Over the past year, the combination of Black Lives Matter protests, the coronavirus pandemic, and the historic 2020 election caused many people in America to protest and keep up with left-leaning politics in a way that has never been seen in the mainstream. While attending a protest or reading about the struggle to abolish prisons is a great first step to getting involved, joining a political organization is key for charting a path to making true change.
A political organization is an advocacy group or non-governmental organization that involves itself in activism around a local or national political issue. These issues can vary from something hyper-local and specific, such as efforts to get people registered to vote in a particular county, or can support a larger agenda, such as the decriminalization of sex work across the United States. Members of a political organization often attend regular meetings, volunteer a certain amount of time per week, and help organize and carry out protests, mutual efforts, and information-sharing within communities and online.
“It is very important for people to join an organization,” Epiphany Summers, the Organizing Director for Dream Defenders, told VICE. “Organizations give you tools and frameworks to win change. Organizing gives you resources for your movement or campaign. Building people-power is very essential to winning change, especially radical change, and we all need an organization to build power with.”
Joining an organization allows you to connect with other activists, become more politically educated, and find community within your city. If you’re looking to find or build your political home, this guide is for you.
Shop around before committing to an organization.
It’s important not to put pressure on yourself to find and settle into your political home immediately. Finding the right organization to join often takes time and effort, and you should allow yourself that space. Start by doing a quick Google or Twitter search to get a better sense of the types of organizations in your area. For example, if you live in Chicago and are interested in defunding the police, you can search “abolitionist orgs in Chicago” on Google to find specific organizations that focus on your areas of interest that are local to you. Or you can search “Chicago organizer” on Twitter, and you will likely find multiple organizers within your city, and can see what orgs they are a part of. From there, you can reach out to members, attend informational meetings, and try to get a better sense of which org best fits your political and social needs.
“Trying to find a political home, especially shortly after moving to a new city, was really hard,” Micah Herskind, an Atlanta-based organizer, told VICE. “For a while, I Googled, asked around, and attended informational meetings. One of the ways I actually ended up getting connected with other organizers in Atlanta was through Twitter. I reached out to people who were doing mutual aid work, asked how I could support, and ended up slowly getting to know and organize with people here in Atlanta.”
When picking a political organization, try to home in on what your political interests are. Are you interested in providing aid to victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault? An organization like Survived and Punished might be right for you. If you’re Black and interested in abolition, you might consider joining Black Alliance for Peace. Knowing the criteria that’s most important to you, whether it’s a political issue or particular identity you want to center in your politics, can help you decide what org is right for you.
Deana Ayers, a member of Black Visions in Minneapolis, told VICE that they chose the organization because it hit all their main criteria by providing them a chance to organize around political education and prison abolition, while working mainly with other queer Black people. “I think the biggest piece of advice that I can give to people looking for a political home is honestly to be picky,” Ayes said. “You want to make sure that the organization is a good fit for you in as many ways as possible. That means you should have a decent idea of what you’re looking for, whether that’s a climate org or a Black feminist or an anarchist collective. I also highly recommend asking for a 1:1 with someone that you know is part of the organization, whether you met in person or on social media, as a good first step for getting involved.”
If you cannot find an organization to join within your city, or are wary of going to physical meetings because of the pandemic, many organizations, such as the Democratic Socialists of America, also allow members to attend meetings virtually.
If you can’t find the right organization, consider starting your own.
It’s possible that even after looking around and attending meetings, you still won’t find an org that checks all your boxes. If this happens, it is more than possible to just start your own. Organizations can and often do work together on certain projects or missions, so starting your own org does not necessarily mean you are in conflict with existing ones. However, forming your own organization can be a useful tactic when you have a very specific mission that you don’t see being carried out elsewhere. Omni Miranda Martone, an organizer in Washington D.C, told VICE that after experiencing sexual assault first hand, they worked in various organizations that were dedicated to survivor support by advocating for policies that improved the rights and protections for survivors. Though this work was rewarding, Martone still did not feel totally fulfilled.
“I was on a mission,” they said. “I did not want to just help survivors heal. I wanted to prevent them from becoming survivors or needing to heal. After years of searching, I realized I was never going to find an organization dedicated to sexual violence prevention. So I founded the Sexual Violence Prevention Association (SVPA) with the mission of preventing sexual violence systsemically.” Since starting SVPA, Martone has created a scoring system to access universities’ policies regarding sexual violence and created a large and very extensive database for campus sexual assault that compiles the scope of Title IX policies, accessibility of a 24/7 hotline, the ratio of students to trained sexual violence personnel, frequency and substance of bystander intervention training, and more—two feats they believe would not have happened without founding their own organization.
