the failure of organizing

colist at colist at
Thu Nov 4 12:54:44 CST 2004

[ed:  thanks to Donna, Amy, Helen, Carol, Rick, Bill, Nia, and Charles 
for the continuing discussion.  Some of these posts also include 
discussion of Peter's message.  Let's keep talking.]

From: "donna hardina" <donna_hardina at>

    Thanks for the opportunity to talk about this. I'm still pretty stunned.
Just got back from doing "Election Protection" in Arizona which raised some
issues for me - NAACP, Working Assests, LULAC, and People for the American
Way put alot of money into recruting upper and middle income folks to go
into the swing states and poll watch in precincts with a history of minority
voter intimidation. The process was not particularly well organized - for a
time we had 9 poll watchers including 4 lawyers in a heavily Latino and
Democratic precinct - a Democratic party lawyer who lived in the precint
literally yelled at us about moving people into polling places in which we
could be more useful. Most of the additional workers were people of Latino
heritage from the local community who were recruited at the last minute to
help. Seems as if the emphasis should have been on empowering the community
to fight for their rights rather than bringing in affluent people in for
protection - although I think it was really good to have the lawyers
available. The community did appreciate our being there - however, in light
of the results - perhaps there were better ways to allocate resources.
Obviously a long term strategy is needed.

Another point I think we need to consider as organizers is that one of the
reasons that the Rove strategy produced massive conservative voter turn out
is that it relied on the use of volunteer labor rather than paid staff.
Volunteers were able to mobilize families, friends, and neighbors - people
with whom they shared personal connections and experiences. Shouldn't we be
focusing on building a sense of connection and community to mobilize people
for progressive social change? I would be interested in hearing from others
about how to do this.

Amy Hubbard <amyshubbard at>

Thanks for your comments.  I felt better after reading them.  Just a short comment about gay rights being a middle-class issue.  You might as well have also said that it's a middle-class white issue because that's where most of the support is.  Of course, you'd be right about that but I just wanted to add that after I moved into my neighborhood two years ago (a lovely place in a corner of DC that unfortunately is gentrifying rapidly) I was struck by the number of black gay households in the neighborhood.  People may joke about the white gay couples that are moving in but I don't see the overall numbers of gay people in the neighborhood changing.  What's changing is that the new households are out to their neighbors (and probably out to their families as well).
As an outside observer (racially and orientation-wise) I may have this wrong, but it appears to me that the black churches have a powerful hold over community and family life and these churches don't want to know about their gay members.  Thus gay rights will usually be seen as a white issue.  (There's also some anger there about white gays being able to hide their sexual orientation and get benefits from being white while blacks will never be able to hide their race -- so *don't* compare gay rights to the civil rights movement!)  I don't know what it will take to change that and I'm not suggesting that organizers avoid it for that reason.  But it does remind me that sometimes white activists talk about the importance of building coalitions across racial lines without acknowledging that there are some fundamental differences over social issues.
--- which of course, you *didn't* say and, of course, I'm not telling you anything you didn't already know but your comments reminded me of other folks who have said things like that.
Amy Hubbard


From: Helen Schaub <has8119 at>


Thanks for this.  I think you are exactly right.

One of the things we did when I was at Mothers on the
Move in the Bronx is write a statement of principles
and values with our members.  It included a line about
respect and equality for everyone, regardless of
sexual orientation (among other things).    It was a
first step, but it allowed us to have the conversation
with our members.  We read the values statement at the
beginning of meetings, and spent some time in
organizational retreats going through different
scenarios about how to put it into practice...

The National Organizers Alliance put out an
organizers' training curriculum on wedge issues a
couple of years ago which poses some scenarios on how
to deal with this as well.

