U Is for Uplift

[This post is part of a series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations. Check out the intro post here to see an overview of the whole framework.]

Introduction

The uplift part of AEIOU is where we follow-up and check in with people. Sometimes we’re following up specifically about tasks and sometimes we’re checking in generally about how their organizing and life is going.

In the previous post in this series on the “organize” part of AEIOU, I highlighted how we should avoid as much as possible leaving new people on their own to organize. There’s many steps to take from first getting involved to becoming experienced and knowledgeable about the many aspects of organizing, and taking each step in community with others helps foster relationships and share best practices. But no matter how collective we make organizing, there are still countless moments where people have to do something on their own, where they have to overcome some part of themselves and their environment using their own resources and confidence.

When people complete a task for the first time, it’s good to follow-up and debrief with them about how it went. When people don’t complete a task, it’s good to follow-up and see if there’s anything you can do to support them. A lot of the same concepts used for task follow-up can also be applied to general check-ins.

Life is hard, workplaces are complex, coworkers are complicated, capitalism is a big, bad jerk, and sometimes organizing doesn’t go as planned. Uplift is about staying in relationship with people through the ups and downs of organizing.

Obstacles to People Completing Tasks

Following up with people about tasks is only helpful if you have a positive relationship with them and they feel like you are there to support them. Without that, following-up will feel to them like micro-managing and give them the impression that they are being used. As with every part of organizing, put the relationship first in uplift.

Let’s say you had a 1-on-1 with your coworker Brenda where they were agitated about there not being enough staff on the lunch shift at a restaurant, so together you came up with a tentative plan to talk with other coworkers about this to see if others were also frustrated about this. Brenda thought this was a good idea and offered to talk with Tom about it sometime over the next week. A couple weeks pass and Brenda doesn’t say anything to you and you bring it up and she says she hasn’t gotten around to it yet.

In workplace organizing trainings I learned that there are four main reasons why people don’t follow through on tasks. For each of the main reasons there is a straightforward way for the organizer to respond to help someone over the obstacle. Sometimes your support will help them overcome the obstacle and sometimes it won’t and that’s ok. As long as you’re truly there to support them and value your relationship with them, you’ll be moving in the right direction.

The first reason people don’t follow through on tasks is a lack of resources. Maybe Brenda is too busy with her second job or can’t get childcare to find time away from her kid to go have a 1-on-1 with Tom. When lack of resources is the problem, supporting them involves offering resources. Ask Brenda if having two weeks instead of one would be more reasonable, or if you could watch her kid sometime while she met up with Tom over coffee.

The second reason is a lack of skills or confidence. Maybe Brenda has never before met up with a coworker outside of work before to talk about grievances. Doing so for the first time can be intimidating. When a lack of skills or confidence is the problem, supporting them means helping that person build up their skills and confidence. As an organizer you can ask them what feels most awkward or challenging about talking to Tom, help think through how to make it feel comfortable, and you can share about the approach you take when you talk to coworkers about grievances. You can also remind them of all of their positive qualities that makes people want to connect with them.

The third reason is a lack of motivation. Perhaps Brenda just doesn’t seem to care as much about the grievance in the days after she agreed to talk to Tom about it. When a lack of motivation is the problem, supporting them can entail returning to the agitate part of AEIOU. Agitation in union organizing isn’t primarily about making people mad, but is about wiping away all of the things that disconnect us from our many emotions about work. In this situation agitation is about checking in to see, underneath all of the coping mechanisms, if this is a grievance Brenda feels strongly enough to want to do something about. If so, try to talk through again how it affects them and how that led them to want to address the grievance in the first place.

The last reason is fear. If Brenda is afraid that the boss will find out about what they’re doing or will react harshly to any kind of action, she might give up on her task. When fear is the problem, supporting them can mean returning to the inoculate part of AEIOU. Looking more closely at the fears, at what people need to feel comfortable taking action, and at how to anticipate and prepare for the boss’s next moves can be helpful here.

Good organizing is rooted in supporting people in better understanding their relationship to the workplace and supporting them in improving the conditions around them, and bad organizing comes from telling people what to do and telling them when they’re doing it wrong.

Obstacles Aren’t Always Visible on the Surface

While the four reasons people don’t complete tasks helps you find the best way to support your coworkers, people are often not so transparent about their wants and needs in such a situation that you can easily identify the obstacle and provide support to overcome it.

There’s no easy tricks for talking with people about these things, but the best advice I’ve found is to keep going back to the basics of relationship-based organizing: Ask open-ended questions, listen carefully, keep building trust, validate their concerns, and offer support. 

People will often say one reason as a cover for another. It requires less vulnerability to tell someone you dropped a task because of some external issue like being busy with a second job than it is to admit an internal obstacle such as feeling anxious about not knowing how to do something or being fearful of retaliation. Having a foundation of trust between yourself and your coworkers makes it easier to talk about and potentially address sensitive things that otherwise might get lost in the mix. A caring and thoughtful organizer can find ways to respectfully open doors to conversations about more vulnerable topics without barging through.

This is where task-specific follow-up blends together with general check-in. Each of the four reasons someone doesn’t do a task may be less task-specific and a more general challenge for them in organizing. If someone struggles with some aspect of organizing, of course it would be insensitive to keep giving them tasks to struggle with.

Some common obstacles I’ve seen people have to organizing in general include social anxiety at having to talk to people a lot, questioning their political conviction in organizing as a method of change, fear of conflict with the boss compromising their job, and the uncertainty that direct action can actually make things better. For each person, these things will be bound up with all sorts of complicated details and past experiences far beyond what could be usefully covered in a blog post.

To be a broken record, the solution here is to treat people with care and understanding. In continuing to listen to them and build trust, you can support them in the long-term as they explore what they want out of organizing and confront their internal obstacles to it.

Aggressive organizing styles that are sometimes taught give off the impression that organizing is all about doing the thing (like taking collective action), and pushing others to do the thing, and doing the thing is the only thing that matters, and so everything else must be subordinated to doing the thing.

Sure, there’s a lot of problems in the world, and it’s important that we eventually get around to solving them. And of course, disagreement comes with any kind of political terrain, and conflict within groups is as natural as spring rain or summer sun. But the kind of callousness that I’m objecting to here is the very common organizing situation where people agree largely what the issue is but then some people take that agreement as license to start pushing everyone to do things. The attitude seems to be that being “pushy” is how we get things done. Sometimes organizing meetings are made to feel like war-rooms, with generals barking orders and the hurried sense of urgency puts everyone in a panic that they need to everything right away.

My biggest fear is that gentleness gets suffocated in such organizing spaces. Rather, the gentleness that we carry inside of ourselves should be treated as one of the greatest assets in our organizing instead of a hindrance.

In my own organizing I’ve been so much more successful and felt so much better when I’ve gone at the pace of the people around me. Sometimes things naturally move fast because people are on the same page and really believe in themselves and each other to move quickly to address something. But often the natural pace is slower and there’s a lot of difficult things that organizing brings to the surface that we need to slow down to address. In such circumstances, gentleness is like a seasonal rain that gradually floods entire landscapes and leaves behind only the most fertile soil.

Feelings and Organizing

The most powerful words in organizing are, “How does that make you feel?” This can be effective when talking about workplace grievances in the agitate part of organizing conversations. In the uplift part, this question is equally effective in asking people how some task or aspect of organizing is going. The question communicates that you care about their feelings and that you want to hear what they’re going through. This may all seem rather obvious, but I guess I’m still learning myself how powerful these words are and how they can be applied to almost any situation.

Just like we want people to be able to feel things openly about their working conditions we want them to be able to feel openly about organizing. Organizing is often hard and can be distinctly not-fun at times, but as organizers we’ll have the most success if, even through the hard parts, we feel good about our organizing and help others feel good about their organizing in turn. When some part of organizing doesn’t feel good, you can get curious about that and look to discover why that is and what can be changed so that it feels good again. Of course, good feelings are hardly ends in themselves, but they are the barometers we have for when our organizing has purpose, when it is aligned with our values, and when it is meeting our needs.

One thing that’s essential to people feeling good about their organizing in the long term is that they have at least one other person in their organizing circles who they feel close to and can go to with problems and who checks in on them. In my org, we’ve created a committee of people who are always having 1-on-1 conversations with members, and ideally everyone comes to feel a trusting connection with at least one other veteran member in the group.

Conclusion

Organizing should not be like a quarterback blitz, where the star organizer tries to rush up the middle and come up with the big win. Organizing should be about the gradual and sustained work of building grassroots power, and this is only possible in the context of creating trusting relationships, discussing shared conditions, exploring shared values, and taking collective action.

Bonds are created between workers through the exercise of collective agency and action, but no less important is regularly pausing and tending to these relationships. When your coworkers know you as caring and trustworthy, they’ll be there for you when you need it too.

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