[This post is part of a series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations. If not familiar, please read the intro post as it describes the basic definition of “educate” and how it fits into AEIOU (agitate-educate-inoculate-organize-uplift), which the writing below builds on.]
If you want to solve a problem in your workplace that you’ve discussed in the agitate step of AEIOU, you need a plan. The educate step of AEIOU is about how to make to a plan in talking with a coworker.
Sometimes my writings on this blog are meant to be succinct and hit home a point in a punchy way. Sometimes my writings, as in this post, are messier and more tedious as I wrestle with problems that I haven’t mastered yet, and I want to get my hands dirty.
Educate has the most sub-steps within it of all the AEIOU parts, so it’s partly challenging because there’s a lot to keep in mind while also balancing all the usual complexities of an organizing conversation. For this reason, this is the part of AEIOU that most benefited from thinking through things before the 1-on-1. I have a separate post on how to prep for 1-on-1s, but suffice to say here that I usually find it very helpful to sketch out on paper beforehand the questions and stories I might want to use in an educate conversation so that I’m not totally flying by the seat of my pants.
As I point out in my Species of 1-on-1s post, educate can play out differently depending on whether you’re exploring how to address a grievance with someone who has the leeway to come up with a plan themselves (which this post will apply more closely to), or whether you’re doing educate with someone in the context of an existing campaign with pre-existing demands (like a contract campaign).
I’m going to go over the 3 sub-questions of educate in order and elaborate in more detail the challenges and opportunities that commonly arise.
“What would fix the problem?”
After emerging from the agitate part of the conversation, where a grievance is identified and the effects of that grievance are explored, you need to be prepared to launch into educate. You want to frame things positively (“What would fix the problem?”) so that the negative emotions of agitate aren’t just left to fester, so that people can see themselves as not just emotional sponges soaking up the problems in their environments but also as agents with the potential to think and create change.
Let’s say that you have a coworker Pat who’s being harassed by a supervisor named Todd. Todd is verbally aggressive and says demeaning things about Pat even when Pat is in the room.
If you’re in a 1-on-1 with Pat outside of work and you ask Pat what would fix the problem, they might give a range of answers: quitting, getting transferred to a different department, getting Todd fired, forcing Todd to stop. Depending on the circumstances, any of these might be strategic or reasonable. As the organizer, you can ask follow-up questions to see what Pat wants and what makes sense for them.
Some answers Pat gives might not seem like it’s really what Pat wants, and you can help explore that with follow up questions. If Pat says quitting would solve the problem, you could ask, “Do you want to quit?” If so, you can ask if there is anything you can do to help them with that. Sometimes someone might suggest quitting as the fix without really having explored or being aware of other possibilities. As an organizer in this kind of gray area, you can make suggestions but obviously you don’t want to push people to do anything that they don’t want or that could be harmful, like staying in a bad situation without a reasonable possibility of changing it. Not every grievance leads to further organizing that results in collective action, and while collective action is what’s needed to build power, forcing it is just gonna do harm and weaken your organizing in the long run. Your concept of what a good organizer is should overlap entirely with your concept of what a good person is.
But if in follow-up questions Pat really doesn’t want to quit because much of the job they really like, then you can start asking about other things that might fix the problem. Maybe you and Pat settle on the idea that getting Todd to stop would fix the problem and is realistic. Perhaps the reasoning is that Todd is selective in who he is harassing towards, and if you think he’s harassing because he’s just a bully who thinks he can get away with it, maybe Todd will stop if he faces pushback from workers.
“Who can give us what we want?”
In this scenario, Todd himself can fix the problem by changing his behavior. But if the situation were different and Todd wasn’t really a selective bully and was a jerk to everyone, the fix might be getting Todd fired. In that case, the “who can give us what we want?” answer would be Todd’s boss who could fire Todd. Different kinds of demands require different kinds of targets.
Picking an appropriate “who” or target for an action is absolutely crucial to fixing the problem. As obvious as that may sound, we often get caught up in the other details and can end up with an action that is more expressive of the effects of the problem than it is a targeted attack on the causes of the problem.
