Friday Jun 02

Spring 2023

BOOKS REVIEW: What Else Is There To Do But Organize?

When Women Organize For Power


  • Cassedy, Ellen. Working 9 to 5: A Women’s Movement, a Labor Union, and the Iconic Movie. Chicago Review Press, 2022.
  • Mondros, Jacqueline B. and Joan Minieri. Organizing for Power and Empowerment: The Fight for Democracy. 2nd edition. Columbia University Press, 2023.
  • Shiller, Helen. Daring to Struggle, Daring to Win: Five Decades of Resistance in Chicago’s Uptown Community. Haymarket Books, 2022. 


“We’ve done the data, we’ve done everything else, and if those things still aren’t working, what else is there to do but organize?” – Felicia Griffin, deputy director of PowerSwitch Action

To help us understand the power of women in organizing - BIPOC women, White women, Trans women, femmes, all women - we’re going to weave together three new books which remind me so much of my mother, Maureen Dolan, an organizer and fighter who passed three years ago.

Helen Shiller’s Daring to Struggle, Daring to Win: Five Decades of Resistance in Chicago’s Uptown (2022) tells a riveting story of unwavering dedication to people’s politics, including the work my mother championed when she was an organizer with the Chicago Electric Options Campaign in the late 80s and early 90s. 

Ellen Cassedy recounts her own experiences organizing women to demand better working conditions in Working 9 to 5: A Women’s Movement, a Labor Union, and the Iconic Movie (2022). The second edition of Jacqueline Mondros and Joan Minieri’s Organizing for Power and Empowerment: The Fight for Democracy (2023), is a deep dive into today’s most innovative organizing ideas and practices as told through interviews with sharp organizers.

All three of these authors look back over the last half a century and reflect on how women’s victories are always hard-won. The stories they tell - about following the lead of Black movement leadership, multiracial worker organizing, and the centrality of women to organizing for power - are also at the center of my mom’s story, and are relevant to every organizer today.

My mom is one of the millions of people who gave their life to community organizing, with no expectation that their work will ever be done or that they will get the recognition they deserve, so I am going to start by sharing some of her story.

My family grew up poor and working class in Buffalo and Chicago. My mom married at 18, had me at 19, and was divorced with two kids by her early 20s. She started college at the University of Buffalo, and for a while that worked - in part because the university had a drop-in child care center so parents, almost exclusively women, could go to class.

Yet when state governments, in a fever of austerity which continues today, started to slash public education budgets, university executives closed the childcare center. So, the first demonstration I remember was outside this center, as women with kids in strollers like me protested its closure.

The budget was not restored and the childcare center remained closed. My mom, who went on to become a university professor, would not graduate college until more than a dozen years later.

We were just a typical family on welfare at the time: a white woman with two kids on AFDC for a few years, and then a couple more on food stamps. In the early 1970s, the multiracial Buffalo welfare rights movement was on fire, and my mom joined this effort, which was largely led by Black revolutionaries.

Welfare is tough to live on, and my mom eventually found work at the M.Wile garment factory in Buffalo. I became a latch-key kid starting in 3rd grade, walking my younger brother back to our apartment from school, where we holed up until my mom came home from work.

Learning to empower others so they could access the same welfare rights she herself needed led my mom into a life of organizing, from Maoist revolutionary party-building to union organizing when we moved to Chicago in 1979, peace and nuclear freeze activism with SANE/FREEZE (now Peace Action), electoral organizing for Harold Washington and Jesse Jackson, and as a chaplain and adjunct professor at DePaul University.

The organizing skills my mom learned in unpaid and paid organizing were the keys to her finding a measure of dignity and peace later in life as she organized circles for women’s leadership and spiritual practice along with a limited-equity housing cooperative she helped found.

In Daring to Struggle, Daring to Win, Shiller describes her own, similar trajectory over 50 years of hard-core, disciplined multiracial revolutionary political organizing in Chicago. She kicks things off with extraordinary vulnerability, sharing the tough experiences which shaped her early life and later work. The book’s arc starts with her work with the Intercommunal Survival Committee – “a cadre of young white activists operating under the direction of the Black Panther Party,” readily acknowledging that their white-skin privilege meant accepting responsibility to organize White people to support Black liberation and working-class solidarity. Shiller explains:

The chapters that follow tell my story, through the lens of my experience in Uptown and in Chicago’s city council where I served from 1987 to 2011. It is a story about the resegregation of one of Chicago’s only racially and economically diverse communities. It is the Chicago story of the multiracial class resistance to the Nixon- and Reagan-inspired retrenchment of the gains of the civil rights movement that led to the election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago in 1983—and ultimately, some say, to the election of Barack Obama as president. It is the story of the impact of the changing federal policy on taxation and public services (Social Security, Medicare, welfare, housing, transit, education) as they played out in Chicago.

