Much of organizing is about getting the right information to the right people at the right time. The right information at the wrong time or for the wrong person is one of the most prevalent missteps rookie organizers make. Trying to explain what socialism is to your coworker before you’ve had the chance to talk about your working conditions and grievances is a mistake because often they’re more worried about paying their rent or avoiding their micro-managing boss and they’ll wonder why you’re talking about all this abstract stuff. Learning when to say what and how is about organizing the abstract ideas and information in your head and then putting those into the practice of organizing with real people.
Nowhere is the delicacy of information more important than in meetings. A meeting is getting people together to discuss and plan, essentially putting information together in useful combinations to move the group towards its goals. Novice organizers treat meetings as places where people get together and slap information together by putting together an agenda at the last minute, taking half-assed notes, wrongly assuming that everyone in the meeting has the proper context for what’s being talked about, and getting pulled into tangential debates. I’ve participated in and facilitated my fair share of these kinds of meetings. Bad meetings are a volcanic mess, with information splashing and exploding all around the room without any coherent logic to it. Good meetings are intricate fountains of highly structured information cascading through people’s heads, maximizing everyone’s participation, and moving the organization forward.
This blog post is as much a nuts-and-bolts guide for how to plan and run organizing meetings (thus it can be very detail-oriented in places) as it is an analysis of what makes organizing meetings good.
Kinds of Meetings in Grassroots Organizations
There are three kinds of meetings that are essential for the functioning of a grassroots radical organizing group: the decision-making meeting, the ad-hoc meeting, and the organizing meeting. These often get combined, especially in smaller orgs, but after reaching a certain size, I think being intentional about splitting up different kinds of meetings is important. I’m going to briefly discuss the distinguishing features of decision-making and ad-hoc meetings before delving into organizing meetings.
Decision-making meetings are where your organization introduces proposals, discusses them, and votes on them as a way to officially create policy and direct resources. Formal processes, such as consensus, majority vote, Robert’s/Rusty’s Rules of Order, often play central roles in greasing the gears of these meetings. After organizations reach a certain size, these meetings are profitably differentiated from organizing meetings that focus on planning and organizing and maximizing member engagement. Yet, the access that all members of an org have to decision-making meetings is the major determinant of how democratic the group is.
Ad hoc committees have meetings where things get done where only a subgroup of the membership is working on a specific project, and its goal is to complete that project. These committees are best spawned at more formal decision-making or organizing meetings, and then these meetings happen outside of the more formal meetings. If some people want to work on updating the bylaws or on developing a workshop or making a website or planning the annual fundraiser dinner, it requires a lot of detail work which is good for a small group but not worth subjecting the whole membership to in an all-group meeting. Spinning ad hoc meetings off from all-member meetings keeps everything flowing smoothly.
Ad hoc and decision-making meetings are crucial to organization, but are often relatively easy to put together. Someone by themselves can piece together an agenda and with some facilitation experience and just a little forethought can often run effective meetings of these kinds. The information exchange between members is smoother because the goals of these meetings are often clearer and more explicit.
To summarize these ideas using more social science language, using different meeting forms effectively is about spatially differentiating various kinds of collective information-processing into different meetings so that members with different information needs and interests can sort themselves between these spaces to best meet the goals of the individuals and the group. We will see that much of what makes organizing meetings effective is to similarly differentiate various collective information-processing needs into different temporal units (agenda items) and spatial units (breakout groups) within the meeting agenda. All of this “differentiation” between and within meetings is only helpful insofar as it is then integrated back into advancing the overall goals of the organization.
When Organizing Meetings Make Sense
Before digging into organizing meetings, it’s important to note that the structure of meetings of all kinds depends on the size and nature of the group, and as a reference point here for describing organizing meetings I’ll use the labor organizing committee I belong to. My committee has about 20 official members, another 10-20 who are somewhat less involved but still come around, and a steady flow of new people coming around. Monthly meetings bring out 20-25 people. We are organizing in the same industry, that of K12 education, but we’re spread out among many different schools. Unlike an organizing committee of people all working in the same place on the same issue, we’re all in the same industry but most of us are in separate buildings and organizing around undesirable conditions local to each building and trying to build up organizing committees in each building (some sites have committees or proto-committees, other sites are just a single person trying to start a committee, some work as substitute teachers and organize on that basis). Thus, the focus of our meetings has less to do with coordinating collective work but supporting each other in each of our own mini-campaigns at our separate workplaces.
