[Progressive change can seem like one step forward, two steps
back, but Peoples Action leader James Mumm shows how over time power
has been steadily, doggedly gained by organizing out from the center
-- amongst the marginalized -- and forward.] [https://portside.org/] 

 ORGANIZING TO WIN GOVERNING POWER  
[https://portside.org/2019-01-23/organizing-win-governing-power] 

 

 James Mumm 
 January 18, 2019
Social Policy
[http://www.socialpolicy.org/latest-issues/959-the-middle-path-between-big-and-small-organizing-aka-good-old-fashioned-mass-organizing.html]


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 _ Progressive change can seem like one step forward, two steps back,
but People's Action leader James Mumm shows how over time power has
been steadily, doggedly gained by organizing out from the center --
amongst the marginalized -- and forward. _ 

 , 

 

As we enter a perilous period in American history with Donald
Trump’s bottomless insecurity fueling white supremacy and fascism on
the one hand and environmental Armageddon on the other, there is an
opening of historic proportions for mass revolutionary organizing.
Will we break out of self-limiting orthodoxies, face oppressive
structures head-on, and take risks that swing for the fences?

Over two centuries, the ambitions of people-powered organizing in this
country have grown from stopping material suffering - as in the
abolition movement- to winning freedoms (such as women’s right to
vote, an end to child labor, civil rights, marriage equality), sharing
abundance and advancing the common good (Medicare and Medicaid, Social
Security, and the right to organize). Today, the cutting-edge ambition
is to step up and win governing power.

Three recent books by veteran organizers weave deeply reflective
stories about breakthroughs in realizing their ambitions through
scalable organizing. As we stand at the edge of a new era of the
possible, these authors offer new rules for revolutionaries, roadmaps,
and strategic conversations that point the way forward toward the
realization of our own deepest ambitions. These are the hopes that we
fear to speak aloud, tears of joy streaming down our cheeks, free at
last in our lifetimes.

This opportunity is clear as day to Jonathan Smucker, the co-founder
of Lancaster Stands Up in Pennsylvania. In _Hegemony How-To: A
Roadmap for Radicals,_ Smucker says that,

“Given our weak state of popular organization over the past few
decades, the emergence of Occupy Wall Street was a beacon of hope for
many in the United States, as it provided a powerful, popular
counter-hegemonic narrative that aligned overnight a hitherto
fragmented left and created a political opening to connect to far more
popular audiences and broader social bases than we had had access to
in decades.”

That is a rather long-winded way of saying that Occupy, the anti-Wall
Street movement where Smucker cut his teeth, changed the debate and
articulated a new sense of “we” among the 99 percent who don’t
share our economy’s richest rewards.

In _Stand Up! How to Get Involved, Speak Out, and Win in A World On
Fire_, Gordon Whitman, Deputy Director of the PICO National Network,
faces the brutal facts:

“...when you combine all the social justice organizing taking place
across different networks, issues and movements in the United States,
it doesn’t match up against the forces we’re up against...To
counterbalance their influence, we the people need to create a level
of sustained mobilization, disruption, and grassroots political
influence not seen on the side of social justice in the country since
the 1960s.”

In _Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change
Everything,_ Becky Bond and Zack Exley, veterans of the New
Organizing Institute, CREDO and more, lay out the challenge
succinctly: ”Is it really possible to scale grassroots participation
to a height that could actually let us go toe to toe with the
billionaires and win?”

These authors recount their formative experiences with Occupy, Bernie
Sanders’ presidential campaign, and the rise of multiracial,
progressive faith-based organizing. They are both liberated by these
experiences and ready to write new rules, even as they acknowledge the
contours and filters that shape their lives.

There is no blueprint that we can follow toward the revolution, though
there is a starting point. Whitman is blunt: “No one is coming to
save us. There’ll be no hero on a white horse. There is no app, no
high-tech solution. All we have to fall back on is one another, our
human capacity to organize ourselves to create a better society.”

