[To read the entire series, go here.]
One of the most challenging tasks of a community organizing group is to come up with a specific issue to pursue. The world is full of what organizers call “problems,” aspects of the world we don’t like—e.g., world hunger, or educational achievement. Problems, however are too big and vague to grapple with in any coherent manner. In fact, just thinking about them can be disempowering.
So what organizers try to do is cut “issues” out of problems that can be concretely dealt with in a coherent and achievable manner. It turns out that this is an extremely difficult process, since many of the criteria for a good issue are usually in conflict with each other. Here I address two aspects of cutting an issue: “clarity” and “passion.”
Clarity in organizing is crucial. If one is going to bring a group of people who are not necessarily experts together around an issue, then that issue has to make sense without pages of explanation. MOVE, the community organizing group I participate in, worked to increase the number of SAGE schools in Milwaukee a few years ago. The SAGE program includes a number of different components, including reduced class sizes in lower elementary grades. So MOVE sold SAGE as a class size reduction program, instead of getting into the nitty-gritty of the details of how it worked.
Issues also have to have a “gut” sense of importance to the people you are trying to engage. And it is helpful to be able to tie specific stories and testimony to these issues. For example, arguing for more money for schools, in general, is not really a “gut” issue, although many people understand that, in an abstract sense, it is a problem. However, having forty kids in the same classroom, situations where parents have to quit work because a school doesn’t have a nurse to give insulin shots to their kids, stories about bathrooms covered in mold—these have a compelling emotional charge with them. If you can’t find a way to elicit this emotional charge, then you probably won’t be able to organize effectively around it, regardless of how important it may be to you. The right wing has really learned this lesson well.
Also, from an organizing standpoint, it doesn’t really matter whether you, as an organizer, care about a specific issue. What matters is that it is compelling for those you are trying to organize, that they have a “passion” for the issue.
An organizer I know once wanted to organize a housing complex in Milwaukee. The complex had a range of difficult problems, including drug dealers, plumbing and heat issues, and on and on. However, when she went around and talked to residents, what she found was that those issues weren’t the ones that were most compelling to them. What was? Cable television. They wanted to have cable access in their apartments. So that’s what this organizer brought them together around.
Another thing an issue needs to do is bring people together and provide an opportunity to grow the organization. This is actually related more to how you organize around an issue than to how you frame it, initially, but it’s difficult to separate these two aspects.
There are some problems that one can fix by drawing on a few experts. These aren’t good issues for organizing groups. From an organizing standpoint, you actually want an issue that will force the organization to do some collective work, to stretch and grow. In some cases, you may even force this work when it isn’t really even necessary.
The most famous example of an organizer creating the need for collective action out of whole cloth is when Saul Alinsky, the key conceptualizer of organizing’s general vision, went to a local city official in the 1930s and got him to agree to a change in policy. Then Alinsky got a large group of people together and they all marched down to the official’s office with signs, shouting their demand he change this policy. Somewhat bemused, I think, the official agreed. And then Alinsky trumpeted this victory to his group. “See,” he essentially said, “we do have power if we act collectively!”
Of course, lying to your constituents is not a good practice. But in the housing complex example the organizer did something similar. She knew that she could get cable TV for the residents pretty easily, but instead used this as an opportunity to engage them in the practice of organizing. They had meetings, planned actions, created materials, etc. And, not surprisingly, they convinced the landlord to give them cable TV.
Then the organizer turned to the group and said something like, “okay. What do you think about doing something about the drug dealing in this complex?” And they moved to a new issue.
The work of organizing, then, is an opportunity for educating leaders and other participants, it is an opportunity for identifying new leaders, it is an opportunity for expanding the number of people who see themselves as “members” of your organization, and the like. “Winning” in some ways is less important than the “power” that is built through the activity of struggling against oppression.
Sometimes you are “lucky” and a good issue just falls in your lap. A few years ago the school district decided that they would try to get students to go to their local “neighborhood” schools. As a part of this (and to save money) they wanted to eliminate parent’s right to bus their students to the schools of their choice in their bussing area. This created a great opportunity for MOVE to act collectively in resistance, since parents didn’t actually support this change. It even catalyzed the emergence of a new parent organization (even though this quickly dissolved).
In an odd kind of way, then, from an organizing standpoint it’s actually helpful when people in power do overtly nasty things. It’s much easier to respond to these than to more subtle, ongoing processes of oppression that are difficult to define or resist in any coherent way. So the example Dan has given of the state of Virginia eliminating foundations classes actually could be a “positive” rallying point for the field. But, of course, there is no institutional structure to rally people in any coherent way, so an opportunity for collective engagement and organizational power development is lost.