For a larger group or one working on a more unified campaign, a lot of the same general meeting ideas described below can be applied though they have to be adapted to different circumstances (I originally learned this style of meeting when doing anti-sweatshop organizing in college in which we were running a singular, high-intensity direct action campaign). For any group that tries to bring these approaches into your meetings, it would certainly be easier to try integrating them in chunks instead of all at once in a way that may be jarring.
Also, in my experience for a committee of 10 or fewer and without a lot of new people coming through, the group needs have more to do with establishing a solid foundation and model, and thus many of the more time-intensive practices of producing organizing meetings don’t apply. However, after a group is able to establish a solid organizing model and puts in place appropriate organizational infrastructure, oftentimes there’s just not that many organizational-level decisions that have to get made regularly. When that is the case, organizing meetings can become the main focus of the group while decision-making meetings are scheduled less regularly or only when the need arises.
Goals of Organizing Meetings
Organizing meetings are an entirely different beast from other meetings. This is due primarily to the number and complexity of the goals of such meetings.
Before describing the goals of these meetings, it’s important to take note of who attends these meetings. For my committee, these meetings are open to all members and prospective members, such that people of widely varying experience, commitment, and skills are present together. People who are brand new are invited to attend, but we usually encourage people to meet up 1-on-1 with a member before attending a big meeting so that they have a little more context for what we’re about and how we work.
In an organizing committee there are concentric circles of people with different levels of commitment and involvement. Sometimes organizations formally define these different levels and mark out different spaces and tasks for each, but even in organizations where it’s not so formally defined (such as is mostly the case in my committee), people informally occupy these different spaces in an organization.
The inner-most circle is composed of the “core” members who have been around the longest, know the organization’s history and approach, have developed skill sets that feed the ongoing activity of the organization, and have deep social connections throughout the membership. The next larger concentric circle are the “active members”. These are people who are all formal members of the organization, are actively involved in helping the group pursue its goals through various projects, and are regular attendees of scheduled meetings. Beyond that are the “supporters” and “new” people. These people are often not (or not yet anyway) formal members but they are interested in the group and are either dipping their toes in (prospective and new members) or are staying involved at a lower capacity (supporters). Outside of these circles is the larger community of people in which your org exists, some of who know about your group and some who do not. People in this outer zone are all potential members in the long-term but currently have no relationship to the organization. Any organization that’s trying to build grassroots power is trying to move people step-by-step from the outer circles to the inner ones, and/or to find the circle appropriate to each person’s commitment.
Each of these different groups of people engage with the organization from a different position and in different ways. Sometimes it makes sense to have separate regular meetings for each of these different groupings because they all have different needs. The drawback of that approach is that then people with different levels of experience don’t interact as much and it can also be more time-consuming to have so many meetings. For many committees, having a single organizing meeting to pursue these varied goals saves time and helps maintain group cohesion and knowledge-sharing across different levels of involvement.
The downside of this is that trying to fit so many different needs into a meeting can be complex. But if approached in the right way, the complexity of the needs is not a weakness but a strength. The hardware and software in a smart phone is complex, but the compactness of the device is what makes it practical and powerful and uniquely able to meet a variety of needs. Likewise, effective organizing meetings contribute greatly to the efficiency and coordination of the group by fitting so many organizational functions into one place and enabling them to synergize off each other.
Here are the primary goals of organizing meetings: 1) to plug people into projects that advance the goals of the organization, 2) to spread skills that are needed for organizational projects, 3) to build political and strategic cohesion, 4) to form and maintain social relationships between members, 5) to make smaller decisions or get feedback from the whole group on important matters, and 6) to entice people at all levels of involvement, especially newer people, to increase their commitment to the organization (this last one is more a side-effect of the others when they’re done well).
It’s not so straight-forward that you put an agenda item in each meeting that addresses each of these individually, but as your org plans an agenda, each meeting item should be engaging and switching off between multiple goals simultaneously. If any one of these goals is neglected in one or more meetings, some essential function of your meetings, and thus your organization, will likely be neglected too and your organizing will suffer.
