The Anatomy of Organizing, Part II

Anatomy of Organizing image

(See Part I here.)


Great organizing is as rare as it is complex. To get all the parts operating at their best in a constantly changing environment against dominant social norms, thick wallets, and the combined state forces of politicians, courts, and the police is as at least as remarkable as humanity’s other great achievements.

In Part I, I covered the defining bare essentials of organizing: outreach and skills development, democracy, and direct action. Here, I cover a set of secondary organizing features that nonetheless are indispensable to great organizing.

Political Education

If the point is to change society, an organization has to have some idea of what changes it wants. Agreeing on every small detail is impossible, especially for an organization that wants to grow large enough to have a significant impact, but building consensus around core goals and strategies for how to reach those goals is indispensable. Strategies and goals don’t exist in a vacuum either, and so building shared understanding around broader political ideas is crucial for cementing the orientation of the group and preventing it from fracturing or being consumed by internal strife.

Surprisingly, doing political education at all is somewhat controversial within organizing discourse. The godfather of contemporary community organizing, Saul Alinsky, who was trained by the influential CIO labor organizer and president John Lewis, was famous for disavowing political education entirely, preferring to “rub raw” the sentiments of the people to agitate them around immediate conditions. Political education seemed like an extra step that organizers would be better to leave out altogether so that they could commit their time to winning demands through immediate actions based on people’s immediate material needs.

Alinsky has a point, which is that political education takes time and effort, but it’s hard to think of how one could truly fight for radical change if one never talked about what that change might be beyond some immediate material improvements, like apartment repairs or better wages.  For those of us who do want to deep social change, we may have things to learn from Alinsky, but political education is not one of them. In fact, the Alinsky approach, which today dominates within non-profit organizations, of not doing political education is also a convenient way to keep members from becoming more radical or opinionated than the funders or staff might be happy with.

Precisely because the people we want to organize with are mostly workers and renters, they’ll be plenty familiar with what’s shitty about low wages and high rent. But how exactly people interpret their conditions and experiences is what makes them radical or not, or organize or not. Political education should be much less didactic than it is talking about people’s experiences, framing them in the context of larger problems, and imagining what can be done to change them.

At the beginning of an organization’s life-cycle, political education may be less important because those who came together to form the organization in the first place likely have a high degree of agreement political already. After becoming known in the community, the people who naturally flock to the organization will be those who already agree with the group’s politics. This is not a bad thing, and getting previously unorganized people under an organization will make the efforts more than the sum of their individual efforts. However, here again lurks the trap of lazy organizing. When a group relies only on attracting those with identical politics, that may help the group grow for a while, but once the low-hanging fruit are plucked, the group will stall. Also, those who are attracted to the group for mostly political reasons are often not organically tied to the issues that are being organized around, so membership will be removed from the actual community that the group is working to help. The only way for a group to grow with a healthy membership and large enough to challenge existing power relations is to expand beyond circles of people with similar ideas, and this requires outreach combined with political education.

Political education is not particularly complicated, and should be implemented much like an organization does skill development. New members should be introduced to the group’s political perspective through 1-on-1s, as part of meetings, through reading groups. To maintain a particularly high level of unity and subtlety, political education can be done through specific reading lists and curriculum which are paired with some kind of discussions for people to question and process the material. Direct action is also central to political education because only through action can people come to experience first-hand how the ideas relate to the actions and how they move towards a larger political vision.

A Strong Organization

Some people question whether working within an organization is really worth it. “If we didn’t spend so much time defining organizational details, then wouldn’t we be more flexible and have more time for the stuff we really want to be doing?” While it’s possible to organize outside of organizations or with multiple organizations in a coalition, the kind of unity of tactics and politics that comes a strong single organization is what enables complex and unified action by large groups of people.

When people act in small cells, no formal organization might be necessary because people’s close relationships with each other might provide all the unity necessary to be effective. However, you can only have close relationships with so many people, and after a group exceeds 10 – 20 people the capacity of close personal relationships to maintain unity becomes strained and groups either split or dissolve without some degree of formal organization.

Coalitions of organizations can be very useful, but they are no substitute for building strong individual organizations. Organizations with broad agreement might benefit from coming together in a coalition to work on specific actions or campaigns in order to amplify the pressure around certain demands. But oftentimes, relying on coalitions of groups to bring people out can act as a lazy substitute for on-the-ground organizing and outreach and can be part of the problem of “mobilization without organizing” that was covered in Part I.

For those who want to work towards long-term, deep social change, strong organizations are the most effective tool available because only organizations can provide the large-scale, complex, unified, and democratic coordination required to take on dominant power structures.

Social Cohesion

All this talk about formal organization may feel somewhat cold and metallic, but for any organization to regularly resolve internal disputes and commit to each other deeply, strong social relationships within the organization are also essential. Building these relationships happens through the organization’s formal work, like working together in actions and talking in meetings (aka, through struggle), and also outside of formal organizing.

