[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.
Political organizing can sometimes feel like going over a waterfall. Things move too fast and there’s a hundred things running through your mind. This is the kind of organizing we’re often told stories about in media and which many of us try to emulate, consciously or not. Other times organizing can feel like sailing across the ocean with only the faintest breeze. You think through every possibility of how to speed things up but the situation dictates that you take a more steady approach.
I’ve had more than a few unflattering stray thoughts comparing the slow pace of organizing at my work with the pace of organizing at other people’s workplaces. But if your organizing isn’t the spitting image of impending revolution, that’s actually ok. If you’re putting in the effort and seeing progress, even if slow, your organizing can be as valuable as any other organizing.
[This piece was originally written for and published on the blog organizing.work.]
In my first job after finishing college, I worked at a preppy private summer school in Los Angeles located two blocks from the mayor’s mansion. I was making barely above minimum wage while my student loan bills started to arrive, and I was given a full class of 6th graders despite having virtually no classroom teaching experience or training. My job entailed yelling at kids all day, not so harshly that I or the kids felt entirely miserable, but just harshly enough that they did their rote worksheets and my boss didn’t feel it necessary to come in and really humiliate the kids (and me). During the staff lunch break, which wasn’t really a break because we had to supervise the kids eating lunch, all the teachers complained to each other.
Looking back, I wish I had had basic organizing skills then because everything was out in the open and people wouldn’t have needed much persuasion to see what was wrong, or much nudging to do something about it.
However, since then I’ve personally felt stranded in my organizing at a string of after-school and education assistant jobs, because they didn’t match that image in my head of a shitty workplace. There are still plenty of problems, including chronic understaffing, lack of training, and falling wages. But between having nice bosses, working in an industry where we’re made to believe we “do it for the kids”, and pay and benefits being just good enough that few people are desperate, I have had a difficult time wrapping my head around organizing.