How to meet each of these goals for a brand new member and a long-term member may look very different, leading to the tension between catering to the needs of long-term members or newer members. To resolve this, long-term members can be tasked more with designing, researching, and facilitating content for various parts of the meeting, while newer members are tasked more with engaging it. Of course, this dichotomy is never very rigid as new members challenge assumptions and bring their own knowledge, and the most veteran organizers are always soaking up new knowledge. As new members acquire more knowledge and skills, they can then take on the roles of passing that info along to the next round of new members. Organizers create more organizers. This is the ideal of all grassroots organizing.
What NOT to Do in Organizing Meetings
Nothing more clearly impresses the need for better meetings than having been through excruciating meetings yourself. The ways in which meetings fail also helps us see more concretely how all of the ideas here can help avoid such lamentable situations. Keeping in mind that these apply particularly to organizing meetings where new members are in attendance, here’s a list of common traps that meetings fall into if not well-planned:
- Having long technical discussions that not everyone needs to be a part of and which are mostly a bore. For example, crafting the bylaws for an organization. I think having bylaws can be very important, but having long discussions in meetings where new members are present broadcasts to them that they’re gonna have sit through a lot of boring stuff if they want to get more involved in your group. Bylaws should be drafted in ad hoc meetings elsewhere. Feedback and further discussion should also be made accessible to all members but mostly sought outside of all-member meetings until the bylaws are in a shape that everyone likes and can be quickly voted on at a meeting. I’ve made this blunder before of technical issues overtaking organizing meetings, and I’ve since vowed to never subject myself or my comrades to it ever again.
- Placing overbearing expectations on new people. Meetings should not have a tone that implies that anyone who wants to be a member “has to do” or “be like” xyz right away. Sometimes this looks like an organization saying that if you want to join then you have to be really hardcore (“just tell your boss to go f#%! themselves”) or intense (“you need to have built a union in your workplace by next Tuesday!”) or expert (“oh, so you don’t know what Marx wrote about class relations in the Scottish wool textile mills of the 1830s?”). Rather, your organization needs welcoming forms of meaningful participation for members at all levels of commitment.
- Ignore what new people bring to the org. Sometimes you can make the mistake of engaging new people without really getting to know them. You might ask them what they think of your group’s campaign or what they think about the political analysis, but if you’re not also asking them about their interests, experience, and feelings and how they relate to the group, chances are they’ll slowly begin to feel like tools instead of agents.
All of this focus on new members is intentional. There’s no way your org will grow beyond a small social group if you’re not constantly bringing new members in and building them into the leadership of the org. As you might remember yourself, being a new member in a group and figuring out if that group is really for you can be stressful and intimidating. Any group that can make new members feel welcome, appreciated, and engaged is miles ahead of the groups that can’t.
Timeline for an Organizing Meeting
Before going any further into the actual content of these meetings, it will be useful to look at how they’re planned. What the meeting looks like as a final product is integrally bound up in how it’s prepared beforehand, so I’m going to lay out an idealized timeline for how to coordinate these meetings along with the necessary organizational infrastructure that supports it. After that, a sample agenda is presented and analyzed.
14-10 days before the meeting: Reach out and nail down the facilitator for the meeting. Before getting into the details of how to find a facilitator, a key role worth explaining that my organization uses to do this is the “meeting coordinator”. This person not only reaches out among the membership to find a willing and able facilitator each month but is at the side of the facilitator at every step along the way to give support and pass along crucial organizational best practices and knowledge. My group elects the meeting coordinator, and they hold the position for 6-12 months. This role takes a lot of time and effort and should only be taken on by someone with the capacity and commitment to see it through. With that said, there are many different organizational options available to fulfill the tasks that the meeting coordinator does–it could be a whole subcommittee instead of a single role, the facilitator of each meeting could work as the meeting coordinator of the subsequent meeting, etc…–but the tasks themselves are absolutely essential to effective organizing meetings.
In contrast to the way experienced orgs do this, often the worst way to select a monthly facilitator in this kind of meeting is just to openly ask for a volunteer at the end of each meeting. This usually prompts an uncomfortable silence, where the veteran members are hoping someone newer will step up, but the newer members are often unsure if they’re ready to facilitate a meeting or what’s really involved in that. Oftentimes, the most outgoing people will volunteer instead of the people who would most benefit themselves and the committee as a whole. (This kind of facilitator selection is often fine for kinds of meetings that require less intense preparation and where people know and trust each other more.)