“What collective action can we take to fix the problem?”
Using the term “collective action” might not actually be the best way to phrase this question out loud, as it may seem kind of vague or confusing to those who aren’t familiar with organizing terminology. But in your own mind, that’s the essence of what you’re exploring in this part of educate.
“What do you think it would take to force Todd to stop messing with you?” There’s a wide range of answers Pat could give here. Maybe they suggest another coworker speak privately with Todd to cut it out. Maybe they suggest everyone confront Todd in a staff meeting and tell him that bullying isn’t allowed any more. Those both seem like reasonable ideas worth trying.
But what if Pat suggests something that seems off? For example, maybe Pat says that the two of you should approach one of the other supervisors with the complaint about Todd. As a longer-term employee who has seen the supervisors close rank before, maybe this doesn’t seem like the best option to you. You could ask, “Do you think the other supervisors would take us seriously?” If Pat still thinks it’s a good idea, even if you’re skeptical and have been honest in providing all the info that would be necessary for Pat to make an informed decision, it’s sometimes worth it to follow through on Pat’s idea for three reasons: 1) If that’s what Pat wants sometimes it’s best to support them in order to respect their agency even if you privately disagree, 2) if you’re right and the action doesn’t work, maybe it will still reveal the underlying class dynamics in the workplace that can lead to subsequent more effective approaches, 3) maybe Pat is right and you’re wrong.
Another way to think about this: If you create a crisis for the boss, they’ll be forced to give in as a way to stop the crisis. This framing can help you see things from the boss’s perspective and think strategically about what they don’t want to happen and how you can use that to your advantage. For example, most bosses would be terrified if their workers stood up together in a staff meeting and presented some demand, especially a demand that called them out for being a bully. If there was an implicit threat of this demand being raised at future meetings until harassment stopped, this could be a true crisis for Todd and his easiest way out would be to just stop harassing Pat.
The idea of workers standing up together in a staff meeting to call out a bully is a great idea, but it might be very difficult to pull off if there hasn’t been much solidarity built between coworkers yet. For those just starting to organize who find themselves in this position, how would you talk with Pat about taking action on this grievance? To many new organizers, collective action sounds like a great solution (“General strike anyone?”) but actually pulling it off is the hard part, and that hard part is first encountered when thinking through possible solutions in educate.
There’s no one-size-fits-all template for how to navigate this, but drawing out this example and possible ways forward might be helpful. A common follow-up question is to ask if your coworker thinks anyone else is affected by the problem. Collective action might be easier to pull off if the grievance directly affects multiple coworkers. If the educate conversation about collective actions is inconclusive and neither of you can convincingly think of an action that helps solve the problem, finding other ways to soften the source of the grievance might be best you can manage for the moment. With Pat, maybe that means you find ways to have Pat only take shifts when Todd isn’t working. Starting with really small things like this may seem insignificant but can be the beginnings of a relationship of trust and mutual support that can lead to bigger things later.
The importance of small actions like this is often under-recognized in organizing discourse. The dramatic actions like strikes not only get all the attention but are also really inaccessible for someone trying to start out organizing in their workplace. To get from point A to point Z almost always takes a lot of intermediate steps of which small actions are the essential beginnings.
So if coworkers standing up in a staff meeting to openly call Todd out seems too risky given the progress of the organizing, here’s a list of possible small, low-risk actions to address a problem like Todd’s bullying. Coming up with a plan to talk with more coworkers about the problem is often a great next step in itself even if it isn’t exactly the whole solution in itself. Bullies often rely on their victims being silent and so spreading the word can lead to other possibilities. You can find small ways to push back on Todd that don’t require anyone sticking their neck out, like maybe at a staff meeting a few coworkers suggest having a discussion about how the staff are embodying the company’s values or coming up with a workplace code of conduct. These suggestions would put the spotlight on bad behavior that might be a clear enough, if indirect, signal to Todd that his bullshit won’t be tolerated. Maybe coworkers can decide to all say lots of positive things about Pat whenever Todd’s around so that Todd gets the message that harassing them is not cool. Maybe coworkers can overwhelmingly nominate Pat as “worker of the month” repeatedly to similar effect, or maybe on Pat’s birthday you have everyone sign a birthday card for them and have Todd sign it last. Maybe coworkers can give Todd the silent treatment while subtly communicating the source of the grievance.