That said, Whitman agrees with Bond and Exley on how technology can
amplify and scale up good organizing as they assert that “in some
ways, big organizing is what populists used to simply call organizing
but with the potential for much greater scale thanks to new and
accessible technology for connecting people.”

The printing press, they point out, allowed organizers (the vast
majority unpaid) to organize to end slavery, win women’s suffrage,
build the populist movement, and create a labor movement - among many
others wins. Electricity, the telegraph, telephones, fax machines,
mimeo machines and copiers, computers, and the internet are all
technologies that organizers have used over time to connect to people.
But these authors are clear that at no point has technology done the
work of organizing: it has simply changed the nature of how organizers
communicate with people.

There are striking similarities in these three volumes. They share a
commitment to sifting through organizing methodologies to double down
on universals and jettison outdated orthodoxies. Each points to
moments when they trusted people to lead their own revolution, taking
risks that led to innovation and breakthroughs. They also highlight
how the old-fashioned tools of organizing - like the telephone call
and barnstorm meetings - are still the most effective, even in the
digital age.

But the differences between these authors are perhaps the most
illuminating, as they shine a bright light on the fault lines in our
movements, and offer some very thoughtful ideas on how to bridge them.

Opening Up About Race

Let’s start with race.

Whitman opens up early about the orthodoxies he was taught about race,
how he has grown through his involvement with Faith in Action, and the
centrality of ending structural racism and oppression at the core of
organizations, campaigns and movements.

He starts by saying

“My ability to choose whether or not to talk about race and racism
was part of the privilege attached to being White in American society.
This privilege is toxic to making progress on social justice… To
build a better world we need to construct a movement that makes space
for everyone’s suffering and hopes, regardless of background, while
also acknowledging the specific trauma and pain caused by racial,
gender, and other forms of discrimination and exclusion that plague
our society.”

I appreciate that Bond and Exley take the time to talk about the fault
line of race inside the Bernie campaign, and cite his inability to
make it a central issue of his candidacy as

“a fundamental shortcoming in his candidacy, especially in the
context of the rise of Black Lives Matter, Bernie missed a crucial
early opportunity to put race at the center of the message to
everyone… Bernie and many of his surrogates primarily spoke to this
through the lens of class without adequately addressing race.”

I was a bit surprised by Smucker’s lack of racial-justice analysis
in his examination of the successes and failures of Occupy Wall
Street. I was hoping for a stronger take on Occupy’s racial dynamics
and their interplay with the internal tensions of that movement to
reconcile tendencies toward prefigurative politics and political
action.

There will be a next time. And next time, multiracial movements have
to be right on race.

Big and Small

Another faultline these authors highlight is between big and small
organizing. There is a dynamic relationship between local and movement
organizing.

Small organizing is derided by Bond and Exley as “...a plodding,
one-by-one organizing orthodoxy… Small organizing drives a negative
feedback loop where fewer and fewer people participate because the
changes promised are too small to be worth anyone’s time, leading
campaigners in turn to lower their expectations of participation.”

It is a common and lazy inaccuracy to attribute the small approach to
organizing to Saul Alinsky, who founded the Industrial Areas
Foundation to advance his model. Like most organizers, he was certain
that his own model and approach was the best.

Alinsky influenced many groups and networks that formed at least
partially out of his work, but nearly all of these draw on other
traditions, such as the labor, civil rights, and women’s movements,
and other post-1960s freedom movements. And there are many very
successful movements and organizations that had nothing to do with
him.

Deeper still, it is worth recognizing that Alinsky’s brand of
organizing had its own roots in three traditions of institutional
organizing -- organized crime through his university work on juvenile
delinquency, the Catholic Church, and the Congress of Industrial
Organizations and the multiple strands of workers’ movements
therein.

It is true, however, that the organizing that emerged from the 1960s
had a difficult time scaling to regularly and predictably achieving
national and structural change, which stymied social movements after
the end of the civil rights and anti-war mobilizations. This
frustration led to forms of community organizing that favored concrete
victories in local communities and the slow, deliberate construction
of local and state power organizations over mass movements and
moments.

