Wednesday Jul 18


My activist friends bemoan the presence of so much corporate, financial, developer, real estate or other business interest group money that bought the election. (So, do I.) Whether they’re talking about a ballot proposition or a candidacy, the refrain is the same. That the other side is going to outspend us is a given.

That we remain in the same bemoaning, victimhood position need not be. Let me sneak up on why with some of my own story, and then get to how.


When I was a boy of about seven, I was already interested in politics. I grew up in a left-wing family, so politics and the news were part of our nightly dinner conversation. And it went on year-round.

When the Allies landed in Normandy during World War II, I went running out of our Sunnydale Housing Project apartment yelling to my friends, “They’ve opened a Second Front!” Many years later, a slightly older friend of mine who lived next door remembered that incident with me.

When I went to junior high school, I spoke in class in favor of unions, and called strikebreakers “scabs”—even though my teacher said, “Why you must be a Communist, Michael.” (Luckily, I was quick enough to say that I was the Denman junior high school president and a friend who supported my civics report, was the vice-president. My fellow students all laughed.)

When elections rolled around, my parents (and I) would look at the endorsements page of the The Dispatcher, the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) newspaper, to see who and what it endorsed. (Memory being a tricky thing, it may have been the CIO-Political Action Committee’s endorsements.) It was rare that we read beyond that—my parents to see how to vote, I to see what I would support and argue for with my friends. This, by the way, was 1944 to 1948—before McCarthyism took deep hold in the country.

The Dispatcher (or CIO-PAC) was enough because it was part of a community, one of which we also were a part even though no one in our family was a member of the ILWU or the CIO. The Dispatcher/CIO-PAC was the brand name that we trusted, and it didn’t earn that trust by spending lots of money advertising. Rather, it earned that trust because it was an extension of us, of who we were working class and close to, or in my father’s case — and unknown to me until 2013 when I read The Venona File— perhaps a member of, the Communist Party.

While I grew to distance myself from some of the politics of that union and my parents, I also increasingly came to appreciate both the value of such a community, and the difficulty in building one.

Why was the word of the The Dispatcher/CIO-PAC enough, and can we re-create an equivalent rooted in the values of democracy, freedom, justice, community, responsibility, interdependence, security, equality and others that are dear to us?

Community Defined

Politicians invoke “community” as a feel-good-about-the-country term. Often it is used by those in power to oppose the “divisive” organizing of the have-nots when they strike, boycott or engage in civil disobedience. As a community organizer, it seemed useful to me to have a more precise notion of what community meant. After a number of years, this is what I’ve come up with: “a group of people sharing a common bond or tradition who support and challenge each other to act powerfully, both individually and collectively, to affirm, defend and advance their values and interests.”

My family was part of such a community: the Communist-led left in the San Francisco Bay Area. What did that mean?

Some of the people in it were our friends. We saw them regularly; invited them to dinner as they invited us; went on outings like picnics or to the zoo with them; talked politics with them (I listened for the most part). There were others who weren’t friends, but they were comrades. In the world, we knew that they and we stood for the same things.

A larger web of relationships connected us with people in this community. We shared discussions with them at educational events. A labor school offered continuing education to adults and was sponsored by highly respected “notables” (for example, Pierre Monteux, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra) and trade union leaders in the area. Special lectures were offered, as well as more advanced seminars for those who wanted to delve more deeply into Marxism-Leninism. Sidney Roger was a daily newscaster (initially on a major AM network station before anti-Communist pressures drove him off) whose version of the news we knew was the correct one.

Various mutual aid organizations offered benefits, including insurance and burial payments. There were consumer cooperatives that were linked to this community, one of them close to the housing project where we lived.

Celebratory, social and cultural activities, such as May Day, the Fisherman’s Union Annual Festival, Paul Robeson concerts, the annual picnic by People’s World (the west coast Communist newspaper), film showings and more, connected us with a broader tradition of which we were a part.

And of course, we were engaged in continuing action for political, social and economic justice, world peace, and “in defense of the Soviet Union.” These actions ranged from circulating petitions on international issues to walking the picket line of striking department store employees; from passing out flyers to “Save the Rosenbergs” (Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for stealing atomic bomb secrets and giving them to the Russians) to fighting racism, or “Jim Crow” as it was then widely identified, both in our local area and in the Deep South. As a boy, I knew about lynchings, poll taxes and denial of the right to vote. I knew that one simply didn’t cross a picket line. Period.

When election time came around, if our community said, “Vote yes on ‘x’”, we knew that was the way to vote. Ditto for “Vote for so-and-so” for anything from dog catcher to president. Publications listing those endorsements had our “brand” on them—the name of an organization that was an expression of this community.

Common to all of these activities, particularly the importance of the endorsements of issues, causes and candidates, was that brand name. But this wasn’t a media-generated brand. On the contrary, it was one generated internally by the deep web of relationships that bound us all together and created a sense of “us” versus “them”.

Of course, there had to be organization. A community that acted powerfully on its values and interests had to have a vehicle—i.e. an organization—in which to do so. For the most part, no one did better at mass organization in those days than the Communist-led left. Unions led or influenced by Communists, special interest organizations (ethnic, women’s, youth and more), ad hoc campaign organizations and others were all part of this world.

In organizational terms, to be part of this community meant there could be specialization: writers, researchers, publicists, policy experts, organizers and others who brought the community’s perspective to particular issues. Money that was raised from dues, events, subscriptions and voluntary contributions paid for all these things—or at least so we thought at the time. (Accusations of Russian funding were dismissed, though later Soviet archival research showed they were true.)

