We can be actors, not just spectators

Barack Obama cut his political teeth as a community organiser on the South Side of Chicago. What lessons does this approach to politics hold for Britain?

On 3 September 2008, the Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin made “community organising” part of mainstream political discourse in the United States when she mocked Barack Obama’s experience. Comparing her record to his, she said: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organiser, except that you have actual responsibilities.” From 1985 to 1988, Obama had served as an organiser for the Developing Communities Project, a faith-based Chicago initiative, working with inner-city residents to develop job training, tutoring and housing programmes in the tradition of the organiser Saul Alinsky.

For many Americans, Palin’s comment was the first they had heard of such a thing. It shone a spotlight on the work of community organisers for the first time since the 1960s. The efforts of civil rights leaders, organising in the “social movement” style of the Montgomery bus boycott, overlapped with those workers schooled in the Alinsky challenge to mainstream social work – to persuade the architects of the “war on poverty” to require “maximum participation of the poor” in that last, great effort at urban reform. Tackling poverty demanded going beyond service provision or social engineering to taking on the power asymmetry responsible for the social imbalance in the first place. And this required collective action by the poor themselves.

That turned out to be such a challenge to urban political machines that it became marginalised as public policy. But recognition that organising had a central role to play in dealing with poverty, as it had done in earlier attempts at deep reform, kept it on the map – as did the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement and, yes, the conservative movement, of which the Tea Party is only the latest manifestation.

The awakening

It was to this tradition that the 23-year-old Obama was introduced in the 1980s. But Palin’s remarks also drew attention to the organisational work at the base of the Obama campaign – an alternative to the political marketing that dominates elections, advocacy and lobbying in the US. Although the media focused on the innovative use of the internet, it was the way it was used to support organising, not replace it, that gave the 2008 campaign its unusual drive. The Obama administration has failed to build on this, but the campaign inspired a new generation to search for ways in which this approach could produce change from the “bottom up”.

In the US, organising practice rooted in religious, civic or labour cultures has had its greatest impact through social movements, morally grounded reform campaigns confronting an electoral system deeply resistant to change. A polity established by a coalition of local elites intent on their own prerogatives – including toleration of slavery – created an institutional legacy of binary “first-by-the-post” districts, an anti-majoritarian electoral “college”, legislative practices privileging long-serving representatives of the single-party South and numerous local, state and national veto points. As such, movements promoting reform rarely originated within the electoral system. And reformers, inspired by the Great Awakening of the 1830s, learned to organise movements that linked personal change with social change; to organise locally and co-ordinate nationally; and eventually to reconfigure one or both of the two main political parties, and thus reshape public policy.

I was introduced to this tradition when, as a college junior, I left Harvard for the Mississippi Summer Project, a 1964 voting rights campaign for the civil rights movement. My father was a rabbi, my mother a teacher. After seven years of moving – including three years in Germany after the Second World War during which my father served as a chaplain – we settled in Bakersfield, California. Because of my family’s experience of the Holocaust, I grew up knowing that racism kills. Years of Passover Seders taught me that the journey from slavery to freedom was a struggle that could not be left to others.

Mississippi is where my real education in race, power and politics began. I learned that inequalities in employment, education, health, housing and criminal justice grew out of a deeper inequality in political, economic and social power. Black people could not vote, were confined largely to farm work without union rights and were subjected to rituals of subordination in all encounters with white people.

But if deep change depended solely on outside intervention it would never happen. It required mobilisation from the inside. In the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, the black community found a way it could use individual resources – feet, with which one could walk to work, rather than ride – to generate collectively the economic power to desegregate the buses of a company that turned out to be more dependent on them than they were on it. It took skilled leadership to launch and maintain the protest: Dr Martin Luther King had trained in the black Baptist Church, E D Nixon in the labour movement and Rosa Parks in community organising.

After a year in the South, I returned home to California, where César Chávez had just begun a grape strike, the first step in a struggle to unionise the state’s mostly Mexican immigrant farm workers. I had discovered the calling I would pursue until 1991, when, after a 28-year “leave of absence”, I returned to Harvard, finished my undergraduate degree, earned a Master’s in public administration and a PhD in sociology, and joined the faculty to teach leadership, organising and advocacy to a new generation.

What is organising?

So, how does organising work and why should we care? Organisers first ask, “Who are my people?”, not what is my issue. “What is their problem? And how can they combine their resources to solve their problem?” Organisers develop leadership, build community around leadership and build power from the resources of community. Unlike caregivers who provide services to clients or marketers who sell causes, candidates or commodities to customers, organisers mobilise “constituents” who stand together to learn, collaborate and act to further a common purpose. They achieve this through five leadership practices: relationship-building, storytelling, strategising, action and structuring – all in the rhythm of campaigns and based on ongoing leadership development.

