Organizing advice I would have given myself ten years ago

The author, who prefers to remain anonymous, worked for several years as a field organizer for the largest public sector trade unions in the US, before becoming a teacher in a large urban district. He now organizes with his coworkers and students, most recently to secure greater education funding and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

I’ve been thinking about the advice I would have given myself ten years ago about getting involved in organizing. I’ve learned a lot and made a lot of mistakes. So here is what I would say based on some of my own experiences and mistakes. Just things for me to remember too; it’s not like I’m always great at all this.

  • Organize for clear, attainable goals that have benchmarks and ways to measure success. Catharsis and “raising awareness” are really immeasurable. Organize stuff that makes people’s lives better.
  • Going to protests is not what it’s all about. Sometimes they can be good, but there’s a tendency to think of protests as “doing something,” and to just hopping around to different protests.
  • Listen to people’s opinions. Listen to people first. See where people are at. Listen to people’s problems. Don’t assume what people’s opinions or problems are going to be.
  • Don’t just build with people from the subcultures and scenes and social groups you are most familiar with. It makes it so people who aren’t a part of that subculture don’t feel included.
  • Don’t get all caught up in super ideological dogmatic tiffs. People don’t care about little quibbles about something that happened in 1936 or your split with whoever. It is interesting as a hobby, the theory and history, and may inform some ideas, but the left is too obsessed with ideology as identity. Demonstrate your methodology through how you organize.
  • Respect collective process. Work through disagreements collectively. Plan things collectively.
  • Knock doors, make phone calls, contact people. Don’t use social media to organize.
  • Be consistent. Like a drumbeat. Be on time. Do what you say you’ll do.
  • Don’t write people off because they have a bad position on something. Don’t leave people behind or forget about people. People aren’t expendable.
  • Go to the people in the room that don’t already have positions of authority. Too often organizers walk into a room and approach the person who already has the most power.
  • Power is on the shop floor, not in boardrooms. Build with rank and file.
  • Don’t ask permission.
  • Stay close to the workers.
  • Build students’ organizing skills. Talk to students like they are adults or even peers, even knowing you are the teacher, because it’s about having real relationships. Make them laugh.
  • Don’t be afraid to disagree, but don’t be a dick about it.
  • Include people and make them feel welcome by approaching them and asking how their kids are and shit.
  • Don’t get super concerned with all the accoutrements of organizing. Posters and newsletters and socials are great, but you can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat.
  • Organize the working class, not the left.