Do What Makes Your Heart Beat Faster

After two years of community organizing, I was asked a deep, penetrating, and typical question by my great-grandfather (affectionately called Bump). “So, what do you do?” he asked.

Bump was a retired cookie maker whose first job was as a pin boy at a Buffalo, New York bowling alley in 1907. But I knew him later in life, as a tall kindly man with a car trunk full of cheap cookies. My first attempts to describe community organizing resulted in a confused jumble of jargon, “I help people who live in Chicago neighborhoods get their buildings fixed up by helping them reform the housing court and code enforcement processes….” No good. I tried a different tack, “We get grants from foundations like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.” His eyes unglazed and he looked from me to the picnic table of family who had been watching me stumble toward an explanation. “Jimmy works for the church!” he proclaimed, “He does good things with the church!”

Bump passed in 1992, only a year after this summer family get-together. I never had a chance to explain to him what I really do, how I’ve worked with Catholic lay leaders like him to forge alliances across race and class to build the power to change things for the better in America. If I’d had Kristin Layng and Joe Szakos’ new book, We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do — and Why, back in my early organizing days, then perhaps I could have let eighty one organizers do the talking until something clicked.

In addition to We Make Change, 2007 was a banner year for books about grassroots community organizing. Joan Minieri and Paul Getsos’s Tools for Radical Democracy: How To Organize For Power In Your Community is the best guide book about organizing since Midwest Academy’s enduring classic, Organizing for Social Change. Michael Jacoby Brown’s Building Powerful Community Organizations: A Personal Guide to Creating Groups That Can Solve Problems and Change the World offers a reflective and disciplined guide to building groups that last. All three books are written by veteran organizers who have built successful power organizations.

These books arrived just in the nick of time for organizers who are serious about grassroots organizing. As the tempo, tension and stakes rise over the next two years on the national political landscape, there is a clear danger that the vitality that grassroots leaders bring to progressive politics will be lost as the progressive movement builds and consolidates power. Without grassroots people at the table, we may lose the compassionate witness, bottom up creativity, and accountability that is needed to craft solutions that work for working families and people of color in America.

In the introduction to We Make Change, Harry C. Boyte (himself a recent author, with the 2005 release of Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life) explains this danger, “Yet the public problems we face today are increasingly of the variety that can no longer be solved unless we revive the practical arts that are taught in community organizing…..They are simply too complex and multifaceted to be solved unless we learn how to tap local community wisdom, community assets, and civic networks.”

Since 2004, progressives frustrated with their inability to gain national power have settled for state power and a chorus that sings ever louder — “Bigger is Better!” It is certainly true that we need to move to scale, but not at the expense of our progressive soul. The books discussed here offer thoughtful and strategic advice on building powerful grassroots groups and developing grassroots leaders that allow the progressive movement to both go big and stay deep.

With little editorializing from the Szakoses, We Make Change lets the voices of eighty-one interviews with wildly diverse organizers answer the burning questions most of us face at family picnics. Grouped in nine chapters, We Make Change uses short quotes and a couple of longer profiles in each of the following chapters: 1) What is community organizing?; 2) Where Organizers Come From: Childhood Memories; 3) How I Started Organizing; 4) Why Organize; 5) What Makes a Good Organizer?; 6) Changing Lives While Making Change; 7) Achievements and Victories; 8) Disappointments Are Inevitable; and 9) Advice to Aspiring Organizers.

New organizers will appreciate the candor that veterans share about the difficulty of spending a lifetime organizing for change; veterans will find relief in the hopefulness that fuels the young organizers profiled by the Szakoses. Teresa Erickson expresses the spirit of the book in the fourth chapter, “I’m a true believer. I believe it’s the only way to really change things. I definitely believe deep in my heart that community organizing is the only hope we have for a better world. That’s why I stay in it, and I enjoy it. There are times when I get up, and I can’t wait to go tackle this or go some place. I’m thrilled a lot of the time.” (Full disclosure — I am quoted a couple of times in the book after being interviewed by Joe Szakos at a National Organizers Alliance Gathering in North Carolina. My response to the same question, “I think I’m stubborn and that’s why I’m still in it.”)

As for what makes a good organizer, the more thoughtful and unusual opinions include Kim Fellner, “I think it helps to be able to thoughtfully integrate the universe” and Aaron Browning, “I think that I look for someone who has the Burn” as he described the fire in the belly so common in organizers who stick around.

Ever mindful of the job of a progressive organizer — to develop grassroots leadership, Octavia Ware remarks, “You have to be courageous, but not so courageous that you forget that the people around you could be afraid.” Diana Bustamante continues in this vein, “Faith. I stress that — having faith in the community.”

