This excerpt from the Community Organising Guide provides an introduction to community organising.
As Beckwith and Lopez (2013) write, organising is about generating and wielding people power. Organisers are curious about what people care about, why they do what they do, where they come from and who they are connected to. Organisers support people to define their own problems, fashion their own solutions and determine what tactics they will use to achieve their goals. Organisers weave relationships, create democratic structures that can wield power, then through a combination of confrontation and negotiation, bring about necessary changes.
Organising is different from mobilising. Mobilisers focus on getting as many people as they can active in a particular action or campaign. In contrast to organisers, they are less concerned with developing people’s capacities as leaders or connecting people relationally across the movement (Hahn 2014). Organisers nurture leaders, creating the conditions for cooperation. Or, in organising parlance: organisers organise organisers (OOO). They seek out and enable local, often untapped, talent to build power with others to transform injustice.
Organising is also different from advocating for individual or even systems-based advocacy which, more often than not, is based on doing things for people. Advocacy depends on the skills, knowledge and resources of the advocate, rather than working with people and enabling them to make change themselves. ‘Lone wolves’ tend to focus on information and choose social change tactics that require fewer people (Hahn 2014).
Organising is not a gentle, consensual, non-conflictual community development process that shies away from confronting decision-makers and holding them accountable.
As Al Giordano (2009) once wrote, in a somewhat combative piece:
If it doesn’t involve knocking on doors, making phone calls or otherwise proactively communicating with people demographically different than you, it’s not organizing. If it doesn’t involve face- to-face building of relationships, teams, chains of command, and, day-by-day, clear goals to measure its progress and effectiveness, it’s not organizing. If it happens only on the Internet, that’s not organizing either.
In other words, organising is different from mobilising and ‘working as a lone wolf’: ‘Mobilizers focus on maximizing the number of people involved [in a particular action or campaign] without developing their capacity for civic action’ (Hahn 2014, 8). Lone wolves, on the other hand, tend to focus on information, choosing social change tactics that can be done alone or with few people. Organising is also different from campaign approaches that fail to connect campaigners with place-based or organisational roots. Without these connections, activists are less likely to invest in building community leadership for sustained power.
Different Kinds of Organising
There are different kinds of community organising. We explicitly focus on three: social movement organising, neighbourhood organising and broad-based organising.
Social movement organising focuses on a big concern, problem or issue such as refugee rights, prison reform, climate justice, or national liberation. It begins with constituencies already interested or engaged and then builds a broader constituency of concerned and active citizens. Social movement organising involves holding together diverse interests and creatively managing multiple tensions. This requires creating some kind of temporary movement structure like a coalition. Social movement organising demands going to scale in ways that maximise ordinary people’s participation in the movement then directs this energy towards meeting movement goals through the skillful application of strategy.
Neighbourhood organising focuses on local concerns. Membership is made up of residents living in geographically defined places who are affected by a shared concern, usually involving a perceived injustice. Neighbourhood organising might be led by a single community-based organisation or a locally- based coalition. Neighbourhood organisers build a broader and deeper sense of community while simultaneously enabling residents to take collective action to realise local visions and goals. Generally, this involves a combination of confrontation and negotiation with government or corporate decision- makers.
Broad-based organising focuses on building a more permanent form of citizen power. Beyond winning on a variety of local place-based issues, which come and go, organisers in this tradition work to strengthen civic values, community and active citizenship. They do this by creating an organisation of organisations whose membership is made up of value-based institutions like faith groups, trade unions and community-based organisations with strong roots in local neighbourhoods. Members—which are organisations rather than individuals—contribute an annual membership fee which pays for organisers and contributes to operational costs. Broad-based alliances, at least those affiliated internationally with the Industrial Areas Foundation organise their members through listening campaigns, action research teams, collective action like assemblies and a rigorous commitment to evaluation.
Each type of organising has its place. We are not arguing that one type is better than another. What they all have in common is they grapple with the deeper nature of power. Organisers enable groups of people to confront and transform power-over, domination and exploitation. To do so they wake up individuals’ latent power-from-within, the belief, skills and knowledge that ordinary people can make a difference. As people get in touch with their latent power to create a better world, organisers build people’s capacities to wield power-with, to take collection action. The purpose of all this is to address injustice and bring about tangible and positive changes in people’s lives.
In the Community Organising Guide we differentiate community organising from electoral organizing, which might focus on enrolling people to vote, or voter turnout, or mobilising people behind a particular candidate. As our friend Amanda Tattersall (2015) observes, in recent times:
The phrase ‘community organizing’ has become… closely associated with Barack Obama, the first self-identified presidential ‘community organizer’. His rise to power was a Janus-faced victory for those who support community organizing: Obama popularised the idea of organizing, confusingly associating it with partisan and electoral politics. Certainly the Obama campaign did adapt several ‘community organizing’ techniques (like one-to-one meetings and ‘house’ meetings) to electoral organizing (McKenna and Han, 2014). Yet the campaign’s techniques were also radically different to Industrial Areas Foundation-style community organizing: after all, the focus of the Obama campaign was electing a person to office, not the creation of solutions to overcome problems in a local community.
We believe that to create a better world more people need to be able to build and wield social and political power collectively in ways that are separate from parliamentary and electoral politics, which for many of us is marred by corruption, selfishness and captured by corporate interests. So while we advocate organising to transform politics, both inside and outside formal political processes like government, this guide will not equip people to do electoral organising.
For more information about Community Organising and a comprehensive collection of planning tools and training resources see the People Power Manual: Community Organising Guide.