Even in my childhood there were cracks in the unity of our community. ILWU and other labor leaders told me in subsequent years that despite the Communist Party and their own public endorsement of third party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, in the privacy of the voting booth they voted for Harry Truman as the lesser of the two evils. And, of course, the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War destroyed the Communist Party, most of the unions it led or influenced, and most of the left—whether communist or not.

As I progressed in junior high and high school, I became increasingly critical of dimensions of this community. I read The Loyalty of Free Men and concluded that civil liberties were indivisible; you couldn’t have them for our side and deny them to the other side or rivals—as the CP argued. By the time I’d reached college, I concluded that there was more centralism than democracy in “democratic centralism,” that “scientific socialism” was less science and more dogma, and that “vanguard parties” soon became more interested in their own power and prerogatives than in making a revolution that liberated the masses.

As I developed as an organizer, I learned the importance of the voluntary associations that are the expressions of everyday people’s beliefs and interests. I also learned that within most of these associations there is a stated commitment to freedom, justice, democracy, equality, security, community and other values that are important to me. Look at the preamble of almost any union constitution; look at the bylaws of most civic association; look at the social justice statements of most religious faiths, and read their foundational texts. Wherever you look you will find material to work with, to challenge people to act on their own proclaimed beliefs. A free society organizer does not try to replace these organizations; rather, she finds ways to make them live by their own rulebook.

My mom told me I was becoming a “bourgeois reformist!” It took Khrushchev’s revelations and the Russian invasion of Prague to shake her out of her belief that the Soviet Union represented the future of mankind. (Fortunately, she lived to see Gorbachev, and came to have deep regard for him; indeed, it is too bad for all of us that he failed.)

While the values that were instilled in me as part of my mother’s milk still are at the core of my beliefs, the means for realizing them are different from those of my parents.

Learning the Pieces of Community

In SLATE, a campus reform political party I was involved in founding in 1957/58 as an undergraduate at the University of California, I learned about forming and maintaining coalitions, developing a lowest significant common denominator political program, reaching out to others on the campus to seek their support, and working inside a multi-million dollar bureaucracy.

After a year at Columbia graduate school, I became a community organizer for a settlement house on New York’s Lower Eastside. My job was to support a tenant association that existed in one of the high-rise housing projects there. My childhood and UC experiences came together, and for about six months I thought I’d found a home. But I was fired for being too militant and found that the very big city of New York was actually small: my name was known in the social work world, and I couldn’t find another job doing what I’d begun to learn was “organizing”.

Back in Berkeley, I spent two more years in graduate school. But graduate school seemed a pale choice when the opportunity to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came my way. There, particularly in the version of SNCC that was practiced by Bob Moses in Mississippi, I learned about being an “organizer” whose role was to listen, to challenge (or agitate) others to act, to think through with them what might be done, and to train them in skills required to get from point “a” to point “b”. We did all that by the seat of our pants. But that direction—the idea that we weren’t building something for ourselves but, instead, were assisting other people to build something that was theirs—made a deep impact.

In 1962, a couple of dozen, mostly southern, black students dropped out of school to become full-time organizers. They abandoned campus based direct action to see if they could activate the Deep South black community that for the most part was a passive, though supportive, observer of their sit-ins and freedom rides. They began the task of learning how to organize.

After SNCC, I went to work for Saul Alinsky. I’d tracked him down because after I was fired from my settlement house job I was called “a little Alinsky.” When the opportunity to meet the big one came my way in 1961, I took it. When he invited me to come to work for him, I choose SNCC instead. But in October, 1966, when he repeated the invitation, I went to work for him as project director of a black community organization in Kansas City, MO. With Alinsky, I put flesh, sinew, and muscle on the skeleton I’d learned in SNCC, and came to a deeper understanding of what exactly was involved in building people power. I also learned some of the differences between Ella Baker organizing and Saul Alinsky organizing, and the fact that they have more in common. I also concluded that SNCC knew some things about community-building that Alinsky didn’t. Putting all this together is the path on which I’ve been ever since.

In this emerging me, these substitutions in my ideological framework took place: for Marxism-Leninism, I substituted a vigorous understanding of democracy in which all people actively participated in shaping their neighborhoods, cities, regions, state and nation, as well as their workplaces. For vanguard party, I substituted a cadre of full-time organizers whose job was to assist local people to build their own people power organizations. For scientific socialism, I substituted small “d” democratic values and the moral, social and economic justice teachings of the world’s great religious traditions. “Socialism” was reduced to a proposal that asked whether ‘x’ particular industry should be owned by the government, and that was not a question that was answered “a priori”: rather, it was one that people power organizations ought to ask, and decide for themselves. I understood myself as creating the public space, or the forums, that could discuss, discern, debate and decide that question, and then act powerfully on their answer.

I concluded that while there is a science of power, there is not a science for its use. That is a contested terrain in which people make choices. A blurred vision of a fully democratic society seemed to me to offer the best choice. Building such a society is a constant struggle—both against our own demons (the “isms,” ego, the organizational rivalries for turf, funding and recruits are examples), and against incumbent economic, social and political power structures that seek to maintain their own riches and prerogatives. This struggle was well summed up in the 1930s by Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Since World War II, with minor blips along the way, concentrated wealth has been winning despite whatever other important victories in civil rights, diversity struggles, social welfare and other issues may have been won.

