Friday May 29

By Mike Miller The Gold Standard Part II: Building Community and Power

In Part I of this article I discussed the notion of a “gold standard” in organizing and wrote we could assess if an organization has reached the gold standard by assessing its demand;, its effect on decision-making in society; its contribution to eroding social deference to qualifications; if it was affecting the concentrations of wealth, status and power in society. In Part II I review the tools organizers can use to expand their organizations and deepen their effectiveness.

Growth

If what an organization is doing is of value, it should achieve steady growth by aggressively recruiting either new individual members or new groups depending on the nature of the organization. Growth in numbers is central to building the people power required for social, economic, political and cultural transformation.

It puzzles me to see an organization that has more or less the same number of members, whether organizations or individuals, as when I first learned about it ten or more years later after a track-record of delivering results.

Organize the Unorganized

In its heyday in the 1930s, the United Mine Workers Union contributed funds that were central to organizing steel, auto, rubber, electrical, packinghouse and other industrial unions in the newly formed Committee (later Congress) of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Those funds came from miners’ dues. Men working in the mines understood that the more workers were organized across the country, the better it would be for the miners…and for those other workers and for the country. Today, the organizing department of most unions, as well as that of the AFL-CIO is small, indeed very small. That budget line item tells you a lot about the state of labor in this country.

The details are even more revealing. The question of reallocating money to organizing, or a dues increase for organizing, is typically thought of as serving members versus organizing non-members. That’s the wrong framework. The disease of American labor is that its principal role is to provide services to and advocate for members. That’s what “the union” (meaning the full-time people at the headquarters) does. Contrast that with “we members are the union and our power is directly related to how many workers in our sector and as a whole are organized in the world.”

The gold standard organization has a speakers’ bureau or an “organize the unorganized” committee or some similar formation in which its leaders and rank-and-file activists act as missionaries for the cause. Its best spokespeople address hundreds if not thousands in public meetings and gatherings, as well as in one-to-one face-to-face meetings. It spends a significant portion of its budget on organizing the unorganized.

Community

Building power means building community. Over the years I’ve developed a careful and relatively precise definition of the feel-good work of building community. A community is “a group of people who support and challenge each other to act powerfully, both individually and collectively, to affirm, defend and advance their values and interests.” Organizing must walk a tight rope between the relative isolation of, for example, the Amish who are able to stand for their beliefs because they essentially separate themselves from the society around them, and, at the other end, absorption into the dominant culture.

The gold standard organization is built with specific tools that organizers and leaders have identified and have used over the years to deepen meaning and understanding of what we do and why we do it.

These tools include reflection, interpretation, internal education, celebration, and social activities.

Reflection

Whether a brief statement before and/or after taking action, or a lengthier statement in the form of a sermon or discussion, the idea of reflection is to relate deeply held beliefs to the action at hand. If engaging in a rent strike is initially about concrete benefits for housing and respectful treatment by the landlord, think how much deeper its meaning becomes to participants when they see themselves as acting as Jesus did when he threw the money lenders out of the Temple. Or if today’s picket line in front of a struck enterprise is an example of living out the preface to a union’s constitution, won’t that make participation in it much more valuable to the pickets? The art of reflection is taking texts—the Bible, Koran, Torah; the Bill of Rights or Declaration of Independence; the preface of a union constitution to take another example and relating that text to the immediate situation.

Interpretation

What story do people who participate in an action tell to their family, neighbors and friends when they return home? What response to the common, “I don’t waste my time going to meetings” is appropriate? There must be a message that responds to such questions. Organizer and experienced leaders provide that message in brief interpretations they provide after an action or meeting takes place.

I distinguish interpretation from reflection and education because it is more closely connected to the action at hand. It is best done right after an action, before participants leave to get on with their business-as-usual. It answers, “What did we accomplish today?” Armed with the answer to that question, when a family member, coworker or neighbor asks in a skeptical tone, “What did you accomplish?” there is a clear and compelling answer.

Internal Education

An internal education program places current struggles in the context of democratic struggles that have taken place throughout our nation’s history, and that now take place throughout the world. How have co-optation, divide and conquer strategies, marginalization and other adversary strategies undone powerful social movements and organizations in the past? What is to be learned from great strikes, electoral campaigns, social movements and organization building of the past? What patterns are to be found in ‘x’ campaign that might provide guidance for the campaign we are now in?

Every action undertaken by a people power organization offers the opportunity for this lesson on how the world works. It might be that the system doesn’t know the ill effects of what it is doing (or not doing), in which case informing it would solve the problem. It might be that the system is incompetent to solve a problem, in which case training, reorganizing or abandoning it might be the solution. Finally, and typically the case, it might be that the system has different interests, in which case for example solving tenant problems requires changing the interests of the landlord or changing the system by which housing is provided.