Kavita Rai, a student and organizer in California, had a similar experience when she founded her organization, Justice in the Classroom, in June of 2020. Justice In the Classroom aims to force schools in Ventura County to prioritize racial equity through curriculum reform, student punishment reform, and hiring more educators of color. According to Rai, no other organizations that focused on these initiatives prioritized student voices, so she knew it was time to start her own. “No other organization within education advocacy was student-led,” she explained. “We found this to be extremely concerning considering all decisions about what we learn and who gets opportunities were made without us truly being involved. We realized we could be strong voices in the education system with a streamlined mission for racial equity in our schools.”
To start your own organization, you’ll need the right tools.
If you want to start your own org but are totally new to organizing or are unsure where to begin, it can be helpful to speak with other more experienced organizers to learn more about their experiences and learn useful tips. Online guides can also be useful when developing the mission or goals of your organization. If you are unsure of whether you want your org to have NGO status, this guide can also be useful.
Starting an organization can be very rewarding but logistically complicated, particularly because the pandemic means we cannot have meetings in person for the foreseeable future. It’s important that you are equipped with the right tools to make sure that you and your comrades can still effectively communicate and your organization’s agenda remains clear. Many organizers find platforms like Slack helpful for communicating, and use social media to promote their org’s fundraisers and events, or recruit new members.
“When you are first starting out, I recommend setting a goal for 40 to 50 hours for your team overall,” Martone suggested. “This may be four people working 10 hours a week or one person working 40 with five others working one hour a week.” They suggested trying to raise between $500 and $1,000 to create your organization—money that will be used for things like coordinating events or booking spaces for meetings if needed.
“The biggest challenge was figuring out the internal management of our organization,” said Rai. “Finding out when people could meet over Zoom, creating committees, and ideating and executing outreach and strategy was hard to organize with students’ schedules. We were very mindful that we are all full time high school and college students. We realize not everyone has the luxury of hopping on Zoom calls to do volunteer work, and through a lot of trial and error we figured out how to use social media and Slack to reach everyone.”
Some of the digital tools you may want to use—like Zoom or Slack—might have costs associated with them. Luckily, you can often find free or cheap alternatives to most digital tools.
“We’ve been using a lot of Facebook Fundraisers because all of the fees are waved,” Martone said. “We use Otter and Google text-to-speech for captions in our meetings and webinars. Both are free resources and Otter creates a transcript which is really helpful.”
Digital organizing is often necessary for people with disabilities who might not otherwise be able to participate in protests, canvass neighborhoods, or easily get to in-person meetings, so it’s important to choose tools and platforms that are accessible. Make sure that your videos are captioned, use descriptive link text in emails, add alt text to images on Twitter, and ensure your tools are otherwise accessible to all types of organizers.
Remember that there might be conflict.
Whether you are joining or creating an organization, it’s important to keep in mind that organizers are human beings, and even people with similar politics will disagree politically, ideologically, and socially. Dyamond Gibbs, an organizer in Pennsylvania and the president of the Pennsylvania grassroots organization Understanding, Devotion, Take Action, and Justice (U.D.T.J.), told VICE that learning to navigate conflict between members of her organization was one of the hardest and most valuable lessons she learned while organizing. “Listening and responding reasonably is key,” she said. “There are for sure going to be disagreements, but a common ground can always be reached. Don’t shoot down any ideas. The last thing you would want is for members to now feel uncomfortable or disrespected in a group that is supposed to closely work together. If that doesn’t work, even assigning a mediator could be useful to avoid any arguments.”
Ayers furthered that it’s important to recognize what types of conflict need to be addressed in order to do political work, versus what conflict is more personal and can be addressed outside of a meeting. “I think it’s important that people remember that a political home is different from a friend circle, in that you don’t really have to be close to one another or really be friends,” they said. “That means that I only engage in conflict when it’s related to the organization itself or actually achieving the goals that we’ve set collectively. If the organization is determining whether or not to endorse candidates, that’s the point where it makes sense to have some generative conflict about whether or not electoralism makes sense for the organization and goals.”
It’s better to get involved now than waiting to find the perfect org.
Finding an organization to join might seem intimidating, but it’s best to just go for it. Organizers are normally very friendly and passionate people who are excited to meet new members, even if you are new to organizing or still feel like you have lots to learn. Remember that even the most established organizers once had to go through the process of finding a political home; it might take time, but the effort is worth it.
“Take that risk, go to that meeting, direct message that activist, walk up to that organizer you saw,” said Summers. “Once you get started the rest will follow.”
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