“How long must my journey go? And my sorrow no one knows.” — Subrosa
It’s tough to be a bodhisattva these days. Sorry, I mean community organizer. Or anything in between. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, a bodhisattva is someone who gets close to enlightenment, yet chooses to forgo liberation until every other being is also enlightened. This always struck me as eerily similar to what organizers try to achieve through their work.
I’m now three decades deep into the craft of organizing. But two years of a global pandemic have tested my commitment. “How long must my journey go?” I wonder. Then I hear the rising voices that always inspire me — my mentors in organizing, and the grassroots leaders I’ve known — then I find my feet again. Yet I ask myself this question over and over, as I get lost now and again.
This burning question led me to two books that get to the very heart of what it means to be an organizer in the 21st century. Andrew Mott’s Preparing to Win: Developing Community Leaders, Organizers and Allies (2020), and Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa’s Prisms of the People: Power & Organizing in Twenty-First Century America (2021).
Andy Mott has been in and around organizing for half a century. Having seen him in action, I can easily imagine Andy holding the door to enlightenment open so every other being can go through before him. Preparing to Win, indeed, strikes me as a kind of bodhisattva’s guide to how to prepare others for this journey
Mott describes a highly intentional start to this journey, one that focuses on bringing BIPOC people into organizing with a strong foundation to build upon.
Preparing to Win is not a beach read, or even a gripping narrative. Yet it’s well worth every minute of your attention. This is a comprehensive how-to guide and adaptable model for setting up programs at community colleges, colleges and universities that prepare people for careers as organizers. This blueprint for programs that will dramatically increase BIPOC people and those from low-wealth communities to become paid community organizers and social justice leaders.
- Low-income communities must become the prime movers in community, social and political change efforts to ensure that the future responds to their needs and priorities.
- They must build their own democratically controlled organizations to represent their interests, and they must hold those organizations accountable.
- Those efforts require volunteer and staff leaders with broad knowledge and skills, experience in involving people and developing leaders, a long-range vision and sophisticated strategy.
- People with lived experience with poverty and discrimination bring unique insights, knowledge, commitment and interpersonal skills as well as enormous latent talent to leading and staffing organizations working on these issues at the local, state, regional and national levels, and they also are uniquely qualified to be role models for other potential leaders, organizers, and change agents.
Preparing to Win goes through the ins and outs of “creating College Degree and Certificate programs which are designed specifically to prepare low-income people and people of color to become leaders and organizers, tackling issues of poverty, discrimination, power, community-building, and reinvigorating our democracy.”
This goal may sound too nuts-and-bolts, but creating a credential for BIPOC and low-wealth communities to get a foothold into successful careers is essential to progress. And getting one that opens the door for these communities into a career in social change is even better. These programs are a straight-up antidote to white privilege and classism and that’s one hell of a standard to set for the organizing movement.
Low-wealth and BIPOC people and communities need to be in the leadership of multiracial, cross-class movements, Mott argues, because “Leadership on issues of poverty and race must come from the people who are most directly affected by those issues, and this will require bold measures to build outstanding community leaders and democratic organizations.”
He goes further to say something crucial to all of the billionaires and foundations out there who think they can just create their own change-making machines, then expect them to spew out progress.
“Well-led low-income community organizations and social movements are essential to the success of other partners committed to positive community change,” Mott explains. “Without effective systems for involving low-income people themselves, efforts to transform the lives of poor people and minorities will fail. So will initiatives to bring people together across race and class lines to confront the growing inequities, divisiveness, and racial tension which are ripping our social fabric apart.”
My on-the-ground organizing career in Chicago and The Bronx tells me that he is right. I have seen what happens when the wealthy and big foundations start to think they know more than the communities most impacted by today’s biggest issues: they, and their well-meaning initiatives, fail. What’s worse, they reinforce dominant narratives that blame poor people and people of color for failing to follow their brilliant blueprint.
Lasting change will only come from organizations led by the people most affected by injustice, who take the lead in building a “Bigger We” that brings together a critical mass of constituencies to create multi-racial, cross-class movements.
The track record of the Community Leadership Project is impressive. Mott describes how by 2020 they had helped create 14 college degree and certificate programs in Community Change Studies, with over 1,000 students enrolled (80% of whom were people of color and 70% were income-eligible for Pell grants, and 15% had experienced homelessness during the school year.
CLP’s vision is to expand this to 30 programs by next year, and more than double the number of students enrolled. He continues to describe how the findings from a recent CLP alumni survey suggest that the model is working. Of those who are working, over 60% have found jobs with nonprofit organizations, government agencies, or educational institutions where they can contribute to community change.
The CLP curriculum reads like a mashup of the best organizer training programs in America, where they are also leading on “issues of race, cultural identity, class, prejudice, white domination, historical trauma and healing, and, especially, how they relate to a person’s sense of agency and identity as an agent of change.” And for those who assume this is grounded solely in the teachings of Saul Alinsky, Mott clarifies that CLP and its partners “draw lessons from a wide variety of movements and traditions of nonviolence, including the civil rights, Chicano, and American Indian movements, Welfare Rights, the Poor People’s Campaign and Black Lives Matter. The Women’s, LGBTQ, global climate change, student-led and criminal justice reform movements have added greatly to the richness of experience in bringing about change.”
In Preparing To Win, Mott also shares the perspective of his long-time colleague and friend, Nakota/Yankton Sioux leader Syd Beane, who “disagrees with Alinsky about making anger central to organizing. He thinks anger separates and divides and that instead the emphasis should be on pain and healing.”
This is a true bodhisattva’s insight — that a variety of sources can, and should, inspire our work as organizers. I appreciate the diverse traditions that my mother, Maureen Dolan, drew upon and shared with me in her lifetime of organizing work, as well as the legacies of civil rights leaders and Alinsky I came to know through Shel Trapp. I know that I would be further along in my own journey if I had gone through the rich grounding that CLP is calling into being on campuses across the country.
Mott knows firsthand the deep history and development of major community organizing and support networks in the United States and he understands their evolution around elections, as well as race and gender, internally and externally. Increasingly, multiracial, class-conscious, anti-oppression values and politics define their operations and campaigns. There is no perfect organization, but one can take heart that the arc is bending in the right direction.
So if we accept Mott’s invitation, we have the tantalizing prospect of thousands of budding bodhisattvas supercharging community organizing all in the United States. But as every organization and network discovers, this requires public support. Mott delivers an answer here, too. Paid fellowships modeled on the California Youth Leadership Core or “earn while you learn” programs at community colleges would make these programs attractive and possible for students from BIPOC and low-wealth communities. This model is a real public service and deserves serious public support.
Mott concludes Preparing To Win with his own question to us: “What does it mean to be an organizer who is really contesting for and wielding power? Who can you be?” For some real-life examples, let’s now turn to Han, McKenna, and Oyakawa’s Prisms of the People to learn more about the strategies and successes of some of the best living bodhisattvas. Uh, I mean community organizers.
These three authors add insight and depth to the literature on collective action, showing that the power of the organizations they study is due to the breadth of their strategic choices — not just the sum of their resources, “the leaders and organizations we studied were able to exert power in large part because they were grounded in constituencies that had committed to standing together, to becoming something new together that they could not be alone.”
As you might expect from the title, the authors use the metaphor of prism to describe how the internal design of the organization “determines what kind of power (or light) is refracted outside.” They continue, “The organization (a term we use to refer generally to vehicles of collective action) is the prism that refracts the actions of a constituency into political power. The shape and extent of the vector of power the prism can project depend on design choices internal to the prism.”