Relationships Organising is grounded in civic relationships that create the mutual commitments needed to sustain collaboration. Building relationships goes beyond delivering a message, extracting a contribution or soliciting a vote. It is a way of creating the “social capital” on which community organisation rests. In 2007, Obama was an insurgent. In South Carolina he had virtually no institutional support. Between August and October, however, organisers held roughly 400 house meetings, which were attended by 4,000 people who became the basis for a mobilisation that would eventually deploy 15,000 election-day volunteers, most of them politically active for the first time.

Storytelling People organise in response to injustice, not inconvenience. But where do we get the courage? We learn to tap into the emotional – or moral – resources we need to act through stories: accounts of such moments and their outcomes. Families, faiths, cultures and nations teach through stories. Because we can identify empathetically with protagonists, we experience emotional content that can move our hearts to act, not only learn lessons informing our “heads” how we “could” act. We use analytics to figure out how to act. Through narrative, we learn why we must. I can use “public narrative”, a story of self, us and now, to communicate why I am called to act, why we are called to act, and why we are called to act now. In this way, organisers can motivate morally grounded public action. In the Obama campaign, although the candidate articulated an overarching public narrative, activists, local leaders and volunteers learned to articulate their own story, not simply as a form of “self-expression”, but as a way to engage others.

Strategising It takes power to achieve purpose: using one’s resources to influence the interests of others by collaborating with them (power with) or making claims on them (power over). Strategising is how we turn what we have into what we need to get what we want, a process that requires continual adaptation to new challenges and opportunities. It is about the “how” that goes with the “why” of storytelling. As those who resist change often hold more institutional resources than those who seek change, insurgents must be more resourceful. And given that time is more widely distributed than money, volunteer effort is particularly important for challenging the status quo. Where business executives will find ways to do things with fewer people, because staff are a cost, organisers find ways to do things with more people, because they are an asset. This generates what the economist Albert Hirschman calls “moral resources”, which grow with use, unlike “economic resources”, which deplete with use.

The more effectively strategising venues are distributed through a movement, the greater its capacity to adapt. Although Obama’s overall strategy in 2007-2008 was devised in Chicago, a structure that encouraged “nested” strategising by local leadership teams became a source of the creativity that characterised the campaign – everything from the “Hope” posters to the “Yes we can” video and the use of the internet to build local leadership teams.

Beyond good policy

Action The outcome of an election is decided by counting votes. The outcome of a union organising drive is a ratified agreement. The outcome of an advocacy campaign is a new policy, programme or practice. The capacity of an organising campaign to produce such outcomes depends on systematic mobilisation as well as deployment of constituency resources – time, money, skill. How many calls does it take to recruit a volunteer? How many people said they would show up and how many did? Why? So, the “action” of an organising campaign depends on developing the skills, metrics and accountability needed to obtain specific commitments and turn them into specific outcomes.

Structure Effective organising requires structures that can focus training, coaching and collaboration on the pursuit of a common strategic goal: clear purpose, norms and roles – a clarity of structure that is even more important because the process is so dynamic and interactive. Having one “leader” at the top who secures compliance through systems of command and control doesn’t work, especially where long-term commitment is required. On the other hand, the rejection of any authority structure at all leads to what the feminist Jo Freeman calls the “tyranny of structurelessness”: faction, personalism and opaque decision-making.

Collaborative leadership teams offer a powerful alternative, developed widely at the local level in the Obama campaign. Occupy Wall Street successfully altered US political discourse by bringing the question of economic inequality out of the closet, but it hamstrung itself by failing to create structures that enabled co-ordination at local, state and national level.

If organising can be so effective, why doesn’t it play a bigger role in politics? Organising is about change. Our institutions, on the other hand, are about continuity. They establish routines and accumulate resources in accordance with what the German sociologist Robert Michels called the “iron law of oligarchy”. And we all know the story of institutions which become so powerful that they are able to resist change, until one day, the fact that the world has kept on changing catches up with them and they collapse, often at enormous cost to everyone. Change in the economic world, Joseph Schumpeter argued, could be achieved through a process of “creative destruction”: mechanisms of market competition that reward innovation and punish ossi­fication. But these mechanisms are driven by values based not on the worth of each person, but on the depth of each person’s pocketbook. In the political world, democracy offers different mechanisms, promising constraints on the power of institutions through the rule of law, competitive elections and freedom of association – or organising!

But what if the organisations formed to drive this process become obstacles to the change we rely on them to midwife? And what if they are able to change the rules enough that they undermine the whole democratic process, as has happened in the US, where money has come to corrupt the notion of one person, one vote? This is where organising has to come back into the picture. In the US, great social movements, rooted in constituencies demanding change, have been able from time to time to break through and to reconfigure our parties. The lesson for the left is that it needs to offer more than better policy. It needs to offer better politics – and the chance for people to become actors and not just spectators in the drama of life.

Marshall Ganz is a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University

Marshall Ganz is a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis