I frequently talk with amazing social innovators who have great ideas, but don't know how to implement them through community organizing. It's something that you learn by doing and takes years of on-the-ground experience, self-reflection, and feedback. I also studied community organizing in school and with groups who do trainings, which was helpful in getting a framework to examine the effectiveness of what I do.
After 10 years as a practitioner, it seems community organizing is more important than ever. Occupy Wall Street was powered by participatory organizing structures. Community organizing was central to former U.S. President Barack Obama's successful 2008 presidential campaign. So whether you're a neighborhood leader, worker co-op member, politician, or sharing economy entrepreneur, community organizing can help you better serve your community. Here are my top 10 lessons from 10 years of community organizing that you can use today:
1. Involve the community
Involve the communities you want to work with from the very beginning to get their perspective on what you are doing. Offer people something in return for their input. Especially involve different demographics you want to work with. If someone sees only people with green hair working initially on a project, they might think, "that's a project only for green haired people," and people with purple hair might feel uninvited or simply uncomfortable at your gatherings.
2. Listen well and communicate
The best community organizers listen to the people they work with rather than imposing their ideas on people. They adjust projects based on feedback, sometimes even scrapping the project for an emergent idea coming from the groups they listen to. But don't take too much of their time. Think of specific questions and ways they might want to participate. Don't drain their interest with endless debate, mandatory meetings, or bureaucracy, unless they really like that approach and have the time.
3. Make room for people and groups to participate
Provide opportunities to participate, including leadership roles, project ownership, and increased responsibility (if participants desire that). Offer them something in return for their participation, especially if you are working with low-income communities.
4. Adapt to the circumstances, and be willing to let go
Community organizing is like improvisational dance. Your project will thrive only if you can gracefully respond to changing circumstances, including your own role, position, and ideas in the project. A healthy dose of humility and fluidity in project design can go a long way.
5. Clarify your vision and values
Try to work with people who at least share your basic values. When conflict arises, you will at least have some common ground to stand on and move forward. Lack of shared values, even in one group member, can sometimes tear an otherwise healthy group apart. Clear vision and values will help you figure out how to effect change and practice what you preach.
6. Have faith and tenacity
If you can get past the phase where you feel as if you are going out on a limb with your project, you will hopefully notice people starting to express excitement about and commitment to it. This means you should keep going despite obstacles, because you have an idea that has staying power. Next you may need to convert the project to a functional organization.
7. Make your organization open but structured
Use transparency methods, open meetings, and accountability, and involve your members, clients, employees, and/or volunteers as much as possible without being too cumbersome and dragged into trivial details. Delegate noncontroversial or minor tasks to committees, but involve as many stakeholders in key decisions as possible. Try to get consensus. Only when you have buy-in will you get willing volunteers or employees to execute the project. Because of this, consensus is more efficient in the long run if people have training in consensus and communication.
8. Relationships and partnerships are the crux of community organizing
Be a good partner by communicating regularly, helping your partners, and asking them for support. Reciprocity and communication build healthy two-way relationships that are the strong foundation of a community organization. Create ways for people in your organization to take care of each other (like gift circles or rewarding with Timebank hours) and your organization's partners (like free tickets, classes, or reciprocal publicity). If partners' needs aren't being met, the partnership will not last.
Imagine and map your organization as web of overlapping and nested circles of participation, impact, and responsibility. Nurture your relationships at all levels from clients and consumers, to producers and funders, to community members who are influenced by your work, and all other stakeholders. Consider how this web can become more connected, participatory, and stronger, which will make your work more powerful.
9. Create a safe space for people to criticize without retribution, including your partners
Cultivating safety will help your project or organization grow and mature and will make it more responsive to critics, maybe even converting them when they realize that you care about their opinions. For local businesses, this may mean a paid focus group with community organizations, members, or leaders. Value all perspectives — everyone has a piece of the truth. It will also help confront unspoken hierarchies that may threaten your group's culture. Have a skilled mediator on hand for challenging conflict.
10. Have fun together
Take time to enjoy each others' company. Eat and play together, have bonding time. Studies indicate that most relationships that thrive have a greater number of positive interactions than negative ones. People tend to add things up. If you share positive interactions on a regular basis, the challenging times will seem more like a bump or a curve in the road than the end of the road. Make the work itself enjoyable. As activist Emma Goldman once said, "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution."
This article was originally published in 2012 and was updated in 2018. This article is part of a series of action-oriented guides that align with Post Carbon Institute's Think Resilience online course. The Think Resilience course prepares participants with the systems-level knowledge needed to take meaningful actions as suggested in this and other "How to Share" guides in the series.
Header image courtesy of Urban Archives, Temple University. Member of the Black Panther Party distributing free lunches to North Philadelphia residents, August 1971.