On August 9, 2015, The Black Power Cypher (5 Black male educators, organizers and activists from around the United States) did their monthly internet show on the topic, “The Importance of Community Organizing.” We offered some of our own organizing experiences and tips, and we explored how to organize in the Black community. I suggest you view the video below when time permits.
There is perhaps, no topic more timely and relevant in 2015 than organizing the Black community. The great Pan African Marcus Garvey told us, “Disorganization is the chief enemy of Negro people.” The great Kwame Ture – mentored by Dr. King and Ella Baker – constantly urged us to “Organize, organize, organize.”
Why Should We Organize in our Community?
Certainly many of our most effective leaders spend much of their time organizing and encouraging us to do the same. This prompts certain intelligent questions: “What is the importance of community organizing? How do we benefit from organizing our community?”
Black people find ourselves beset with a literal flood of problems: failing schools/miseducation, inadequate healthcare, mass incarceration, massive unemployment/poverty and unbridled police brutality. If we submit to cowardice and choose to accept these circumstances, there is nothing more to discuss. However, if we choose to resolve our collective problems and confront those responsible for them, we must advocate for ourselves.
An individual can advocate for themselves, by themselves. A tenant of a residential building for example, can call the management office and complain of receiving inadequate heat during the winter. The management office may not take this one person seriously. Or, the office might solve that one person’s heat problem.
Imagine however, if this same tenant contacts other tenants in the building, organizes a tenant association, and 500 people begin complaining to management. They sign petitions, stage protests, solicit legal advice, initiate a rent strike, and attract local media. That management office would be more likely to make sure all tenants receive proper heat.
In other words, organizing multiplies the power of one person exponentially.
We can apply this principle to our own history as Black people in the United States. Did Harriet Tubman free 3000 slaves by herself? No. If there were no underground railroad system in place, her efforts wouldn’t be as successful. Did Marcus Garvey work alone? No. He had writers, organizers, attorneys, and officers of his organization working together to achieve common goals. Did Martin Luther King singlehandedly coordinate the Civil Rights Movement? No. He worked with fellow ministers, church congregants, college activists, and community organizers all over the country.
The point by now is clear. Organizing our community allows us to effectively and efficiently solve our collective problems. We can summarize the benefits of organizing as follows:
- We enjoy the combined talents, knowledge, resources and experiences of several people.
- Our numbers and combined strength persuades others to take our concerns more seriously than they would if we acted alone.
- Organizing makes our efforts more powerful and tends to have greater impact (imagine one person boycotting a national department store versus an organization of 200,000 people).
- Organizing prevents one person from becoming isolated, fatigued, or attacked. Tasks and responsibilities are shared with several people and committees.
- Organizing inspires and empowers entire communities of people and equips entire communities to advocate for themselves. Several people gain new skills, develop courage, and create change; Therefore a movement doesn’t necessarily conclude when one person dies or years pass.
- Organizations provide a system of accountability for people. An individual is only accountable to him or herself. But a person working within an organization is accountable to other members of that organization and the larger community of people they claim to represent or advocate for.
How Do You Organize?
We’ve briefly addressed the importance of community organizing and the benefits gained from participating in it. But we are now left with the question, “HOW do we organize in our community?” In the course of my own teaching, consulting and writing about organizing, people asked me this question literally hundreds of times. Several qualified authors and public speakers address this question. Search the internet and you will come across hundreds or thousands of books, workshops, and speeches on this topic.
This one article cannot and will not provide you with an exhaustive or complete understanding of how to organize. We also need to remember that each issue, campaign or movement is different and may demand different approaches. Nevertheless, we can highlight some central ideas which provide a basic outline for effective community organizing. You can apply this template to your tenant association, parent association, church, nonprofit organization and much more. Additionally, you can research further information to supplement what we provide here.
Identify what it is you care about. Do you want to eliminate gun violence in your neighborhood, address unfair treatment in a local store, provide better educational opportunities for your children, have better heating in your building, rename a city street, or provide food and clothing for homeless people? This is always the first step to organizing in the community, and the basis for all of your subsequent actions, policies, tactics, and strategy.
Determine who else cares about that issue. After identifying your key issue, you must now determine who else in your church, school, building, etc. shares your concern about that issue. If you fail to do this, you’ll be doing all the work by yourself, and we already addressed the importance of organizing with others. There are several ways you can accomplish this, depending on your energy level and mobility and resources. You can call or e-mail friends, co-workers, classmates, or neighbors. You can knock on doors in your neighborhood. You can create a brief survey and have people complete them. A traditional way to do this is to host a town hall meeting in your community at a place of worship or community center. Make fliers addressing the issue (“Are you concerned about police brutality? Do you want to do something about it?”) and distribute those fliers or post them all over your neighborhood. The people who attend this event most likely care about the issue and are willing to address it. In the age of social media, you can post something about the issue on Facebook and see how people respond. Feel free to use whatever method or combination of methods that works best for you. Once you have a group of people who share your concern about an issue, you need to schedule a regular meeting time to discuss and plan.
