Yesterday, I had a conversation with one of the best activists I know, about the frustrations of local organizing. "I can't even get anyone to respond to a fucking email," the person told me. "And these little things matter so much. I don't want to do this alone. I can't do this alone."
I'm often asked about how to make an effective grassroots organization, and the conversation I had yesterday, with my friend, got me thinking. Why do some grassroots groups thrive? I think it comes down to three big tickets items: an idea, a community behind that idea, and a culture of responsibility and action. We talk about the first two, in our core organizing principles.
But what about the third? The culture within a group is not something we think about often, expressly, but it can make all the difference in the world. I'm sharing an excerpt from an email I sent out earlier today, with three principles of positive culture that we should all strive for, as grassroots organizers.
[T]here are three things we need to expect out of Core members:
1. Ownership. We need people to take ownership over the tasks they are given. This is not a job, or school, where you are doing things because you have to, or where "just checking off the list" is sufficient. Every task you are given is your baby, and it is your responsibility to make it flourish. Do the best job you can do, at every task you are given, and if you are not sure what's best, reach out to someone who does.
2. Engagement. Organizations that thrive have high energy. Being a Core member requires that you not only take ownership of your own responsibilities, but engage with others in theirs. Offer support, when someone finishes a large project (e.g. Brian and t-shirts.. has everyone thanked him for your shirt?). Point out a possible mistake or issue, when someone proposes something that might not work.
It also requires that we engage with the community. If our goal is to build a movement and create a community, open meetings and community events are vitally important -- in some ways more important than the protests themselves. These are the events where we can transmit our ideas and enthusiasm to others.
As a rule of thumb, I think Core members should:
- read and engage with everything that goes out on the core list
- make every core meeting, absent an emergency
- try to make as many demos and open meetings as possible
- participate in our community as much as possible (online, or in person)
3. Initiative. We need to take ownership over our tasks, and engage with others in theirs. But it is also vital to take the initiative in finding new opportunities. For example, when Chris saw the Cultivate Festival, he pointed it out to us and suggested some possibilities for an action. Or yesterday, when Priya saw the cage idea, she went out and found some images that she thought would be useful.
We need to all have this sort of forward-looking and creative mentality. As organizers, we can't wait for ideas and info to come to us. We have to actively seek them out.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. But, beyond our organizing principles, these are three vital factors to creating an effective organization, especially in the grassroots world. We can't rely on bureaucracies and bosses to force things to happen. Leadership comes from within each of us.
We all need to take ownership, engage, and initiate. That, and not just directionless passion, is how great campaigns and movements are born.