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COMM-ORG Papers, Volume 16, 2010

Whatever Happened to Community Organizing?

Ellen Ryan



An Example
Organizing vs. Mobilizing
About the Author
Discuss this Paper (opens in new window)


What long-term capacities and relationships have been left behind in the relentless focus on legislative, electoral issue, and candidate mobilizations over the last few years? To name just a few in my home state of Maine:

Unfortunately, the word organizing has become synonymous with mobilizing. What if a fraction of the resources plowed into mobilizing people to win campaigns over the last few years was invested consistently in longer-term community organizing strategies?

In Maine, national policy reform campaigns have blanketed the state with advertising, house meetings, public presentations, rallies, phone calls, lobbying events, e-mails, and door-to-door canvassers exhorting Mainers to contact their senators. The registered voters in this thinly settled expanse of forests, mountains, lakes, and 3,500 miles of north Atlantic coastline are primary targets of national campaigns for and against federal health care, energy, labor, and toxic substance reform. Ranking 40th in US population and 38th in population density with 1.3 million residents, the state of Maine attracts intense political attention because its two moderate Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, are perceived by national organizations working on all sides of federal policy issues as potential swing votes.

Maine is also awash in state policy battles. Three major issues, same sex marriage and two tax-cutting measures, were placed on the ballot last November. With record turnout for an off-year election, voters vetoed by a 6% margin a law passed in the legislature last spring which grants full legal recognition to same-sex marriages. A citizen initiative to cut the automobile excise tax, a revenue source for local governments, failed by a whopping 48% margin. A third measure to cap state spending through a proposal known nationally as the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which appeared on the ballot for the third time in five years, failed by 20%. Another referendum, to veto a tax reform law passed by the legislature in 2009, is scheduled for June 2010.

On the first three state ballot questions, thousands of volunteers and scores of paid staff on all sides of the issues worked on voter outreach and mobilization. The money spent by a handful of organizations supporting and opposing these ballot issues exceeded $12.6 million, as reported to the Maine Board of Ethics on November 8, 2009. About $8 million was spent on the same-sex marriage issue, $2.2 on the automobile excise tax, and $2.4 on TABOR. Roughly 570,000 voters, or 59% of the electorate, cast ballots, so total spending on the three issues came to about $22 per vote cast, with $14 for the marriage question, $3.85 for the excise tax, and $4.20 for TABOR. One might conclude from the numbers that civic participation is robust in Maine, but a deeper look suggests room for improvement.

After agreeing when asked to host house meetings, knock on doors, make phone calls, lobby, write letters, contribute money, and turn out for hearings and rallies for four different campaign mobilizations in Maine over the last few years, I think all these scrambles to win would be more effective if they created space for people to develop public and community relationships, wider analysis, deeper commitment, and from these, more practical, simple, and efficient tactics.

An Example

To illustrate with one example, I received a phone call from a volunteer I'd never spoken to before asking me to volunteer for a door-to-door canvass in my city of Augusta last November to get out the vote in support of same-sex marriage. I agreed, but my thirty-years' experience as a community organizer made me question the wisdom in the tiny slice of mobilizing tactics I had signed on for.

On the Saturday before the election, my husband and I participated in the training session scheduled before the canvass took place that afternoon. Volunteer facilitators distributed a script, maps, brochures, stickers, and street sheets to the 50 or so volunteers who showed up. After brief introductions, they told us the election results would be very close and every vote counted. They thanked us for volunteering to help, and then demonstrated with other volunteers how to knock on doors. After introducing ourselves as volunteers for the No on One campaign and asking to speak to the person listed on the street sheet, we were told to ask whether the person supported same-sex marriage. If the person said, "No" we were to say, "Have a good day," and leave. If the person said, "Yes," and hadn't already voted early, we were to urge them to vote on Monday, the day before the election, at City Hall, instead of Tuesday at the polls, and ask them if they needed transportation. We were told not to leave brochures, which were in short supply, or spend any time talking with people who were not in support of same-sex marriage.