Many of those small actions will of course be most effective if all your coworkers are on board, but many of these actions can still apply pressure if done by just two or three coworkers. Basically, you don’t necessarily have to get everyone on the shop floor to totally buy in before you can take action. Furthermore, if other coworkers see that a few people were brave enough to stand up to Todd they might become disposed to join in on future actions.
Too often people focus immediately on the biggest grievances and the biggest actions even when those actions are not yet practical. Even if your ultimate goal is to win something big like employer-provided healthcare by doing some big action like going on strike, beginning with small actions to address smaller grievances is the best way to get there.
Sometimes the solution for a problem, especially around interpersonal dynamics like bullying and actions in the form of social signals, don’t have to be articulated to the boss as a specific demand. However, most of the time a well-constructed demand is absolutely critical to workers effectively asserting workplace power. Usually the specifics of a demand are hammered out when you’re starting to put together all the pieces of an action, but it can come up in any part of educate and is intimately tied to educate.
A good demand should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely (or SMART). To illustrate these ideas, let’s pretend that instead Pat and your coworkers wanted to try to “get rid of Todd”, but this is a sloppy way to articulate this demand. “Get rid of Todd!” might be achievable, but that’s really the only part of the demand that is at all decent (“throw Todd in a volcano” would be a less-achievable demand).
Each part of a good demand serves an important purpose, but covering all of it would take me beyond the scope of this post. In the case of Todd perhaps a smart demand could be, “We demand Todd be fired by next Monday.”
Telling Stories in Educate
The last question of educate, “What collective action can we take to fix the problem?”, is a good place to share a story or two if the usual line of questioning doesn’t lead to an immediately convincing plan. This is perhaps the only part of AEIOU-proper where the organizer has some leeway to say things that aren’t immediately redirected back as questions.
Because society in general tries to emphasize appeals to authority and individualized actions as solutions to problems, oftentimes our coworkers aren’t able to think up on the spot an idea for how coworkers can come together to address a problem themselves. This is where a good story that’s relevant to the situation can help get the creative juices flowing for what kind of action may be effective.
You never want to frame the story as, “This is what these other people did once, we should do that.” Rather, the sentiment is more, “I remember hearing about a situation like this before. This is how they dealt with it. Do you think any of that would work here?”
Make No Promises You Can’t Keep
When coming up with a solution, a target, and a plan for action, you should not promise any particular outcome. You don’t have total control over whether the boss will give in and by promising someone a victory you’re setting them up with unrealistic expectations and potential disillusionment if the action fails. A better way to frame this is that if workers do nothing the problem is guaranteed not to go away, and that the best shot you have for improving the situation is by coming together with your coworkers to take action.
Later in the inoculate part of a conversation, especially when leading up to an action, that’s a great place to explore possible responses by the boss (retaliation, capitulation, ignoring the demand, etc…) and prepare for each possibility.
My Own Mistakes in Educate
Some of these mistakes are still fresh in my mind and sting when I think about them, but they’re also reservoirs of personal experience that I’m eager to turn into useful knowledge. I’m going to be vague with the specifics in order to protect the innocent, and of course it was my inexperience as an organizer (and capitalism) that was in large part responsible for the problems below and not any weakness of my coworkers.
One thing I’ve done is that when a coworker mentions an action to address some grievance that I think won’t work I dismiss it instead of asking questions. A big top-down change was coming to the structure of my workplace and many of us were very concerned about it. A coworker’s first reaction was for all of us to call the top, top, top boss to complain, and I politely said I didn’t think that would work. Even though I was polite, I still was effectively shutting down a conversation instead of opening one up and I could see a little bit of disappointment on this coworker’s face. More important than being nice or polite is being respectful and sincere by actually asking people what they think. For example, I could have said, “That’s an interesting idea. I hope he does come to learn how bad this restructuring idea is. How do you think the top boss would respond to calls?” Luckily, I had a good relationship with this coworker and could easily circle back around and have this conversation, but I have had to watch myself and not dismiss ideas no matter how mistaken I think they are. It’s the organizer’s job to listen and ask, not tell and dictate.
