Bona Fide Community Organizing: Core Dimenstions
Hunter Bear (Hunter
An Art, Not an Erector Set
Bona fide activist community organizing is not an erector set
proposition. It is an art.
This article conveys the several integrally connected and
sequential sections that comprise the core of my now very
extensive community organizing course — an
extremely long and heavily visited webpage —
Combined Community Organizing Pieces —
on my Hunterbear website. If it's always timely, it certainly is now.
My emphasis has always been the development of enduring democratic and long-
term grassroots social justice organizations — effectively
activist in ethos and practice.
Jackson Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism
quite recently out in expanded and updated form provides a first hand,
detailed, and no-punches-pulled inside account and analysis of the legendary
Jackson Movement of 1962-63. It's replete with organizing methodologies and
lessons. It also includes the essence of many other social justice campaigns
This organizing material has been very widely circulated over the years and I
would appreciate it if this could be widely forwarded. Anyone with a good
cause is free to use this and I ask only that I be credited as its
author — by any one of my several names.
One thing that I should add is that, in addition to practicing the Art of
Organizing, I have also taught it and that is indeed an Art as well. (All good
teaching is an art!) I have taught it a few thousand times at the working
grassroots and in all sorts of constructive workshops and conferences. I have
also taught it many times at the college/university level for both undergrad
and/or graduate credit: as a full time prof at Tougaloo College, Goddard
College, University of Iowa, Navajo Community College (now Dine' or Dineh
College), and the University of North Dakota; as a full timer in other courses
at Wisconsin State (Superior) and Coe College; and as a part-timer at
University of Washington and Roosevelt University.
And wherever I've taught Community Organizing, grassroots or academia,
virtually every single person has wanted a practical, down to earth approach
replete with as many personal case histories of campaigns that I can provide.
This also includes the personal histories of various
protagonists — many of which are on our now massive website,
Lair of Hunterbear.
Dimensions of a Good Organizer
A really good organizer/teacher
always — always — learns from his/her
grassroots colleagues and classroom students. And, BTW, don't look for heavy
ideological stuff from me. The radical Southern poet, John Beecher, old friend
over many decades, commented approvingly and publicly of me that, "He wears no
First, among other integral and related dimensions of which I am writing are:
- Invitations to the organizer from the
grassroots — spontaneous and wrangled. Some can come to one's
own sponsoring organization; some can come directly to you if you are
reasonably well known; or you can arrange an invitation.
- Issues: Some are readily apparent, some not always
apparent — e.g., economic relationships; some are immediately
realistic with work and some are futuristic; some are frankly unrealistic in
the foreseeable future.
- philosophies: Top Down vs Basic Grassroots Up (my preference). Set
forth general overall goals, long-range specific, short range specific. Heavy
grassroots involvement here is always critical.
- Credibility of project: Should be made up and led primarily by the
people for whose benefit it is launched: e.g., "those of the fewest
alternatives." Careful delineation and evaluation of active and potential
leaders is obviously critical. And often things start out with a steering
committee of leaders and then, after the organization has grown and more
people are actively involved, elections of regular officers.
- Tempo: Some people may want to move too fast and others too slowly.
The organizer helps develop the group's tempo and assists grassroots leaders
and people in meeting those expectations.
- Direct action: Always know First Amendment and related rights.
Picketing, sit-ins, boycotts, mass marches are extremely useful. And there is
always a need for careful organization and tactical nonviolence. Direct action
should be accompanied by judicious media coverage.
- Media use: Has to be used carefully: national wire services; local
television, often with national hookups; local radio; local and regional
press; specialized press; news releases — who, what, when,
where, why and how; press conferences; leaflets with ALL pertinent
information; newsletters; community newspapers; community cable TV; Internet.
There is always a need for constantly updated media/contact lists.
- Lawyers and litigation: Defensive and aggressive legal
actions — "criminal" and civil; local volunteers; paid
lawyers; national organizational attorneys — e.g., ACLU,
Lawyers Guild, Native American Rights Fund. Some non-in-court matters can be
handled very effectively by good law students.
- Allies Possible allies and political action: National
organizations; and government agencies (be careful);
political — informal approaches and quiet contacts; formal
approaches and lobbying and direct requests; electoral (voting). Don't get
- Power structure analysis: Check out Moody's industrials and
Standard and Poor's; and check out lawyers and their big business connections
in Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, and see FindLaw. Also see firms in U.S.