In The Absence of Community

Today, for the most part, those who fight for a fuller democracy and social and economic justice lack a brand—in the sense that I have used the term—that has the confidence of significant numbers of the American people.

This is despite the fact that survey after survey demonstrates that the ideas for which they struggle generally have the support of a majority, and sometimes a large one at that, of the American people. There is no organization about which the majority who respond to these surveys says, “They speak for me,” or, “That’s my voice.”

Today’s activist modus operandi is to go from demonstration to demonstration with no organizing in between, and then wonder why big money is able to beat it at the polls. An activist counter-culture has been built, but not one that is rooted deeply in the lives of everyday people. With sometimes more and sometimes less success, that counterculture’s organizations mobilize everyday people on issue campaigns; but it does not make them co-creators. Those mobilized are, as a result, a market rather than a public. Publics discuss, debate and deliberate among themselves. What they resolve from such a process has a deep meaning to them. When these processes are part of deeply rooted and self-funded communities, they have access to the researchers, policy experts and others who can help them shape their own point of view. When they are able to do that, they are relatively immune to what mass media tries to sell them at election time.

The election victory in California of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) offers a rare example of what this might begin look like. Outspent by Chevron and its local allies by 20:1, RPA won every seat it contested, and contributed to the election of those candidates it endorsed. Their analysis of why is quite simple: we’ve been around now for 10 years and people trust us. They know we are fighting for the interests of everyday people in Richmond. RPA has a long way to go, but it is on the right road. It is developing trusting relationships with the people of Richmond.

Without a counter-culture that looks to sources other than the mass media for guidance on the issues of the day, big money/big media is rarely beaten at election time. Social media can reinforce a community’s message; they cannot substitute for it. When the community is weakened, so is the body politic. When its interests are limited to the “private sphere”, public life, the common good and the public interest are damaged. (Nothing better expresses what has happened to our body politic than George Bush’s post-9/11 statement, “go shopping.”


We have instances in American history when such counter-cultures were built: the Populists, the industrial union movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s organizing work in the Deep South, Saul Alinsky’s community organizing and parts of the tradition that has emerged from his Industrial Areas Foundation. These examples need to be the subject of intense scrutiny by a new generation of activists if they are to achieve the transformational results that our times require.

Organizing takes place between mobilizations. Its core elements are listening, challenging, thinking through and training. It expresses itself in internal education that uses the experiences of action on issues and the problems of everyday people as its curriculum. And it emerges in reflection connecting deeply held values to the action of the day. Organizing also expresses itself in celebration, by creating a new story of everyday people making history — one that challenges the idea that only big-name leaders are the creators of the nation’s legacy.

Organizing emerges through training that develops and enhances the civil skills necessary for self-confident action in the public arena and through social activities like dances, dinners, athletic competition, picnics and the like. Most importantly it emerges through evaluation — through the asking and answering of such questions as, “What did we do in comparison to what we said we were going to do? — in relation to turnout, discipline and focus, testing of new leaders, making new allies and evaluating media coverage. It asks “Are we getting the reaction we wanted?” and “Why did ‘x’ work and ‘y’ not work?” and “What accounts for the results?” “What can be done differently and better next time?” Finally organizing emerges in interpretation, by asking “What do we tell ourselves, our friends, neighbors and co-workers about what was accomplished today?”.

I think full-time, professional, organizers are a key element to creating this counter-culture. Find out what they think. Learn from them. Tip: most of the people who call themselves organizers are really mobilizers. They may make the turnout larger, media coverage better, and take care of a lot of the details, but they don’t build the counter-culture and organizational depth I’m talking about.

The creation of a democratically-rooted counter culture, connected to the majority of the American people, is the pre-condition to creating the democracy Justice Brandeis warned we were losing. That connection can be built in two ways. The first is through the people’s own institutions and organizations—ranging from congregations and union locals to small merchant and business associations to athletic teams and garden clubs to senior, tenant, homeowner and interest groups, to widely diverse identity groups. The second is through newly-created structures that combine the elements I discuss above to create new strong communities of people whose other affiliations are either non-existent or shallow.

These two approaches can combine mutual aid and institutional change activities to bring about change. Historically (at least in recent times) the first is associated in with the Saul Alinsky-tradition; the second is connected with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s work in the Deep South and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). In whichever traditionthey are anchored, if they  are to build deeply, they must include elements of reflection, internal education, training, evaluation, interpretation, social activities and other “community-building” activities.

Finally, we need some mechanism. I think of it as an annual or biennial (every two years) event—congress, convention, assembly or whatever you want to call it—that brings together in a one-half to two-day gathering all the groupings identified above. It resembles a political party or union convention. The core-values framework for such a gathering is to be found in the small “d” democratic tradition, and in the religious
teachings of the world’s great religions: freedom, justice, equality, security, community, personhood. I think that captures the essentials but add more if you think they’re needed. This gathering adopts a platform, elects organizational leadership and establishes priorities for the forthcoming period. Its delegates, in the compromises they make among themselves, create a “lowest significant common denominator” program and balance conflicts among their core values.

In all the cases I know of where there are such groupings, some full time organizing staff is essential to making such a gathering happen.

How will corporate interests and their allies respond? Their central problem is that they want to control outcomes to conform to their pre-defined interests, so they won’t build something with deep, democratic roots. But if the real option isn’t available, then in the desert that is now American politics what they do will look real. The proliferation of “community-based alternatives” funded by foundations and corporations and taking the form of unaccountable non-profit organizations, charter schools, for-profit training programs, universities and colleges, and more is the national expression of the Astroturf alternative. Overcoming that is the on-the-ground strategic problem all of us now face in this country.