One volunteer questioned some wording that she didn't agree with in the script, and a facilitator replied that professionals had developed the script to clearly communicate our message, so we should stick to the script. Another volunteer questioned our primary assignment to ask voters to vote Monday rather than go to the polls on Tuesday, since she liked the festive atmosphere at the polls on Election Day and thought early voting was just for people who couldn't get there on Tuesday. (I had received a number of recorded phone messages telling me how to vote early, but hung up on them because I prefer to go to the polls, too. I felt funny about urging people to do what I hadn't done myself.) A facilitator replied that a supporter might get hit by a truck on the way to the polls Tuesday, so should vote Monday before that happened. A volunteer muttered softly that a supporter was just as likely to be hit by a truck on the way to City Hall on Monday. Another facilitator interjected that it would save the campaign time making calls on Tuesday if as many people as possible voted on Monday.

The training ended with instructions that we leave in pairs and work opposite sides of the streets on our maps, keeping an eye out for our partners as we went. We were issued cell phones with an emergency number to call if we ran into any problems, asked to return to drop off our phones and street sheets later in the afternoon, and then spent some time testing our cell phones. Ours didn't work, but we didn't want one anyway and took the dead phone with us rather than asking for another one.

My husband and I were assigned to knock on 90 doors in a working-class Augusta neighborhood not far from our own working-class Augusta neighborhood. On the way out the door, I asked an organizer whom I'd never met before and haven't since if we could be assigned to our own neighborhood instead. He said the street lists had already been assigned, and we'd be talking only to people who supported same-sex marriage anyway. He may have surmised I was afraid to go to an unfamiliar neighborhood and wanted to reassure me it didn't matter by pointing out I'd be talking only to people who already agreed with me, and that I had a cell phone and emergency number to call if I ran into any problems.

I wasn't afraid. Had my husband and I been recruited earlier in the campaign to canvass our neighborhood, we would have had the opportunity to build a network of block captains who knew one another and their neighbors well enough to engage in thoughtful give-and-take about the pros and cons of legalizing same-sex marriage, as well as talk about other matters of neighborhood concern, ranging from street paving to adequate care for the mentally ill. Short of that, had we simply gone into our own neighborhood that Saturday before the election, we would at least have known some people well enough to have easy, substantive conversations. We'd also have been more likely to get to know others we'd see again and begin to develop relationships with them over the long-term. Instead, we were strangers sent out on a one-time assignment to encourage people who already supported same sex marriage to get out and vote - on Monday.

For a one-shot deal, my husband and I were as good a pair as any to assign to an unfamiliar neighborhood, although no one running the training session that day knew we had worked as community organizers, canvassers, and on political campaigns in the past. We modified our instructions a bit by door knocking together rather than separating to work opposite sides of the streets. Aside from enjoying one another's company, we were an easily welcomed gray-haired couple at the doors and more efficient navigators of sometimes confusing warrens of tenement apartment entrances than we would have been working solo. Although focused on our task, it was impossible not to notice the high vacancy rates in many of the tenements, for sale signs on several deteriorating properties, and long-uncollected trash piled high outside more than a few multi-unit residences, all community issues that strong neighborhood organizations, where and when they exist, address effectively.

We found some people who supported same-sex marriage. Some said they had already voted early, some agreed to vote on Monday, and others said they'd vote on Tuesday. We found other people who opposed same-sex marriage. Some voters no longer lived at the addresses on our lists. But we also found some people who said, "I don't know yet," or "I'm not sure," when we asked them if they supported same-sex marriage. So we bent the rules a little more by spending time talking with them. We briefly shared the pain of a woman who was torn between her religious beliefs and her love for her gay nephew. We clarified the concerns of a young man who wanted to vote for same sex marriage but was worried about the opposition's claim that gay marriage would be taught to school children if the law stood as written. We were asked about and explained the counter-intuitive matter that a no vote on the referendum would leave the gay marriage law intact and a yes vote would veto it to a couple who never clearly declared their positions on the issue. And we discussed the pros and cons, not of gay marriage, but the TABOR question on the ballot with a husband and wife. One had already voted early against same-sex marriage and the other was undecided but leaning toward supporting the gay marriage law while opposing TABOR. We also expressed our sympathy to a grieving husband who told us the voter on our list, his wife, had died more than a year ago. We finished our door knocking about a half hour early and returned our cell phone and completed street sheets to the campaign meeting site. We declined the invitation to stay at the site and munch on pizza until everyone returned for a debriefing session. I was tired and wanted to rest.

On Election Day, two young girls volunteering for the same-sex marriage campaign knocked on my door to offer literature, explain the importance of upholding the same-sex marriage law, and encourage me to go to the polls. I pleasantly assured them I had voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage with my husband early that morning, thanked them for stopping by, and watched them happily return to the idling station wagon with an adult driver waiting for them in the street. I waved good-bye as the car proceeded a few blocks without stopping at another house along the way. The No on One campaign director sent an e-mail after the election saying thanks for supporting the campaign, and despite the defeat, the effort to secure same-sex marriage rights would continue. I haven't heard anything about the campaign since then.

