Activism Writing

“Lessons From An Organizer’s Life” by Jeb Middlebrook

community organizing

The following are lessons I’ve learned over the past eight years of helping to build an all-volunteer organization that can recruit and mobilize white anti-racist people, in solidarity with people of color, to challenge and transform institutional power towards racial and economic justice.

1) The way in which you recruit matters. If you are interested in recruiting white people who want to dialogue, hold dialogues and workshops. If you are interested in recruiting white people who want to organize, engage in organizing actions, events, and campaigns. These tasks and groups of people may overlap, but they may also be different. If there is limited time for you to engage in both approaches, choose a method of recruitment that will meet your movement goals.

2) People power requires organizing. The hard truth of social movement building is that you need to talk to people who are not already engaged to grow people power. With anti-racist work that is seeking to recruit and mobilize more white people, you will have to talk to friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers who are not already involved. This means preparing and engaging in new conversations with new people with recruitment and mobilization on the table.

3) There is no substitute for action. Talking about anti-racism and solidarity with people of color is different than engaging in anti-racism and solidarity with people of color. Both are important, and talking can prepare for action. However, in my experience, none of us ever feel “ready” to engage in anti-racist action, and can learn tremendously from doing. Talking AND action, I’ve found, builds people power at the same time as building consciousness.

4) Show rather than tell. Convincing white people to actively think through and challenge institutional privilege that they benefit from can be a daunting task. Telling someone about these ideas and process is helpful, but showing them means letting an experience do much of the work for you. Attending activism events for racial justice led by people of color or white anti-racist organizing events (with those you seek to involve) can move people politically at the same time you are helping build the movement.

5) Recruit where your constituency lives. Bringing the politics to the people is much easier than bringing the people to the politics. Many community-based organizations identify a strategic neighborhood or area of the city to focus on, as a result. Strategize around who you are recruiting for what people power purpose, and figure out where they live. Bring the cause to them by meeting in their neighborhood and homes to connect the movement to their daily lives.

6) Beat the street. Eventually, in order to expand your people power you will need to get into the community. This involves surveying people, knocking on doors, and getting a pulse of the people. The best way to get new people involved is to meet them, with an honest interest in their thoughts and hopes. Social movements are nothing without people’s own thoughts and hopes at the center, so structure your efforts in outreach with always asking people what they think/want.

7) Lead with questions. Often activism is assumed to be a list of demands. What most people don’t realize is that demands are answers to questions that community organizers first asked people in the community. Asking questions allows for a true grassroots approach to building people power, and allows the people you are recruiting to develop buy-in and be key players in the formation of the demands and direction of the campaign.

8) Formalize your efforts in a campaign. A campaign involves identifying community needs with questions, recruiting those people you’ve talked to, and collectivizing the thoughts and hopes of those people into demands for soliciting public support and buy-in. Many racial justice campaigns by people of color are already running, and a strategic analysis and discussion with them about the role of white people in the campaign can build powerful multiracial movements!

9) Movement building is relationship building. Strong movements are based on strong relationships, and this involves being in one another’s lives beyond just meetings. Share conversation, meals, walks. Integrate social time, processing time, and get-to-know-each-other time in your organizing work. It will pay off. Because when the going gets tough, you’ll have people to lean on, trust, love, and share support. And you’ll be able to move through the difficult times together because you care.

Jeb Middlebrook is an academic, artist, and activist residing in Long Beach, California. He can be reached at jebmiddlebrook.com.