By Lewis Finfer, Social Policy Magazine -What experiences grow organizers’ effectiveness and commitment? What engages our head, our heart, and our gut in the tough battle for justice?
As organizers and leaders, we must see ourselves as we see the issues we organize around. How do we develop ourselves to be better organizers? What we learn from our organizing work and how we study the larger world of politics, religion, history, and economics can inform that work and help us better engage people on issues we care about.
Community organizations continually move through a cycle of outreach, issue development, strategy, action, and evaluation. Organizers and leaders learn from each step of the organizing process. But we need to do more than that. We need to understand the wider world.
It can start with what I call a “daily power analysis.” This happens with reading the newspaper through the lens of power: studying current and potential issues and the people and institutions with power and how they put it to use in our communities. We should challenge ourselves to read articles and books about politics, history, economics, sociology, religion, and literature that will broaden our capability for this kind of power analysis. This will also make us wiser and more thoughtful so we can better understand and engage people in our role as an organizer or leader.
Texts specifically written for organizers, which cover organizing skills, principals, and methods, can be dynamic instruments for our growth as organizers and leaders. While our experiences are often our best learning tools, we know that in evaluating our organizations we stand to really learn. These two recent books offer a set of descriptions and standards for organizing principles and methods that can help us to evaluate what we are doing as organizers and leaders.
Michael Brown is the author of Building Powerful Community Organizations: A Personal Guide to Creating Groups that Can Solve Problems and Change the World. Michael has been an organizer for 30 years with organizations like Massachusetts Fair Share, Vermont Alliance, and National Jobs with Peace. He founded the Jewish Organizing Initiative as an organization to develop Jewish community organizers. His book covers all the organizing principles and methods but also breaks out 25 specific written exercises people can do to reinforce the principles and apply them to their own organizations, has 15 short case studies to further illustrate the theories explained, and an eclectic and useful bibliography on other books and articles on organizing.
People of faith read scripture. Yet clergy and lay people who really want to go deeper in their understanding and growth read commentaries on this scripture as a way to help them encounter the meanings behind the text and then discuss them more meaningfully.
We don’t have scriptures for community organizing, but we do have commentaries like the books by Lee Staples and Michael Brown which can help us be better organizers and leaders. They have put their head, heart, and gut into these books and drawn on their lifetimes of experiences and what they learned from other organizers and leaders. I thank them for this contribution.
These books challenge and feed our minds. Actions stab at our gut and deepen our motivating anger. The sense of actual accomplishments through organizing builds hope and keeps our heart engaged in all of this. Together, this leads to a sustainable and committed life as an organizer and leader.
Organizing is based on the belief that there is hope for building a better world. Organizers and leaders make a bold and stunning proposition to others that it is worth giving up some of their time to join an organization because it can and will better their lives.
The recently deceased Rev. William Sloan Coffin was active in Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War, and disarmament movements for almost half a century. He said it well when he wrote,
“Realism demands pessimism. But hope demands that we take a dark view of
the present only because we hold a bright view of the future; and hope
arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible.”
Lew Finfer, Director
Massachusetts Communities Action Network
Reveiw of Michael Jacoby Brown’s Building Powerful Community Organizations and Lee Staples’ A Manual for Grassroots Organizing