Unsexy, medium-scale organizing is the future
Agree or disagree, changing individual lifestyle choices isn’t an effective strategy for making change.
It’s nice to think we can make an impact just by being vegan or riding a bike or donating to charity, but the reality is that we’re up against massive industries (like trucking), that not only use massive amounts of fossil fuels, but also support our organic-vegetables-from-somewhere-else habits. All of the good things we want to do are underpinned by bad actors. It’s overwhelmingly intertwined. Even recycling is done in China.
We’re dealing with global corporations and economies of scale here. It is the higher power we are forced to serve under neoliberal capitalism.
Let’s give a hypothetical example
Say you live in Fort Collins, CO. Say also that you’re upset about climate change and want to do something good for the environment. For our purposes we’ll also assume you have ~10 hours/week to apply to organizing. So you create a Facebook page and some graphics, set up an email list, and eventually, after three months, convince 165 of your friends, family, and community members to take the bus five days a week instead of driving.
It was a lot of organizing effort — and a big sacrifice for those that committed—but it really worked. And it feels really good. You’ve done something positive and measurable in your community, and it’s replicable and shareable to boot. Congrats!
Now let’s dig a little deeper.
One of the biggest polluters in your town of Fort Collins happens to be Broadcom, a company that makes cellphone microchips. They are actively responsible for the degradation of air quality in your community. Your local transportation initiative doesn’t change the fact that they’re rapidly increasing production to supply global demand. Meaning: they’re easily outpacing your effort, even before you begin.
You soldier on. Your idea will be infectious and bring hope to many. It makes other people feel good. Look how many people shared it on Facebook! Maybe other citizens of Fort Collins think that riding the bus will offset their pollution by contributing towards a larger “trickle up” approach. The spread of the idea will lead to it eventually being adopted as part of the mainstream culture. You’ll have won the culture war and they’ll be forced to change their polluting ways. One to one to one we make change, right?
Probably not. At least, not on a scale that matters. Because meanwhile, the citizens of Fort Collins still have to live with the environmental abuses of Broadcom as they continue to expand their operations.
It’s starting to look like your efforts to clean the air in Fort Collins might have been better served by addressing the active abuses of powerful industries in your community.
But wait, aren’t we comparing apples and oranges here?
Probably. Broadcom is part of the global tech industry, busses are part of a hyper-local transportation sector. However, the point is to illuminate something more important about how we as organizers approach problems.
Much of the time, so-called left (activists and non-activists) like to tackle problems by working at the extreme ends of the spectrum:
- Personal change — “I’ve stopped eating meat” “I bike to work every day” “We keep the heat low and bundle up in the winter”
- Global/national NGOs —“I went to [developing country] and helped [NGO] on their [big project]” “We’re working to eradicate all child poverty in America”
Hyper-personal work assumes that a single person’s lifestyle choices will create a domino effect of good change—what I referred to earlier as “trickle up” and “one to one to one”. The ego involved with this mindset is toxic and can lead to inaction or retraction of an individual from community. Often I hear something along the lines of, “Well, I don’t like to talk politics or be outspoken, I just do me ’cause I want to be the change.” I argue here that one’s lifestyle choices have an effect, but also that one living their life alone is not as effective as one might think. I know someone who used to say, “You don’t get rewarded in life for doing the things you’re supposed to do.” And the ripple effect of one’s personal changes are likely to be marginal. Using this approach to tackle a big problem is a slow and painful task, likened to that of our old friend Sisyphus. The personal change approach is a good start, but it’s just that: a start.
Check out Forget Shorter Showers by Derrick Jensen for more.
At the other end of the spectrum, hyper-national/global work allows one to believe they’re making change for people whom they don’t know, but assume they do. By its very nature, a national or global issue impacts people well outside one’s everyday life. One cannot ever put oneself into the shoes of those they’re serving because one simply doesn’t live with them. At its best, the global/national approach keeps an eye on injustice that can go largely unnoticed or unaddressed. And we need this. At its worst though, this approach breeds the white savior mindset. Again, highly toxic.
We won’t touch on the overhead of fundraising and admin for these groups now, but that’s part of the inefficiency, too. Check out this article on the Red Cross failing at relief for more.
Don’t get me wrong, these types of work are important. But all the work is important. And it all needs to be done all at once all the time.
My point is this: localized strategies matter a lot.
We, as individuals, can make very little impact by changing our daily habits…at least in the timeframe we’re working with. And speaking specifically as an American in a post-election moment, we need to protect our communities—the ones we live in right now.
To do this I believe it’s time the left take a lesson from the right’s playbook. Skill up on economics, the history of war, sociology, and the legislative process in your city/county/state. Then learn to write a business plan.
The left has just lost a lot of power at the national level in this country. The path to making change from the top down looks as exciting and effective a prospect as four years of Democratic filibusters. And obviously bringing one’s own bags to the grocery store won’t do much to combat the anti-climate decisions of the federal government.
What lives in between? Localized strategies do. Individuals seeking change and NGOs concerned with big issues can make meaningful change on the small-to-medium scale. In fact, it’s the place where they can come together most effectively. Leveraging the power of both has the ability to create that lovely domino effect on a scale that actually matters.
Here are some examples:
- Decriminalization of cannabis on the state level generates money for public works and keeps people out of prison
- Seattle, WA is increasing the minimum wage, and despite biased opposition, it’s helping hourly workers
- Represent.us has used localized strategy to pass anti-corruption legislation in 17 cities and hack away at big money in politics
- New York leveraged real science to ban fracking and gave other states a path to do the same
Some other examples: Vermont led the way in GMO labelling, Keystone Pipeline resistance was brought to the national stage by local communities, and Massachusetts is reigning in a new era for farm animal welfare.
Our labor and our dollars are finite. By organizing locally on specific, measurable change and putting in actual hours of our time, we can take back power and protect what’s most dear. We must make the most of our organizing efforts if we are to get anything done. With a good mix of realism and idealism, grassroots organizing and wealthy donor support, plus a hell of a lot of elbow grease, our communities stand a chance at becoming more resilient and self-sufficient in the face of sweeping “conservative” reform.
Let’s bite off more than we can chew, but not so much that we choke.