The community organization is a seminar on politics— if organizers treat it that way. And what I’ve found is that people are anxious to conceptualize the lessons their experiences are offering them.

Creating A Culture Counter To The Dominant One

The most powerful experiences I’ve had in this dimension of community building took place when theater was introduced to action. In the Mississippi Delta and on the United Farm Workers peregrinación (pilgrimage) from Delano to Sacramento, skits were performed. They were directed in Mississippi by John O’Neal, and, in California, by Luis Valdez. Audiences of African-American plantation sharecroppers and day laborers, and of Mexican and Mexican-American grape workers came alive when, on an impromptu stage an organizer agitated, a sheriff intimidated, a citizen or worker got engaged, an Uncle Tom or Tio Taco got silenced, and people decided to act. In a more recent production, more than 100 trade unionists attended the performance I attended of Gene Bruskin’s new play The Moment Was Now. They alternatively cheered and booed depending on what his drama’s characters were doing.

Athletic teams, drill teams, dances, dinners, concerts, and other activities that bring people together are another set of activities that can solidify community.

Celebration

Recognition of participants, a negotiating team, planning committee, and others creates a new story of how change comes about. Not just “big name” people, but everyday people are the creators of history. “I am somebody” is how striking Memphis garbage collectors spoke of themselves on picket signs they carried. It is no accident that the word “recognition” describes the change in relationship with status quo power of isolated individuals versus organized people.

Creating heroes and heroines builds self-confidence in people who are celebrated, and make them important to the celebrants. And it tells the story to others that you, too, can be somebody beyond the various statuses you now hold and the ways in which you think of yourself.

The gold standard organization engages regularly and deeply in reflection, interpretation, internal education, celebration and social activities. We can see how well it’s doing by listening to local leaders, activists and members talk about what they’re doing, what it means to them, and how they see themselves as makers of history.

The Foreign Policy Question

We must include the role of the United States in the world in a discussion of gold standard organizing. Most organizer friends of mine will disagree, with many good reasons for doing so. This is a question that can no longer be avoided.

Since the 1950s, when I was old enough to pay attention to these matters, he U.S. government has directly or indirectly participated in coups against democratically elected governments in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. One of the major reasons for the twenty-five million refugees now in the world is this kind of activity. Chickens come home to roost when those forced from their homes because of our foreign policy become the undocumented people crossing our border.

Can we have within our government large-scale secret operations and still have a democracy? Can we have an executive branch that with seeming impunity can make war without going through the constitutionally required declaration of war by Congress, and still have a democracy? Can we make enemies of people throughout the world who are striving for democracy, and justice and not alter the character of our country?

The ideology of “American exceptionalism” provides a rationalization for American empire that is widespread in the electorate. It provides a fig leaf to cover what is simply called intervention or imperialism when other countries do the same thing.

The threats of war and environmental disaster raise serious difficulties for organizers. In this work, you begin by careful listening to learn the stories, hopes, fears, concerns and problems of people with whom you’re working. You challenge (or agitate) them to act on the things they have told you are important to them, but about which they are typically doing nothing—mainly because they feel, and in fact are, powerless to change the status quo. You think through with them what can be done. In the course of doing that, you tell stories of the successes of others who have organized. You train people in the skills required to build people power.

American foreign policy, global warming, and species extinction questions can be discussed with leaders who already have the competence and self confidence to think they know how to challenge the status quo and change it. These questions, however, violate an organizing axiom: “stay within the experience of your people.” Here, we are going outside their experience. What gives us the license to do that is the fact that there are now on-the-ground community and labor organizations that have histories, are deeply rooted in their members and constituencies, whose organizers and organizing networks are trusted both by local leaders and by a range of mid-and-upper-level leaders in churches, synagogues, and mosques.

Many of my activist friends think organizations like unions and community organizations should take a stand on this complex of issues. In general, I disagree though there are specific instances—the Vietnam War was one of them—where taking a stand was important and broadly-based organizations could do so without bitter internal division. For the most part, I think we would do better to foster a genuine discussion and debate within unions, congregations, and broad-based community organizations. We ought to push for debates on these issues in schools and other public forums. Spokespeople for intervention in, for example, Iran should be invited; opponents as well. This approach could reach the unreached. While it takes an organization’s leaders “outside the experience” of its members, it doesn’t speak for them on something they typically don’t feel competent to speak about. I believe it could have a major impact in American politics.

Who Pays?

