Tag Archives: center for third world organizing

Rinku Sen’s Stir It Up #2 — Organizing in Practice

Second post on Stir It Up by Rinku Sen of CTWO (first post here) — this one on the nitty gritty of it all. Which being an academic now I find less exciting than when I was an organizer, though as much or more important than the other stuff I know. Anyway. In Sen’s opinion there has been a real shift in community organizing, and it’s during this shift and in this realm that I came of age really, so this rings true though I am discovering that there is more continuity than I had thought. She describes what she calls the ‘New Community Organizing Practices’, which certainly reflected some of SAJE’s work while I was there I think. Though we maybe took on more ‘winnable’ issues apart from gentrification itself, but no one has beat that yet have they… just held it at bay. Folks like LA CAN and Union de Vecinos have been doing that with might and brilliance for decades now.

In a significant shift in practice, community organizations are increasingly taking up the issues and constituencies mainstream groups refuse to touch. There has been significant innovation in three particular areas. First, groups have begun to organize the most marginalized people rather than those occupying the middle. The organizing of undocumented immigrants, victims of police brutality, and single mothers is indicative of this trend. Second, groups choose issues that enable the organizing of the worst-off, sometimes privileging those concerns over blander issues that might be more winnable. Third, political education has been added to organizing practice. (lxiii)


So a chapter here on the political and economic realities:

This chapter is about what I consider the central political and economic trends we need to take into account while we do our work. In the United States today, three trends in particular are relevant to every progressive group: the resurgence of conservative movements and the power gained by such movements in the United States since the early 1970s; the character and organization of the new economy, which is distinguished by the rising use of neoliberal policies and contingent workers; and the continued, unyielding role of racism and sexism in the organization of society. (1)

These are the underlying trends that organizing works needs to be tackling. So what needs doing? Another list:

  • Increasing Progressive Organizing, (18)

  • Addressing Core Ideas and Values: The base building, the development of sustained campaigns, and the research and media work are essentially techniques with no specific moral, economic, or political values attached to them; they are meaningless unless we also address the core ideas that shape society. (20)

  • Supporting Large Social Movements: We need to develop a movement orientation to our organizing. (21)

That’s a big one, but at the same time movement isn’t really something you can create — Piven and Cloward talk about this, and I think we all agree. So what is the role of the organizer in the meantime? Aldon Morris talks about Halfway Houses, Myles Horton thought about this in relation to Highlander. I like the below as well:

While we can’t control all the factors that enable a movement to develop, we can build our organizations in such a way as to be ready for movement work when the time is right. Most experienced activists believe that movements emerge from a specific set of conditions—rising expectations among the disenfranchised, a backlash against the status quo, or demographic shifts—in addition to explicit organizing. Being ready requires, in the first place, shifts in our work patterns and attitudes. For example, rather than figuring out how to do everything in one organization, we need to think more about how to create and support complementary organizations that work together to get the job done. Such a division of labor requires a deep understanding of and mutual respect for all the functions necessary to organize people, ideas, and money. (22)


Organizing can mean a lot of things to different people, I like her simple list of what it is (and why).

By organizing, I mean an effort to build organizations that include at least these five elements:

  • A clear mission and goals
  • A membership and leadership structure, with a way for people to join and take roles
  • Outreach systems that concentrate on those most affected
  • Issue campaigns featuring multiple tactics, including direct action
  • Pursuit of changing institutions rather than individuals

These elements combine to produce power and a shift in how people are treated as a result. (24-25)

I also like this breakdown of the underlying principles, and the impacts these have on the work you do, how you do it, and who can work with you:

Four major principles form the basis of our organizing efforts. First, our organizing strategy, our plan to build or expand a particular constituency, holds implications for the way we structure our organizations. Second, every organization has its own culture, which has to be shaped and refined to make room for the participation of particular groups. Third, we need to match our recruitment methods to the people we want to reach. Fourth, if we use services to attract members, we have to be extra vigilant that service provision doesn’t take over the organizing. (26)

That last one? Hard. We used services around evictions to ensure we still had some members but still. Hard. This, though? It’s all about this:

Organizing is essentially the process of creating politically active constituencies out of people with problems by focusing on their strengths and the solutions embedded in their experience. It is the basic work of progressive social change. (47)


Choosing campaigns…breaking down the difference between issues and problems. All organizing manuals talk about this.