While socializing outside of formal functions is beneficial, it’s advantageous to integrate socializing within the organization as well less it drop off or leave out those who aren’t already part of the group’s inner social milieu. Having 1-on-1s with new members is part of organizing basics, though I’d go further and say that 1-on-1s can also build crucial social cohesion and should be done more regularly than is usually the case. I think each of the most experienced members in a group that organizes together should have a 1-on-1 with new and committed members within 6 months of that person joining. When a newer member feels socially connected to not just one person, but to all of them, they are much more likely to stick around and will also be a much more effective member because they can call on that many more people for support and guidance. When groups get large enough this volume of 1-on-1s is impractical, but making sure new members have 1-on-1s with at least 3 long-time members in their first few months helps with retention immensely. 1-on-1s between long-time existing members, just once a year even, is also often overlooked but can be key for maintaining deep relationships.

Regular social functions like get-together’s at someone’s house or going out to dinner on a regular basis can do wonders for organizational effectiveness too.

Like political education, social cohesion can seem like a waste of time in the rush of day-to-day work that needs to get done, but when things get tense and campaigns are in overdrive, the strength of your relationships with others will be tested. Organizing relationships are like romantic relationships or friendship generally: they can start off well, get ecstatic in moments of victory, but when things get tough, the strength of those relationships are tested and no working relationship can be that strong without some social and interpersonal components. This doesn’t mean you have to like everyone you organize with, but it means that you get to know them, their interests, virtues, and vices, you know how to have fun together, you mutually respect the passion and commitment you bring to the work, and you know when and how to take care of each other. While sports analogies often feel more relevant than they are, it’s worth checking out what sports teams do to build team cohesion; they don’t just show up at practice together 4 days a week, 6 months a year and throw balls around.

Organizational Learning and Adapting

Organizing is just too hard to get it right all the time, or even very often at all. After a short bit, a group can start to get the basics right and grow and win small victories. But inevitably, group problems will arise, such as those in power will pacify your base by meeting your demands halfway, or people will get arrested, or internal disagreements in the group will wear people down, or people stop coming out to actions and start to drop off, or the next actions you take stop having the same effect as earlier ones, or people get distracted, or life events zap their capacity. Most likely, many of these things will happen at once after some initial success, and this is what makes organizing really difficult.

Your group needs to learn how to recognize problems as they arise and adapt to fix them. Much of this necessarily happens through informal conversations, but finding a way for the group as a whole to trouble-shoot and course-correct together is more democratic and builds people’s organizing skills.

Debriefing after important meetings and actions is one way to do this. Especially with large actions, having an entire debrief meeting is a good practice. From the debrief discussion, a person or two can write up an after-action report that includes the context, what happened, what went well, and what could be done better, all of which can inform planning for future actions. Holding group retreats or strategy sessions once or twice a year are an effective way to reflect on past organizing and set goals for future organizing.

But when things get really tough, too often people don’t notice they’re stuck or they assume it’s just a short-term hitch that will fix itself rather than a deeper problem of organizing approach. Groups acquire a way of thinking together that can result in blind spots and you need to get out of the thought bubble. Having seasoned organizers around who aren’t in the group who you can talk to is helpful, as is reading histories of other organizations, first-hand accounts of campaigns, and books on organizing theory and practice. Knowing how to fix your group’s problems will often be outside of the direct experience of those involved, so having access to outside resources for perspective is necessary.

Cutting Your Losses

When things aren’t going well and you don’t think they can be fixed or you have fundamental disagreements with the group about strategies and goals, the best thing to do is leave. Dropping out of organizations that aren’t doing well and are not capable of course-correction have been some of the most difficult but best organizing decisions I’ve made. Creating a new organization through which to organize or trying to find a different one that matches your politics can be difficult, but at least you can start moving in the right direction and not waste away your efforts on projects that don’t inspire you or change society.

Formal vs. Informal Organization

One recurring theme in Parts I and II here is between formal and informal ways to carry out the various aspects of organizing. Not everything can or should be done formally, nor everything informally. Organizers just don’t have enough time to codify every best practice in their policies to keep track of all of them to make sure none of them are dropped. If everything is tried informally, our brains are just not big enough to remember to do everything without established procedures, to say nothing of how everything could possibly be done democratically in such a fashion. How to choose what gets done one way or the other is not a simple science.

As best I can figure out, it’s worthwhile to have some core part of each of the above features of organizing–outreach, democracy, action, political education, social aspects, organizational adapting–as part of the formal organization, and some part of those features done informally. That way none of the important features is ever entirely dropped. Choosing which practices are left informal allows flexibility in using them or dropping them as the need for them rises or fades. As an organization increases in size, the need for more formalization increases because informal best practices are harder to maintain when there are more people involved than regularly interact.

In Conclusion

In my own organizing and study, I’ve needed to define for myself what organizing is time after time because in reflection I’ve found myself deviating from my own vision of organizing far too often. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to keep myself on a tighter leash. No more slack or excuses. If social change, or revolution, is what I want, then organizing is what I need to focus on. I hope to persuade others of the same. For those of us who want a better world, and who think organizing is the way to get there, let’s get to work.

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