As the meeting coordinator myself a while back, I would reach out to potential facilitators using 3 main criteria: Firstly, the person can’t have facilitated too recently. By rotating the facilitator, the membership takes more collective ownership of the organization and also spreads out the skills needed to run the organization among more people. I would usually reserve the most experienced members of the organization as back-up facilitators for when someone else has to back out last minute or no one else can be found.
Secondly, the person has shown commitment to the organization that signals they’d be potentially interested in facilitating a meeting. Asking someone who’s too new to the org can both be intimidating for them and also if they don’t know the org well enough they’ll have a difficult time thinking through the agenda structure. With that said, new-ish people who have been around for 6-12 months and have showed commitment to the org by taking on a series of smaller tasks are often ideal people to facilitate.
Thirdly, the facilitator should be representative of the pool of people the group is investing in. The pool of facilitators represents the group of people who you’re actively bringing up in the organization. So, for example, having the facilitator always be a white guy or from a particular social subgroup can be obstacles to the group being inclusive and democratic.
There is one last but most important point: It’s not the facilitator’s role to be the star actor of a play where the attention is always on them. If your group aspires to be democratic and encourage the growth of all its members, the main task of the facilitator is to maximize the engagement of the membership as a whole within the meeting. The facilitator is more that of the orchestra conductor, who passes the melody (aka speaking roles) off between many people; makes sure each person has some kind of part to play in producing the desired organizational textures and harmonies (people without prominent speaking roles need to be given opportunities to participate and contribute in open group discussions and breakout groups); that it all follows the tempo and is on time (nothing is worse for organizational culture than meetings that regularly run far over time and where everyone is waiting to leave); and that can help steer the group when things get off track or some unplanned situation requires attention.
7-10 days before the meeting: Send out an email reminder for the meeting as well as a call for agenda items.
2-5 days before the meeting: After sufficient time for people to submit agenda items, have the facilitator and meeting coordinator meet up for an agenda-planning meeting. Having two heads instead of one is crucial in agenda-planning (it can not be successful without it) for identifying weak spots and exploring new creative ways to approach meeting challenges.
Ideally, this planning meeting should be as long as the meeting itself will likely take. A good duration for an organizing meeting is 2 hours, so I aim for 2-ish hours of time for an agenda planning meeting. The planning meeting might be shorter if there’s been an established template that is being followed, or the planning meeting might be longer if one part of the meeting involves a skill-share or workshop that the facilitators are presenting. In any case, these agenda-planning meetings are the most essential part of making organizing meetings effective. I’m not very charismatic or captivating in front of a group of people, but when I’ve had time to collaborate with a co-planner and fully think through an agenda so as to carefully cater the structure and content of the meeting to the complex needs of the group, I’ve facilitated some very good meetings. I’ve seen countless others do it as well. I rarely see this happen when collaborative planning is avoided.
People often resist this amount of planning on a few grounds, such as it takes too much time and it restricts the pool of meeting facilitators to only those who have the time to plan it. While this is true, I don’t think there’s any way around it. A well-planned and facilitated meeting of 10 – 30 people will pay huge dividends by meeting a range of important but complex group goals, while a meeting that is slapped together haphazardly will all too often be a waste of people’s time. When meetings fail, the facilitators feel guilty, new and potential members don’t come back, organizing is not advanced, and momentum sputters. The 4 collective hours that the facilitator and co-planner spend to plan the meeting pays off many times over by having 20 – 60 person-hours of attendees being productive and feeling energized.
As a meeting coordinator myself, the agenda planning meeting between myself and the facilitator would go through these steps:
- We look over the last meeting agenda or two as a template for the next one. Unless you’re intentionally trying to experiment with very different meeting structures or something dramatic is happening in your committee, it’s usually most effective and efficient to have an explicit or implicit meeting agenda template that allows for variety from meeting to meeting but keeps the overall structure consistent.
- We look over any agenda item requests from other members of the committee. I ask if the facilitator has any agenda item ideas. As someone who keeps track of meeting agendas over a longer time and as a more veteran group member who’s familiar with the group’s needs, I as the meeting coordinator might have a suggestion or two for an agenda item.