Webster’s dictionary defines issue as a conflict between two parties. Organizers distinguish issues from problems. Problems refer to large-scale systems that are too large and vague to help us focus on real changes worth fighting for. Identifying specific issues within large-scale problems helps us define clear conflicts to which our group can propose a resolution. Issues always have at least three elements: a constituency with a grievance, a set of demands that address that grievance, and an institutional target at whom the grievance is directed. If a group cannot identify these three elements with specificity, then it is probably still dealing at the level of problems rather than carving out issues. (48)

I loved the principles, but loved also this acknowledgement about the realities of people’s lives and how they don’t quite fit into easy traditional models to deal with it, and the benefit of wisdom gained over years looking back:

Students of color, women, and lesbian/gay/bi/trans (LGBT) students, arguably the most explicitly marginalized constituencies on their campuses, frequently resisted our characterization of “good” issues. They asserted, quite correctly, that they rarely had the luxury to choose issues. Issues were thrust on them by oppressive institutional policies and practices that forced them into a survival mode. Furthermore, they said, choosing issues creates a hierarchy among oppressions: groups have to make implicit, if not explicit, judgments about which issues are important enough to work on and which are not, who deserves liberation and who does not.

Today, I would suggest that those students create their own criteria for prioritizing issues. While it is true that some attacks must be answered, having clear criteria can help you respond effectively, as well as move beyond defense posture to victories that improve the quality of life. (50)

Some great lists for choosing issues — first from Midwest Organizing Academy and then CTWOs own. Go look at them.


There isn’t much new here that isn’t in in Miller’s or Hunter’s books. I do love the reminder though, 5 reasons why direct action is so important:

While the idea of direct action is often scary, using it can provide important benefits. First, direct action can clarify the stakes, presenting our take on an issue in sharp contrast to other proposals or the status quo. This kind of clarification makes it less likely that the interests of our constituency will be negotiated away by people who are not affected—a distinct possibility when liberal policy, research and lobbying groups are deeply involved in a controversial issue, whether it be welfare or immigration. (79-80)

Second, nothing is better than a well-timed confrontation to help targets feel the pressure, which leads to victories that weren’t forthcoming without the action.

Third, direct action demystifies the halls of power for a constituency, and the people occupying those halls start to realize it and treat us with more respect.

Fourth, face-to-face conflict can sometimes help protect the members of a group when they are under attack. The mere process of taking risks together, which direct action requires, helps to build the group’s sense of itself as a group. Actions can also help protect individuals who are having problems with the system by making it clear that they are surrounded by a whole group.

Fifth, direct action offers fun, creative, and effective ways to get your message out. (80)

It is definitely the campaign that makes the action meaningful, and the political education and critical consciousness that needs to be built with it that creates real change.

Still, no matter how successful any individual direct action is, it is meaningless outside of a campaign. Campaigns indicate sustained intervention on a specific issue; they have clear short- and long-term goals, a timeline, creative incremental demands, targets who can meet those demands, and an organizing plan to build a constituency and build internal capacity. Within campaigns, different tactics accomplish different goals. There are tactics for building a base, recruiting allies, educating the larger public, and proving a point, in addition to those that pressure targets. Campaigns require planning and discipline, the ability to think about life in six-month, one-year, or multiyear terms. Many organizations do great actions but cannot sustain a defined campaign that pursues a specific set of demands that fit into their larger vision. (81)

I do like these too, having now participated in numerous protests in this country where not a single damn one of these ever happens, despite my own protests:

There are three important principles in using direct action effectively. First, each action has to have a clear purpose grounded in an irrefutable need and expressed in the action’s specific target and demand. Second, the best actions are heavily choreographed. Third, direct actions are always part of a larger campaign.

