The 3 Things I Learned From Organizing

I’m taking a break from organizing, and I want to share why I’m taking a step back.

I’ve been delaying a sabbatical for 2 years. (I unexpectedly got a job with Netroots Nation and New Media Mentors.) Previous plans for the sabbatical were to write a manual on negotiation technique and get my health in order. I’d been dealing with some health issues that I’ve since gotten under control (including squashing Type II diabetes!) Though stronger, I came to find that a very different sort of health needed attending to.

Dealing with physical matters can follow a pattern. You can submit things to lab tests. You can measure and make adjustments. But emotions are very different. You can’t measure them. They are nonlinear, and when it comes to grieving, they are sneaky and selfish. You think you’re ok and then an emotional sinkhole shows up out of nowhere and swallows you whole.

Grieving does not give a shit about your google calendar or what you have to get done today. Grieving is unpredictable, unruly, and occasionally dehydrates you on account of all the unplanned crying.

I’ve lost 4 mentors in the last few years, and a couple of young friends, too. Dying is a part of life, but these passings were all unexpected. Two suicides, one car accident, one heart attack. I don’t have traditional family in my life, so these mentors were a part of my self-organized family of choice.

The other day, I was waiting at a stoplight, and I randomly thought of one of these people that I’ve lost. As I waited for the light to turn green, I was thinking through a problem I was trying to solve. I asked myself, what would Linda do? Out of nowhere, huge tears started rolling down my face. Linda passed in January of 2015. I pulled over on the road and wept for ten minutes. I realized I hadn’t ever really given myself time to really grieve her absence, or the losses I’ve experienced. Over the years, I’ve trained myself to have 10 minutes max to fall apart and let it out. Then I’d go wash my face and go back to whatever needed to get done, keep running towards whatever fire needed to be put out. It’s efficient and weird and after two decades of rigorous conditioning, I can’t do it anymore.

So I’m stepping back, for as long as it takes for me to get back to center. It’s a really good time to take a step back, too. There are so many new activists and people who are ready to lead — who should be leading — and I’m excited to see where they go next.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Movement — the Labor Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Progressive Movement — organizing with my friends of all backgrounds and all the groups, teams and communities. I keep coming back to these three points; they are distilled lessons that I learned as an organizer, bits of recycled wisdom that I’ve learned from elders along the way:

1) Organizing is love. Organizing is an act of love. It is kindness and compassion and empathy in motion. It is about connecting with human beings on a heart level. It’s about supporting other people, creatively solving problems together and looking out for one another. And it’s about celebrating victories, big and small. Encouragement and joy are key. And it must be truly driven by love to have sustaining power or your work together won’t last.

2) Friendship is the most positively disruptive force on the planet. Lifelong friendships emerge out of loss as well as victory. Friendships are disruptive because they don’t hinge on anything except enjoying someone’s company. They can be unexpected and spontaneous. Some of the closest friends I have made were forged during great loss and adversity. It is important to win. It’s awesome to win. But I’ve also made intense, resilient connections when we lost campaigns. The times when we learned the most as individuals and collectively as a Movement was when we got stomped. We learned because we always ended up finding each other afterwards. Clear-sighted analysis helped us learn from our mistakes. We kept trying to solve problems together, which started to turn the tide towards actually changing things. But changing the tide started by making friends in unexpected places, and letting those friendships sustain us in times of stress and distress.

3) Relationship before task. Victory happens when we move TOGETHER. Widen the tent. Get more chairs at the table. More fishes and loaves. More laughter. More sharing non-work-related experiences together. More constituency-specific bumper stickers for every last combination imaginable, with the same color palette, font and artwork. More listening deeply. More taking turns. More moving slowly and breathing deeply, especially when the conversations are heavy and difficult. More trying again, just one more time, without judgement. And more connecting with people that don’t look like you, don’t live like you, didn’t grow up in the same neighborhood as you, and feel just as passionately as you do about issues that matter to us all. Being a good partner in an ensemble cast. When supporters, activists, donors, volunteers and staff look like the island of multiracial, multicultural misfit toys, THEN you will win — whether it’s a political race or a revolution or an obstacle course.

4) Bonus point: Take breaks when you need to. To misquote RuPaul Charles, if you can’t be kind to yourself, how the hell you gonna be kind to somebody else?


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Tanya contributes to Women@Forbes, FairyGodBoss and curates Negotiate This. She’s writing a manual and curriculum to teach collaborative negotiation and other types of adaptive leadership techniques. Join her coaching page for updates.