Create a Mission Statement: It helps to have your group put your reason for organizing and your goal on paper. It is important to have something tangible everyone can refer to in times of disagreement or when clarity and direction are needed.
Have your group identify a goal they want to reach. Sounds easy enough, right? But proceed with caution. Your goal should have certain characteristics if you want to be successful and efficient (avoid wasting precious time and resources). A common method of doing this is to use the S.M.A.R.T. approach to goal-setting. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Specific: What do we want to accomplish? Who is responsible for resolving the issue? What are the requirements and limitations? Measurable: How much, how many, how will we know if we accomplished our goal? Attainable: How can we accomplish this goal? Is this a realistic goal based on the tools, skills, constraints and people we have? Relevant: Is this goal worthwhile and important? Will members of my community be willing to fight to achieve this goal? Time-Bound: By when do we want to accomplish this goal? What should we do immediately? What should we do long-term?
Create committees to accomplish important tasks: Your group want to accomplish its goal without wasting time, money or other resources. To do this, you must identify tasks, assign people to complete them, and establish a specific timeline for completion. For example, you may create media, research, finance, and community outreach committees. Each committee or person must have specific tasks to complete. These people or committees need to meet regularly and update your group on their progress, difficulties, and tasks that still need completion.
Identify and develop a strategy and list of tactics to achieve your goal. Your group, based on its goal, research, and resources, must now identify how you will accomplish your goal. This includes but is not limited to: protests, petition-drives, fundraisers, teach-ins, boycotts, demonstrations, press conferences, acts of civil disobedience, proposing and helping to write legislation, editorial articles in the local newspaper, etc.
As we approach the conclusion of this article, there are some important tips I’d like to share from my own organizing experience and study:
- To be an effective organizer, you must develop authentic relationships with people. You must be concerned about people, interested in their opinions, and you must earn their trust. Otherwise, people will refuse to work with you no matter how prepared and committed you are.
- You should be familiar with the community or people you’re trying to organize. Where do they hang out? What places of worship do they attend? What people or leaders do they respect? What issues are important to them?
- You should not be condescending, arrogant, or the type of person who wants to do everything yourself. Effective organizers are confident yet humble; They know when to talk, and when to listen; They are also inclusive. They actively solicit the support and input of others and are willing to share responsibilities. Their goal is not to become famous, popular or wealthy, but to serve others and help them solve problems. Excellent organizers help other people to gain new skills, confidence, and develop into leaders themselves.
- Take time to identify other groups, organizations and individuals who address your issue. If the goal is to reach your goal, it would help to form coalitions with other people as committed to doing this as you are. But be discerning. All leaders and groups are not what they seem to be. Some are conflicted, compromised and fraudulent. Choose your allies wisely.
- Effective organizing is hard work, but you must maintain balance. Human beings are social creatures who need and want time to socialize, have fun and relax. Work hard and be serious about meeting your goals, but also make time for yourself and your group to celebrate victories and socialize.
- Encourage critical thinking. Good organizers realize that all opinions or ideas (including their own) are not valid or constructive. Our goal in organizing is not to inflate our egos, impress people with our intelligence, or humiliate anyone; Our goal is to reach our goal. Therefore, make time to ask members of your group for respectfully-voiced suggestions and critiques. Encourage your group to debate policies and methods to determine the “best” or most effective ones available.
- When organizing, it is always important to reach high and challenge yourself. At the same time, we want to make our goals and expectations manageable. If we spread our group too thin or take on too many responsibilities, we demoralize and disappoint our members, fail to meet our goals, and possibly turn people off to organizing in the future. Organizations feel proud when they have several programs or initiatives. However, it is better to do 2 things exceptionally well, than to do 20 things poorly.
As stated earlier in this article, the information provided here is not enough to make you an effective community organizer, but it is enough to get you started in the right direction. Much success to you in your community organizing efforts, and feel free to contact me with any questions or comments you have about your own community organizing.
The Art of Leadership Vol II by Oba T’Shaka
Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement by Barbara Ransby
The Making of Black Revolutionaries by James Forman
Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky
Organizing for Social Change Midwest Academy Manual for Activists by Kemberly Bobo and Steve Max
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.