The book’s final chapter gives veteran organizers the opportunity to synthesize their hard-won wisdom in advice to aspiring organizers. Former SNCC organizer Betty Garman Robinson advises, “I would say, “Do it.” I would say that the lifeblood of this country requires organizing. It requires people’s engagement and involvement. Why does fascism set in? Fascism sets in because people are automatons. They’re not thinking. They don’t question authority. They don’t have their own critical thinking skills. Organizing is not an easy profession. You’ve always got contradictions. You’ve always got complexity. You’re going by the seat of your pants sometimes. It’s no straight line. You can’t just study your job and then go do it, because there are all these unknown qualities that enter into it. I just think it’s fun. It gives you the possibility of being creative. It puts you in relationship with many people. It’s exhilarating and it does offer hope for the future. It keeps you optimistic and not pessimistic.”

Tucked too far back in the book is Perry Perkins admonishment that new organizers should, “Find a mentor. Find someone you trust, someone who’s got a hell of a lot more — not just organizing experience, but life experience.” A smart young organizer would flip to the back and check out the interviewees’ yearbook photos and notes on where they can all currently be found, call them up, and follow Perry’s advice. You can continue the conversation begun in We Make Change on the book’s blog site,

Michael Jacoby Brown’s Building Powerful Community Organizations: A Personal Guide to Creating Groups That Can Solve Problems and Change the World is what you get when a wise veteran organizer like those profiled in the Szakoses book gets around to letting the rest of us in on his secret. Brown manages to be both reflective and disciplined, arranging his book so that every chapter is filled with exercises, case studies and an innovative use of “Quick Tips” that offer the reader a fast way to integrate the tools in the book. He is also a gifted storyteller. The following excerpt would not have been out of place in We Make Change.

“When I first tried to use the Iron Rule, I started with the little things. It meant that I did not bring all the refreshments to the meeting. I relied on the members. This was something members could “do for themselves.” I divided up the job of bringing the coffee and doughnuts to as many people as possible, since it was something that almost anyone could do. One person brought the coffee, another the sugar, someone else the milk, and someone else the cups. It took a lot longer to arrange this than doing it myself. I resisted the temptation to do it all myself (even though I knew it would certainly get done if I did it). I spent a lot of time on the phone asking people what they could bring. Since I wanted everyone to be involved, I tried to break down the refreshments into very small bits. My goal was to give everyone a job and make everyone, even in this little way, as interdependent as possible. It was sometimes hard to find something for everyone to do. But I persisted. There was always something someone else could do. I did not want anyone who could do a job to feel that they did not have one. Sometimes it was tough, especially when people got annoyed at me when no one brought the doughnuts. Sometimes we had coffee but no cups. It was a small matter with a larger meaning for the group. It let members know, at the beginning, how life would be in the organization. The organization is not in business to serve you. It is your group. You, the member, are responsible.” (212–213)

Practical and step-by-step, the book’s thirteen chapters offer grassroots organizers and leaders thinking about starting a group (or groups in need of renewal) a workbook and spirit guide. The excerpt above comes from Chapter Seven: The Way to Develop Power Is to Develop Leaders. In this chapter alone are five case studies, four stories, two exercises, one quick tip, an exposition on leaders and self-interest, and quotes from Exodus, C. G Jung, Anthony Thigpen, Paul Ostermann and a Brazilian peasant.

Before discussing how to build effective organizations, Brown cites Kurt Lewin, the first theoretician of group dynamics, on why grassroots participation in social and economic policy is so essential, “Lewin discovered that those closest to any change must be involved in the change in order for the change to be effective…If we did not need the active involvement of those closest to the problem, then good policies or the dissemination of good ideas alone would achieve the improvements we seek. They do not.”

Brown then moves systematically through the steps of organization-building without losing his appreciation for the heart of organizing — finding community, meaning, purpose and identity in the work of organization-building. He admonishes organizers to build groups that last, from the first steps of arriving at an idea for an organization to visioning, developing a sponsoring committee and bringing together a core group. He spends a great deal of time on recruitment and leadership, strategic campaigns and growing a sustainable funding base for the group.

Not just for beginners, Building Powerful Community Organizations offers seasoned organizers refreshing wake-up calls throughout the book. Brown reminds us that “you can’t fake interest” in people. Organizers must truly love listening and telling stories with everyday people. He reminds us that “…what people can “do by themselves” always involves a judgment call.” Taken together, this is a powerful lesson for veteran organizers about how nothing, no amount of experience or smarts, substitutes for the ability to be vibrantly present with people. This burning clarity is the center of our work to help people discover their identities as loving, caring and compassionate warriors for justice.

Brown concludes with a compelling offer — add your story to the next edition of the book at Hopefully the next edition will show up in a larger format that will make it easier to focus on the more than twenty-five exercises that make this book such a useful personal guide.

