The world is going to hell in a handbasket: war, poverty, inequality, climate change, etc., etc. A look at the day’s headlines or social media flow and that becomes very clear. It’s scary, and it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless.
You probably don’t know me: I’m an old guy, just turned 72 years old. However, I’ve been a political activist for over 50 years. Not one for the limelight, most people in the “movement” don’t know me either. But I’ve been out here, organizing against the Vietnam war while on active duty in the US Marine Corps, where I got politicized fighting white supremacy and racism, to fighting plant closures and economic dislocation, to labor organizing, to building global labor solidarity while fighting the AFL-CIO’s “labor imperialism,” to community organizing, to running an NGO (Non-governmental organization, often referred to in the US as a “non-profit”). I’ve also been active while getting my bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees (the latter at age 51), and active while teaching at a regional university in the Midwest for over 19 years. And I’ve done some writing: four books and over 260 articles published to date in the US and 11 different countries…. And I continue to be active today.
If you will indulge me, I’ve got a few things that I want to say; hopefully, they will resonate among those of you still reading.
Things are looking bad, I know. There’s been an almost total failure of leadership in the US and the world among governmental figures, corporate executives, and even social leaders like university, religious, and labor “leaders” for things progressive (i.e., life enhancing). For a younger person today, and especially those of you who are much younger, it’s hard to know what to do. Yes, you can do drugs, or engage in mad, passionate sex 24 hours a day, but even if that works for you, you still have to deal with reality of today’s world; if nothing else, in the struggle to survive economically, including keeping a roof over your head, plus there’s the looming and existential crisis of climate change and environmental destruction, with nuclear war still a possibility.
(If you haven’t read my article, “Forty Years of the United States in the World (1981-2023)” at https://znetwork.org/znetarticle/special-history-series-40-years-of-the-united-states-in-the-world-1981-2023/, I would recommend you do so. This will help give a context for what I’m about to say.)
We live in a very individualistic culture and society, and I find it extremely alienating. But I also know it’s not natural; it’s been imposed. How do I know it’s not natural? I’ve lived long enough to where I have personally lived in a culture that is life-enhancing. (Someday, I’ll write about my 1973 hitchhiking trip from Walla Walla, Washington to Tallahassee, Florida—via San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Chicago, Fredericksburg (VA), and Jacksonville—where I never stood by the side of the road for more than 20 minutes, where I ate and got high regularly, where I did this travel in 10 days, and where I left Walla Walla with 50 cents in my pocket!)
In the late 1960s-early ‘70s, the ”left” in the United States, broadly speaking, scared the hell out of the ruling elites. The Civil Rights/Black Power and Women’s Movement, intertwined with the youth and anti-Vietnam War movement and then later joined with the LGBT and environmental movements, was a serious challenge to the “status quo.” All of this, in their various iterations and manifestations, also affected us in the military, in Vietnam, in Europe, and in the United States, and the US military largely collapsed in Vietnam. (I highly recommend David Zieger’s excellent film, “Sir, No Sir!” to learn about our struggles inside the military, a story not well known.)
This caused Nixon and Kissinger to seek peace with the Vietnamese (who had shown their willingness to win their freedom and independence at any price), pull the US military out of Vietnam, and to do away with the hated military draft. (Scholars can debate the impact of the left on the war, but what I KNOW was that the left affected us in the military, and it definitely inspired our efforts against the military.)
The elites were determined not to let this ever happen again. They saw the core of the resistance based on the collective culture that had been created.
Along with the economic problems of the US in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s—including reduced rates of profit, inflation, increasing economic competition from global challengers and stagnant production—the elites cane up with an ideology called “neo-liberal economics,” which attacked US workers and countered our collective culture; they wanted to ensure that our collective culture never emerged again by doing all they could to separate and isolate people from each other. They attacked our organizations, especially unions, but any efforts to join together.
And if we “measure” success of their efforts, think of this: other than Michael Moore’s two movies, “Roger and Me” and “Capitalism: A Love Story,” I cannot remember any sustained public challenge to the growing economic inequality we faced in our country between about 1971 and 2011. (The US is the most economically unequal of any of the imperial countries in the world!)
Now that started changing with the protests in Madison, Wisconsin in early 2011 and was inspired by the movement called the “Arab Spring” that had recently began in Tunisia and which, in turn, helped inspire further protest in Madison. (Recognizing the global nature of protests—see my “The Only Commonality is Uncommonality” at https://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/classracecorporatepower/vol10/iss1/4-- I focus on domestic politics here.) The 2012 Chicago Teachers’ strike was important, later inspiring massive teachers’ strikes in a number of states across the country during the late 20-teens. There was the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and there were mobilizations in Fergusson (MO) after the 2015 killing of Michael Brown. There was a massive women’s strike against Trump right after his inauguration in 2017. There was also the rise of the “Me, too!” movement during this period. And, of course, the massive mobilization after the assassination of George Floyd in 2020. And growing protests against environmental destruction and climate change have also contributed to what I believe is ultimately a reaffirmation of our collective culture.
