United Parents & Students: Community Organizing for the Long Haul

Community Organizing for the Long Haul

By Larry Foundation

As the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic thankfully passes into history, progressives in America look to a new landscape of racial, economic, and social justice and equity that we can help to forge.

Scientists around the world beat every record to invent a vaccination in record time to halt the paralysis yoked upon us by the coronavirus pandemic. We support the federal bailout of our schools, and of state and local governments, which face unprecedented economic shortfalls. Some of us also look towards what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the “Great Compression,” policies that would address and rectify the evils of the historical inequalities that plague our very future. And, now the American Rescue Plan has been passed and checks are landing in American pocketbooks. Yet many pundits are already asking: will the ARP be the beginning of a new war on poverty and injustice, or simply a one-off?

For most of us, to realize our hopes and dreams for the improvement of our country we rely on century old tactics of winning electoral victories at the ballot box and the organizing and mobilization of people. However, what has become clear to me is that folks have begun to organize every 2, 4, or 6 years. Stevie Wonder said it right: “I live in the ghetto. You only come see me around election time.”

Ad hoc organizing is not the path to social change. It never has been. The path to power– — like the building of a great Cathedral, a splendid mosque, or a sacred and historic synagogue — — is a long-term, continuous grind of developing organizations that work not every few years, but 365 days a year, year after year, decade after decade.

As Max Weber said: “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.” In other words, there are no shortcuts.

While teaching community organizing, I have posited that a healthy community needs five kinds of capital: human (investing in individuals, e.g. public education for youth and adults alike); social (the “glue” that holds communities together); political (collective action); finally, financial (obvious) and intellectual (harnessed brain power).

The trick is that the five capitals come in a specific order. Before we get to the political, we must create the human and social capital necessary to drive political action. It is as simple as the maxim of child development regarding mobility: first you crawl, then you walk, then you run. You can neither skip steps, nor reverse the order.

Now, there are three main types of community organizing: protest, mobilization, and broad-based community organizing.

Ad-hoc organizing, or protest, is probably the simplest and most familiar form of “civic action.” Protests were center stage in the fight for racial equity and justice after the murder of George Floyd. Protests can and have saved the world, figuratively at least. They are performative and cathartic. But protests are typically anonymous and hard to sustain. By definition, they are temporary and ad hoc. Protests most often are initiated against something, reactive rather than initiatory.

A protest march does not build organization; in fact it expends political and social capital. Which is fine if you have the capital to begin with.

In mobilization, you already know the issue that you organized around. The choice of issue is typically top down. In other words, in broad-based organizing, the issue comes from the people. Instead of saying “come protest to save the whales with me,” we say, “what keeps you up at night?” and we organize around that systematically and strategically.

The current and urgent need is to work every day to build permanent organizations that re-knit the social fabric in every nook and cranny of our nation, not merely to elect candidates for public office. Heather Booth of the Midwest Academy makes it a slogan: “Organizers organize organizations.”

This is the missing piece in American politics: building inclusive organizations that include those who differ from us. In every way. The name for this kind of work is broad-based organizing. It imagines the biggest tent possible. And it may well be the most effective buffer we have against the long-standing (see Father Coughlin) — not recent — tendency towards home-grown fascism.

In the age of quick data and social media, the long-term building of organizations has taken a backseat in the calculus of moving political agendas forward. Information without the boots on the ground (physically and/or virtually) to act upon it is next to useless. The failures of the Arab spring proved this. You can’t Tweet a revolution, at least not one that l:asts and assumes the function of governing.

Organizations such as AARP and the old version of the NRA get it. I know Stacey Abrams does too. She has spent ten years building the political infrastructure in Georgia that culminated in the narrow victories won by Warnock and Ossoff.

However, around the nation the country remains divided. As we continue to water the roots of long lasting social change, I encourage you to shift your mindset of how you show up to organize and how you encourage others around you to do so as well. We’re in it for the long haul.

The author is the Executive Director for United Parents and Students.