Since high school, being an activist has been a huge part of my self-identity.
On my brag sheet for college, I even wrote that if I had to describe myself in one word, I would say, "activist." From being involved in local school board issues to being part of a number of student clubs focused on social justice, activism felt like the best way to explain who I am.
But this semester, I took the class Organizing for Social Change and realized everything I have prided myself on regarding activism were not all effective organizing techniques.
Organizing centers around relationships, specifically forming and maintaining relationships in order to build power. This requires that an organizer's first priority be recruiting and growing an organization's base.
I am someone who has always spent most of my time running from various coalition meetings or focusing on how to develop policies that are as effective and comprehensive as possible. This means that recruitment has always been a last-minute scramble rather than a top priority.
Recruitment has to be prioritized, though, because most organizers begin their campaigns in positions of relative powerlessness compared with their targets. Oftentimes, the targets of an organizing campaign have more money and/or hold positions of political power.
As such, organizers have to find a way to demonstrate their relative power and/or create enough disruption that a target has to listen to them. The best way for organizers to demonstrate their power is through the presence of a consistent organizational base of volunteers who are motivated to show up for actions and to strategically plan how to put pressure on the target.
An important way of building an organizational base is by listening to, rather than assuming, what people want and using people's lived experiences to inform the issues that an organization focuses on.
The founding of New Labor is an incredible example of this principle in action. Lou Kimmel, the executive director and co-founder of New Labor, worked at a temporary employment agency as a "salt," purposely working there in order to start an organization of temporary workers.
Kimmel recognized that the temporary workers' main ask was that they wanted to learn English, so New Labor was formed around English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. He described being a "salt" in a member spotlight he was interviewed for as part of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.
"It wasn't just temp workers that wanted to learn English," Kimmel said. "So we created this space to build relationships and develop skills. Organizing through education is not just learning English to get ahead, but rather, if everyone is facing the same bad employers and bad landlords, we can build bonds of trust, connection, and identity in that space to help people move along, what we call, the ladder of engagement. We're always about developing leaders, and a majority of our leaders come out of the membership itself."
New Labor focuses on education but is also, in my opinion, among the most powerful immigration and labor rights organizations in the state.
That organizational progression was only possible because New Labor, from the beginning, sought to authentically listen and be responsive to its base, providing space for people to build relationships and access the resources they asked for, which enabled them to build up organizing capacity and credibility within the New Brunswick community.
Another issue I have noticed within my own organizing practices is a tendency to do most of the work myself rather than delegating tasks. Especially when you are scrambling before action, it seems easier to just do tasks yourself rather than risking assigning the task to someone else and not having it completed in time or correctly — perfectionism certainly fuels this as well.
But this creates a number of problems. One of the goals of organizing is to develop leadership and make people realize how powerful and strategic they can be. If the main leader of an organization does all the major tasks, there is no avenue for new volunteers and organizers to take on empowering roles.
People are generally motivated by roles and tasks that give them agency and autonomy, enable them to use their creativity and demonstrate that they are seen as trustworthy and competent. Delegating important and strategic roles to members who are motivated to take them on is a way to keep people engaged and ensure they feel their work is personally meaningful.
Organizations must create structures that bring organizers in without gatekeeping them from getting involved. This must involve some level of delegation. This will also ensure that when a leader leaves the organization, the entire organization will not crumble in their absence.
The need for organizing in our world today is greater than ever. And there is tremendous value to investing in developing your organizing abilities, even though it can feel like a luxury and privilege.
It can lead to huge realizations about the nature of power itself.
Raisa Rubin-Stankiewicz is a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in political science and minoring in psychology. Her column, "Rutgers Realities," runs on alternate Thursdays.
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