Organizing vs. Mobilizing

It disturbs me that many people think the canvassing we did before Election Day was something called grassroots organizing. It wasn't. Door knocking out of the blue at the homes of strangers isn't organizing, but simply a tactic to mobilize, rather than a strategy to organize, voters. I've had similar experiences of missed opportunities with the other three campaigns I've agree to volunteer for over the last three years. The election of Barack Obama as U.S. President in 2008 and his much-publicized early work as a community organizer have no doubt played a role in conflating mobilizing people with community organizing in the minds of many who have never experienced the difference between the two.

In Obama's Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, published in 1995, the President recounts his early experience as a community organizer. He worked in a neighborhood on Chicago's south side, and went out to meet and converse with people who lived or worked in the community. He was hoping to find people willing to work together with others to make their community a better place to live, not to identify which political candidates or ballot measures they supported. In fact, Obama asked community residents their points of view on what they wanted to see improved in their community, rather than offering them solutions to their problems. Obama hoped not only to return to see the people he contacted over and over again, he hoped to weave relationships among them to form an ongoing organization of people with mutual interests in the community focused on exercising their power together to make it a better place to live.

This form of organizing is painstaking and challenging, and we need to do more of it rather than just gear up for the next campaign. The key objective of community organizing is to find and develop people with the leadership capacity to work effectively with other people in the community and beyond to build public relationships, develop strategies, and take effective action to achieve their goals. Community organizers intentionally weave the relationships among the members and potential members of the organizations they work for into as strong and dense a community fabric as possible, and connect the organization to the wider community as well. Members of community organizations aren't merely individuals with the ability to act, but participants in working groups who know one another and the other people they organize. Organizing for electoral campaigns or policy issues are forms of organizing that work best when they are rooted in these ongoing local community organizations, unions, faith communities, political organizations, and other groups that provide their own members with a broad and continuous context for action.

The term activist is popular among electoral and issue campaign organizers. They're looking for activists to make phone calls, door knock, host house meetings, get people to the polls, speak to a legislator. The goals and tasks are already defined and the grassroots activists perform tasks. Community organizers are looking for members, people who participate in defining the issues to work on and the strategies and tactics needed to address them. Community organizers are also looking for and developing leaders, people who have and use their ongoing connections to other people to invite and inspire them to get involved in the work of the organization. Leaders aren't strangers who appear out of the blue at your door asking you to vote or write a letter to your senator. Grassroots leaders are people you know, or at least know someone you know, who live in your community, invite your ideas, take time to talk about the pros and cons of various issues with you, and hope you'll develop an ongoing relationship by working with the organization based in your own community.

Mass mobilization is no substitute for community organizing. Mobilization is a tool that works best within the context of reasoned and heart-felt deliberation about goals and action. This is possible only when people actually organize by communicating and deliberating as distinct from hurling information, stories, and messages at one another.

Mobilization isolated from organizing works less well. It's merely the mechanical application of turnout methods separated from careful consideration of what needs to be done and the best ways to do it. Isolated from organizing, mobilizing voters has the same effect as skimming short-term profits on Wall Street - weakening the fundamentals and sapping long-term potential.

I checked my e-mail at mid-morning January 19th and found a message from President Obama asking me to call voters in Massachusetts to get out and vote in the U.S. Senate race taking place that day. I was annoyed at the short notice, but thought I could help by calling people I know in Massachusetts. As I reached for my address book, I clicked on the link in the e-mail message that I assumed was simply a way to confirm that I'd make calls to the people I know. It wasn't. The link was to a list of names and phone numbers of registered voters in Massachusetts, none of whom I knew. My phone rang and I left the desk to answer it, then turned off the computer and left the house to shovel snow and get on with tasks of the day. I listened with disappointment to the election returns on the radio later that evening.

I have no remorse about not making calls from the Massachusetts voters list on Election Day, or for that matter not calling a few friends in Massachusetts whom I have every reason to believe voted. The out-of-state calling tactic may have produced a few voters, but in no way compensated for lack of effective organization and campaign strategy inside Massachusetts. I salute the Massachusetts union, community organization, faith-based organization, and political party members and leaders who made the effort to turn out voters in their communities. That Massachusetts voters elected a candidate who said he'd vote against the health care reform bill may indicate most of the voters don't want either the bill's provisions or the methods used to move it forward. The voters made their decision, and there will be extensive political analysis of what it means for weeks and months to come.