Mike Miller directs the San Francisco-based ORGANIZE Training Center.


Editor’s Note

In the part one of Organizing and Lobbying = Power Tool,  the authors discussed some potentially problematic aspects of organizing and lobbying, including choosing coalition partners, setting campaign priorities, targeting decision makers, preparing lobbying arguments and meeting with decision makers.

As the authors pointed out in the earlier article, when people speak of lobbying, they have in mind argumentation based on facts and logic to influence government or corporate policy, practice, or product. When they speak of organizing, they have in mind building and using power to influence decision-makers. Of course, they argue that organizations should use both organizing and lobbying in our day-to-day practice, because campaigns work as more powerful tools when they combine demonstrated power with persuasive arguments.

In the following, the authors continue our examination of challenging aspects of organizing and lobbying, including: assembling a policy brief, pressuring and motivating decision-makers, planning a traditional media campaign, misusing social media, and testifying at legislative committee hearings.

Pressuring Decision-Makers

We recognize that in bringing pressure to bear on decision-makers, politicians react mainly to publicity that reflects on their character, bureaucrats react mainly to disrupting their agency’s services and programs, and corporations react mainly to the loss of their product’s reputation.

Pressuring politicians has been the go-to modus operandi of community organizing for decades, so the methods are well-known to experienced organizers. However, unelected bureaucrats typically have civil service protections, and inexperienced leaders and organizers may believe them to be immune to grassroots pressure. But we can successfully pressure bureaucrats by going after their elected bosses on directly related character issues. For example, having targeted the city’s code enforcement bureau, we might publicize campaign contributions to a city council member from a ruthless slumlord, whose housing code violations the bureau has overlooked. Or we may disrupt the delivery of services. For example, having targeted a tax assessor whose offices are not open during evening hours to accommodate working people, we might organize an action to file hundreds of assessment challenges, coupled with high exposure media coverage, to stop up his operation. Lastly, we may pressure bureaucrats to fully live up to their own bureaucratic rules in ways that will prevent them from achieving their mission. The possibilities in this vein are endless.

In any campaign, we should prepare leaders and members—mentally, emotionally, and with know-how—to negotiate. Unconditional capitulation of decision-makers is rare in community organizing campaigns. So, winning the campaign usually means negotiating an outcome that gives us much but not all of what we want. And there is a certain amount of professional and personal maturity in recognizing that neither victory nor defeat is ever perfect or permanent.

Assembling a Policy Brief

A policy brief is a document listing our main contentions and supporting evidence. The brief assembles the arguments and supporting evidence on both sides of our policy proposal (for reasons that will become clear momentarily). COC leaders and organizers use the brief in several settings and situations.

We structure the brief around the issues that cover all the essentials of the policy proposal. These are not issues in the way we think of them as organizers, but points of contention in an argument.

The brief can include three kinds of arguments:

Arguments based on definition—for example: “shelters for battered women and their children are a good investment” depends on the definition of what one regards as a good investment.
Arguments based on cause and effect—for example: “issuing large numbers of liquor store licenses in low-income neighborhoods leads to more crime and alcoholism” depends on whether we can prove (i.e., argue effectively) the causal relationship.
Arguments for action must answer four basic questions: Is there a need for change that justifies the action? Will the proposed action meet the need? Is the proposed action feasible? Will the benefits of the proposed action outweigh any harmful consequences?

The brief is a resource we use in a variety of ways, but in its raw form we never give it to the media, the policymaker, or the public.

The basic outline of the brief includes:

• Need for a change;
• Proposed plan for change;
• Feasibility of the proposed plan;
• Possible positive and negative consequences of the proposed change; and
• Rebuttal to the arguments against the proposed change (which is why our brief includes evidence on both sides of our policy proposal).

Motivating Decision-Makers

It’s essential to know a decision-maker’s views before a first meeting. Obviously, we can discover these from many sources, such as the web site of the decision-maker, archives of the local major daily newspaper (which are usually available online to subscribers), results of Internet searches on the decision-maker’s name, campaign contribution reports from the county clerk or secretary of state, the usual legislative voting and speech-making records, and books authored by the decision-maker.

How do we know what most influences an official’s decision-making? There are many self-reporting studies, but most are unmistakably subjective and rely on the candor of the subject. We certainly shouldn’t expect officials to admit, “my political career is more important to me than protecting the environment” or “it’s been personally very lucrative doing favors for big real estate and construction companies.”

So, what really motivates decision-makers? We’re cautious about relying on generalizations, but we use the following list to sensitize ourselves
to the possible motivations of each decision-maker:

• Anything that promotes career advancement;
• Avoiding pain and punishment (e.g., bad publicity);
• Engendering “good will” (with big contributors and the majority-constituency);
• Repaying outstanding political IOUs and acquiring IOUs;
• Acquiring and conserving electoral resources;
• One’s own definition of the “public interest”; and
• Others’ definitions of the “public interest.”

Decision-makers also favor various institutional roles for themselves, such as:

• Providing direct services by maintaining a competent and committed staff to help constituents resolve problems;
• Voting to support constituent-benefits by always opposing tax increases and service reductions;
• Introducing and supporting adoption of innovative and progressive policies;
• Co-authoring and actively supporting introduction and passage of legislation or bureaucratic rule-making; and
• Power-brokering and deal-making with other action-field players.