Yet one thing we’ve yet to revive, especially outside of our unions, is the concept of “organization.” (The issue of union reform efforts, such as in the United Auto Workers, is a different dynamic than here, and will be saved for elsewhere.)
Jane McAlevey, an experienced labor organizer in a very important 2016 book titled No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, pointed out there were three ways people come together: to advocate, through mobilization, and by organization. (I won’t say anything more about “advocacy.”) We have seriously shown we can mobilize; at least one account claimed there were 26 MILLION people in the streets to protest George Floyd’s assassination. That far surpasses anything in the 1960s!
But the difference between “the ‘60s and early ‘70s and today is that there were organizations at the core of the earlier movements. (This is not widely recognized today.) And there aren’t comparable organizations today, at least for most of these movements. And that has meant that, no matter how powerful for a few days they might have been, these movements disappeared shortly thereafter, and those based on social media alone perished even quicker than those with some on-the-ground experience.
BUILDING AN ORGANIZATION
What that tells us, in my humble opinion, that if you truly want social change—and you can start with any issue you wish, although I think some are more important than others—you must get together with others and create an organization. Your individual efforts, not matter how good, while necessary, are not sufficient: you must create organization.
There are many reasons to take this on. First, it is important to find other people who also think the issue at hand is important, and who are willing to put some time into building an organization; that gives you some basic support and cooperative thinking to figure out how best to proceed, whether in your community or workplace. It forces you to think strategically: how is the best way to build this organization so that collectively you have a chance to successfully win your stated goals? What tactics are acceptable in your situation that can be utilized to achieve your strategy? And how can you further develop your organization so that it is democratic, includes everyone who wants to participate, seeks to encourage members to recruit further members through their social networks, and inspires all who come into contact with the organization to join and advance its stated purpose?
There are going to be a number of conversations among those interested that take place before deciding to formally establish an organization. These conversations are terribly important and deserve considerable attention because it is in the constitutive process that often lays the groundwork for success or failure. You are going to have to consider who might get involved in your project—so you need to develop a clearly defined goal, a defined targeted audience, some plan (however currently inchoate) as to how to mobilize this audience and, ideally, how to get them involved in your organization. You have to understand that most people will not jump at the opportunity to join you and your colleagues, but that their participation must be enticed; it must be sought; the organization must be built. And it ain’t going to happen without building it!
And we need to understand what’s going on in these discussions: those involved are creating meaning together. This is the process that is crucial for holding organizations together, especially in the early days of existence.
FOUR KEY ASPECTS:
STRUCTURE, PROCESS, LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT, AND INTERNAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION
These four aspects seem to me key to building and expanding an organization. I address them in that order. (And would welcome comments and suggestions to enhance this discussion!)
You want to design your structure to get your work done, to accomplish your goals: what is it you want to address overall? I think you want to be successful at your particular political goal, but also want to involve as many people doing it as possible, and training them not only for success on your chosen goal, but to develop as many as possible as organizational and social leaders; i.e., should they leave your organization (for any reason), ideally they should be inspired and motivated to seek out others and (eventually) start their own organization wherever they land.
When initiated, I think you will have—I hope you have!—several people to carry the load. You need to identify the tasks that need to be accomplished. Ideally, with the goal chosen and the tasks identified, you can distribute the load across those involved and work together. Expecting one or two people to carry the load on their own will almost always lead to burn out and walking away, and that’s another reason why you want several people to join you to get an organization started. It also helps indicate how important, how salient, this issue is to those around you.
You also need always to keep some of your focus on developing your organization, regardless of the particular goal you set. Early on, you need to establish your decision-making process (see below).
You will need to get commitments among those involved to work together for a set period of time: two months, six months, two years, etc. In other words, how long will each person plan to stay involved at a minimum? Obviously, with any political organization, you will be seeking to understand salience to your targeted community; how important is it to them, and can they be encouraged to get them involved, in the issue and, ideally, your organization? (Organizations whose goals are salient to the targeted “community” will be able to recruit and advance much quicker than those whose goals are not; the latter are more likely to fail.) However, it takes some time for any new organization to become recognized in the community and their goals accepted: you want to get everyone involved in the “organizing committee” to commit to staying involved for an agreed-upon time period so the organization can get established and recognized, after which there will be no hard feelings should one lose interest or simply walk away. Also, however, should there be progress in one’s work, people are encouraged to extend their commitment to involvement!
