Grassroots organizing takes many forms and there are many ways to describe these different forms. For our purposes I will break organizing down into three general categories, which I have adapted from numerous publicly-available sources:
1- Grassroots community organizing
2- Faith-based community organizing
3- Coalition- building
Grassroots Community Organizing
Ideally, grassroots organizing involves building a community organization from scratch, developing new leadership where none existed, and otherwise organizing the unorganized. It is a strategy that revitalizes communities and allows the individuals to participate and incite social change. It empowers the people directly involved and impacted by the issues being addressed.
While it employs a “values-based” process, where people are brought together to act in the interest of their communities and the common good, it is not necessarily rooted in religious beliefs or faith-groups. Key elements are organization-building, leadership development, and the accrual of power. Labor organizing and neighborhood block-group organizations are good examples.
Faith-based Community Organizing
Faith-based community organizing employs a deliberate methodology very similar to that of Grassroots Community Organizing. The primary difference is that FBCOs base their actions on deeply-held religious beliefs, either within an individual faith group or across denominational lines. Like GCO, FBCOs concentrate on developing power and relationships through a community of institutions such as congregations. Non-religious institutions may also be invited to participate.
FBCOs operate in the US, South Africa, England, Germany, and other nations. Local FBCOs are often linked through organizing networks, such as:
1- The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)
2- Direct Action and Research Training (DART)
3- People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO)
4- The Gamaliel Foundation
Coalition-building seeks to unite groups that are already formed. It concentrates less on leadership-development, since each group within the coalition usually has its own defined leadership, which may or may not be grassroots-based. While coalitions do seek to create power and effect change, they are generally top-heavy in governance. They are often formed around single-issues or hot topics, and they are often short-term.
Organizing Terms and Concepts
It is impossible to fully understand the world of grassroots community organizing without understanding certain key terms and concepts. Organizing, like any fully-developed professional culture, has its own terminology and “patois”, or lingo. Common English words that you already know have very different and specific meanings in the organizing world.
Often, when experienced organizers, who are skilled listeners, meet a person for the first time they will listen to how the person speaks and the words he or she uses in conversation. An experienced organizer will usually be able to tell, within the first 30 seconds, whether or not the person “gets it”, that is, whether or not he or she understands the world of organizing.
Here are some key words, their meanings in the organizing world, and some key concepts that they are based on:
“Organizer”– “A person trained in the proven methods and techniques of community organizing.” A key requirement is that the organizer is “trained”, preferably by a training organization with a long and respected track record in the field of organizing. Also, the organizer often does not come from within the organization; he or she is placed in a community in order to do the job of organizing.
At one time, Barak Obama was an Organizer. Here is a picture of him from his organizing days in Chicago, where he is describing the concept of power:
“Leader”– In my organizing workshops I begin this section by asking people to work in small groups to define the term “Leader”. They always come up with some very impressive and laudatory words to describe what a “Leader” is. They also NEVER get the right answer! This definition ALWAYS ASTOUNDS people who are new to organizing.
Simply put, “A ‘Leader’ is someone who has followers”. That’s it. “A ‘Leader’ is someone who has followers”.
According to Midwest Academy (“Organizing for Social Change”, 1991), “The ability to mobilize people, be it six friends or stewards from a local union, is the most important criterion for leadership in a citizens’ organization.”
When things operate perfectly, the Leaders emerge from within the organization’s leadership development efforts.
More information on “Leader”– An “Organizer” is NOT a “Leader”– Organizers have their own defined roles; they are not Leaders. When this rule is broken, organizations usually rapidly lose power and fall apart.
Here are two pictures, one of “Obama the Organizer” and one of “Obama the Leader”. See the difference?
More information on “Leader”– An “Activist” is NOT a “Leader”– If you really want to tick off an organizer, refer to him as an “Activist”. In general, organizers abhor “Activists”.
Aaron Schutz , associate professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, characterizes “Activists” like this:
“Activists like to “do things.” They get up in the morning and they go down to a main street and hold up some signs against the war. Or they march around in a picket line in front of a school. (Activists love rallies and picket lines.) Activists feel very good about how they are “fighting the power.” But in the absence of a coherent strategy, a coherent target, a process for maintaining a fight over an extended period of time, and an institutional structure for holding people together and mobilizing large numbers, they usually don’t accomplish much.
“People in power love activists, because they burn off energy for social action without really threatening anyone.”
Here’s a picture of a well-meaning “Activist”.
“Follower”– “A person who belongs to a Leader’s network.”
“Issue”– “A specific, community-based problem that the organization has the collective will to correct.”
“Target”(or “Decision-maker”)- “A person who has the authority to fix the issue.”
“Action”– “A public event in which the organization gathers together to shed light upon the issue and challenge the target to take specific steps to correct the problem.”
“Evaluation”– “A timely, honest, thorough appraisal by the organization of the successes and/or failures of the action conducted. A critical part of the accountability process”.
As you become more familiar with the world of organizing you will become more comfortable with using these terms as they apply to organizing. As this understanding grows, you will begin to grasp the key organizing concepts that under gird these terms, and you will become more effective in your organization. We will examine some of those key concepts in more depth next week.
NEXT WEEK: The Basic Steps in the Organizing Process