This is tough. Most community organizations are around the tinfoil level on this question (far from the gold standard), dependent upon a mix of foundation grants, wealthy donors, direct mail, social media, government programs and corporate gifts. Even worse, these funds are not granted as a result of actions, but instead are the result of a careful courtship done by full-time staff so the process of fundraising is totally separated from leadership, activists and members of the organization. Unions are generally member-funded because of “dues check-off.” How many of them could collect dues if check-off didn’t exist? Increasingly, the foundation trap seduces some of them as well.

Members will pay dues. They have to be asked—from the very beginning. They have to make budgets through their internal planning processes. They have to assess and collect dues. They have to have events like raffles, souvenir books, and others that can raise substantial sums of money. The core budget of gold standard organizations comes from members’ dues and fundraising activities.

The importance of bottom-up funding was well-expressed by the United Farm Workers’ initial organizer and leader Cesar Chavez:

We started with [the principle that] no matter how poor the people, they had a responsibility to help the union. If they had two dollars for food, they had to give one dollar to the union. Otherwise, they would never get out of the trap of poverty…….. The statement “They’re so poor they can’t afford to contribute to the group” is a great cop-out. You don’t organize people by being afraid of them. You never have. You never will. You can be afraid of them in a variety of ways. But one of the main ways is to patronize them.

The union’s initial 1962 dues were $3.50 a month. That’s worth about $30.00 in 2019.

Foundations can be treated as targets just as public administrators, politicians, corporate executives, landlords and others can. When a foundation refuses to meet with leaders of an organization, that is an actionable matter. The tactic doesn’t have to be the same as might be used against rip-off neighborhood merchant, but pressure does need to be applied.

Is The Moment Now?

It’s time for truth telling. As a result of organizers’ work in the past 60 years there have been important changes for the common good. Advances to the common welfare have been made. Marginalized and discriminated against workers went on strike and won. Community organizations won important victories, as did identity and interest groups. But other truths outweigh those: wealth and power in the world is more concentrated, in the hands of fewer people, than it has ever been. Global climate change threatens unimaginable disasters for future generations, and continues apace. Lip service is paid to nature’s wrath, but she isn’t negotiating; the American empire has tentacles reaching around the world, with endless war in the Middle East one of its results. The “isms” of race, gender, national origin and others persist. Authoritarian populism now is incumbent power in countries like India, Hungary, Philippines, Brazil and our own.

We are now in a time of social movement. Millions of people across the globe are voicing anger at the status quo. The times call for a more humble and ecumenical spirit among organizers. The 1930s Popular Front, an old term discredited for its deep problems, had some positive qualities as well. We need a small “d” democratic version of it today.

Standing For The Whole

Broad- or mass-based community organizing should stand for the whole. Two things are required.

The positions, strategy, and tactics an organization adopts must be supported, or at least not opposed, by the constituency for which it claims to speak. That is one of the things that distinguishes this organizing from prophetic or activist mobilizing. This is not to say there isn’t a role for the latter. The Deep South civil rights movement would not have been launched in the Deep South without the sit-ins and freedom rides that preceded the community organizing and voter registration of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Further, the organization itself must include as members all walks of life that constitute the overwhelming majority of that constituency. At one end of the spectrum, that includes conservative small business associations and homeowner groups, and cautious interest and identity organizations. At the other, it should include militant and radical groups. And the bulk of its membership should be the vast majority who are typically between these two ends of the political spectrum. When one or the other end proposes policies or actions that most people can’t support, they will vote them down. If their internal way of proceeding alienates that majority, they will demonstrate to all that they speak for no one beyond their narrow base. Can that be done? I know it can: I did it in my own work as an organizer, as did others I know.

Chasing The Gold Standard

The organizer who calls his network “the gold standard,” and whose use of that phrase prompted these two articles, is not unique in his claims. Lots of people say about their work that it is unique, implying it is better. That makes cooperation with one another a little more difficult. It’s different from saying, “we do good work,” or even “we do excellent work.” Others can do good or excellent work as well. The claim to a monopoly on the gold implies everyone else is silver, brass, tin, iron, cooper or some other lesser value.

It doesn’t help make organizing an attractive field. We need a different kind of statement of who we are. Here’s mine. I stand on the shoulders of many who came before me and some who are my contemporaries, and more generally on all those throughout history who have engaged everyday people in the struggle for justice for themselves and a broader common good.

Gold Standard organizers emphasize common purpose and seek to accommodate their differences. If we fail to do that, insisting on the purity of our own approach, we will not build the people power required for our times.

MIKE MILLER can be found at www.organizetrainingcenter.org

 

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