Organizing Strategies and Resources

Community Organizing Principles

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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)?
  5. 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.
  6. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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.).
  8. 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.

Help from the Experts

PICO Organizing Tools

VIDEO: Faith in Action – The PICO Organizing Model

Lessons for Organizing and Leadership from the Civil Rights Movement

PICO Training: PICO Organizing Process

PICO Organizing Model – Spanish

PICO Resources for Congregations