Ten Veteran Organizers on the Key to Effective Activism
"Nothing ever changes in Washington—or at any level of government—until regular people stand up and demand change."
Photos by Olivia Locher
RAISE YOUR VOICE
By Kirsten Gillibrand, United States senator for New York
If there's a problem in your community that you want to fix, the most important thing you can do is raise your voice. You never know how far your voice will go, or how effective it will be, until you speak out and make it clear to everyone you know that you're seeing something that's not right, and you want to fix it.
Think about what matters most to you. What do you care about more than anything else? Equality for LGBTQ families? The high cost of student loans? Corporate greed polluting your air and water? Elected officials trying to get between you and your doctor on healthcare decisions? High asthma rates in your city? Sexual assaults on college campuses?
These problems are very real, and I know they affect many of your lives personally and directly. But they're not going anywhere unless you speak out about them and convince enough people to join you and speak out about them, too. The truth is: Nothing ever changes in Washington—or at any level of government—until regular people stand up and demand change.
So if you see something that's wrong, or if there is a government policy that's unfair or is even making your life more difficult, the one thing you cannot and must not do is be silent. When you raise your voice about a problem in your community, the way you say it and where your message ends up might very well be the one extra bit of force that tips the balance of decision-making and pushes your elected leaders to respond. Use every platform available to you: social media, traditional media, town halls, calls to elected leaders, protests outside people's offices. Even run as a candidate for office, or just help someone who shares your values. Be loud and persist. And never doubt the power of speaking out about a problem that you think needs to be solved. Because if you don't do it, who else will?
SHOW UP AND MAKE CALLS
By Linda Sarsour, an award-winning Brooklyn-born, Palestinian Muslim American racial justice and civil rights activist, and one of the national co-chairs of the Women's March on Washington
The Women's March on Washington may have been the largest single-day protest in US history (so far). One of the most remarkable things about it was that many of the women who were involved in organizing this historic, inspiring, and powerful endeavor were not seasoned organizers: They were schoolteachers, yoga instructors, artists, entrepreneurs, stay-at-home moms, and college students from across the country.
We are in a very important moment as a nation, and we need all hands on deck. We have seen increased attacks on so many already vulnerable communities. Everyone has a role, and we must all play it now. The most effective advice I can give in this moment is to show up. When you hear of a local direct action or rally, make an effort to attend. Our visible outrage in the form of mass mobilizations sends a very strong message to this administration that we will not back down—that we will not allow it to attack our constitutional rights. People assume that actions are always organized by professional organizers, and in some cases, that is true, but oftentimes all it takes is a concerned few to put together a powerful action highlighting an important issue impacting that local community.
Second, make calls. Young and old alike, we can make a difference by ensuring that those elected to represent us hear our voices. The Affordable Care Act was saved because ordinary people like you protested and called their representatives and demanded they do the right thing. The calls created the political environment in which the Republicans knew if they brought it to the floor for a vote it would lose. Do not underestimate your power as an individual.
Third, join a local organization or organizing group or create your own. All it takes is a few friends who are committed to building local resilience. You can host small meetings and discuss important issues, organize or plug in to local/national calls to action. Young people are the beating heart of this current movement to resist this administration. You have the energy, the passion, the innovation, and creativity to resist in new ways that can be of great benefit to our communities and country. The questions you should ask yourself are, What talent do I have? What am I good at, and how I can offer that to the important work that is already happening?
If you are already resisting, we are grateful for your work. If you are planning on joining, we welcome you to the movement. This moment belongs to all of us, and I hope that generations from now you too will be part of a great story of power, resistance, and victory.
LEARN, LISTEN, LEVERAGE, AND LEAD
By David S. Johnson, director of training and curriculum at Americans for Prosperity Foundation's Grassroots Leadership Academy
Affecting change requires converting passion into organized, scalable activism.
Young activists frequently approach the issues they care about with plenty of passion, but it's important to remember passion is an emotion, not a plan. Attending a rally, wearing a button, or posting a statement on social media may reflect your passion, but it often falls short of achieving tangible policy wins.
