[This post is part of a series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations.]
For people new to organizing it can feel like it’s about tricking people or manipulating them or guiding them to the correct place. People who shy away from organizing because of this have a healthy response to perceived manipulation. However, I think organizing that is sincere and empowering isn’t about manipulation at all and is just the opposite. Learning this distinction between empowerment and manipulation is of essential importance in organizing, both to be able to detect it in others and in your own efforts.
The reason people often say that organizing feels manipulative is that you have a goal in your interactions with other people. This is a key tension, and how you navigate this tension determines whether you respect someone’s agency and explore it with them or whether you try to use them as a pawn in your own desire to advance your activism. In short, empowerment vs. manipulation.
This tension plays out in every interaction, every relationship, every coalition, every revolution. It’s of such fundamental importance to organizing that I’m surprised and concerned it doesn’t receive more attention. Even on my own blog, while I repeatedly note the need to respect people’s agency, I think a cursory and superficial reading might give someone the wrong impression that organizing is just a game of getting people to do what you want them to do. This post is an opportunity for me to clear this up and tease out the subtleties of the ways that manipulation occurs and does not occur in grassroots organizing.
Explicit Manipulation in 1-on-1s
The first thing to recognize is that some individuals, organizations, and even entire traditions of organizing claim to be grassroots and about empowerment but use very manipulative practices. In the labor movement the most infamous recent example is the reputation of some UNITE HERE locals in the Southwest in the 2000s:
This practice, known as pink sheeting, “finding your story,” or “completing a motivation sheet,” was a prerequisite for involvement in union activity. It was also supposed to build relationships between lead organizers and their subordinates.
But we saw upper-level organizers use this information to “push” staff or members when they were uncomfortable with performing tasks, accepting orders, or making personal sacrifices.
This can play out in very ugly ways:
Over a dozen times in the course of a year, Arlen saw meetings end with the organizer breaking into tears, admitting their “mistake” was a product of fear, a lack of experience, a lack of commitment or dedication, a failure to follow a lead’s orders, an unresolved personal issue—or all of the above.
I lived in LA during those years and had friends who worked for UNITE HERE who were the target of heavy manipulation by pink sheeting and have other personal friends and former staffers who attest to the practice being used in other locals out west. While organizations are rarely that brash in institutionalizing manipulation, it’s common enough in all kinds of activist groups.
In 2013 I was briefly in a group called “Occupy Homes Minnesota” (OHMN) that had broken off from the main Occupy MN grouping and eventually became a non-profit with paid staff that did anti-eviction work. The staff were close with others in the local non-profit activist scene and encouraged active participants and board members to attend nationally-renowned organizing trainings in Chicago. These trainings laid the foundation for what came to be expected of both staff and active members in the group.
After going to a couple member meetings someone from the core committee of OHMN was assigned to meet up with me for a 1-on-1. However, the 1-on-1 was conducted differently than how I learned to do 1-on-1s, and I was a little caught off guard but didn’t really know why until much later. After the usual small talk, I was asked deeper questions about my own interests in the group. Standard stuff really. But then she kept asking me further and more personal questions and asking what the root reason was for why I care about this stuff and I ended up revealing some very private things from earlier in my life. These were things I usually don’t share except with close friends, and this person talking to me literally just met me and kept gently but firmly digging.
I had also just moved back to Minneapolis after living in LA for 9 years and was eager to make new activist friends and felt kind of vulnerable. Despite feeling a little uneasy, I was also excited about the prospect of having a new activist buddy.
A week after that 1-on-1 the core member left the organization, never reached out to me, and I never spoke with her again. I was pretty thrown off. A brief check-in goodbye would have indicated a minimum degree of courtesy. Instead, I felt used, like that person wanted to get very personal information out of me for reasons other than the forming of a real connection to work together.
I left OHMN. The group collapsed under the weight of its own tensions not long after, and a couple years later more than a dozen former members met up and debriefed all the bullshit we experienced at OHMN. What I experienced was not an isolated incident and in comparison I got off easy. Others in the group who were around longer and were recruited into lower-level leadership roles had much worse stories of being gaslit, pressured to not ask any critical or curious questions, shamed in front of others during committee meetings, and even finally pushed out when they refused to go along with top-down directives from the two lead staff. Many of these manipulative practices were encouraged by the aforementioned Chicago trainings.
In addition to the individual-harm these practices cause, they also rot our social movements from the inside out. Anyone who’s seen behaviors like these and wants to stay away has a well-functioning bullshit meter.
Organizational Structures that Produce Manipulation
The hierarchical nature of many of the structures in our social movements can also be a source of manipulation. Non-profits often want to claim a large following and mass base to give them a veneer of popular power, but because these non-profits are governed by executive directors and boards of directors who control access to funding sources from rich donors, they are rarely as democratic or invested in grassroots power as they claim. To reconcile their image of openness and democracy with their internal top-down structures, they often resort to manipulation and gaslighting to pressure people to go along with the program instead of giving people full access to information and decision-making.
