Six Things: How to be a Community Organizer

get organized
Photo by Catherine Moore/What’s Next WV

Community organizing is the act of trying to win real change and build capacity at the same time.

So what does organizing look like? No matter whether we are organizing in our neighborhoods or at the federal level, organizing pretty much breaks down into these 6 things… usually, but not always, in this order.

Step 1: Find stories.

Organizing starts with stories, personal stories about problems that people face, stories about the things that make us angry, stories about the things that have happened to us or the people we love.

Stories are the best communication tool for our issues. 

Why? Because stories are the best communication tool for our issues. They keep us personally motivated when the going gets tough. And stories keep us focused on real, winnable issues rather than big, vague problems.

We find stories by being willing to tell our own stories and listening for the stories of others – mostly through one-to-one conversations and house meetings.

Step 2: Build a team.

No matter the issue, we want a dedicated team of people who know what their roles are and are personally committed.

A good team includes people:

  • Directly affected by the problem
  • Who can mobilize money
  • Who can mobilize other people
  • Who have a variety of skill sets and perspectives.

By far the best way to build a team is through one-to-one, face-to-face conversations. Here we find out what matters to each person, what role they want to play, and what their hopes and fears are.

Step 3: Identify a goal.

Steps 1 and 2 take the longest (we always try to build a strong foundation), but Step 3 is probably the most frustrating.

By knowing what we want, we keep from getting distracted or divided.

We try to identify a goal (to pass a certain bill, to register ‘x’ thousand voters, to get our school to implement a particular program), as specifically as possible, because it is what keeps us on track.

If we don’t settle on a goal, someone else will decide for us, or worse yet: we won’t be taken seriously. By knowing what we want, we keep from getting distracted or divided.

Perhaps most important, without this step, we never know if we have won. And winning is crucial for keeping momentum, and bringing new people on-board.

The way organizers decide what the campaign wants can vary. One thing we often do is to convene two meetings of our team; at the first meeting, we brainstorm all the possible goals then assign people to go research and learn more about which ones are the most impactful, and which ones are the most winnable. Then, maybe a few weeks later, we reconvene to discuss our findings and make a final decision by vote.

Step 4: Decide who can get you there.

People make decisions; institutions don’t.

Find the one person who could get us what we want, then figure out what matters to them.

When we try to move a whole institution, or lots of people at once, we get unfocused, we get confused, we spread ourselves too thin.
Instead, we do our research to find the one person who could get us what we want, and then figure out what matters to them.

Step 5: Muster the courage.

Once we know who our target is, we have got to muster the courage to go meet with them and ask for what we want.

Oftentimes, we waste a ton of time between Steps 4 and 5, because we worry that we don’t know enough about our issue, or we don’t know what will motivate our target.

But those are exactly the reasons why we should meet with those targets as soon as possible: bring them into the process early, and give them the opportunity to help shape what you are doing.

When we finally ask them in the meeting to deliver on our issue, chances are that we will get an answer that lies somewhere between “yes” and “no.”

The most important four-word question in organizing: “What would it take?”

That’s not helpful. At that point, we want to ask the most important four-word question in organizing: “What would it take?”

We may need to ask this question a dozen times, a dozen different ways, but it’s worth it. The answer will give us all we need to go forward.

Step 6: Evaluate.

As soon as we get out of that meeting, it’s time to evaluate.

Evaluating means grading ourselves honestly on what we did well, and what we need to do better… this is part of how we learn and build capacity for the future.

Evaluating also means finding out where we need to go from here.

  • Do we need to find more stories and examples of people affected by this issue? Go back to Step 1.
  • Do we need broader support from a few constituencies? Step 2.
  • Do we need to re-calibrate what we are going to be able to accomplish? Step 3.
  • Are we talking to the wrong person? Step 4.
  • Did our target write us off or refuse to meet with us? Let’s go back to Step 5 and find a different way to engage them. (For instance, it’s a lot different asking for what we want when we have 3 people in a conference room v. when we have 300 people, including reporters, in an auditorium.)

Each of these steps is valuable in itself. Each step takes courage.

Sometimes we may just want to write an Op-Ed (which is kind of like Step 1); other times we may just want to research different policy strategies and opportunities (like Step 3); other times it is good to just go get to know folks who have a little power (Steps 4 and 5).

But organizing is about putting all these pieces together in a way that we are constantly getting stronger, and constantly pushing ourselves to win change for our communities – whatever that may be.

Hello, Stephen.