My own trajectory directly intersects with Shiller’s. I was a classmate of her son Brendan at Whitney Young High School, and I remember him having to miss school because of death threats his mom received when she ran for public office. Later, as a young organizer in the late 90s with Chicago’s Uptown at the Organization of the Northeast (now ONE Northside), I got to work with Shiller to create an inside-outside game with folks from her base to win shelter, including set-asides in new condominium developments, community priorities for housing and jobs in the Wilson Yards tax increment financing district, and the preservation of critically needed affordable housing. All of this she chronicles in her book.

Many of the problems that led Shiller to become an organizer, first in the antiwar movement in Wisconsin and then in Chicago, have become starker today: anti-Black racism, authoritarianism, climate genocide, economic inequality, and runaway corporate power are all still on the rise.

Shiller’s early desire and efforts to develop “programs to assist in survival pending revolution,” while phrased in the sweeping ambitions of the 1970s, directly resonates with today’s mutual aid work. It also challenges the distinction between organizing and service that was once sacrosanct in power-based community groups. This discussion remains relevant today, and Mondros and Minieri also explore it in their work.

Shiller’s work in the 1970s organizing white people “who otherwise avoided contact with people of color” in Chicago’s Uptown responded directly to a call from the Black Panther Party. We hear the same call from Black organizers today – that white organizers need to come get their people – and many white organizers are doing just this.

Shiller’s approach to organizing discipline exposes another faultline in today’s organizing, one recently plumbed by Maurice Mitchell in his article Building Resilient Organizations (The Forge, 2022). Organizing calls us to greatness in ways that take us beyond what we thought we could give. But it also fills us. Mitchell describes how to hold the contradictions of needing our organizations to be resilient and just, and how organizing requires us to be in deep relationships with people that energize and ground us. This is not a call for burnout; it’s a calling to purpose. Shiller describes her own approach to this calling:

My mantra was to leave no stone unturned. Make no assumptions. Discard no one. We would move this mountain shovelful by shovelful. We would knock on every door, speak with everyone we encountered, shy away from nothing in our path. We were foot soldiers in a war against racism, anti-Semitism, and all forms of inequality and oppression. Every day, I reminded myself that it was only step by step that we would achieve the change to which we committed ourselves. This aim required sacrifice, courage, discipline, study, criticism/self-criticism, growth, and development.

The title of Daring to Struggle, Daring to Win comes from Fred Hampton, deputy national chairman and chair of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who challenged Shiller and her peers to: ““Dare to struggle, dare to win. If you don’t dare to struggle, you don’t deserve to win.”

Hampton further admonished: “You can’t have theory without practice. You can have as many degrees as a thermometer and still cannot walk across the street and chew gum at the same time. People learn by observation and participation.””

Hampton’s observations, too, are as relevant as ever today. I read a fair bit of criticism of “structure-based organizing” and groups doing power-based community organizing by people who have never organized on the ground, with people both similar and different than them, in any serious way. Deep, relational, years-on-end organizing is the practice that goes together with analysis. It’s how we get to strategy.

Organizers will revel in the storytelling in Daring to Struggle, Daring to Win. There was the time Shiller picked up Fannie Lou Hamer from the airport in Chicago and delivered her safely to a conference on police brutality designed to build a citywide campaign for community control of policing ordinance.

This episode too, is as relevant as ever: after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020 sparked an uprising for racial justice, many local and national organizations came together to heed the Movement for Black Lives’s call to take up the critical work of defeating anti-Black racism, half a century later.