The point here is that just mobilizing isn't organizing. It's a set of tactics rather than a substitute for building organizations with strong community commitment and long-term strategies forged within a broad and deep base of members and leaders. Effective mobilizing is dependent upon strong organizations and a set of long-term relationships already in place. Building and maintaining those relationships takes face-to-face communication, deeply rooted and densely woven organizations, and trust that comes from healthy give-and-take among members and leaders about goals and methods to achieve them.

What would it be like if community leaders, as distinct from activists, raised $22 per voter in the last election to build community organizations in Maine or any other place in the country? Issues of same-sex marriage, taxation, health care, energy, agriculture, environmental protection, and creating a viable economy are all important, as are a host of others. But the means to achieve improvements can't rest only or primarily on expensive technologies for herding individuals into voting booths and coalitions composed primarily of activist organizations without members and leaders building long-term relationships with people in their communities. People need to be asked what they want now and for the future, and whether they're willing to take a broad look with other people from a variety of viewpoints in order to consider, define, and move forward with plans to make life better where they live.

Showing up without introduction at the doors of strangers, or on their phones and e-mail accounts to ask them to vote isn't necessarily a bad thing to do, but it doesn't build commitment, leadership, or trust, either. Building actual community organizations, rather than leaving crucial issues to virtual networks of activists, does. The ability of people in diverse communities to talk things through and exercise their power to improve community life through organizations they design, govern, and control deserves the effort and money it takes to develop and enhance them. And when needed, the most effective mobilization for voter participation and lobbying comes from within strong local membership organizations with solid community connections and commitments, not random phone calls from strangers residing in other states.

It's important to invest time, energy, and money in building community organizations composed of members and leaders. Organizing gives people a chance to share what they know and build their analysis and strategies together. The conflicted and undecided voters my husband and I talked to in Augusta wanted us to listen to them as they weighed their own thoughts, not just expound on our position, or worse, write them off as a waste of time.

Even in the last-minute haste of an electoral campaign, certainly the most fast-paced, winner-take-all form of organizing, it’s still possible for candidates and ballot issue organizers to solicit ideas, listen to, respect, and learn from their constituents. It wouldn't take more time or money at a training session to explain the situation and ask volunteers to generate a list of key points they need to make with people on the doors than it does to hand out and discuss a professionally developed script. Volunteers are more likely to remember what they said at the training session than digest a script, anyway, and a written list of pre-determined talking points can be included with the street sheets for anyone who can't remember what they need to say. Similarly, local volunteers can match street sheets with the addresses of canvass volunteers the night before or morning of a canvass. Better yet, they can recruit local canvassers by matching lists of supporters with names on the street sheet lists in advance. And even better, they can ask local supporters to strategize about realistic ways to build support among the undecided, not just inundate supporters with fragmented tasks and redundant messages.

Everyone who does it finds community organizing frustrating sometimes. But in committing ourselves to it we're also more likely to build a growing base of people who can deliberate, set goals, and take action together over the long term, reaching out to bring in more people to build deeper and wider organizations as the work unfolds. We need to use the latest technologies and tactics as tools to deepen and widen this work, not as a substitute for building the connections, trust, and deliberation that motivate people to try against enormous odds to leave the world in better condition than they found it. Let's set aside our scripted messages for awhile, turn off our cell phones, and organize.

About the Author

Over a span of thirty years, Ellen Ryan has worked as a community organizer in New England, the upper midwest, and southern United States.  She began organizing in 1973 as a volunteer for the United Farmworkers Union grape and lettuce boycott, and later worked for the New England Training Center for Community Organizers, Grassroots Leadership, an organizing resource center in the South, and the Family Farm Organizing Resource Center and Regeneration Partnership in St. Paul, MN.  She served as lead organizer for Virginia Organizing Project for six years, and now lives in Augusta, ME.  Ellen has written and co-written articles about community organizing that appeared in Utne Reader, Social Policy, Organizing, and the anthology Fighting Back in Applalchia: Traditions of Resitance and Change.  A recent article, Lessons in Rural Organizing, appears in Lessons from the Field: Organizing in Rural Communities, American Institute for Social Justice, 2008.