Helen Schaub
1199 SEIU New York


From: "Carol McCullough" <cmccullough at>

Hi Randy,
I really appreciate your thoughts on the failure of organizing when it 
comes to dealing with wedge issues and the wider self-interest our 
organizing must foster in order to get past those issues.  It brought to 
mind two other concerns that I have been faced with in my experiences 
with organizing.
The first is the racism towards "foreigners" that I have seen in my day 
to day dealings with groups and, in particular, the police that the 
groups work with (not so much with Latino folks as with those from the 
Middle East and also those from India, Pakistan, etc who run shops and 
motels frequently in trouble with the law).  Crime and safety are big 
issues with many of the groups that I deal with, and the attitudes 
toward "foreigners" (who have often been in the states for decades) are 
pretty difficult to move people past so that they can deal with the real 
root problems.
Another issue that I am reminded of is one that came up in my first 
experiences in organizing.  I started out as a worker in a union 
organizing campaign.  The ILWU worked with those of us at Powell's books 
to form a union.  BUT that was not the real goal or the only result.  
The process created UNIONISTS, not just union members--people who became 
activists as a result of the experinece and in turn went out and fought 
for other workers' rights.  I went on from that experience to work as a 
union organizer and was completely disillusioned by the business 
unionism approach that was just interested in getting the numbers and 
not at all interested in creating unionists.  Given that not that many 
unions are even really doing that much new organzing, the fact that a 
lot of the organizing taht does take place is so superficial points to 
why there is such a crisis with workers' rights in this country.
I'm not sure what my point here is other than the fact that I agree with 
you that moving people from a narrow self-interest to a broader, 
enlightened self-interest is definitely where I have seen organizing 
(including my own) fall short.  I am very open to suggestions that 
people might have.

Carol McCullough
Neighborhoods Resource Center
Nashville, TN


From: "Richart Keller" <richart.keller at>


Thank you very much for that thoughtful commentary.

Like you, I think that a central message of the election (and, I would add,
of a lot of divisiveness which has been growing in this country, nurtured by
talk shows and other strident in-your-face discourse) is that we need to
take a new approach to organizing--starting by honest and respectful
listening and understanding.  I would add to your list the Listening Project
technique as another tool which has been very effective.

Perhaps most important, though, is that as individuals in our daily lives we
practice (and model) substituting love for fear, understanding that each of
us has a piece of the truth, and that each of us has a lot to learn.

I believe that solidarity is not the goal--the beloved community is; as
attributed to A.J. Muste:  "There is no way to peace; is the way."

Rick Keller
Providence, RI


From: "Spears, Bill" <SPEARSB at>

I (as well as many if not most of your readers I am sure) agree with
you. Your last paragraph emphasizes building from the ground up.  It is
my belief that the Bush phenomenon is not lead by the "Bush Dynasty" but
a reflection of the mood and values of the country and the Bush
administration is a reflection of that.  I hope that this victory
encourages those of us that believe that love, inclusion, and
communication are a better way of living than fear and exclusion to do
more.  I have heard over and over "this country is deeply divided."  The
polictical campaign we experienced is a symptom of our willingness to
promote the differences in groups rather than promoting the
similarities.  I believe it is our job to look for ways to unite our
communities.  To do this we need to be willing to reach out to those who
we have not seen as our partners to see how we can make them partners.
By the way if you can find the entire Kerry consession speech (rather
than the snipit that was played in the news and websites) I think it
promotes working to merge the divide.
Bill Spears
San Antonio, TX


From: "Nia Wellman" <nwellman at>

"It's not that Kerry lost, it's that hatred won."

I think you are right--I think that is partially why I have been wandering
around in a fog.

I think I would add that gay rights are not a middle class issue for another
reason, besides the fact that it drives the factory worker to vote against
his class.  The gay or lesbian who is middle class has the option of moving
away from his or her community, exploring his or her identity, and being
true to his or her sexual orientation.

The gay or lesbian who is from a working class or survival background is
still gay or lesbian, but lives his or her life in silent fear that someone
may discover his or her secret.  Of course everyone knows, but no one talks
about it to the individual, so the individual is left with the false sense
of security that pretending is working.