But these hierarchies aren’t confined to liberal non-profits either. Labor unions are funded by their members and so at least in principle have a more independent and democratic funding base, but many unions have formed rigid bureaucracies where top officials feel more interested in maintaining their own position and friendly relations with the company than in fighting for their members. Even in unions where member power is given at least some attention, top-down structures can lead to manipulative practices like pink-sheeting.
Many other organizations on the left, often appealing to traditional Leninist ideas of the vanguard, adhere to the practice of not being public with their political convictions and aims. Their participation in organizations and movements is about getting others to go along with a program whose intentions are not revealed except to an inner circle. This replicates similar pressures from the non-profits where a veneer of popular participation and democracy needs to be reconciled with the private aims of the leaders who then use varying forms of manipulation and secrecy to maintain control.
More subtle manipulative practices in organizing
To make matters more confusing, manipulative practices don’t solely emerge from self-consciously manipulative people and from top-down leadership structures. Just as common is the use of manipulation by well-meaning people who are unaware of the effects of their actions.
Some people are so focused on their activism that they don’t see other people’s boundaries or needs. I’ll call them “pushers”. Chalk it up to narcissism, a learned or inherent lack of social awareness, or any number of possible causes, but for whatever reason some people just don’t know when they’re pushing people out of their comfort zone in a bad way or pressuring them beyond what is respectful. I’ve seen this tendency in a few men especially who are super-committed to the movement and who take up a lot of space. The seriousness and commitment of pushers lets some people excuse their behavior as being passionate or reflective of “real” radical politics, but in the end it always results in people feeling invalidated, violated, or put at risk from being pressured to do things they don’t think are safe.
It’s important to call this what it is, which is manipulation, and to not let it be normalized in organizing spaces. I’ve been in spaces where we’ve had to address people like this, and while it’s taken a lot of energy in the short-term it’s always led to a more positive culture in the long-term.
Organizing of any kind that challenges the status quo is gonna make everyone involved uncomfortable at least some of the time. As an organizer, you have to know when it’s ok and helpful to lean into discomfort and when it’s dangerous and manipulative to lean into discomfort.
Bad discomfort arises when people feel pressured to do or agree to something that they are afraid of. If a coworker says they’re afraid to walk a picket line because they’re afraid of getting fired and not being able to provide for their family, a bad discomfort arises when impatient organizers minimize their concerns and rely on external pressure to get them to join the action. For example, “Your family’s not gonna get fed on your current wages anyway,” “How do you think your coworkers will feel when they hear you’re not gonna be on the line?,” “Do you think avoiding these problems is going to make your life any better?”
Good discomfort arises from people being empowered to access internal resources to think about their problems in new ways, to challenge their fears, and to explore new ways to stand up for themselves and their communities. In simplified terms, good discomfort is vulnerability and bad discomfort is shame.
A good organizer won’t pick up and leave the first time a coworker expresses fear, but won’t resort to pressure or manipulation either. If a coworker reveals a fear, that can be an indication that maybe there’s more they want to share or explore. Even though it’s uncomfortable, a skillful organizer can pick up on this and provide a path through which to continue the conversation. Maybe the coworker feels torn about whether to join the picket line or not, and expressing a fear isn’t a straight-up “no” but rather an invitation to want to explore those fears and not run away from them. As always, the first step is to validate people’s fears and then to give them the opportunity to explore those fears if they want to by asking open-ended, unassuming, respectful questions. The goal is for the person to make the best decision for themselves and the organizer can help by posing questions that reveal class dynamics that can help people understand how their internal life relates to their external conditions.
Sometimes organizers unintentionally conflate these kinds of discomfort. Especially newer organizers who are trying to put all this AEIOU together for the first time, making these finer distinctions can be a challenge. Without careful consideration of where discomfort is coming from, organizers can mistakenly take an “ends-justifies-the-means” attitude towards others’ discomfort, bull-dozing over people’s complex emotional gardens in order to get them to do what they want them to do. When discomfort arises in organizing conversations, it’s important to identify what kind it is before deciding how to respond to it.
I’ve gotten better at distinguishing between good and bad discomfort but I also struggle with how to lean into the good discomfort when it arises. I tend to want to run away from emotionally vulnerable conversations, especially with people I don’t know as well. But that never solves anything, and if we all just run away from our fears, we’ll never be empowered to confront them. With intention and practice I’ve been getting better at respectfully holding this discomfort in organizing conversations and finding ways to ask questions to open up space to explore the fears that underlie it.
While these kinds of organizing conversations are often assumed to happen over a single 1-on-1, more often they happen over many 1-on-1s. If you have a relationship with a coworker and you have 1-on-1s with them outside of work, you might alternate many times between leaning into good discomfort and then backing off when bad discomfort arises, all over the course of weeks or months or years. We’ve been taught to be afraid of authority our whole lives and authorities have unaccountable power over large parts of our lives, so it’s only natural that when given the chance to stand up against that authority that we feel afraid. As organizers, we can walk this long path with others by building relationships, examining our fears, and discovering what we truly want and how to get it.