This grows long, I just want to capture key points to think about later, to compare to others. So what follows are just the chapter headings and the principles that encapsulate CTWO’s best practices:


There are four key principles of leadership development. First, successful organizations distinguish between leadership identification and deeper development. Second, they formalize their leadership development programs, using popular education methods and grounding development in the daily work of the organization. Third, they pay attention to the race, class, gender, and cultural issues embedded in leadership development. Finally, they actively plan for the renewal and regeneration of leadership, from supporting an individual in avoiding burnout to managing leadership transitions well. (98-99)


There are three basic principles for conducting research for organizing purposes. First, consider the ways in which you can combine your research with outreach and issues development. Second, use human sources rather than paper as much as possible. Third, figure out whether you are better off doing your research internally or creating a partnership with another organization. (118)

Research is close to my heart, and I’ve a stack of things to get through on action research and PAR but I will add a second paragraph:

To use research to work on issues, we have to know where we are in the issue-development process before starting the research. Are we choosing an issue, reframing it, or developing a campaign plan? Choosing an issue requires a research process that determines what the constituency cares about, whether a solution is available, and whether we can craft an issue that meets our criteria. Reframing an issue requires detailed data, sometimes stories but often hard numbers, that dispute or discredit information put out by the other side. Developing a campaign plan requires tactical research—gathering specific information about targets and potential pitfalls embedded in our demands. (121)


There are four key principles to remember here. First, a group has to distinguish between different forms of collaboration and choose the one that matches its goals and capacities. Second, each partner in a collaboration has to have substantial self-interest and similar politics, although the need for political negotiation is ongoing. Third, organizations need to bring resources into an alliance or network, and those contributions have to be structured to equalize power and credit among the partners. Fourth, these formations work best when one party is responsible for staffing them; long-term alliances and networks require their own staffing and infrastructure. (136)

There is so much more here, I think, about alliance building. Particularly for me, how this is done to scale while still being grassroots led and in a world of scarce resources/lack of time/inability to travel because of immigration status or family commitments or poverty. I think anyone working at a national scale struggles a lot with this, even more so at an international scale.

CHAPTER EIGHT: Speaking Truth to Power

There are five key considerations in expanding organizational media capacity: crafting a strategy that adjusts messages and materials according to the audience; developing sharp, polarizing messages based on shared values; recognizing the importance of designing our own print, radio, and electronic media; understanding the media and building relationships with reporters, including challenging outlets when necessary; and, finally, using people within our own organization as sources. (150)


If we are going to engage in political education, we need to keep four principles in mind. First, clarity about the purpose of our political education will help define the approach we take and the questions we ask. Second, we need to avoid dogmatic rhetoric by grounding our political-education work in fact and inquiry. Third, we need to balance education with our primary goal, political organizing. Fourth, varying the medium of education will keep people engaged. Fifth, exploring solutions will help prevent our members from becoming depressed after political-education sessions. (167)

CONCLUSION: Community Organizing—Tomorrow

This is just me being lazy, recapping it all with two copied paragraphs. But I myself need to remember things like this, and it’s hard, so a nice way to end.

There’s a lot to pay attention to: changes in the economy, implications of identity, the connection between local communities and global trends, the tactics of the opposition, as well as how our organizations are shaping themselves. Paying attention is about being self-conscious in the best sense—having a heightened awareness of what’s going on with us and around us. It does not mean knowing everything about everything, but it does mean expanding our notion of what is relevant to our work.

But being aware without a commitment to action divorces us from real life and keeps us from distinguishing what requires our attention from what doesn’t. In this age of rapid information diffusion, that is a dangerous thing. Much of the information coming our way catalogues the horrors of being a regular person, the terrible consequences of the policies that control our lives. Without a commitment to taking action that will improve conditions, we don’t demand the kind of information we need to make changes, and we become paralyzed by what we know. (183)

Action is required.

[Sen, Rinku (2003) Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizin and Advocacy. San Francisco: Chardon Press.