- With all that material, we slap it all together into a rough outline. If there’s too much material for a two-hour organizing meeting we figure out what to cut; if there’s not enough, we brainstorm other things to add. The meeting length for my group is set to two hours because that’s how long many people’s attention spans are for this kind of thing and also because it’s a compromise between having enough time to advance the work without burdening the capacity of new people. The goals of organizing meetings are so numerous that if capacity and attention span were not limiting factors, I believe organizing meetings could easily fill up 5+ hours of relevant, engaging, and important agenda items.
- After that rough outline is in place is when the real planning begins. You have to put yourself in the shoes of attendees, both new and experienced members, and go through the meeting item by item and see what issues come up. Strategize with your co-planner every angle on every item. Radically altering the agenda from the rough outline to the final product is common in my experience because the way the meeting was run last time or the easy way to do things is often not the best.
The following are some good points to keep in mind when planning the meeting strategically. A common mistake is not having enough points in the meeting where new people can speak and participate, thus the importance of having pair-shares, breakout groups, and go-arounds throughout the meeting. Sometimes the organizing breakout topics don’t really serve any purpose and are just going through the motions, in which case you may have to cut or totally rethink them. Maybe the big agenda item in the first half of the meeting is only relevant to a few of the attendees and not to the rest, so how do you alter that? In all of this, variety between agenda items in the meeting is super-important. For example, just having a series of breakout group after breakout group in a meeting can be monotonous. What other forms of interactivity and participation can you include in the meeting beyond discussions? Do you and your co-planner feel in touch with the membership enough to know what matters to them? Maybe an issue has come up at a couple previous meetings that there hasn’t been time to address but is on everyone’s mind. Maybe there haven’t been new members at the last few meetings and so introductory content has been truncated, but maybe at the upcoming meeting you expect a handful of new people to be there. How do you adjust the agenda to engage them? Is the facilitator tasked with the majority of the speaking roles in the meeting? If so, that’s probably too much, and it’s better to find different people to be the main speaker on different agenda items, leaving to the facilitator just an item or two to speak on, the transitions between all the items, and the introduction and closing of the meeting.
Finding ways to bridge the smaller details of organizing with larger political questions is important. For example with a workplace organizing committee, relating how the boss treats you each day to the dynamics of capitalism writ large can be essential for the political development of group members.
Another way I like to look at meeting structures is using the IWW’s AEIOU acronym (agitate-educate-inoculate-organize-union) for organizing conversations but then loosely adapting those ideas to meetings. I’m really a broken record on how ubiquitous AEIOU is within good organizing and how it applies far beyond organizing conversations. I think we basically have to be doing AEIOU with each other, new and veteran members alike, all the time.
One way to apply this to meetings is that people need to really feel the reason (the agitate part) that they’re at a meeting. If a new member comes to a couple of meetings and it all just seems like merely a silly game of out-maneuvering your boss or an intellectual exercise about analyzing capitalism, they won’t feel anything and thus they probably won’t come back. What kind of agenda item can bring out this emotional dimension of organizing within the meeting? Next, the meeting has to clearly articulate how our feelings of indignity, exhaustion, or disrespect as workers is connected to what the organization is actually doing (the educate part). A not uncommon situation with someone new is they come and just vent about how terrible their job is, which is important for them to do, but if then everyone just jumps in on the same wavelength and the whole conversation becomes collective venting, no one will leave the meeting or breakout group with any movement towards addressing that problem. You need time for venting but also ways to transition to thinking about solutions within meetings. Inoculating is about shoring us up against the doubts we have and the counter-arguments we might encounter, and there’s always opportunities for small bits of this in meetings. The organize part is about what tasks people can take on that advance their organizing. There’s certainly some space in large meetings like this to get people to take on useful tasks, but depending on the kind of committee and campaign you have, that’s sometimes more detail-oriented than the meeting really has space to provide to each and every attendee. Sprinkle some of this into your meetings, but 1-on-1s and smaller committee meetings are really where most of the task-design and -distribution is best handled. The union part is mostly about follow-through and follow-up, which like organize, is better handled in 1-on-1s. Nonetheless, bringing elements of the AEIOU into your meetings intentionally through various agenda items can make them resonate more fully with members.