Lawyer's Directory. City Directory will frequently give the official
occupation of people. See corporate profit and not for profit charters at the
state secretary of state's office and check out annual registration of
organizations from state attorney general or sometimes secretary of state.
Data on charitable organizations can be found at state attorney general's
office and county tax assessor. There are also various national and regional
Who's Who and IRS and U.S. Government Organization Manual and Congressional
Directory. Don't neglect helpful non-official gossip.
- Coalitions (tend to be long term) and alliances (often shorter
term) are sometimes beneficial and sometimes not. Consider all of this
carefully and try to avoid precipitous marriages.
Although no organizer — whether from the "outside" or the
"inside" — will ever have full consensus from the community,
he or she must avoid the temptation to be a "Lone Ranger." That role can be
temporarily justified only in cases of extreme grassroots fear or heavy
What Makes a Good Organizer?
Just what makes a damn good community organizer? I'm an organizer, a damn good
one. I get and keep people together for social justice action. I've been an
organizer for virtually half a century — all over what's
called the United States. What follows here is my essentially outline
conception of the characteristics and qualities of a good and effective
organizer who is genuinely on the grassroots job. That can be a union local; a
temporary single-issue effort; permanent single-issue; permanent multi-issue;
coalition. It can sometimes be a specialized service
center — which itself some way grows out of a community
- The organizer should be at least bright — alert and
sparky. And hopefully, be intelligent in a depthy and lofty
sense — which characterizes most organizers who really stick
with it over the long pull.
- The organizer should be relatively "pure" in the moral sense. But not too
pure — because no one, anywhere, wants a sanctimonious
conscience hovering about. Set a good personal example. Do your recreational
thing away from the project. Wherever you are, avoid all drugs and go easy on
alcohol (if you are even into that sensitivity-dulling stuff). Remember the
old labor adage: "You can't fight booze and the boss at the same time." Always
a special target, the organizer has to be aware of the consistent danger of
- The organizer has to be a person who is thoroughly ethical and honorable.
Among other things, this means fiscal honesty. (As soon as possible and
whenever feasible, a local committee made up of grassroots people should
handle the financial end of things.) And it also means avoiding any hint of
co-optation by the Adversary. The organizer should always have at least a
representative group of the grassroots people present when meeting with the
other side — unless local people clearly approve a unilateral
- Formal academic training in the higher-ed sense can certainly be useful to
any organizer (or, as far as that goes, for anyone) — but it
isn't absolutely critical. The organizer, among other attributes, should be
fully literate (including computer literate), with finely tuned sensitivities,
with one hell of a lot of good sense. And almost anyone can do much
- Race and social class factors are not usually critical for a good
organizer. (I'm a Native American who has worked comfortably with Indians of
many tribes, Chicanos, Southern and Northern Blacks, Puerto Ricans, low-income
Anglos. I've also never pretended to have proletarian origins.) In a word, be
sensitive — but be yourself.
- The organizer absolutely has to be a person who can communicate clearly
and well. Often, this can mean teaching — without necessarily
appearing to do so (many people really don't like a teacher). And
communication, of course, involves one-to-one on a face-to-face basis, email,
phone calls, news announcements and press conferences, mass
meetings — and much more indeed. It can also involve an
organizer helping people with their own unique individual/family problems. And
that can help not only the person but will strengthen the overall effort.
- The good organizer will have some sort of altruistic ideology: couched as
an integrated, cogent set of beliefs embodying goals and tactics.
- After that, there are several choices:
- The organizer can be passive; and the grassroots people can be the ones
who make the goals and the tactics. Not so hot.
- The organizer can impose a specific ideology — including
goals and tactics. Not so hot, either.
- The organizer can convey a general ideological perspective which the
grassroots people can take or not take. They are not going to want to feel
pushed or hammered into things, but they'll usually take
it — especially if it's sensibly and sensitively "sold". They
certainly may want some time — and should have
it — to think it all over. And, soon enough, together the
organizer and the people can develop solid goals and effective tactics.
Remember, the organizer brings gifts and ilan — and the
grassroots provides at least most of the reality.
