Helping Activists Be Organizers

We use the word activism loosely and flexibly. Activism can be a lot of things. It can be unorganized or barely-organized agitation. It can be spontaneous, like donating $5 to a campaign or advocacy group. It can be showing up at a demonstration, signing a petition, sending a postcard, even posting on social media. I don’t mention any of those things to minimize them. It’s philosophically impossible to distinguish doing enough from doing too little as long as one is doing something. Sometimes groups do heavy lifting for years, and one person’s small action is a feather that breaks the system’s back. Nobody should be shamed for not running faster than they have strength, as the old saying goes.

Organized activism is more specific, easier to define, and because of good old economies of scale, organized activism can accomplish bigger tasks than individual actions can. Being an organizer means influencing and helping direct that scaling. When a thing is organized, you have goals and means of assessing whether you’ve met them. If you do it right, organizing contains its own self-correcting mechanisms, because a greater number of people with diverse perspectives and experiences helps shape your organization in the same way that a diverse ecosystem can cope with a wider range of external challenges.

We can learn something about how to be an organizer from understanding what motivates activism. David Gross writes that activism is made possible by a kind of positive naivete: a belief “that the world is completely mutable and therefore capable of being shaped by human action . . . the naive awareness does not allow itself to be paralyzed by obstacles, but rather engenders in its adherents a feeling of dedication and vision, of vigor and enthusiasm.”

Martin Luther King Jr. had an even more sobering phrase: “dangerous unselfishness.” He used it in the context of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the the Gospel of Luke. In that parable, a Hebrew traveler on the road to Jericho is mugged, beat up, and left for dead on the shoulder of the road. Several people pass the poor guy — a priest, a Levite, presumably others since it’s a busy road. Everybody avoids him. We can imagine them pretending not to look, or even gawking and then uncomfortably speeding up their pace and walking on. But finally a Samaritan shows up and, even though the conventional wisdom was that Samaritans and Jews were enemies, the Samaritan helps the injured man.

King says those who passed the injured man might have been afraid something would happen to them if they stopped; the road to Jericho was dangerous. Dangerous unselfishness is when we are nervous, hesitant, feel unbearably inconvenienced, and help anyway because it’s the right thing to do and we know it. As Stacy Parker LeMelle recently pointed out, in the speech where this phrase appears, King was calling on the audience “to boycott companies accused of unfair treatment, including, at the time, Coca-Cola, Sealtest milk, Wonder Bread and Hart’s bread. He pushed the audience to invest with Black banks, and use Black insurance companies.” Even that kind of change is not easy; it can range from inconvenient to terrifying for poor and working class people to change their entire investment and savings practices. And, of course, another reason boycotts aren’t easy is that, pretty much by their very nature, they require organization in order to work.

The answer to the question “how can we motivate ourselves and others to do the scary things we have to do to change the world for the better?” is deeply related to the question “how can we help activists turn themselves into organizers?” — that is, how can we take those people who are inclined to do all kinds of spontaneous and individual good acts, and turn them into effective members of political organizations, where the magnitude of their good faith can be multiplied, their effectiveness augmented on a mass scale?

Asking that question is a good starting point for organizing. It’s better than just saying “what the hell is wrong with people? Why do they just sit around on their phones all day and complain instead of organizing?” Those kinds of questions lead nowhere. We don’t know what motivates everyone, or what people’s personal struggles are. People may not be lazy, indifferent, or scattered. They may be, in a way, afraid to take the plunge. It may be fear of disappointment. It may be fear of being seen as an organized activist, ending up on an enemy list somewhere. And it very likely might be fear of having to work with others. After all, we would rather be texted than called on our phones — organizational social anxiety is a real thing.

Here are three thoughts I have about this question of turning activists into organizers. First, it’s a good idea to offer your recruits two kinds of tasks — things they do because those things gotta get done, and things they do because they have a passion or interest in them. Make sure everyone is doing two jobs at any given time — one they want to do, and one they understand that everyone, or everyone in a designated group, needs to do. If people are short on time, they can alternate between the task they have the passion for and the task they know is necessary. Either way, the preference-centered task keeps them motivated, while the organizational needs-centered task helps them feel like they’re doing what is helpful to the group. This fulfills people’s need to create and need to belong.

Don’t over-rely on the overly reliable. There’s always one or two people in a group that can always be relied on to do even the least pleasant tasks. It’s easy to fall back on their reliability over and over again. Don’t. Implementing the “do one thing you want and one thing we need” method described above can help check against the tendency to punish the most reliable members of the group and burn them out.

Finally, having your tech systems in place and functioning well will make your recruits feel better. This means having applications and systems for outreach. It means good data practices that respect activists time and contact preferences — a commercial append vendor can help clean up your address book and email lists if you don’t have this expertise on your team. This also means having good task organizers like Slack or, if you’re up for more robust project management that’s still user-friendly, Asana or Trello. When I say these systems will make people in the organization feel better I mean that well-organized preparation makes people relaxed and more comfortable with the general state of the team.

We’re all going to need to be dangerously unselfish in the months and years to come. Organizing is about overcoming the fears, inconveniences, and imperfections of our own solidarity. We can do it.