Shiller and her citywide coalition did not win the fight to reimagine public safety back then. As she tells it: “These efforts to pass an ordinance for community control of policing did not succeed in 1973. However, the campaign to register to vote for community control had a significant impact. The groundwork it laid would make it possible, a decade later, to register over two hundred thousand new voters, leading to the election of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first Black (and progressive) mayor.¹⁰

This is a reminder that organizing is about stepping stones toward winning our long-term agenda. Each action, each victory needs to change the landscape, build power, and set us up for more structural victories in the future. This sounds great, but it is a long and winding road, and like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, it can be hard to tell if you’re still on the right path, or if you’re lost. Shiller explains this dynamic:

The corollary to Harold’s [Washington] constant refrain of “It takes twenty to thirty years to effect institutional change” was another ISC maxim: it would take twenty to thirty years to see what things we did right and what we did wrong…There is nothing inconsistent about being moored to principles of justice, fairness, and equity, while being flexible about the paths and solutions to obtaining those principles. In fact, history has shown that it’s required.

Cassedy’s Working 9 to 5: A Women’s Movement, a Labor Union, and the Iconic Movie tells a story of women daring to organize by finding a place and people to start organizing with, not knowing what will work or where it will go. Decades later, Cassedy reflects on the many small decisions which led to extraordinary organizing and change.

My mom was filled with glee in 1980 as she watched Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda - the women heroes in the 9 to 5 movie - stick it to their archetypically horrible white male boss, played by Dabney Coleman. The movie was inspired by actual events, and the story of how Fonda and her team met with women office workers to collect their revenge scenarios while writing the screenplay is priceless.  Cassedy’s book walks us through the essential backstory of how the movie was made and how sincerely Fonda, Tomlin, and Parton believed in and supported the work of women organizers like Cassey organizing after its release.

Cassedy tells the story of her own early, unpaid experiences as an organizer with touching humility. She and other women did their research: “New economic conditions and new cultural expectations were pulling women into the workforce by the millions. One in three was an office worker. Nationwide, women’s pay was less than 60 percent of men’s—a bigger gap than in the 1950s. For non-white women, the figure was only 54 percent…In 1970 fewer than a third of women with preschool children worked. Just six years later, 43 percent did.”

Cassedy shares the wonderful story of attending a six-week summer school for women organizers in Chicago organized by the Midwest Academy, enticed by the opportunity to learn: “Tools that will help women vie for power…Through conscious organization, we can win the rights that should be ours.”

At a time when many community groups were dominated by men and shared a culture created by the legendary Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky, Midwest Academy stood out in that it was founded and led by a visionary woman, Heather Booth. Cassedy explains that: “[Saul] Alinsky didn’t place much value on training women organizers, Heather found. So she decided to take on that job herself. ‘Women have been the backbone of most organizations,’ she wrote. ‘They make the phone calls, lick the stamps, ring the doorbells.’ Yet because women occupy few of the leadership roles, she went on, ‘many of the real concerns of these women are not put into the programs.’ Heather thought big: ‘We want to reach out and join with most women. We cannot be talking about a few hundred or even thousands, but millions.’”

That fall, Cassedy returned to Boston after spending the summer in Chicago with Booth, fired up and ready to organize. She proposed to quit her office job, and her group committed to raising money for her salary. Cassedy writes, “We were making progress. Our three-part strategy—using government pressure, creating safe ways for women to make their voices heard, and embarrassing the companies publicly—was working. What would happen if we aimed even higher?”

Cassedy shares the hard-won organizing skills she and her fellow organizers used to reach and organize workers across hundreds of companies, long before the Internet: “In those days, leafleting was a skill you had to master if you were bent on changing the world. You cradled the stack in the crook of your arm with the folded edges facing out, plucked from the pile, and aimed at the midriffs of the women cresting the stairs.”

Working 9 to 5 goes on to describe their citywide campaign in Boston for a Bill of Rights for Women Office Workers, sectoral organizing among women office workers (in publishing and other industries), expansion into new cities, the formation of a union (Local 925), and the building of a multiracial national organization – 9to5, National Working Women’s Association. Cassedy is careful to say: “Both in the 9 to 5 organization and later in our union, building a multiracial organization required a deliberate approach. We placed a priority on expanding into cities where the office workforce was racially diverse, such as Cleveland, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Milwaukee. We paid close attention to diversity on our board and staff. We surveyed clerical workers about patterns of race discrimination and publicized our findings.”

