Community Organizing Principles
- Relationships: Perhaps the most essential principle of community organizing is the emphasis on building public trust-based relationships with members of the community. Why are relationships so important? Because they create trust; they identify (through close listening) the most pressing needs and issues; they identify potential leaders; they unite a community in ways abstract principles cannot; they provide a firm foundation for when the going gets tough (and it will); and they prevent the mere perpetuation of unequal power structures, establishing mutuality, the prioritization of the Other, and the practice of deep listening.
- Whenever possible, do with, not for: Community organizing is not charity. It is not paternalism. It is not mere subsistence. Certainly, programs that enable people to survive from day to day (what we might typically think of as “charity”) are essential. But community organizing strives to go beyond survival and envision change. Community organizing recognizes that in the work of liberation, we all need it, and we all have skills and power to contribute to it. Instead of perpetuating systems of dependence and power inequality, community organizing lifts up the principles of mutuality and collaboration.
- Be strategic: Those who are in power have accrued that power through strategy. Things are not just the way they are. Present stocio-economic and cultural conditions are no happenstance. They exist by design. If anything is going to change, if the marginalized are to gain power, if the Word of Christ is to be lived, we have to be equally strategic.
- Research: We all have ideas, some of them good ones. But ideas become actionable when they are grounded not in preconception but in sound research. Do not assume you know what the real “issues” are. Talk to people. Talk to those suffering injustice. Listen. Let them tell you what the issues are. Then talk to those involved in the identified issues. If education: talk to teachers, unions, the superintendent, principals, the school board, parents… perhaps even police, social workers, the mayor, education scholars, etc. In other words, get to know every side of the issue. What is at stake? Who holds the cards? What would really solve the problem? How much pressure will need to be applied to realize the solution? What are the underlying issues/causes (in other words, is the identified issue actually just a symptom of another, more entrenched issue)?
- Cultivate power: Power is a dirty word in a lot of churches. After all, Jesus calls us to be humble, to walk with the powerless, to avoid seeking after the values of this world. And, when so-called liberators seek power, they often turn out to be just as bad, if not worse, than the oppressors they ousted. So what we need is a redefinition of power, a Jesus kind of power: a power not over, but with. In fact, the Bible and Jesus have a lot to say about that kind of power: the power of the Spirit, the power of community, the power of love, the power of the kingdom of God and its moral demands. If we are to see even a pale glimpse of God’s justice and love lived out, we need power (grounded in God’s power) to impact change and to challenge the existing “demonic” powers and principalities of this world.
- Seek out new leaders, always: Avoid creating an organization that is directed exclusively by a single or set of charismatic leaders. That is a cult, not an organization, certainly not a community. Cultivate power from the ground up. All have gifts. Find out what they are. Rotate leadership. Charisma has its place. Cultivate that gift, but do not let any one person or group dominate. In your deep listening, find out who might be a good leader. Offer training. Encourage. Inspire. Be willing to be led as much as to lead.
The Community Organizing Toolbox
- One to One’s: The linchpin of the community organizing method, one to one’s are conversations between two individuals, usually no more than 30 minutes in a single sitting, and designed for the purposes of cultivating trust, building relationship, researching issues, searching for leadership potential, and building an organizing base. The person who is already involved in the organizing and who sets up the conversation should mostly listen: you are there to learn, not to preach.
- Research: One to one’s are part of the organizer’s research. Research may also include meetings with political figures, interviews with offices and individuals relevant to an issue, even old fashioned reading. The organizer must have research to back up his or her recommendations/demands, not only for the sake of being persuasive, but also so that the organizer knows the proposal will indeed bring about greater justice, not harm.
- Actions: Having done many one to one’s and sizable research, it may be time for an action: a demonstration that unites the community, conveys strength through numbers and resolve, and demands response from those in political and economic power. Actions can be protests, public forums (to which a city councilperson might be invited, for instance), boycotts, etc.
The Community Organizing Process
- The beginning of organizing. Gather a small number of committed leaders in the community, representative of different populations and segments of the society. Devise a plan to assess the needs, values, interests, and gifts of your community, while building (or reinforcing) trust-based relationships. Train and practice doing one-to-one conversations. Formulate a timeline.
- Conduct one-to-ones. Have each member of your leadership team meet with a certain number of community members. In those meetings, get to know the individual: what is she passionate about? Is he angry? Anxious? Happy? About what? What does she care about most? What is he good at? What does she perceive to be the greatest economic needs of the church and surrounding community? You will need to do A LOT of one to ones.
- Consult each other. After the one-to-ones are complete (and perhaps during their execution), reassemble the leadership team. Discuss what you learned. Look for patterns. Are people consistently angry about something? Do details consistently pop up, such as homelessness, or being concerned for their children’s economic future? What gifts are present among the community members? Who might be good additions to your leadership team?
- Gather your leadership team and as many of the people with whom you did one to ones. Start forming an organization (if already an organization, such as a congregation, determine structure of organizing body of the congregation).
- Focus. Identify, from your research, one issue. Just one. More can come later. But if you try to do too much from the very beginning, you will end up with what most congregations have: a smattering of different groups with a few devoted members, unable to grow, unconnected with other groups, and ultimately ineffective and frustrating to members. So, choose a single issue that grows out of the deepest concerns, values, and ideas of the people with whom you have talked. What you come up with may be broad: the economic future of young people. But that is a topic, not an issue. Select a specific issue within that topic. For instance: the creation of a community center that trains and educates young people, offers opportunities for mentoring, helps youth identify gifts and talents, prepares them for interviews and resume-writing, employs staff (so job-creating), cultivates fiscal responsibility, and advocates for the employment of its youth members.
- Research. Meet with political leaders, local businesses, banks, teachers, social workers, and anyone else who might have a stake in the issue. Find out all the angles. Who will support such a proposal? Who will oppose? Why? Are there issues and details you had not considered? Such as: Will the community center only create more highly trained and educated young people who cannot find jobs? What will the project cost? Where will the money come from?
- Make your proposal. Based on your research, formulate a specific proposal including the how, the when, the why, and the what. Just as you devised an issue that appealed to a very basic interest and value on the part of your community (concern for their children), find ways to appeal to the basic interests and values of needed allies (businesses, other congregations, political representatives, etc.).
- Take action. Organize an action in front of the courthouse steps, including members of your organization and allies, as you call for the desired policy/action. Invite the targeted person “in power” to come to your church and answer questions: be sure to mobilize enough people to demonstrate your “power.” Work with leaders in the community to see how you can make this a reality.
We can organize our congregations.
You can apply the same method to organizing your congregation. Congregations are great for organizing. They consist of people from across a community who come together weekly or more often around a common set of values. They have relationships with one another and, if a healthy congregation, trust. They have a diverse set of gifts, experiences, professions, and leadership capabilities.
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