- The organizer must have a genuinely powerful and enduring commitment. This
has to involve a deep belief — a very real
belief — in the people and the cause. The organizer has to be
able to recognize potential leaders — and to involve all of
the people. Virtually everyone has something of substantial significance to
contribute. The organizer gives ideas — but it's ultimately up
to the people whom the organizer should never manipulate. Bona fide organizing
(not service center stuff) is about the hardest work there is. A good
organizer is literally wedded to the campaign all the way through.
- The organizer has to have a healthy but controllable
ego — with a strong sense of destiny.
- And any really healthy grassroots organizing campaign has to have a
Vision — one that is two dimensional: Over The Mountain
Yonder, and the Day-To-Day needs. A movement which, among other things, is
characterized by an idea whose time has come, is a broad-based cause growing
out of local community organizational efforts — in turn
inspiring and stimulating new community-based thrusts. To become a bona fide
movement, there absolutely has to be the two-dimensional ethos and active
life. But the purely local effort has to have the same two dimensional
ingredients, whether it's part of a movement or by itself.
(Something with vision only can easily wind up a small, in-grown sect; and
something that's only day-to-day can become a tired service program. And when
an organization has lost its way, factionalism is a sure thing along with the
withdrawal of the local people.)
A good organizer's role in all of this vision-building is extremely
critical — especially at the outset. But it's also critical
all the way through in conjunction with the growing awareness of the
grassroots people. The two-dimensional vision — Over The
Mountain and Day - To -Day — is the shiny idea that makes
people part of a crusade and sometimes a truly great one. It all gives meaning
to life. And sometimes, if necessary, one will die for it. Each of these two
dimensions stimulates and feeds the other. A good and truly effective
organizer absolutely has to show this interconnection.
An organizer definitely has to be a person with a tough
hide — not deterred by cruel name-calling, physical beatings,
or forced out of the game by injuring bullets or other bloody efforts. The
organizer has to be a person of physical courage. And an organizer also has to
have the courage to take unpopular stands within the developing grassroots
And an organizer cannot live materially in the pretentious sense.
Solidarity — and also sacrifice!
Semper Fi —
Community Organizing Principles — Or Getting
Missing — way too often — in radical and
general social-justice circles and related settings is a willingness to get
down into the grassroots and engage systematically in some of the most
challenging work there is: organizing the grassroots into genuinely effective
and enduring outfits. That's Genesis in the Save the World Business. It's
often far too easy to engage in essentially empty "jaw-smithing." Fortunately,
there are always those — organizers and grassroots
people — who are willing to do the really tedious and tough
organizing work over the long pull. Those who are reasonably experienced have
their own particular approaches.
Below are my own basic ones. They apply primarily to organizing staff and
broad-based grassroots community organizations. But they can also apply
substantially — with only a very few
changes — to other types of outfits: e.g., local union
- The organizers should insure that the community organization is
significant in size and composed primarily, if not completely, of those people
"with the fewest alternatives".
- The organizers should insure that active and potential community
leadership is developed in such a fashion that the organization is led
primarily, if not completely, by those people with the fewest alternatives.
- The organizers should insure that the organization functions
democratically, and not in an authoritarian fashion and that, among other
things, formal rules of democratic procedure are established and followed and
that widespread grassroots participation and decision-making in the affairs of
the community organization is a continuing fact; and that there is ever
developing local leadership.
The executive and public meetings should be well attended and organizers must
insure that an atmosphere exists in which the individual at the grassroots
feels — as is genuinely the case — that he/she
is an individual; that his/her active participation in the organization is
needed and welcomed; that right from the very beginning, he/she can make their
voice and presence felt within the organization; and that, as the group's
endeavors advance, winning victories, his/her power and ability to affect
those forces out in the problematic/crisis environment and beyond, which have
been affecting his/her life, will be steadily and proportionately increased.
- The organizers should insure that the youth are involved in the affairs of
the community organization — either within it and with
leadership participation, or in a parallel and cooperative youth group of
- The organizers should insure that the community organization, right from
the beginning, is characterized by maximum autonomy.
