How does GOBK recruit new members and grow the organization? How do we plan winnable issue campaigns so more people will want to join up? How do webuild new leaders so our original group leaders don’t burn out? And how do we decide where our first barbecue will be?
In November 2018, a small group of GOBK Steering Committee members formed a study group to forget about the barbecue and look at the art and science of community organizing to see how that discipline might be applied to Get Organized Brooklyn.
Rich Bennett, Malika Bishop, Kim Berney-Brooke, Julie Pepito, Bryony Romer, and I met four times, read selections from 22 different books, and looked at somevery helpful videos, most of them rated PG. We learned a lot, and disagreed a lot, but five important ideas emerged:
The original Saul Alinsky model from the 1930s has been through a lot of changes. But variations on that model are still being practiced by many groups throughout the country. The shortcomings have been dealt with (if not completely solved) in newer models practiced currently by Alinsky’s own Industrial Areas Foundation, People’s Action, Midwest Academy, and the Center for Popular Democracy.
Mobilizing is not the same as organizing. In mobilizing, we contact the peopleon our list, tell them we’re doing this thing on Tuesday night, and ask them to joinus. But the activity is not something that our volunteers have planned and designed. The planning has usually been done by some professional staff outside of our group. In organizing, as opposed to mobilizing, we’re asking our activists to invest their time in an organization that will build power for them and with them. And we are investing our time in them to make them stronger members and stronger leaders.
Relational meetings, variously called one-on-one meetings or personal visits, are an essential part of getting prospective members to sign on and commit to the organization. In the course of a half hour, an organizer listens toa recruit describe their personal experiences and values, agitates to force her/him to see the difference between what is and what should be, and helps them to think through a strategy for collective action.
House meetings are a low-pressure way to test out potential leaders, relate issues to personal experiences, build our identity as an action organization, and recruit more members. To do a house meeting, we ask a member to invite 6 to 8acquaintances to her home to hear more about the organization. She relates herpersonal story, what brought her to the point of being an activist. She asks them to take turns telling a personal experience that’s relevant. Then she directs a specific ask to each: Will you host a house meeting of your own? Will you participate in an upcoming action? Will you knock on doors or do tabling to help us recruit more members?
Choosing issues and developing strategy is not just for professionals. In organizing lingo, an issue is a solution (or at least a partial solution) to a problem the group has identified. A campaign is the strategy you adopt to win the issue and get the solution implemented. In order to choose an issue, a group asks itself a long list of questions, but the critical ones are: Is the issue winnable? Will a win result in a real improvement in people’s lives? Will it give people a sense of their own power?
So now we’re done, right? As if. We haven’t begun to talk through the connection between organizations and movements. We haven’t figured out what “membership” should mean for GOBK. And we haven’t worked out the geographic basis of the organization. But we do have a sense that more GOBK activists have to learn more about how to do community organizing. That leads us to a couple of next steps.
At the June 5 Community Meeting at Congregation Beth Elohim, we will be holding a breakout session, The Organizer’s Toolbox, led by veteran organizer (and GOBK activist) Carol Thomas.
And we’re also beginning to make plans for a benefit screening of the inspiring documentary Heather Booth: Changing the World.
Want to catch up with what we’re doing? Here’s a selection from the materials we’ve been reading:
Mike Miller, The Lost Art of House Meetings
Midwest Academy, A Guide to Organizing, from the film Heather Booth: Changing the World