So, you’ve found some people to work with you and they’ve each made a commitment to work together to build the organization: great! Now what?
A good way to think about any organization is to recognize that, ultimately, they will consist of three groups of people, and you can think of this as a set of three concentric circles, from the innermost and smallest to the larger surrounding circle to the largest outside circle.
The “inner most” circle, the core, will be those who are really involved in the organization, helping it to achieve its agreed-upon goals; these are your activists. These are the people who will prioritize organizational work, are interested in advancing its project (including fundraising), and who are interested in helping make organizational decisions. This is your leadership group. Ideally, you want to keep expanding this group over the life of organizational existence.
It is these people who will take responsibility to carry out organizational goals and projects, whether in actual campaigns and/or internal development.
Now, you have to be careful here; this isn’t the military, and these folks are not available 24 hours a day. You want people to be involved, but you don’t want to work them so hard that they drop away. Yes, you want them as much as they want to give, but you must keep in mind that they work, they probably have relationships, they probably like to do other things. Leaders have to consciously keep her/his eye out for the well-being of one’s people, and you especially need to take care of the ones who take care of you! You need to talk periodically with each of your activists to make sure they’re personally doing well, that their views on the organization are listened to, that they are given the appropriate responsibilities, etc. And the thing to remember here is that the more people you can get into the core group, the more the work can be equally distributed, which means that there is less likelihood of burnout of key people. These are also the organization’s key people, and they need to be educated in related issues, taught (and encouraged) to speak publicly for the organization, etc.; they should be trained to the highest level possible in line with their desires.
The surrounding, intermediate circle are your supporters. They are the people who will contribute money and will generally respond to organizational mobilizing efforts. These are people who will attend “annual general meetings” should they be held. Basically, they are interested, they care about your organization and its projects, but won’t get actively involved on an on-going basis. They will attend public events and should be so encouraged, and efforts should be made to enhance their participation and involvement; ideally, they should be encouraged to join the core group.
(One thing here: the core group should set the criteria for those entering the core group, such as attending “x number” of core meetings/training sessions before being able to vote on organizational decisions; this will help those already in the core accept the new people more willingly as they, too, will be recognized as “serious,” which is what is wanted.)
The outside group are “bystanders,” people who know about your group and its projects, but who won’t get involved unless actively asked. These folks are generally ignored. However, should attention be paid to them, they can be mobilized, whether through showing up at a demonstration, contributing small amounts of money, etc. They take a lot of work to get them to participate, so this is not a priority, yet it shouldn’t be overlooked; they can be mobilized.
And then there are those totally unaware or opposed to your organization and its goals. If you can’t get them into even the outer circle, you can ignore them until you need to actively address them.
So, the general idea here is to accurately place each person the organization comes into contact with into the correct respective circle, and then, over time, seek to move each one possible into the next one closer to the core.
This is something that often gets ignored, and I argue we need to specifically address it early on in the organization’s development: by what process are decisions made?
Many groups simply adopt “majority rule” by which to be governed. Thus, any decision needing to be made can be made by adopting the majority’s position; after all, it’s the “American” way. The problem with this is that those in the minority often get their ideas and interests, etc., trampled.
The other way that some activist groups have adopted—so as to protect the minority—is to require “consensus.” That way, everyone must agree before going forward. However, this can lead to the “tyranny of the minority” as even one person can keep an organization from advancing its work. And, at the very least, many hours of discussion and debate can be required to simply reach a position on an issue; time many people simply do not have due to interest, work and/or family commitments.
A better way forward is to bifurcate issues and have different decision-making processes for each of them.
Of course, organizations should always seek consensus on as many issues as possible. But sometimes, it is simply not possible without threatening to tear apart the organization.
Almost any issue can be judged as being crucial or non-crucial to the organization. Non-crucial issues include issues like should we participate/endorse this demonstration, this march; should we meet weekly/non-weekly, etc. These are issues where we can seek a quick consensus, but if not available, can be quickly disposed of through a majority vote; 50% +1 wins. The benefit is you don’t waste much time on a non-essential issue.
For crucial issues that might split the organization, we need a much higher degree of unanimity; again, while seeking consensus, how do we handle significant differences? I encourage the pre-requirement of “modified consensus,” where people are required to get a two-thirds (67%) majority or higher to pass an issue. In other words, it must be required to have an extra-high degree of unanimity before proceeding. This way, you don’t get the problem of scrambling for one or two votes to win your position; i.e., this conservative approach is intended to preclude organizational splits. The required vote level must be acceptable prior to any discussion on the issue so there are no claims of “manipulation” by the losers.