Not every agenda item will be of interest and relevant to every meeting attendee. But each minute someone is not engaged is a wasted minute, and you’d be surprised how much waste can be cut out of meetings with effective planning and facilitation.
Years ago, early in my obsession with agenda planning, I once roleplayed the entire agenda, item by item, in front of my good friend and agenda co-planner, saying out loud all the things I would need to as facilitator at that meeting. He gave me feedback, small and large, on every single section, things that I would never have thought of myself, that vastly improved the agenda. While there’s rarely enough time or energy to, in addition to planning the agenda, roleplay the whole meeting ahead of time, I do remember that that was first really good meeting that I ever facilitated and it left a lasting impression on me.
1 day before: Send text reminders to everyone you want to see there. Address any loose ends that still need to be tied up. For example, if it’s supposed to rain see who can offer rides to those who might otherwise bike to the meeting. Have someone buy the snacks and coffee.
Day of: The facilitator and meeting coordinator get to the meeting space 30 minutes early to set up, write the agenda on a whiteboard so all attendees can see it, and go over any last questions between the two of them.
After all that preparation, the group can get to the actual meeting where all the magic happens. Here’s what the meeting agenda template looks like for my group with some explanation included, though meeting by meeting the agenda may deviate from this and of course each organization has its own unique needs and should construct their own templates accordingly.
- Introductions (15 minutes)
- Everyone goes around and gives their name, workplace, position, and chooses to briefly answer one of two intro questions. One of the questions is more substantial and one is more playful/goofy. Two sample questions of these kinds might look like the following: What’s your least favorite thing that your boss does? What’s your favorite potato dish?
- Major item (30 minutes)
- This is the most varying part of the agenda for our meetings. It’s the wildcard spot where the agenda planners can be most creative and adaptive in finding something for the group. Sometimes it’s a discussion of a critical issue for the committee. Sometimes it’s a debrief of a recent major action. Sometimes it’s a piece of political education which is otherwise hard to fit into meetings. Alternating between pair-shares (turning to the person next to you and sharing your thoughts on an issue), large group go-around (where everyone goes around and speaks), and other forms of engagement keep the energy up.
- Announcements (5 minutes)
- This is a place to announce upcoming events like trainings and socials, or solicit interest in some side-project, like someone painting a new banner for the group and they want to invite others to join them.
- Break (10 minutes)
- These meetings can sometimes feel intense because there’s so much happening, so having time in the middle to breath allows for recharging. Also, it provides an opportunity for attendees to go up to one another and connect.
- Story Time (10 minutes)
- Someone shares a story about organizing, with a brief Q&A at the end. Sometimes it’s a story of a small action like a march on the boss, or of a whole campaign history like Stardust Family United. Sometimes it’s told by someone who was part of it, sometimes it’s told by someone who researched it. We try to find stories that are as relevant to our committee’s organizing as possible.
- It’s up to the agenda planners to reach out to people who can lead this section, and it should preferably not be the facilitator so as to spread around who’s leading different items.
- For people who are newer to organizing, knowing what it looks like or how it works can be unclear, so these stories help them fill in the picture and helps them see how they personally can relate to organizing.
- Organizing Breakout Groups (40 minutes)
- This is the main course of the whole meeting. Breakout groups are organized generally around different parts or stages of organizing that attendees might find themselves in, and the breakout group is a space to talk through questions or problems in organizing or just be exposed to other people thinking critically about organizing. While the specific topics change week by week, we usually have 2-3 breakouts at each meeting and typical topics include:
- Setting up a 1-on-1 with your coworker.
- Social mapping your workplace.
- Planning an action around a workplace grievance.
- General Q&A and intro for people brand new to the committee.
- Or if there’s a group of coworkers at the meeting facing a particular issue at their own workplace, they might just get together and run their own breakout group.
- Each breakout group should have a facilitator. The role of the breakout facilitator is not to talk at everyone and bestow wisdom, but to facilitate useful discussion between attendees. Ideally, breakout facilitators should be contacted and confirmed for the role 2-3 days in advance so that they don’t just show up and have to improvise something which requires more forethought.
- The best breakouts engage everyone and help everyone meet their organizing goals. 5 people should be a maximum number for a breakout group if everyone is to be given time to talk, and if needed a large breakout group can be split into smaller ones.
