query: teaching organizing in little time

Discussion list for COMM-ORG colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
Fri Dec 14 12:00:46 CST 2007

[ed: thanks to Chris for responding to Aaron's query.]

From: "Chris Cavanagh" <story at web.ca>


i want to add, from the different (albeit overlapping) tradition of 
popular education, to the great responses you are getting. One way that 
i like to start a session on the type of thing you are describing is to 
draw out where people are at to begin with. In your case, i would ask 
something like, "how do you think social change happens?" How you 
structure the asking and the answering, as it were, is key. You could 
just do a quick go-around, of course. But i find giving a little more 
structure/guidance to be worthwhile. So, a quick pairs discussion ( i.e. 
5 minutes) from which you ask every pair to share one response is both 
quick and illuminating. From this you get at least a sense of what 
people are bringing into the room. Or, depending on time of course, you 
could structure something more complex, in which in pairs or threes you 
ask everyone to share one anecdote/account/example of social change that 
they've heard about or been involved in. You ask them to record each 
contribution on stickie notes in the form of a headline (urging them to 
use a bit of humour can always be nice - e.g. write a sensationalistic 
tabloid headline) and for the report back each person who has a stickie 
to share posts it on a wall with each subsequent person clustering 
theirs with other contributions with which they connect. The clusters 
then reveal certain patterns that you can name, examine, unpack, etc. 
The first thing i describe can be done in 15 minutes while the stickie 
note thing takes no less than 30 minutes and can take as much as an 
hour. What these exercises are all about is drawing out people's 
experience and common sense about the matter at hand. I affirm Amy's 
question "What do you mean by community organizing?" which is important 
to be clear about. But, at a minimum, i assume we agree that it is about 
social change. And everyone has an opinion about how social change 
happens. But common sense, of course, is ever and always that messy mix 
of good sense, bad sense and nonsense. I find that the more you can 
problematize people's common sense the more likely it is that they'll be 
able to connect whatever new it is you have to impart. The challenge of 
our education work, i would say (whether that done within community 
organizing or the popular education work that happens around the world) 
is to critique the bad sense that we all have in abundance, affirm the 
good sense and develop even better sense (as for nonsense, welll... 
sometimes we just need to hang on to some of that for comic relief). 
Common sense is a powerful and resilient thing. And failing to challenge 
it usually means that people leave educational events and retain, for 
the most part, those things that disturb their common sense the least. 
Which usually means all the good shit we thought we got across is left 
on the cutting room floor (just to mix metaphors there).

i'd love to hear how you end up applying the advice your getting from 
this conversation. Keep us posted. Good luck.



> From: Aaron Schutz <schutz at uwm.edu>
> Most people in my city don’t know much about organizing, and they mostly 
> don’t know that they don’t know. They feel somewhat hopeless about the 
> huge problems facing the city, and I think often sense the limitations 
> of efforts focused on service to the needy, but don’t really know what 
> else to do.
> One Solution:
> I would like to come up with a short workshop for small groups of 
> non-profit workers, teachers, residents, and others that would introduce 
> them to the tradition of community organizing. The goal is NOT to teach 
> them concrete skills, but instead to give them entrée into what is an 
> alien perspective about community change.
> The best approach would probably be to bring this workshop to where 
> these leaders already meet. But in these cases you would likely be given 
> very limited time: from 1-3 hours at most.
> The Problem:
> In my experience most people continually reinterpret what one tells them 
> about organizing into frameworks that make sense to them. The community 
> development/social service perspective is deeply engrained. If you ask 
> them to pick a target and imagine a possible issue, even after 
> explaining basic concepts, for example, they often choose neighborhood 
> residents as targets and seek internal cultural change or community 
> building as a goal. The idea of wresting power from the powerful or 
> resisting outside structural oppression is difficult for them to 
> coherently grasp.
> On the other hand, there is something uniquely compelling about the 
> community organizing approach, especially to those who work in 
> traditional social service occupations.
> I just did an hour-and-a-half presentation to a group of early career 
> non-profit workers, and I think I started to reach some of them (and 
> pissed a number of them off), but I am not very happy with my current 
> approach.
> Why Do This?
> The goal would be to increase the number of people in the community who 
> at least have heard of organizing, focusing on key leaders. At the 
> minimum, we need more people who have some sense of what organizing 
> entails, who can engage coherently and usefully with organizers, and 
> who, once they learn about organizing, may have interest in pursuing 
> these ideas further and supporting more “organizing like” activities. 
> This isn’t all we need, but I think it might help.
> I would love to hear others ideas about how one might approach this 
> problem. Or even whether you agree that it’s worth addressing.
> What would you focus on in terms of the few concepts you could try to 
> get across in such a short time?
> What kinds of activities would you try if people only had 15-20 minutes 
> to collaborate?
> Aaron Schutz
> Associate Professor &amp; Chair
> Dept. of Ed. Policy &amp; Comm. Studies
> University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
> P.O. Box 413
> Milwaukee, WI 53201
> Office: (414) 229-4150
> Fax: (414) 229-3700
> Website: educationaction.org
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