- Although the initial formation of the community organization may be around
one paramount and pressing local issue, the organizers — not
through rigid superimposition but through diplomatic and effective
teaching — should insure that, in the interests of the
community organization's longevity and effectiveness, the leaders and
membership of the group become aware of all issues directly and indirectly
affecting them. The organizers should insure, therefore, that the community
organization functions on a multi-issue basis whenever possible.
- The organizers should insure that, prior to reaching a decision on a
particular course of action, the community organization is aware of all
relevant tactical approaches and the various ramifications of each.
- The organizers should insure that the leaders of the community
organization can effectively handle the matter of publicity.
- The organizers should insure that the community organization can
effectively handle the raising and administration of
funds — including, when applicable, the preparation of funding
proposals, the negotiation of such, and the effective administration of the
- The organizers should insure that the community organization becomes
connected with various relevant public and private agencies and is able to
negotiate and secure the necessary services from those agencies without
surrendering its autonomy or compromising its basic principles.
- The organizers should insure that the community organization is able to
function politically in a realistic and sophisticated fashion without
surrendering its autonomy or compromising its basic principles.
- The organizers should insure that the community organization can utilize
the services of professionals without becoming dominated by such.
- The organizers should insure that the community organization is able to
enter into functional alliances with other groups without surrendering its
autonomy or compromising its basic principles.
- The organizers should insure that the community organization is aware of
the use of effective and rational protest demonstrations and, further, that it
is fully cognizant of the merits of tactical nonviolence.
- The organizers should insure that the community organization is aware of
the effective use of legal action approaches and is aware of public and
private legal resources.
- The organizers should build a sense of the oft-visionary and just world of
a full measure of bread-and butter and a full measure of
freedom — and how all of this relates to the shorter term
- The organizers, who at the outset may well play a very key role in the
function and affairs of the community organization, must, on a step-by-step
and essentially pragmatic basis, shift increasing responsibility to the
leaders and membership of the group, to eventually:
- First, insure that the community organization can function effectively
with only occasional involvement by organizers.
- And then, that the community organization can function effectively with no
involvement by organizers to the point that, in addition to conducting its
regular affairs, the group can "organize on its
own" — bringing in new constituents and/or assisting other
grassroots people in adjoining areas in setting up and conducting their own
An effective organizer seeks to get grassroots people
together — and does; develops on-going and genuinely
democratic local leadership; deals effectively with grievances and
individual/family concerns; works with the people to achieve basic
organizational goals and develop new ones; and builds a sense of the New World
To Come Over The Mountains Yonder — and how all of that
relates to the shorter term steps.
An effective organizer has to be a person of integrity, courage, commitment.
And a person of solidarity and sacrifice.
The satisfactions are enormous.
Thoughts on Coalitions
First, I make a distinction between "alliances" and "coalitions." The former
is loose, flexible, and explicitly pragmatic, sometimes relatively short
lived, and definitely observes all of the autonomy and "identity integrity" of
the partners. (It can sometimes be mercurial.) Those qualities should
essentially apply, of course, to "coalitions" — but I am
inclined to see coalitions as much more formal and cohesive and generally
characterized by substantive direction and longevity.
Each model is frequently quite useful in our necessarily pragmatic and
statistically limited existence — whoever "our" is. And
nothing human can be an erector set. But neither has to be viewed by its
components as permanently institutionalized.
Each model has to be grounded within a bona fide mutual respect.
Each model has to be based on "enlightened self interest" of an explicitly
Each model, maintaining an effective focus on the here-and-now in the context
of vision "over the mountains yonder," has to avoid "ideological primacy."
Each model has to avoid cannibalism.
Each model has to avoid inter-meddling in the internal affairs of the
respective components. Trite as it sounds, "continual
communication" — preferably face to face — is
critical in any alliance or coalition.
And, of course, in the last analysis there is no substitute for fresh,
grassroots, democratic and direct face to face community organization! As I
have said — sometimes to the point of
redundancy — that's the hardest work in the cosmos. And, if
that organizing is genuinely effective in the "radical" sense, it is never
"respectable" in the eyes of the Big Mules.
Anything organizational (or union contract-wise) is only as good and effective
as its members wish to make it.
Fraternally / In Solidarity -
Hunter Gray (Hunter Bear/John R. Salter Jr). Mi'kmaq / St. Francis Abenaki /
St. Regis Mohawk
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