I’ve been a rabble-rouser and social activist for 45 of my almost 66 years, and have made my living as a professional civil rights, labor, and community organizer, as well as a performer. In my new political memoir, Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble-Rousers, Activists, and Quiet Lovers of Justice (Berrett-Koehler, 2010), I relate stories from some of the great social reform campaigns in recent American history, of which I’ve been privileged to play a part–including the Southern Civil Rights Movement, the Harlan County coal miner’s strike, and the fight to abolish for-profit prisons and immigrant family detention. The book has lessons that I hope will inspire and motivate a new generation of community organizers and young activists–and anyone else who seeks to make an impact in their communities, from musicians and soccer moms, to teachers and politicians.
What follows is a list of take-away lessons and principles, a sort of manifesto for today’s community organizers.
“Freedom, freedom is a hard won thing, and every generation has to win it again.”
1. Most people are motivated primarily by self-interest. As a creative community organizer, you are always trying to figure out people’s common self-interest, the glue that binds political organizations and movements.
2. Institutions and people that hold power over others are rarely as united as they first appear. If you can’t get a person or institution to support you, you want to do everything in your power to convince them that it’s in their best self-interest to stay out of the fight.
3. Start the process of strategy development by imagining that instant just before victory. Then, working backwards, do your best to figure out the steps that will lead to that moment.
4. It is generally useful, as a part of any creative community organizing campaign, to advocate for a positive as well as to oppose a negative.
5. The more complicated a strategy or tactic, the harder it is to carry out, and the less likely that it will be successful. You can ask a few people to do a lot of things, particularly if they’re committed activists. If you want hundreds or thousands of people to participate in a campaign, you need to ask the great majority of them to do one thing, and only one.