Organizing for Power and Empowerment isn’t solely focused on women’s organizing, but the new, updated edition of Mondros and Minieri’s book affirms Shiller and Cassedy’s observations of how women have transformed the work of organizing for power. The voices of organizers fill this volume, and help the authors explore the state of organizing as it has changed over the past 25 years: “Through our work we came to believe that today’s organizations represent a new wave of activism that is required to make democracy work for the majority of Americans. Today organizations confront racism, injustice, wealth inequality, and the massive influence of corporations, and insist that the needs and wishes of the people be recognized. They do so at another critical historical moment in our quest to realize a more perfect democracy.”

Organizers, especially newer ones who want to hear some of today’s best organizers share the keys to the craft, will find Organizing for Power and Empowerment a useful guidebook. Veteran organizers with dog-eared copies of the 1994 edition will appreciate the new insights and the fresh storytelling.

In many ways, this book shows how we can keep the fundamentals of organizing from becoming destructive orthodoxies: how to cultivate the base-building, power-wielding, and action-oriented organizing techniques pioneered by Alinsky and others when they work, while we challenge outdated ideas and practices when they no longer serve us, and invent new approaches to meet our moment.

There is a lot to like about this approach, though at points I found that the “cutting edge” described in the book was good, but still a half-step away from the very best of today’s organizing. In particular, I wish the book had delved into the long-term agenda theory of change, three dimensions of power, and the Bigger We framework that Grassroots Power Project teaches, and these would make welcome additions to a future edition.

I appreciate Mondros and Minieri’s finding that good organizing is still good: “base building, identifying and recruiting members, ensuring that leadership emerges from this base, and having leaders firmly in control of… a formal, structured, disciplined organization remains essential to building power.”

Today’s organizers have a much clearer analysis about structural oppression, intersectionality, and the critical nature of race, class and gender in their work than their elders. Mondros and Minieri assert that: “the most significant change in organizing in the past 25 years is a sharpened analysis that the target of progressive organizing is corporate control of our economy, our politics, our governments at all levels, and our story as a nation.” They go on to explain that their interviewees are clear that inequality that results from corporatization is ineluctably intertwined with racism.

Another big finding is that more organizers are grounded in what Mondros and Minieri call radical pragmatism. They describe it in this way: “Although organizing today is animated by ideology and a value system based on intersectional injustice, organizers and leaders act pragmatically to affect specific changes in the real world.”

It was a lovely surprise to read these words from Christian Diaz, director of housing for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. He describes a vision in which “all people, regardless of race and income, deserve the opportunity to succeed in school and in life.”

Logan Square is the Chicago neighborhood where my mom first moved us to in 1979, years later founding an eight-unit housing cooperative. When my mom passed, we sold her limited-equity cooperative apartment to Diaz, at a discount that flowed from my mom’s values and commitment to affordable housing.

In the chapter on women’s leadership and organizing, Mondros and Minieri explain that: “When women overcome the barriers to assume leadership, they often do incredibly creative and important organizing. They manifest resilience, determination, creativity, and especially talent in building relationships across race, class, even geography.”

This insight is essential to building multiracial organizations and majorities that can contest for power today. Their interview with Brigid Flaherty, then with Down Home North Carolina and now at With Many Hands, is the clearest expression of this constituency-building: “We need to build a multiracial working class “we” in rural communities if we’re ever going to have any hope of having progressive change. And you have to be looking at building that multiracial working class “we” in rural communities and bridging it with urban organizing in order to have true state power.”

Mondros and Minieri close with why we organize, and why organizing is particularly important for women: “Organizing for power includes the right to be alive, joyful, and free.”

In the end, I think this is what drove my mother to organize, mostly unpaid, her entire life. She wanted to be alive, she wanted to feel joy, and she wanted to be free. I don’t think she got there, though I believe she found a measure of peace - for herself and the journey - along the way.

The last time I saw my mom in person, she asked for forgiveness for not being there when I needed her early in my life, for putting too much on my shoulders, for making mistakes, for being so young herself and overwhelmed with the responsibility to care for two children while working and trying to make the world a better place. I said that I understood, that I forgave her, and that I loved her. Her last wish was to pass peacefully from this world, and she did on March 30th, 2020. Rest in power mom.

James Mumm is a longtime community organizer who consults for 22nd Century Initiative, People's Action and other organizations.

For an EXCERPT - Working 9 to 5: A women’s movement, a labor union, and the iconic movie see Social Policy, v.52.4