The root motivational-key to politicians, as Mark Leibovich has noted, is that “The interests of self-perpetuation drive nearly everything.”

Given our thinking about the motivations of a decision-maker, before formally proposing a policy or issue-position we ask ourselves what would be the best form to use. For example, should it be a form that we calculate will get media attention and create more public pressure, such as a billboard? Should we present it to the decision-maker in a private, preliminary negotiation? Or, might it be useful late in the campaign to submit our full, detailed proposal in the form of a specific legislative bill?

Lawmakers coming to our issue-position may respond more positively to a ready-made bill, saving them and their staff from the demands of authoring legislation they intend to submit and for which they hope to receive praise from their constituents.

Planning Traditional Media Campaigns

Frank Lloyd Wright reckoned that architects should only take a pencil in hand when they have a clear mental picture of every facet of their design. Similarly, one should never write a press release—the keystone in media work— before “cutting” the story. It’s the cut of a story that makes it interesting, exciting, and relevant. Humor and human interest are important elements to play up. Stories that uncover power inequality, such as attacks on the powerful by an underdog, are always popular; and highlighting the gap between words and actions, especially by the powerful who claim to be public benefactors, is usually newsworthy.

The keys in cutting the story are timing, action, and personality. The story should be breaking or, better yet, about to break; involve action, somebody or something in motion; and there should be a personality (which may also be the organization) demanding attention. Whether an organization has a celebration-picnic to mark the end of a successful campaign for city-subsidized solar panels or, instead, on Valentine’s Day, a “We Love Our Solar-Power Savings Day,” makes all the difference for news media, particularly on a slow news day. One of our favorite storycuts was the 1974-75 work of the California Electricity and Gas for People campaign that targeted the massive Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) utility. The leadership conveyed the story-cut in the name of the campaign: Turn PG&E Around—E&GP, Electricity and Gas for People.

When cutting the story, we should keep in mind the media for which we’re writing. Ordinarily, organizers subscribe to and consistently read, view, and listen to the media from which they want coverage. Ideally, we produce a press release that mimics the way the targeted media would typically handle the story, because we’re aiming for a news story, not an editorial.

The general guidelines for dealing with the media are:

• Be honest, accurate, and factual.
• Avoid distortions, barbed comments, and veiled threats.
• Don’t talk “off the record” or try to take back past statements.
• Prepare ahead for hostile media questions.
• Assume that reporters and editors covertly record phone conversations.
• Don’t lecture editors or reporters or ever lose your temper with them.
• Never try to recruit journalists to your cause, regardless of how friendly they are (because they may take such overtures as an insult to their professionalism).
• Recognize your interest in building relationships with reporters and editors in which they come to trust your professionalism.

Experienced organizers take advantage of media opportunities, reacting with phone calls or other communications to the media when supporting or opposing a story. The ideal is to react quickly when attacked, contacting the media and pushing our side of the story. We work to deliver written statements as soon as possible, and tie an action to our statement if possible. A statement opposing a new police practice, for example, is far more newsworthy if linked to an action that turns out hundreds.

We prepare leaders for unsolicited calls from the media. They need to understand that their role includes:

• Articulating clearly the campaign’s credential;
• Communicating our side of the story to the public first;
• Staying cool when questioned by hostile media representatives;
• Not lying, but also not volunteering anything unflattering unless unavoidable;
• Not arguing the merits of our campaign;
• Not getting sarcastic with media representatives; and
• Launching a media counter-offensive when feasible.

Finally, when the campaign succeeds, we don’t oppose decision-makers for taking credit in their press releases and media interviews. At the same time, we can take the credit in ours.

Misusing Social Media

Social media have opened an infinite universe of media campaign possibilities in the last dozen years. It’s clear that social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.—can be powerful tools, as confirmed by commercial marketing and partisan political campaigns, including voter-turnout on election day. These campaigns are far more efficient and effective for their purposes than their forerunner, email list-building and mass-broadcasting. Social-media campaigns may be well-suited to mobilizations for various purposes. But using these networks for sustained issue-campaigns is a more questionable proposition, affording mixed experience to date.

Winning issue-campaigns usually requires turnout that is predictable, controlled, and unrelenting. These characteristics can account for the ironically greater victories of traditional community organizing actions (in which turnouts rarely exceed 10,000) over one-shot mass mobilizations (in which turnouts can exceed hundreds of thousands or millions). Our understanding of the crucial difference between these two approaches is that relationships among members of competent, mature organizations, grounded in long-lived, face-to-face communities, drive community organizing actions. The mass mobilizations, on the other hand, are mostly social media-driven; they originate and continue mostly in transitory cyberspace associations, with the majority of participants rarely meeting face-to-face more than once in occasional marches and demonstrations.

Many of the Internet-based, social action organizations that rely on social media campaigns are well-known, but it’s difficult to verify their impact on specific policy reforms and resource allocations. The picture is unclear because it’s commonplace when a government or corporation shifts policy in a progressive direction, these organizations, many of which have promoted Internet fundraising on the issue, claim partial or full credit for the victory. But there’s rarely any independent verification of their claims, and their limited ability to influence the retrograde policies of the Trump administration suggests they are inflating their wins.