On the flip side, on some occasions I’ve made the mistake on the opposite end of the spectrum where I didn’t express my own opinions at all. Once in a conversation with a coworker she was expressing all these ideas about actions in the workplace, but they all seemed misplaced to me and more about appealing to authority, which had already been tried repeatedly, instead of bringing bottom-up pressure on our bosses through direct action. I just didn’t think our bosses cared about what we thought in this instance and that they wouldn’t have been affected by such appeals and that we needed to apply pressure to force them to give in. I didn’t want to disagree with my coworker because I didn’t want her to feel demoralized, but in the moment I just couldn’t find a way to say what I wanted. The result was that I was lukewarm, not agreeing and not disagreeing, to each idea my coworker mentioned in a way that zapped all of the positive energy out of the conversation and left us with no opportunities to explore the real tensions in the workplace. I left that 1-on-1 feeling more discouraged than I had in a long time.
Looking back, what I should have done is found a way to express my ideas in the form of good questions, so that it would still be a dialog but one where we could explore different opinions without shutting each other down. In the moment I was trying to think of appropriate questions, but I failed because in response to her suggested actions the only questions I could think of were alternative ideas for actions. I thought that if I posed a question like, “What if we did this other thing instead?” it would still be effectively shutting down the conversation instead of opening it up and that it would come off as dismissive. Getting stuck in AEIOU is a universal experience of organizing and it’s critical to think back on those instances to analyze what went wrong.
What I actually needed to do was find a question that redirected the conversation away from the specifics of particular actions, because that was turning into a deep rabbit hole, and towards the class dynamics underlying the context in which the actions were being proposed. “That’s an interesting idea for an action. Do you think our top boss will be moved if we tell them what we think?” Maybe that question isn’t the best one, but something along those lines combined with a relevant story or two is where I could have gone. If we had explored the class dynamics more we could then have later returned to discussing actions in a more grounded way.
One big lesson that the above examples illustrate is that I had built up trusting relationships with both of these coworkers and so the mistakes I made did not end our discussions entirely but only briefly. If you’ve put the effort into actually having relationships then you have more space to make mistakes and fix them later. Organizing is far too complex to not make mistakes, even for the best organizers. Relationships allow us to be accountable to our coworkers and accountable to our own political visions without the bottom falling out with each misstep.
But sometimes relationships can’t save you. In one workplace I was in that had a very high rate of turnover due to workplace stress, I struggled mightily with figuring out how to support coworkers who were in very bad situations. I was relatively new to organizing in that workplace, and as workers we really hadn’t built up much solidarity or power yet; the grievances were so hard and numerous it felt like knives were being thrown at us while we were strapped to a giant rotating wheel. Every time a coworker quit out of concern for their mental health I felt like I had failed, like if I were a better organizer we could have won some small improvements through action and made the job good enough for them to stay. Of course, I know I shouldn’t be too hard on myself and that it’s capitalism that’s crushing people and not me. But still, as an organizer you want to do what’s best for (and with) people and not figuring it out can feel like a defeat.
In these desperate circumstances I often would rush through the educate part of AEIOU because I knew that if action wasn’t taken quickly on some dire problems that people would start quitting en masse. I would tell a story of a possible action and ask if that would make sense here but I’d try to strongly nudge them in that direction for the sake of expediency. Maybe this was just a lose-lose situation, but none of these actions that were discussed ever actually happened in part because when we rushed through educate people didn’t really feel bought into what the action was about or how it dealt with the problem or if we were really strong enough to pull it off. Everybody kept quitting from the job stress before any action could come together.