The four core organizations they study are familiar to students of the game — ISAIAH in Minnesota, The Amos Project in Ohio, Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), and the New Virginia Majority. Two extension groups were also studied — Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
What these groups all have in common is a “dynamism” about the relationship they establish between power and constituency-building. These are state-based, grassroots organizations that came into being mostly in the early twenty-first century or reoriented to the project of building independent political power during this period.
This book is a gripping narrative. If you love organizing stories told at the bar or the campfire, gather ‘round — because Prisms of the People is chock full of them.
In Before the Storm: The Unmaking of the American Consensus, Rick Perlstein chronicled Goldwater’s election to the Phoenix City Council. This presaged his run for the U.S. Senate in 1952, when he also asked his cabal of proto-New Right acolytes to run for Arizona State House seats on a statewide GOP ticket.
Goldwater won, and so did lots of Republicans on his coattails. This catalyzed Arizona’s transformation into a red state, only broken half a century later in the crucible of the immigrant rights fights that exploded in 2010. The state purpled, and then blued.
Arizona’s rebirth was not an accident, as these authors explain:
“In the six years between 2010 and 2016, a strategic coalition of immigrant rights groups emerged and won a series of important local and state victories. They helped entangle SB 1070 in lawsuits, oust a key architect of the law through the first statewide recall in Arizona history, win five seats on Phoenix’s city council, advance a municipal ID policy, and win a new minimum wage law. In 2012, the coalition tried to remove Sheriff Arpaio from office, but lost by six percentage points. By 2016, however, this coalition had built enough power that they were able to help defeat Arpaio, beating him by a margin of more than eleven percentage points.”
In 2018 ISAIAH and Faith in Minnesota ran a faith-delegate campaign to “influence the narrative around race, class, and immigration” in the 2018 governor’s election “by running ISAIAH leaders as delegates to the Democratic-Farmer-Labor state-party convention.” Check this out: they ran 500 people for elected office in the party, and turned out 3,800 people (actually turned out, not just texting or cold calling) to attend state caucuses with a united agenda on race and class.
Now that’s a story worth sharing. Since it’s Minnesota perhaps it would be best heard over some hot dish in an ice house.
In Ohio, a once reliably Democratic state Donald Trump won in 2016 by 8 points, “62.2 percent of Cincinnati voters elected to pass a municipal levy to fund preschool, a levy that would raise taxes by $278 per year for every $100,000 of a home’s value. The levy contained key concessions to AMOS’s People’s Platform, including guarantees that families living at up to 200 percent of the poverty line would be served first and that preschool providers would receive a $15 per hour wage.” AMOS was a player in this initiative because they organized a constituency rooted in values and beliefs, and their People’s Platform demanded that “any universal preschool program should allocate funds to directly address Cincinnati’s racial disparities and guarantee a minimum base wage of $15 per hour, paid sick time, and affordable health insurance for preschool providers.” The AMOS constituency was the winning factor in the final two years of the campaign leading up to the passage of the initiative.
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth is similarly guided by a north-star vision of a world that lives up to their shared values of multiracial democracy and economic justice for all. Their vision statement guides their strategic choices, including a robust community and democracy internally that powers their progress. Virginia restored voting rights for 173,000 formerly incarcerated citizens in 2016, a victory directly tied to New Virginia Majority’s multiracial, statewide constituency and strategic choices in their inside-outside game. The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) played a critical role with allies like the Culinary Union to win a statewide corporate tax increase to fund education while the national headwinds were going in the opposite direction on taxes.
The “prisms of people power” Han, McKenna and Oyakawa introduce us to create space for low-income constituencies of color to exercise political power, because they do not mistake scale as a proxy for impact, and efficiency over effectiveness. This is a deep and powerful observation, yet it may surprise some in the organizing world, as it runs counter to arguments articulated by critics of “structure based organizing,” such as Mark and Paul Engler’s This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century and Becky Bond and Zach Exley’s Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything (both previously reviewed for Social Policy Magazine, the former here and the latter here). So let’s look closer to better understand this.