More problematic, unofficial online petitions have become the go-to fundraising method for Internet-based, nonpartisan political organizations, both progressive and reactionary. It’s not incidental that these petitions have uncertain effects on policy outcomes. They are reminiscent of the petitions widely used by door-to-door “social-action” canvasses of the 1970s and 80s, which the organizations dedicated chiefly to fundraising. Petitions then were a useful tool for door-knocking on multiple issues, but eventually householders discerned and rejected the petition-gambit to raise funds. They recalled the previous canvassing’s inflated rhetoric, grandiose political and economic policy objectives, and visionary promises for community transformation—all or most of which typically remained unfulfilled. Given enough time, even the politically naive came to see that the promised results of the petitions were not forthcoming. When that happened, potential contributors spurned both the fundraising method and the canvassing organizations that used it.

Most troubling ultimately, social-media-driven campaigns used for nonpartisan political mobilizations can create the mistaken belief by participants that their “social action”— ordinarily limited to signing a petition, making an online contribution, or attending a march—will demonstrate sufficient power to bring about a victory. It may also lead them to believe that more demanding commitments are not necessary.

Testifying at Legislative Hearings

Although the claimed purpose of legislative hearings is to gather information, legislators are usually well-informed through the work of their staff and through information provided to them by lobbyists. The legislative hearing, whether a city council discussion or public hearing by
a committee of the state legislature, gives lawmakers the opportunity to hear all sides of an issue and to ask questions and challenge witnesses in a brief span of time. It also gives them media exposure while posing as thoughtful, mature, and well-informed leaders.

There are several basic guidelines for testifying in legislative hearings. We should decide first whether it’s at all useful to testify at a specific hearing. It may not be if we’re only going to be a punching bag for a hostile legislator (unless it’s likely we’ll get sympathetic press coverage). We should find out why the hearing is at the scheduled time, which we may be able to learn from friendly lobbyists and advocacy groups. The timing may suggest handles that afford leverage on the issue. We should also check to see if our representative is on the committee, which increases the likelihood of our organization having an opportunity to testify.

If we’re not allowed to testify, we may submit written testimony, which we can also give to the media, and which may be just as valuable as testifying if media exposure is our main objective. We should stay focused on our media campaign purpose, which is to get our side of the issue out. We should also stay focused on our audience (whether the legislators, the news media, friendly committee members who need ammunition to support our position, etc.). We should make the effort to know who else is testifying at the hearing (the committee chairperson’s staff may be willing to share that information), so that we can know the arguments our opposition will be making.

Another one of those inflexible rules of lobbying is, “never engage in arguments with committee members”. They always have the last word, and you’ll look like a ten-year-old arguing with your parent if you lose your self-control. It’s obviously preferable to maintain your own dignity and allow decision-makers to maintain theirs.

Sometimes committee members try to engage us in debate. We should treat this response to our presentation as legitimate questioning, answering it from our prepared responses to common criticisms of our argument. In some cases, committee members ignore our arguments and instead attack our leaders, trying to make them look bad as individuals. Our prepared response has several points: making sure it’s a personal attack and not a misunderstanding; calmly restating our position, possibly adding an illustration; and, despite ad hominem attacks, treating him or her with respect, maintaining our own dignity. Committee members will occasionally raise issues entirely extraneous to our testimony. We answer briefly, then we get the subject back on track. We may get questions that are friendly, neutral, or hostile, which we cannot answer. We never fake it. We acknowledge that we don’t have the information at hand but will try to get it, and we strive to follow up promptly and thoroughly.

Maximizing the Power Tool

Over the course of these articles we have outlined several fundamentals of using the power tool that results from combining organizing and lobbying. These include:
• Investing in building a unified coalition;
• Doing a thorough inventory of your own resources and an action-field analysis;
• Knowing all the players, rules, procedures, and deadlines, inside and out;
• Taking the time to generate a winning strategy and strategic plan;
• Considering organizational mileage, and opportunities for both “wins” and “builds”;
• Preparing a complete policy brief, including all your adversary’s arguments;
• Targeting decision-makers commensurate with your actual power;
• Knowing the decision-maker’s position on your proposal before meeting;
• Planning and role-playing meetings and actions thoroughly ahead of time;
• Exploiting the timing of events that offer handles on your issue;
• Not short-changing your media campaign or allowing it to peak prematurely;
• Preparing to negotiate at the end of a campaign; and
• Expecting the need for follow-up to collect on opponents’ “promises.”

Moshe ben Asher and Khulda bat Sarah are the founders and Co-Directors of Gather the People (, which provides resources for congregational and community organizing and development, Moshe has organized for ACORN, Citizens Action League of California, and one of the PICO projects (OCCCO); he was Assistant Director for Organize Training Center; and he teaches sociology and social work at California State University, Northridge. Khulda has organized for the North County Community Project and the Marin Congregational Organizing Project.



The shaping of my professional life, and to a large extent my personal life, occurred in my days as a graduate student in economics at Columbia University. I was invited to join Frank Riessman and Alvin Gouldner, graduate sociology students, in what they grandiosely called the Citizens Social Research Council. It was to rival the establishment Social Science Research Council by making social science useful to people working in labor unions, community groups, and political organizations.

This was at the end of World War II, an especially exciting time in New York City with the return of veterans, the explosion of interest in psychoanalysis and social behavior, and the resurgent cultural and political character of the city. We started a magazine that we called “Ideas for Action,” believing that the social sciences, particularly psychology and Columbia sociology, had perspectives and findings that could be useful for activists. During the late forties and early fifties, we were joined by other graduate students, some who became well-known social science figures such as Sol Levine in the sociology of health, Morris (Manny) Rosenberg in identity research, and Elliot Mishler who developed the field of narrative analysis. Many other gifted people were involved at various times. Frank, Sol and I developed very close, deep and significant personal and intellectual friendships that we nurtured for 50 years until their deaths.