To say that gay rights is a middle class issue is like saying that domestic
violence only occurs in poverty-stricken homes.  The reality is that people
with more economic resources have more ways to camoflauge or cure their
problems.  The upper class woman may have other means of escaping a domestic
violence situation than resorting to a safe-house or shelter.  So it is that
middle class gays have the added advantage of being able to move away from
their own communities (if necessary) and become who they truly are,
sometimes only possible outside of the shelter of family and home community.

For me as a lesbian, and a Christian, this whole experience has been very
humbling.  I have organized around many issues, but never around gay rights
and/or the church.  Perhaps it is time for a change.

Nia Wellman


From: Charles Heying <heyingc at>

In response to Peter's and Randy's post consider the following:

In Oregon, Gore won by 6000 votes in 2000, Kerry increased the margin of 
victory to 70,000 votes in 2004. At the state level, dems won all the 
major state level positions, retained all national incumbencies, changed 
the margin in the state senate from 15/15 to 18/12 dem over rep., and 
came close to winning a majority in the house.  At the local level, 
Portland elected a mayor who developed a real grassroots principled 
campaign that began with a limit of donations to $25/person in the 
primary and $100/person in the general election. He spent $70,000 to his 
opponent 's nearly $1 million and yet he won the election 63% to 37%. 
His opponent was a respected local council member and there were no 
major scandals.

Second observation - Portland was one of 33 test markets for the 
progressive talk radio Air America.  The AM station carrying Air America 
zoomed to the highest rated station in the region with a market share 
several times its nearest hate radio competitor.

Whats the point of this?  A question?  Does anyone know how dems did in 
other test markets of Air America?  Obviously, these are areas where the 
progressive message should be popular but if they are also areas where 
the margins of victory increased, does this tell us something about 
media dominance and civic engagement.
(what follows is one response I received from posting this question on 
COMM-URB list)
colorado is another progressive talk show test market. dems won the
legislature; "state political leaders reacted with stunned disbelief as they
contemplated democratic majorities in both the colorado house and the senate
(denver post)" for the first time since 1976. voters also approved ballot
issues on mass transit, tobacco tax and revewable energy.
Take care, Charles

colist at wrote:

