Relationship-Based Organizing: An Introduction

The most common refrain in organizing is that “it’s all about relationships.” It rings true enough that everyone accepts it on the surface but is vague enough that each person interprets it according to their own beliefs and the needs of the moment. 

Concealed underneath the words of that phrase are distant and often warring conceptions of what organizing actually is. What role do relationships play in organizing? What kind of relationships do we want as we fight alongside each other for a better world? 

Through my own organizing experience in the workplace and developing ideas with fellow organizers, I’ve realized that relationships play a much different role in organizing than is commonly thought, than is discussed in organizing books and articles, and than is taught in organizing trainings. The role of relationships in most organizing approaches is often instrumentalized in a way that contrasts sharply with what I now see as strong grassroots organizing.

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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.]


The uplift part of AIEOU is where we support and follow-through with people as they do or don’t do the tasks that they volunteered to do. 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.

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.

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

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O Is for Organize

[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.]


The organize part of AEIOU in 1-on-1s is about getting people involved in the concrete tasks of organizing. After having agitated with someone around grievances, created a plan in educate, considered the boss’s next moves and addressed people’s fears in inoculate, you are in position to put the rubber to the road. “What do we do now?”

Just as workplace problems are complex, so are workplace solutions involving collective action. The organizer can help break the problem down into chunks and separate the solution out into a series of manageable tasks. In supporting people who are new to organizing and motivated to solve problems at work, the organizer’s role is to discuss with people what needs to be done and how to do it.

One of the contradictions of being an organizer is the opposition between the speed and effectiveness of doing things yourself vs. taking the time to show others how to do things. Everything an organizer does can be done by someone else, and if the organizer already knows how to do it, the aims of the organizing will be served in the long-term by showing someone else how to do things instead of doing them oneself. 

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Organizing Is Not about Getting People to Agree with Radical Ideas

[This post is part of a series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations.]


There is one misconception in organizing, especially workplace organizing, that is responsible for more confusion and dead ends than any other. It manifests itself in many ways, but it boils down to this: “The way I was radicalized and got involved in organizing is the way everyone is radicalized and gets involved in organizing.”

Most commonly, people new to organizing and radical politics try to show others their own new ideas, when really those same ideas will refract very differently depending on others’ very different experiences. Most often, people don’t immediately cling to the ideas you cling to. This often leads new organizers to become exasperated and confused, “Why does no one else get radicalized when I show them the things that radicalized me?”

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An Introduction to 1-on-1 Organizing Conversations

[This is the central post in a series on 1-on-1 conversations. Sign up for email notifications at the bottom of this page or follow me on Twitter to see follow-up posts on this topic.]

The 1-on-1 organizing conversation is the heart of grassroots organizing. I’d go so far as to claim that if someone is trying to organize but is not using 1-on-1s, they probably are going to fail or at the very least will not be building towards success in the long-term. In my own personal estimation, it’s not even organizing if it doesn’t center 1-on-1s because 1-on-1s are where deep relationships form that are the foundation for building grassroots power.

How 1-on-1s are done differs somewhat across different organizing traditions and domains, but the core elements of 1-on-1s in each tradition are largely the same. Many of these techniques were developed in labor organizing but are just as commonly used today in community organizing as well.

As a basic definition, 1-on-1 organizing conversations are talks you have with someone to 1) build a relationship of trust, 2) identify common grievances and interests, and 3) move with them from a place of inaction to one of action.

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