We were largely New York City-born Jews of working-class, immigrant families, probably the first in our families to go to college (usually one of the New York City public colleges). We thought of ourselves as of the left and two or three identified themselves as members or ex-members of the Communist Party. Most thought of themselves as liberals or progressives.

Weak efforts to get some women graduate students to join us failed, perhaps because they correctly saw us as a “men’s club,” perhaps because they recognized that as women they would have a hard enough time in gaining professional acceptance. We should have tried harder.

We distributed our 4-page, letter-size magazine free to a variety of action organizations. We were Kropotkin’s “organic intellectuals,” not only writing and editing its articles but involved in its layout, printing, sorting for mailing, delivery to the post-office and those other myriad details of publishing. We raised money for printing and postage by giving parties with door and drink charges, frequently at the Gramercy Park apartment of Herter Norton, translator of Rilke, and widow of W. W. Norton, the publisher. Sol had met her daughter Anne in California just before he was discharged from the Army. We provided entertainment at our parties; the young Harry Belafonte was one of our entertainers. (We didn’t think he was as good as some of our other singers.) Bob DeCormier, a wartime buddy of Sol’s and later a leading choral leader, was our conduit to Broadway. We mixed social science with popular culture and our parties were well known social events. We were on course to change the world while enjoying the ride — at least that is how it felt for a time.

Unfortunately, I do not have copies of Ideas for Action. One theme that I recall was from a publication of Columbia sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld and, I think, Elihu Katz, on the importance of informal neighborhood leaders in affecting opinion. We used that idea in an issue and again in Participation, Culture and Personality, an issue of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) Journal of Social Issues that Frank and I edited and which also published articles by others in our Ideas for Action group. We outlined a four-fold typology of
leadership that Al Gouldner used in his edited volume, Studies in Leadership.

Our magazine had followup. Frank pursued the Ideas for Action experience in his founding and long editorship of Social Policy Magazine. It may have led Al Gouldner to start Transaction. Many years after Ideas for Action perished under other leadership, Al asked me what I thought about that experience. I replied that I thought that we neglected to develop Ideas from Action. I like to think that my remark encouraged Al to develop Theory and Society.

I now make a much belated attempt to think about the “from" part, drawing on my action experiences since the days of our youth. Ideas from Action does not gain the attention that it should have in public sociology.



Working with Hispanic and African American women and some men in a tenants’ council in Manhattan, and with union members in a number of different settings made me aware of how smart they were though they lacked “book learning.” They would have been able to handle jobs for which they were disqualified because they had not graduated from high school or had not gone beyond a high school diploma.

Those experiences led me to rethink my own family. My older sister just managed to gain a high school diploma but was obviously very, very smart. My mother, illiterate in the three languages that she could speak, was extraordinarily intelligent and disturbingly perspicacious.

These and other experiences like working with African American school dropouts in Syracuse led me to initiate the terms: “credential society” and credentialism to point to the excess emphasis on educational qualifications for jobs that barred many who could have performed well at those tasks.

Poverty and Inequality as More Than Income Deficiency

As a tenants’ council organizer, a Hispanic woman who I tried to interest in the organization told me of her experience in applying for public welfare. The welfare officer behind the cage that separated the staff from applicants told her, “Why don’t you just get a man to support you?” She was outraged by this disrespect but kept her tongue.

Visiting welfare and unemployment insurance offices and an employment retraining operation that was 30 years behind the times made me acutely aware of how poor people were treated. Workers telling me that they had to live paycheck to paycheck and had nothing to fall back on in case they were sick and lost a week’s pay highlighted the importance of having savings and other assets. Low pay didn’t permit the accumulation of a financial safety net.

Experiences like these, plus my personal experiences of poverty, led Pam Roby and me to write The Future of Inequality (1970). That book, along with earlier articles, sought to show the multi-dimensions of poverty and inequality; moving beyond income and the poverty line to the importance of assets and wealth, status and satisfaction, civic participation, and the quality of services. I like to think that this work was one of the major influences that led the European Union to adopt the concept of “social inclusion.” In 2003, I again took up a similar theme in Respect and Rights, for things had not improved.

United for a Fair Economy (of which I am a co-founder and longest serving board member) has adopted highlighting racial wealth inequality as its main theme.

Organizing for Change

Over the years I have been an active advisor, consultant, board member, friend of many poverty, community, union and employment organizations and activities, not only in the US but also in Ireland, Britain, and France. Those experiences led me to rethink Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy of left-wing organizations. Many of these organizations flourished mainly because they had a charismatic leader who dominated their thinking and activities.

While I am all for democracy, I have realized from my many activities and involvements that the quality of organizational leadership is crucial. Unfortunately, too few studies of social movements adequately explore the ongoing life of organizations that seek to change a neighborhood, company, the nation or the world. Nor has that literature explored how some social movements achieved important transformations for instance, how did gay-lesbian efforts so change the USA that homosexual marriage become the big issue, not the one-time disgrace and crime of homosexuality?

I have been particularly intrigued by what happens after the charismatic leader leaves. Two experiences, one in the US, the other in Europe, have led me to draft an article on it. Seldom do organizations prepare for the change; they are surprised by the emergence of perspectives and directions that were buried as the leader pursued his or her interpretation of the organizational mission. They flounder and sometimes make it difficult to come to decisions and accept new directions and leadership. More broadly, the effectiveness of change-oriented activities depends on the way an organization comes to decisions. The way it carries out those decisions is heavily influenced by its internal dynamics.