- A breakout facilitator should have organizing experience on the topic of the group and should have some idea of how to structure the discussion. Here are possible ways to facilitate an organizing breakout:
- Start by asking who in the breakout has issues in mind already that they want to talk through related to the breakout topic. Then divide up the number of people with the amount of time so that each person who is bringing an issue has equal time to talk about it. The facilitator in this setting keeps things moving and brings people into the discussion who might be shy. Also, the facilitator and any other more veteran people can reframe questions that newer members have and provide valuable direct feedback.
- A more rapid-fire version of the above is in my branch called a “hot seat”. Everyone who is bringing an issue (can be as few as one person) is given 2-3 minutes to frame their issue, and then the breakout goes around in a circle and each person gives feedback or asks a question of the person in the hot seat that stimulates deeper thinking. This forces newer members to try to give advice of their own, which may not always be the best advice, but to force them into the organizing mindset is good practice and everyone knows that what’s said are just suggestions.
- Sometimes just stealing a module out of the IWW’s Organizer Training 101 and doing the role-plays can be a helpful refresher to some and introduction for others on organizing fundamentals. For those who are not familiar with the 101, these role-plays include things like how to get to the core feeling that someone has about a grievance, how to ask questions that lead towards effective solutions to such problems, and how to help someone process a fear they have about taking action.
- It’s sometimes the case that a person unexpectedly brings an issue to a breakout group that is of high importance (e.g., they’re afraid of getting fired soon in retaliation for organizing), and it’s up to the facilitator to help decide whether that person needs to process the issue 1-on-1 with an experienced organizer on the side or whether processing that collectively in the breakout group can be useful for the person whose issue it is and helpful for other people to think about together.
- If it’s a person’s first time facilitating a breakout group or even a certain topic, it’s the facilitator or meeting coordinator’s job to reach out ahead of time to talk through it with them until they come up with an approach to it that they feel comfortable with.
- Closing (10 minutes)
- One last go around where everyone is free to say whatever they want (briefly), or to respond to a prompt question: What was your favorite part of the meeting or what would you have liked more of? What’s one thing you thought about in this meeting that you’re bringing into your own organizing? Cats or dogs?
At their best, organizing meetings are well-oiled machines of collective sharing and learning. Newer members take in lots of new information while also being encouraged to actively apply it to their circumstances and think about it out loud. More experienced members are prompting, challenging, and supporting newer members in this without being overbearing or intimidating. The group as a whole builds collective ideas about how to fight back. The organizing meetings my group uses now play a central role in our work, and their quality sets us apart from other many other grassroots groups that work on related issues locally.
But organizing meetings are still just that, meetings, and committee meetings are no substitute for 1-on-1 conversations that you have with your members that are necessary to go deeper into people’s grievances and emotions and knowledge. Meetings are also no substitute for direct action, without which meeting after meeting can feel like running in place. When a committee is firing on all cylinders, the organizing meetings, 1-on-1s, and actions all work together to build power and push the group towards larger goals.
Addendum: How to Apply Organizing Meetings to IWW Organizing
In recent decades, most IWW organizing has been in smaller-scale workplaces of less than 200 workers and often in super-small workplaces of 20 or less, as in coffee shops and small restaurants. As I said above, I think the organizing meeting framework doesn’t work as well for committees smaller than 10 active people and without a lot of new people coming through. In smaller workplaces, it can be more difficult to build up an active workplace committee (also called a “job branch”) to such a size as to make organizing meetings beneficial, and so, plainly, the organizing meeting framework just isn’t as directly applicable to these kinds of IWW job branches.
However, I think organizing meetings may be applicable to other kinds of IWW organizing. In workplaces of 300+ (like large warehouses), it may be easier to build a committee up to 10 people and have enough outreach to be bringing new people through on a regular basis. In this case, I think the larger production effort of organizing meetings would be beneficial.
The other kind of IWW organizing I think this model is good for is Industrial Organizing Committees (IOC), committees of workers from multiple workplaces in the same industry who come together to support each other in and coordinate their organizing. This is essentially the kind of “reference point” committee I used above for this blog post. Unlike many single workplace campaigns, IOCs can be large enough to justify the resources needed to run good organizing meetings as described above.