratorium expires and the Senate hems and haws about getting rid of the filibuster, if Democrats continue to fail working people, they’ll be out-organized by the far right.
Organizing happens in the least likely places, in the places where speaking out is a direct and immediate threat to one’s safety. Stephanie Wykstra looks closely at the movement to end solitary confinement, led in many cases by people who have been held in solitary themselves.
When incarcerated people began hunger striking to end solitary, said Paul Redd, one of those formerly imprisoned organizers, “prison officials took us as a joke and thought that we weren’t serious” until they saw support from others, leading to his release from solitary and renewed attention to a form of punishment that is designed to be easy to forget because it is designed to disappear people. And, as Victoria Law reports, prisons themselves are designed to make people disappear—but a growing anti-incarceration movement is pushing forward practical ways to shut down prisons for good, and invest instead in the things people really need to thrive.
Libraries are one of the few truly public institutions in the United States where you don’t have to spend money in order to be welcomed and to have your needs met. As decades of attacks on the public sector have carved away other public services, libraries are increasingly being used to meet people’s basic needs for food, short-term shelter, and Internet access, in addition to providing a space for learning, entertainment, and community. So, naturally, as Eleanor J. Bader writes, they’re under attack from the right. But librarians have a lot to teach us about the way that so-called culture war issues—attacks on Drag Queen Story Hour or anti-racist literature—are intertwined with economic attacks. Far from a distraction, attacks on libraries, like those on public schools, are attempts to keep the working class, in all its diversity, isolated and disempowered.
As the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr., and Sarah Anderson remind us, all of these issues are interconnected, and good organizers will refuse to allow them to be siloed apart because some seem more palatable or easier to win.
Organizing is difficult; it should be difficult. “Every good organizing conversation,” McAlevey notes, “makes everyone at least a little uncomfortable.” It changes all participants. It is a process of learning and building together. It is about that person you don’t know, but it is also about finding a way to get to know them, rather than fighting for the version of them that lives in your head.
It is this process that creates the power necessary to win—a power that comes from the strength of those real relationships. As Marge Piercy wrote in her poem “The Low Road”:
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.