>This is a COMM-ORG "colist" message.
>All replies to this message come to COMM-ORG only.
>Your maybe-less-humble-than-angry-and-scared-moderator here.  It's the
>day after, and I have been trying my best to just go about my work and
>pretend that there was no election yesterday.  But no one will let me. 
>All day I have been receiving messages either bemoaning the election of
>George Bush or trying to find "bright spots" in this miserable
>aftermath.  Eventually, I decided I had to either stop checking my
>e-mail or let it rip.  Guess what I chose?
>I promise you, however, that this is about community organizing.  Because
>it fundamentally is.  It seems my reaction to this election is different
>from most of my friends' and colleagues'.  I am not that bothered by
>the re-election of George Bush, even if it was probably mostly the
>result of out and out disenfranchisment engineered through the State of
>Ohio Secretary of State's Office in collaboration with the Ohio
>Republican party.  No, John Kerry, Mr.
>I-oppose-abortion-but-support-choice, I-will-give-you-tax-cuts-too,
>I-like-guns-as-much-as-the-next-guy, etc. etc. was hardly a choice worth
>cheering for.  And I am almost relieved I don't have to live down the
>embarassment I felt after I voted for Clinton the first time and vowed
>to never compromise my principles again except that my wife, the love of
>my life, said she would refuse to talk to me if I didn't vote for Kerry.
>What bothers me most about this election is not that Kerry lost but that
>hatred won.  Eleven states--even one of the blue ones--voted to outlaw
>gays (might as well call it that) by overwhelming margins.  Why isn't
>that the big headline?  And especially why isn't that what we are
>talking about?  Because that is where we failed. And as much as I would
>love to blame the Republican right for promoting hatred, it is much more
>a failure of community organizing and community education. Elections
>happen only every few years, and we organize for them for a few months
>every few years, at most.  But the issues that drive campaigns go round
>the clock, and hatred is one of the deepest issues we face.
>What went wrong that community organizers can win an increase in the
>minimum wage in Florida but they can't stop a gay ban in Oregon?  Or
>Ohio, Or Michigan, or the eight other states where it passed?  Because
>if our organizing was effective enough to have stopped the gay bans in
>those states, we wouldn't have had to settle for a compromise candidate
>to begin with.  So we need to understand this.
>What I will say next is meant to provoke, to start a discussion.  Because
>if we are going to stop things from getting even worse, we need to begin
>now, rethinking not just our political organizing strategy but our
>community organizing strategy.
>Let's start with homophobia, one of the primary driving issues of this
>election.  It brought out the right in droves, and wiped out whatever
>gains had been made by the massive voter registration drives led by
>community organizers and groups like MoveOn.Org.  You and I both know
>that many of the people that community organizers and democratic
>organizers brought out to vote were the same people who voted for gay
>bans.  Here in Ohio, for example, at least 49% of the voters went for
>Kerry (for all we know it was 51%), but only 38% opposed the gay ban. 
>No wonder we needed a compromise candidate.
>We all know that gay rights is one of those wedge issues in community
>organizing.  And it points to one of the most severe weaknesses in our
>community organizing models.  For faith-based organizers, the power of
>religious ideology prevents even bringing the subject up except in a
>very few progressive congregations.  And even for neighborhood-based
>Alinsky-style organizers, the subject can split a community organization
>faster than you can say 'failure.'  Every good organizer knows you
>focus on the issues that everyone agrees on and that is how you build an
>organization.  So organizers avoid the tough polarizing issues.  And
>yet, those are the very issues that need to be confronted if we are
>going to be able to run truly progressive candidates who will not have
>to pretend to be conservatives (or actually are conservatives). 
>Community organizers, who are working on the ground in those
>communities, are the only people in the position to do the work. Only
>when community organizers are able to build organizations on the basis
>of not just narrow self-interest, but broad human rights principles,
>will we stand a chance of turning the right wing tide.  Not until.  As
>an example, one of the frightening findings of the exit polls from this
>latest election disaster is the strong proportion of Latino/a voters who
>chose Bush on the basis of conservative cultural values.
>Accomplishing this requires a new model of organizing that combines issue
>work with community-based education.  It requires broaching those issues
>of reproductive rights, gay rights, women's rights, animal rights, and
>others that may directly challenge the cultural values of the people
>with whom we work. There are models out there--the Highlander popular
>education process, learning circles, and other community education
>strategies that respect community culture at the same time that they
>challenge it--that we may be able to integrate with self-interest
>community organizing.  We may be able to find ways to partially insulate
>community education from on-the-ground organizing.
>Ah, but you say, issues like gay rights are middle-class issues,
>irrelevant to the poor and working class communities that community
>organizers work in. And yet it is the taught hatred of gays that causes
>the unemployed factory worker to vote against his class interest and
>choose Bush.  Middle-class issues become poor and working class issues
>when the right uses them to mobilize the poor and working classes.  So
>*we* have to make them poor and working class issues too.
>Us academics have a role to play in this.  Our work with organizers,
>finding good accessible information to build community education
>processes, can provide the support necessary and save the organizer's
>time.  We can also put ourselves on the firing line in community
>settings so the organizer doesn't have to.  But us academics have to
>learn and practice a different form of pedagogy in those settings,
>because community folks won't pretend the deference that our students
>normally will.  Here is where organizers and academics need to work
>So we have our work cut out for us--to build a progressive culture from
>the ground-up, establish a community-based respect for human rights, and
>help everyone understand the connections between the concrete issues and
>the abstract ones.  Or four years from now we will all be moaning about
>the election of someone maybe even worse than Bush.
>Randy Stoecker
>moderator/editor, COMM-ORG
>randy.stoecker at
>Colist maillist  -  Colist at
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