Grounding their book in the experience of co-founding Community Voices Heard (CVH) and moving it from less than a dozen poor women to a powerful independent grassroots power organization, Joan Minieri and Paul Getsos’s Tools for Radical Democracy: How To Organize for Power In Your Community is a welcome addition to the social justice canon. In defining radical democracy as, “people at the base of society participate in all aspects of the political system,” Minieri and Getsos quickly set a tone that continues throughout the book — poor and marginalized people should be at the forefront of the social justice movement. Early on, they recognize the uphill battle that grassroots people face in becoming leaders “while raising children, participating in a challenging and dehumanizing welfare system, and facing an alignment of powerful political, intellectual, and media forces against them.”

This is the first comprehensive manual for organizing to appear in more than two decades in America. It contains a wealth of battle-tested and practical tools from doorknocking raps to target analysis charts. For example, in Chapter Three: Recruiting Constituents for Collective Action, Minieri and Getsos provide disciplined, point-by-point guidelines on recruitment that are rooted in organizing fundamentals. Interspersed with grey boxes that tell real-life stories from CVH, this chapter includes tools such as “Tool 3.1 The Dos and Don’ts of Successful Recruitment,” “Tool 3.2 Point of Entry Recruitment Chart,” “Tool 3.3 Tips for Assessing Interest and Potential,” “Tool 3.4 Rap Outline,” “Tool 3.5 Tools for Effective Recruitment” followed by three exercises that put the tools into practice.

They do a great job anticipating readers’ questions in each chapter’s Challenges and Essential Elements sections. From Chapter Five: Developing Leaders from All Walks of Life, Minieri and Getsos answer questions such as “We seem to focus on people who don’t work out,” “Everyone who works hard in our organization thinks they’re leaders,” and an old lament, “We develop people, then they leave.” Their advice is to get serious about leadership development and work with members to develop leadership development plans that let people know where they are at in the organization and what they need to do to progress in leadership based on their leadership style, talents, and challenges. This is a refreshingly honest look inside the guts of community organizing.

Tools for Radical Democracy is a book for people who want to build grassroots power as well as win on issues. Too often groups get into fights they can’t win because they don’t understand how to assess their own power. Minieri and Getsos recommend brutal honesty here, asking readers to answer a series of probing questions to help the group come to an accurate sense of its own power. Chapter Eight: Researching the Politics of an Issue includes a set of tools that groups can use to make informed judgments about the power dynamics in a fight. Tool 8.4 What Moves the Target is a great example of disciplined and strategic organizing that can teach staff and members how to be use research and reflection to make better choices about their potential campaigns.

In later chapters about planning and running comprehensive campaigns, Minieri and Getsos use their deep experience in training organizers to anticipate two key questions, “What is the Role of the Organizer in Campaign Planning? The organizer offers ideas and possible scenarios throughout the planning process and helps members to clearly consider their data” and “What Should an Organizer Do If Members Ask for Advice? Organizers should not give advice, but they can offer perspectives and possible scenarios for people to evaluate and analyze.” Their book is full of answers to the questions that grassroots organizers are faced with every day.

Tools for Radical Democracy concludes with several chapters on movement-building and forging partnerships that challenge grassroots groups to connect their constituents, issue campaigns, and worldview to the larger social justice movement in America and across the globe. They recognize the strength and sustaining energy that comes from the politics of connection, although it is false choice to move as they suggest from self-interest to social change. It is in the self-interest of grassroots leaders from the Bronx, Baton Rouge and Brazil to construct identities that are at ease with progressive change. Progressive grassroots leaders can recognize both their interdependence and location in the global social justice movement and their dignity and value as individual change-makers who are leaders in grassroots-led organizations. There should be no dichotomy.

In his advice to aspiring organizers, Patrick Sweeney states in We Make Change, “To me it’s hooking up with a good outfit that has quality leadership and organizers, that you could learn from. I think organizing is something you have to do, it’s not something that you learn in a textbook necessarily. You have to go out and do it.” While there is no substitute for learning the craft alongside veteran leaders and organizers, these three books can support people in building a progressive movement that is led by the grassroots, not by elites. This is the way forward for those interested in lasting social change.

The books discussed here are: Kristin Layng Szakos and Joe Szakos, We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do — And Why. (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2007); Joan Minieri and Paul Getsos, Tools for Radical Democracy: How To Organize for Power In Your Community. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007); Michael Jacoby Brown, Building Powerful Community Organizations: A Personal Guide to Creating Groups That Can Solve Problems and Change the World. (Arlington: Long Haul Press, 2007).

First published in Social Policy Magazine in 2008.


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