Does this work in practice? The anti-war veterans’ organization that I was part of in San Francisco, Veteran Speakers Alliance, adopted this process in the mid-1980s; they are still active and united today! And if it can work for a group of mostly combat veterans, I think it can probably work for most organizations!
I’m not going to say much more than I did above on this subject. I think it is incumbent upon all of us to recognize that not everyone has the same experiences, understandings, and skill levels at different aspects of organizing and organizational development.
The goal here, for each person who desires it, is to advance each person’s skills beyond what she/he has today. Ideally, after a set period of time, anyone who remained (or left) the organization should be able to set up an organization/organizing project wherever they are.
Every organization should seek to enhance members’ skills and experiences. This should specifically include education on the organization’s history, goals, and objectives, and it should include practice in public speaking. And it should definitely include practice on strategic organizing, including on the one-to-one level.
Internal Conflict Resolution
One of the things I would advise is that you try to make your organization welcoming! People who might visit to see if joining might like to be something they’d like to do want to find people who are respectful of each other, who are supportive, and who are friendly, and where the organization is democratically run: they are not likely to join any organization that is in turmoil or featuring major conflict among members.
Interestingly, a good way to tell the internal health of an organization is by looking to see if members are inviting friends/encouraging members of their social networks to get involved and participate in the work of the organization; if it’s not good enough for friends, then you should be wary before joining.
This brings me to a point that I’ve become more and more aware of: internal organizational conflict. We may hope our organization never has internal conflict, and most groups probably don’t, but I’m convinced every organization must be prepared for it from early on; internal conflict can doom organizations if not prepared for and handled well. First, I’m talking about internal conflict among members within an organization, and not conflict with outsiders, including provocateurs and saboteurs. This should not be too much of a surprise since organizations are often founded and populated with passionate people; and sometimes that passion gets turned on our comrades.
So, I argue that a “conflict resolution” committee, by whatever name you want to give it, be incorporated into the organizational structure from early on. This gives legitimacy to both a particular “committee” to be dedicated to handle such conflict, and it gives as place where conflict can be addressed that is outside of the center of the organization; i.e., you want to have a separate committee to address such conflict, and it must not be obvious to casual visitors who might be considering joining the organization.
But within the committee, you want to have a pre-existing process established by which to handle any conflict so referred. Remember, we’re talking her about conflict within the organization, and that’s a terribly important delineation. In other words, you are wanting to resolve conflict so as to enable the organization to keep working on its program instead of destroying the organization. So, a process needs to be established beforehand, so there’s no question of using it against someone who simply might be unpopular. You want to establish such processes beforehand, and keep everything as clean, transparent, and as fair as possible.
This article is not “the” answer to organizing organizations: it is intended to help you get started. You will have to address many issues over the organization’s lifetime, including whether to remain all volunteers or to hire staff people, etc. Generally speaking, I think the more people in the core group, with as much diversity and involvement as possible in your local community, will help you address difficult issues such as this.
At some point in time, you will meet/reach out to other organizations. Hopefully, you will have respectful relations with each, so coalition building is possible—and desirable. However, if your organization is really successful, it is likely at some point, it will be asked to dissolve and join a larger organization. I want to urge extreme caution before accepting any such invitation: by this time, people will have joined your organization and remained because of what it is and how it operates. To dissolve and join another organization means changing most if not everything of what you’ve developed; and you are likely to lose many of your people and possibly everything you had previously established. Please use extreme caution before accepting any such invitation: seeking more, you might end up with less!
If you want not to surrender to despair and hopelessness, you can try individual solutions, and they may or may not work. However, sociologists know that one of the best ways to good mental health is by extending your social networks and getting involved in social projects; breaking social isolation is a strong step forward.
A stronger way forward is to get involved in a project with others that enhances people’s lives and improves their well-being. It’s been argued herein that building social change organizations is one of the most beneficial ways forward, enabling you to help others improve their lives while allowing you to meet new people and extend your social networks.
It sure beats taking psychotropic drugs and watching endless reruns of soap operas and situation comedies alone at home in your bathrobe, whether you add the ice cream or not!
Get involved now!
Kim Scipes, PhD, is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana, USA. A long-time scholar and activist, his web site lists all of his writings, with many linked to the original article, and his entire book on the KMU Labor Center of the Philippines is on-line for free at https://www.pnw.edu/faculty/kim-scipes-ph-d/publications/.