Disagreement and Manipulation
The conscious rooting out of manipulation in organizing doesn’t mean that everything is harmonious all the time either. Disagreement arises naturally out of any collective project, and certainly manipulation is a common tool of those who want to gloss over disagreement in order to deflect criticism or create a false sense of unity. But disagreement that is open and honest is essential to creating lasting relationships through which we can navigate complex political terrain.
The ultimate disagreement comes when someone who has been around an org decides that they no longer want to be a part of the org. Maybe their interests or priorities have changed. As an organizer, the most you can do is talk about this sincerely with people and if they decide to leave, it’s always better to leave on good terms.
The Primary Source of Manipulation in Society: Capitalism and Oppression
All of this talk about manipulation in organizing shouldn’t distract us from the underlying fact that capitalism and oppression is entirely built on manipulation and is its ultimate source. All the biggest corporations in the US now having an average pay disparity of 278:1 between their highest paid employee and their typical employee, and the employees in a company cluster heavily at the bottom, and that lopsided ratio doesn’t even take into account the stockholders who keep the profits of the company without doing any work at all. This is the norm, and there’s a lot of manipulation and violence required to make it seem normal, to make us feel like the crazy ones for questioning that norm.
That bosses and owners are given near unilateral authority to determine the working conditions in their companies, that people can be hired and fired for almost any reason at all, should not inspire us with feelings of trust towards them. Nice bosses exist, but they’d be just as nice if they didn’t have such unilateral authority and their personality doesn’t come close to making up for the monstrous inequalities of wealth and power that we’re forced to accept each day. That these inequalities are made more hideous according to arbitrary distinctions of race and gender should only harden our objections and resolve.
Many people accept the way things are. Many don’t. It’s the task of organizing to build up the forces of all that stands opposed to capitalism and oppression. Rather than mimic the guiding values of capitalism, like selfishness and manipulation, organizers can do better by calibrating their compass towards solidarity and trust.
Trust in Organizing
As a long-time organizer friend reminded me recently, contrary to popular notions, the agitation part of organizing is NOT about pissing people off by having them focus only on the bad parts of work. Rather, good agitation is about clearing away all of the capitalist gaslighting workers face from bosses and the media and coming to an honest and accurate assessment of workplace conditions including both the good and the bad. This can bring up many emotions including anger but also every other emotion. Agitation isn’t about getting people mad to get them to do what you want them to do. Rather, agitation done right gives people the space and support to negotiate for themselves how to relate emotionally and intellectually to their conditions and to their coworkers.
The central conceit of radical grassroots organizing is that no one has to be tricked or manipulated into fighting against oppression or exploitation because it’s natural for people to want to stand up for oneself and one’s community in the face of injustice. Navigating 1-on-1 conversations requires the skills of active listening and asking good questions within a larger framework of AEIOU, but nowhere in sincere organizing is there room for deceit or scams.
My therapist said trust comes from 3 things: being truthful and honest, admitting mistakes and transgressions before they’re discovered, and sticking to one’s commitments. Organizing is always full of subtle power dynamics even in the most democratic groups, and these dynamics are often most pronounced between long-time organizers in a group vs. the newer members. The long-time organizers are responsible for creating an environment of honesty and trust where newer members can gradually learn about the group and come to their own conclusions about their involvement. It’s the task of the long-timers to constantly be bringing people along and showing them how the org does things and how they can do those things too. While organizers do this, simultaneously building trust in the aforementioned 3 ways is indispensable.
Sometimes new organizers are hesitant about using organizing techniques because they are shy about exercising power. Empowering others is surely a kind of power, and how to use that kind of power effectively and transparently largely describes the art of grassroots organizing. When done well, organizing as empowerment is the exact opposite of manipulation. New organizers are correct to wade slowly into this sea of power, gradually learning and gaining confidence in their skills before running out to where the water gets too deep.
Manipulation in organizing has at its root a lack of belief in yourself and a lack of belief in others. If you doubt your abilities and can’t see a way to work with others to fight back for liberation while being open and honest, then you fall back on manipulation. If you don’t think others are smart enough to grasp the nature of society’s problems or how to fix them, then you have to tell them what to think and manipulate them into doing what you want. Trust in organizing is based in a real belief in people to be able to recognize and solve problems.
People aren’t perfect, never have been, and never will be. Humanity is justified on its own terms, not in its impossible ideal. Yet organizing asks more of us than we currently are, not to invalidate and shrink us but to motivate and grow us. The proposition inherent in organizing is that there are versions of ourselves that are more powerful and good than we currently are.
Linking personal transformation to social transformation is only possible through struggle alongside others. Trust in organizing as the opposite of manipulation is what knits together healthy social relations into a liberating force and is the only way to get where we want to go. The trust created between two people in a conversation about what workplace issues there are and how to fix them can be scaled up to the level of an organization can be scaled up to a social movement can be scaled up to society as a whole. In order to make social change that is deep and durable, we have to put our trust in trust itself.