There are four key elements, the authors say, to the logic of prisms and their expression in people’s organizations that you can cultivate where you organize:
First, organizations seeking constituency-based political power are working toward political outcomes that are dynamic and fragile. The fragility is particularly heightened for low-income constituencies of color that have been historically marginalized… achieving political power requires sustained work over a long period of time, and strategic creativity to overcome long-standing structural hurdles.
The reason organizers build organizations, these authors argue, is because that is the best way to institutionalize the leadership of BIPOC, low-wealth, youth, women, gender non-conforming, disabled, and others who experience structural oppression. It’s not perfect, but the organizations in this study are definitely on a journey toward justice that creates and holds space for this leadership.
Second, given the dynamism and fragility of their work, and their inability to anticipate all the challenges that will come their way, the most strategic choice that leaders seeking durable political power can make is to cultivate resources that will give them the most tools in their toolbox to respond to contingencies… Our argument thus shifts the focus from asking what resources organizations have to asking what strategic choices are enabled by the resources they have.
What a great way to think about organizers’ work: our goal is not scale, but the ability to make strategic choices. The ability to act itself is power, and Han, McKenna and Oyakawa clarify that the purpose of organizations is to create the conditions that allow leaders and their constituencies to make such choices.
Third, for people-powered organizations, the resources that expand their strategic choice set are constituency bases that have three key characteristics: independence, commitment, and flexibility. Independence means they possess resources that are not beholden to another person or group’s assessment of value… Commitment means the members are loyal to the organization… Flexibility means that the constituency can adapt as political circumstances shift.
It’s not just any constituency we’re talking about here, but one that’s intentionally cultivated, trained, invested in, in order to bridge across identity so intensely that their commitment to each other is far stronger than the issues.
We all know that political winds ebb and flow, so the key insight here is that being able to make strategic choices no matter which way the winds blow is the path to sustainable power.
Fourth, prior choices leaders had made about how to design their prisms determined whether they had independent, committed, and flexible constituencies that were prepared for uncertain negotiations for power. These leaders recognized that in order to develop constituencies as an independent source of political power, they could not treat people’s engagement like a spigot that could be turned on and off. Instead these leaders had to be accountable to and in a durable relationship with that constituency…To maintain that kind of relationship, however, they had to build a set of relational ties, cultivate a set of bridging identities, and distribute the work of strategy in ways that would give their base ownership over and capacities for engaging in the work of collective action.
Building constituencies in this way is about trust, vulnerability and faith in people. It is about formation of self in the context of others, self-interest. When we tell stories about who we are and how we got this way, we open up space to connect deeply with others. Do that thousands of times in crucible moments, in training or house meetings or one-to-one, and you have the makings of a powerful grassroots organization.
Things are changing in the field of organizing for the better. Han, McKenna and Oyakawa describe how:
A new generation of leaders, many of whom are now directing and guiding the most significant local and state-based organizations, have driven changes in organizing and organizational form in response to a shifting political landscape that includes challenges such as political polarization, changing demographics, a globalized economy driven by multinational corporations, surges of migration, urbanization and deindustrialization, and persistent structural racism and extreme wealth inequality. In response to these changing political conditions, practitioners have pushed their organizations and the field to adopt a stronger analysis of race, class, and gender into their work and to develop a deeper analysis of the kinds of structural changes needed to enact the goals they want.
This is the way of the organizer-bodhisattva. It is open to anyone who wants freedom and liberation, but who remains fully engaged in the world until we are all free.
So how long can my — your — and our journey go? It will be long, and one with starts, stops and new beginnings. But collective enlightenment is worth every step. And it is also the heart of the Bodhisattva Vow:
Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.
The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.
Han, Hahrie, McKenna, and Oyakawa. Prisms of the People: Power & Organizing in Twenty-First Century America. University of Chicago Press, 2021.
Mott, Andrew. Preparing to Win: Developing Community Leaders, Organizers and Allies. New Community Press, 2020.