For an action to really work it has to really come from what your coworkers believe and want to do, and rushing through educate ends up undermining their ability to come to their own conclusions. One lesson from this experience is that even if you’re in a lose-lose situation, hurrying things along isn’t gonna help either and maybe it’s better to give each part of AEIOU it’s proper time no matter the circumstances. As the kids say, you gotta learn how to take an L. The larger encouragement for me has been that those coworkers who did stick around through those difficult days have a deeper understanding of the workplace and even though we’re still young grasshoppers in our growth as organizers at this job, we’re slowly but surely building up a shop floor presence.
While I’ve had some effective educate conversations too, I’ve focused more on my mistakes above because I think they contain more useful lessons. Educate to me is the hardest part of AEIOU and the one I’ve personally struggled with most. Perhaps more than any other part, this is where practice and experience really help. This is especially the case where the accumulation of stories, both from my own experience and even more from just talking with other organizers and reading stories of actions, has enabled me to better pull the right story or question out of my pocket at the right moment.
I’m going to end by mentioning and linking to interesting examples of educate in action that are different from the kind of above story of Pat and Todd to illustrate a wider range of how educate can be used. This situation was about how rotating strikes of postal workers in Canada were declared illegal by back-to-work legislation, and the workers had to decide what to do. Organizers asked, through conversations and surveys, “Should we obey the legislation?” and “What happens if we don’t?” While the story doesn’t end with a victory in that fight, it shows how workers were able to strategize collectively through educate conversations how to respond to attacks on their union and how that built power and class consciousness for the next fight.
In another case, workers heard about work stoppages happening at other sites under the same employer, and organizers were able to ask their coworkers, “What do you think of that? Should we do that here?” Educate stories can be immediate and powerful when they’re happening in real time in the same kind of company or industry as you and your coworkers. As spontaneous as they may appear on the outside, waves of similar kinds of actions in an industry often are the result of savvy organizers seizing the moment by posing strategic educate questions to their coworkers.
As workers, we have control over our destiny when we’re able to discuss our problems and collectively determine what steps to take to solve them. Educate is where this difficult but liberating dialogue happens.
Addendum: Shortly after writing the above post I came across this story on facebook that is a perfect illustration of an action of the kind discussed above. I was told the story is public and could be included here. For future reference, the story takes place during organizing under covid.
“Virtual organizing: Small but mighty Mid-City stands up for colleague
Another inspiring show of the power of solidarity comes from Mid-City’s Prescott School of Enriched Sciences, where first-grade teacher Sandra was publicly disrespected by principal Karla during a Zoom meeting after she voiced her discomfort with the level of tension between staff and administration.
In reply to her concerns, the principal offered to provide Sandra with district mental health service resources. Karla, who in her first year as principal at Mid-City posed multiple obstacles in the construction of the Local School Leadership Council and has already been grieved several times by staff for violating their right to not be publicly reprimanded, went further and later emailed Sandra district mental health resources.
Outraged by this unfair treatment of a coworker, the staff at Mid-City, under the direction of the UTLA [United Teachers Los Angeles union] chapter leaders and with the support of their UTLA rep, decided on a virtual protest at their next staff meeting. Their plan included changing their names to Ms. Sandra, “#IAMMSSANDRA”, and their background picture to “APOLOGIZE NOW MS. KARLA.” Every member in their small but mighty UTLA chapter participated, also engaging in silent protest throughout the entire meeting, “signing in” virtually by writing their names in the chat box and refusing to “unmute” themselves in solidarity.
“Our team of eight teachers has adopted the motto ‘One More Day,’ given to us by our amazing UTLA representative,” Sandra said. “We have used unity as our strength.” “One more day” refers to the concept that to win, you only have to last one day longer than your opponent.
If an apology is not forthcoming from the principal to Sandra, members are prepared to escalate.
“Our school has experienced an unprecedented level of retaliation and abuse from this new principal,” said UTLA vice chair and first-grade teacher Sherri. “Mid-City Prescott is a tragic example of what can happen to a high-performing school under poor leadership. This principal’s strategy has been to divide and conquer but our team has done just the opposite. We have found our strength in unity.”