These are obvious points but social science is not providing leads for organizations in developing appropriate ways of adapting and changing. The contrast is with the business literature that every week or so reveals the next new way of structuring and leading corporate organizations.

Everyone Has a Boss

I was on the staff of the Ford Foundation for two years full-time and four years part-time. I learned a great deal about the USA and organizational life from my successful efforts to initiate programs for Hispanics, Native Americans, and the rural poor and to move the foundation to support civil rights organizations that were more activist than the National Urban League. Surprisingly, my most significant learning came from a brief conversation with the foundation president, McGeorge Bundy. I asked him why he had made a particular decision (that I privately thought was dumb.) His response surprised me, “The foundation’s board made me do it.”

As I thought about it, I concluded that no one feels completely free in making decisions. Politicians vote for policies and spending that they think will win them support or reduce opposition. Corporate bosses make decisions in anticipation of how security analysts — those over-rated “experts” — and the stock market will respond. Too often, change organizations make decisions by anticipating the number of media hits, the current way of judging success. The media has become our boss.

This range of bosses suggests that some American left analyses that dote on the concentration of power in a few corporate hands overstate the case and understate the left’s inadequacies. There are a lot of bosses in the USA and they don’t always hang out together.

The Art of the Question

Working with many organizations over the years, I have discovered that good questioning can be an important tool. It is also a useful way of avoiding the guru status of dispensing standard bromides. Out of these contacts I have developed my favorite question: If I knew how this organization spent its money and time, could I figure out what is the purpose of the organization? I have yet to get a yes although it sometimes moves organizations to begin to reexamine their ways.

Asking useful questions is an art, in research as well as in organizations. It requires some knowledge and experience to think just beyond the ongoing discussion. My favorite example: I was asked to meet with the board of an Irish organization that was providing food for people without a home. I wanted to ask a standard question regarding how they would define success and yet get them to think about the future of the organization and the problem that they were dealing with. So, I asked, “If you expanded your activities as you are planning and the problem of homelessness in Ireland increased, how would you feel?” The ensuing discussion led them to a new track — to build low-income, subsidized housing. Some years later when I was again in Dublin, Sister Stan, the wonderfully effective leader of the mostly-male organization, proudly introduced me to the housing units that the organization had built.

The art of the research question, I think, is to wonder about processes more than structures. How do results and effects come about — avoiding fastening exclusively on what are possible structural influences or independent variables if you wish. How do these influences come to have the effects that they do? That question may lead to other independent variables or to a different way of seeing the problem and setting up the research goal and design.

Rethinking Class Outlooks

In the 1950’s, Seymour Martin Lipset published an article in the American Socialist Review (ASR) on the authoritarianism of the American worker. Frank Riessman and I wrote a reply that the ASR didn’t take but the British Journal of Sociology did.

My expanding experiences with American workers led me to the conclusion that Marty (whom I knew from graduate school days) and we critics were both wrong. Also misled were those who regarded workers’ concern for their economic interests as class awareness, perhaps even class-consciousness. As I talked with more and more workers from my variety of activities, I came to the conclusion that what was particularly important for them was tradition. They were patriotic, religiously-oriented (even if not active church-goers) believers in the American dream of onward and upward. They defended their economic interests from a traditional perspective. In a sense, when they saw a company trying to weaken a benefit, they regarded it as an insult to the tradition that had been achieved.

I think that research on class attitudes would benefit from attention to the role of tradition. And activists would also benefit from understanding how tradition operates in the lives of those they seek to influence. I think too that a lot of our research findings should have attached to them something like a milk bottle warning — USE BEFORE THIS DATE — for events and circumstances undermine the durability of research findings, especially from polling and interviewing.

Learning About Self from Action

To the oft-cited saying of the greed in taking without giving I would add that there is a greed in giving without taking. Giving is a two-way encounter, so I don’t want to end without stressing how much I have benefited as a social scientist and as a person from my wide range of involvements in trying to aid outsiders.

My many involvements have enriched my professional life by forcing me to view many issues in ways that were not my professional or natural bent. For example, I learned that many decisions, especially in organizations, are not the result of planning or careful consideration of alternatives and possibilities, but of hopes, enthusiasms, presumed opportunities, personal preferences, last minute pressures. Sociology often has a hidden presumption of the rational social actor operating with or against economists’ rational market actor.

At the personal level, I have had the benefit of feeling useful, meeting many interesting people and discovering places that would not have occurred if I had stuck to a narrow professional track. I learned a good deal about myself, including an understanding of my early life that I had buried. My article, “No Permanent Abode” in Tikkun describes the uncovering of my homeless experiences when working with Sister Stan’s organization. I also had the great benefit of a long marriage to psychiatrist and author Jean Baker Miller who lived her values more than most of us do.

In short, I have also been a taker.

Giving and taking — ideas for and from action — that two-way process enriches professional and personal lives in ways that cannot be measured yet are so rewarding.

S.M. (Mike) Miller is co-founder and long-time board member of United for a Fair Economy. He is a senior fellow at the Commonwealth Institute and a board member of Poverty and Race Research Action Council. He is emeritus professor of sociology at Boston University and in 2009 received the American Sociological Association’s award for the Practice of Sociology.

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