Small organizing has led to big victories by building a critical mass
of power that could win primarily transactional issue or electoral
victories at the local, state or national level. In this sense, I
would reframe “small” as relational power organizing and “big”
to mass movement organizing. Neither has proven it can solve the
problems of today at scale, so it’s time to try something new.

There has been a concerted effort over the past several decades by
relational power organizations to discern the difference between the
orthodoxies of this form of organizing and the universals.

From “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies” to “leave your
ideology at the door” to “independence from politics,” and
“small is beautiful” there are dozens of orthodoxies that
relational power organizations have adopted and then shed over the
past several decades. As with most growth, letting go is the path to
finding the way forward that is grounded in the universals of
organizing such as “all organizing is reorganizing” and “power
comes from organized people, money and ideas.”

A Middle Path

The challenge before us is not to try to turn small into big
organizing or vice versa. We should try to build scalable movement
organizations that chart a middle path that can do what neither big
nor small have done to date with sustained success.

Let’s take the core lessons from these three books, mix them up, and
see what comes out.

First, let’s follow Whitman’s prescription to have “five
conversations that can change the world and our lives.

1) Purpose--preparing emotionally for the fight of your life, 2)
Story--building relationships that move people to action,
3)Team--finding a home base in a movement for change, 4)
Base--recruiting a following you need to lead, and 5) Power--winning
social change.”

Then let’s pour in the lessons from Bond and Exley. They describe
how: “

The successful merger of digital campaigning and volunteer field
efforts in Bernie’s distributed organizing...set down a new marker
for organizing harnessing a powerful, tech-enabled, people-powered,
model that is infinitely scalable and poses a potent threat to the
status quo.”

And then Smucker brings it home (literally),

“If the next iteration of an Occupy-like movement is to succeed
politically, it will need to effectively tap hundreds of thousands of
people who are willing to give something. Millions of such folks are
already “out there,” but organizers need to attract them and give
them some direction and clear ways to participate.”

In Smucker’s case, he returned to his hometown of Lancaster, and in
doing so has inspired dozens of successful small-town groups that are
changing the face of rural organizing.

Added together, three lessons emerge for the next political
revolution.

1) BUILD FROM THE CENTER OUT. This is how we institutionalize the
leadership of frontline communities —people of color, women,
immigrants, LGBTQ people, and low-income people -- at the center of
scalable movement organizations. The DNA of the organization and its
leadership is either set with intention or it defaults to the norms of
structural oppression.

2) REACH SCALE WITH SOUL. Investing in the leadership of volunteers
and their self-interest in moving beyond their barriers to building
collective power is how frontline communities can lead powerful and
scalable organizations. Digital organizing is relational organizing
too, and we should focus on the quality of relationships as well as
the quantity of actions.

3) OPERATE FROM A LONG-TERM AGENDA. There are radical implications
to embracing a long-term agenda for structural change that drive
immediate decisions on where and how to build toward governing power.
This means building and creating a mid-range agenda that is a compass
— not a blueprint — toward long-term change based on an ongoing
local, state and national power analysis. Organizations that embrace
this strategic practice can build the capacity to change their culture
and structure to the goal of winning governing power and a long-term
agenda.

Middle-path organizing is what will achieve lasting, structural change
that addresses the root causes of corporate power and structural
oppression. This requires more people than “small” organizing
currently reaches, and more of the right people than “big”
organizing sweepsup.

We are thankful that Whitman, Bond, Exley, and Smucker have opened up
this debate at precisely the right time, when we face unprecedented
opportunity and equally formidable challenges.

_James Mumm is the Chief Innovation Officer for People’s Action
Institute (www.peoplesaction.org [http://www.peoplesaction.org]).
James grew up in family of radicals, organizers and teachers. After
serving as a local organizer in Chicago and The Bronx he joined the
national staff to work with groups and campaigns across the country on
a forty-year long term agenda for change._

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