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Welcome to Be The Change, a series on grassroots activism, community organizing, and the fundamentals of fighting for justice. Primarily instructional and sometimes theoretical, this series creates space to share tips, learn skills, and discuss “walking the walk” as intersectional queer feminists.
Well, hello, budding organizer! So, you want to move from the role of activist/participant to the role of an organizer/leader! Hells yes! Maybe you’ve been inspired by the incredible community organizers who put together the Women’s March on Washington or the queer women who started #BlackLivesMatter or maybe you’re just ready to fight back in a bigger way because what else do you do when everything is going up in flames. Whatever your motivation, welcome to the (not-super-awesome-wage, but really empowering and cool) party!
If you’ve been reading along, you’ll remember that I wrote a bit about what community organizing and grassroots organizing is back when I wrote about different types of petitions.
To recap, “community organizing” as a term and a philosophy of organizing is credited to Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals to describe a specific and tactical style of organizing to build “durable power” that is still used today. However, the term has grown to become a catchall for many different styles of organizing and mobilizing and activist work.
Ultimately, community organizing is about building power within a community to create cultural, political, and/or social change. It’s about influencing those with institutional power by building organized movements of empowered people with the goal of disrupting structural inequity.
There are many paths to becoming a community organizer and I’m going to lay our some basic tips here.
Here are some of the many possible jobs for an organizer:
- Door-to-Door Canvasser
- Political Strategist
- Legislative Advocate
- Grassroots Organizer
- Neighborhood Development Coordinator
- Advocacy Director
- Outreach and Engagement Coordinator
- Community Educator
Here are the main paths to becoming an organizer:
- Studying organizing in college
- Volunteering to gain experience
- Working for a nonprofit org that hires community organizers
- Attending a Professional Training
- Starting your own campaign/organization/movement
Community organizing is a specialized skill set. That said, it’s definitely not something you have to go to college to succeed at. Many organizers learn in the streets and on the job. Honestly, being out in the community is the best training there is, coupled with maybe reading some books and finding an awesome mentor/inspiration model.
You can choose to go to school to study majors or fields that pair well with a career in organizing, though. Here are some of the majors or degrees that would be helpful to a career in community organizing:
- Political Science
- Public Justice/Criminal Justice
- Race/Ethnic Studies
- Social Work
- Women and Gender Studies
- Social Work
- Law (J.D.)
- Master of Social Work (macro focus)
- Master of Nonprofit Management
- Master of Public Policy
Volunteer on a Campaign
Many, many, many folks get their start by volunteer on a campaign. It’s a lot easier than it sounds to get started. Even if you live in a super rural area in the middle of nowhere, people are you are organizing and campaigning. Finding an issue or advocacy campaign may be more challenging the farther you get from a city center. Political and electoral campaigns, however, are literally everywhere.
Volunteering for a local political race — whether it be school board, mayor, city council, board of trustee, town supervisor, or a bigger state or federal position — is an awesome way to get your feet wet. You’ll be thrown into on-the-ground work, door-to-door canvassing and phonebanking and attending rallies and hitting the streets before you know it. If you really put the time in, you may even be hired as a campaign staffer or volunteer leader with just a little bit of experience and a lot of passion.
Nonprofit orgs and community activist groups are the place to find volunteer work on local issues (if you don’t want to start your own campaign). They’re almost always looking for committed volunteers with time to give and the interest in doing real work. Working with established organizers and groups means you benefit from their mentorship and experience and their existing expertise in the issue/campaign area. It will help you develop organizing leadership skills and network within your community.
A Note About Volunteering
It’s great to have the luxury of time to volunteer. Not everyone does. I just want to acknowledge that community organizing often doesn’t pay well and volunteering doesn’t pay at all. For some people, this is just out of the question. I don’t assume that everyone has the time to volunteer or to provide unpaid labor. I wish there were better ways to break into this field that didn’t require us to give free labor! I know it particularly disenfranchises those who are at the intersections of marginalization, who are also often those most impacted by the issues organizers are trying to remedy.
Get a Paid Gig
It’s hard to break into a job without experience, which is why volunteering can be a great way to start. It not only helps you build skills. It also helps you meet people who might lead you to an actual paid job in organizing!
That said, community organizing jobs don’t always require a ton of experience or a specialized degree. Many organizations are looking for skills above all else and many are also looking to hire people who are directly impacted by the issues that the organizer position will work on. Having deep connections as part of or with directly impacted communities is sometimes as important to a potential employer as having loads of experience or a degree.
Jobs in this field can be far and few between, however. Check the webpages of orgs near you that you’re interested in periodically. Local ACLU and Planned Parenthood affiliates tend to have a small advocacy or political affairs department, for example, as do many of the major union offices.
Organizing jobs are also posted to these sites frequently:
- Idealist – volunteer and employment opportunities with nonprofits
- Feminist Jobs Board by the Feminist Majority Foundation
- Organizers for America Jobs Board
Here are types of groups and organizations often hiring entry-level organizers:
- Grassroots Campaigns
- Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)
- Local Unions and Statewide Unions
- Political Races (tend to hire temp positions around election season – call your local party headquarters and check Craigslist)
Go to a Professional Training
A lot of these cost dollars and cents, but many offer scholarships and low-income options. Much like going to school for organizing, going to a professional training without any real world experience probably won’t get you the most bang for your buck. However, you may be able to find programs or workshops near you that are free or inexpensive and teach these same topics and tactics or local or state nonprofits that offer more affordable trainings near you. The trainings I’m listing here are heavy-hitters with national reach.
- Midwest Academy – teaches the Alinsky model
- Netroots Nation Conference – a national conference for digital organizers
- Wellstone – focuses on digital organizing and host of…
- Rootscamp – a participant-led “unconference”
Start Your Own Movement
Want to just get to it? There’s nothing holding you back from starting your own campaign right now. Read up about campaign plans and strategy. Go to a training if you can. Or, quite frankly, just go for it. Here are the basic things you need to lift a community organizing campaign off the ground. You want to create a campaign and an organizing framework that is sustainable and that has the power to win.
- Identify the Issue – What is the problem?
- Articulate Your Goals – What do you want? What would victory look like? What are your long, medium, and short-term goals?
- Identify the target(s) – Who has the power to give you what you want? (Targets are always identifiable human people, not “the government” or “the heteropatriarchy.”)
- Devise your strategies – What strategies will influence the target(s) to give you what you want? How can you grow and wield power?
- Come up with your tactics – What specific tactics will you use? A rally? A press conference? Educational meetings? Lobby visits? Petitions?
Put all this together and you have an organizing strategy and plan, the method by which you are going to get what you want from those who have the power by flexing your collective voice.
Community organizing invited you to go even farther than just thinking through an organizing plan. True community organizing engaged the community in building and growing the plan and in taking on leadership roles. So once you’ve considered the issue and what your general ideas for strategy are:
- Identify Others Who are Stakeholders and/or Directly Impacted
- Organize a Meeting
- Present Your Issue and Ideas to the Group
- Brainstorm and Strategize With the Group
- Identify Leaders Within the Group
- Develop a Campaign Plan (Goals, Targets, Tactics) Together
- DO THE THINGS AND WIN
Good luck! Share any wisdom you have or questions you’re curious about in the comments!