The first step to being an effective activist is to get your hands dirty and your feet sore. Find a movement in need of change and get truly involved. Volunteer to do whatever that movement needs, from phone banking to door knocking, to writing letters to the editor to organizing events. By giving as much time as you can to a cause you care about, you will not only help the cause; you will learn which change-making activities you enjoy and excel at. And soon you will be able to lead an organized effort to achieve a specific policy change.
And just because you may be young, don't assume you shouldn't aim to be a successful leader. Once you've found the issue you're passionate about, and found an organization or movement to be involved with (or maybe you need to start your own), there are four steps to take: learn, listen, leverage, and lead.
Learn: In order to completely understand the best arguments for your position, you need to study them inside and out, and just as important, you need to be intimately familiar with the best arguments against your position. It's important to remember that memes aren't arguments, and that a majority of the most popular ideological blogs and sites on the web are not designed to persuade but to preach to the choir. People who successfully fight for change know how to meet everyone—supporter, opponent, and the uncommitted—where they are; they can speak effectively to anyone on their chosen issue.
Listen: Actively work to hear from those around you. Talk to those who either agree with your position or should and hear their stories. Learn how the issue affects the lives of those around you. By listening, you are showing that the fight is not just about you. You are also gaining the additional advantage of building relationships and trust. Lasting change is usually the work of platoons rather than individual soldiers. Build your platoon—your community—so that at its core there is a common belief in the fight and a common bond of trust among the participants.
Leverage: Use your new relationships to build a team. Think about the tactics you plan to employ. Will you need people who know the legislative process? Will you need people adept at planning and executing events and rallies? Will you need people who can lead a coordinated social media effort? Will you need people who can make phone calls or walk door-to-door or organize visits to elected officials? Each of us has unique skills and talents. Smart activists fully utilize the talents of those around them.
Lead: By learning, listening, and leveraging, you will not only be ready to lead; you will be recognized by your peers as someone capable of helping them get the changes they seek as well.
ORGANIZE AND STUDY HARD
By Mark Rudd, political organizer and author of Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen
My friend Alan Senauke, a Buddhist priest who works on ending global warming, among other issues, is fond of quoting an exchange from Zen Master Raven: Sayings and Doings of a Wise Bird, a fable by Robert Aitken Roshi .
Owl said, "Then where does Right Realization come in?"
Brown Bear said, "Right Views! Right Views!"
Owl said, "What are Right Views?"
Brown Bear said, "We're in it together and we don't have much time."
As a young person, I was lucky to have been a member of a mass movement that succeeded in ending the illegal and immoral war against Vietnam. Imagine, for a second, how that felt. It was an ultimate high, better than acid, certainly, and on a par with the birth of my kids. We were in it together, and we knew there wasn't much time.
When I was a freshman at Columbia University, I fell in with some kids, who were, unlike me, children of communists and socialists and labor organizers. These "red-diaper babies," as they called themselves, having grown up marching on union and civil rights picket lines, taught the rest of us that mass movements need clear goals, and strategy to achieve those goals—that the purpose of organizing is to involve more people in the movement, to get them to take some sort of action to end the war.
We set out to "politicize" the campus, forming a chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society, and organized for three years. In 1968, joining with the black students at Columbia and with the surrounding community, we produced an uprising involving thousands of people against the university's complicity with the war and its institutional racism. This was the largest student revolt in this country up to that time and became a model for other universities, culminating in millions of students striking in the spring of 1970, when the US government, losing the war, tried to widen it beyond the boundaries of Vietnam. We said, "NO!"
Our student movement had an advantage in the red-diaper babies. As young people today, you will have to quickly learn for yourselves the things that my socialist friends taught us back then: What is the role of good leadership? How do we bring people together to create power? How do we form coalitions or alliances with people unlike ourselves?
You'll have to read actual books.
The quickest way to learn all this stuff is to study successful mass movements—which ones depends only on your interests and passion. Find out how the civil rights movement in the South worked, what strategies and coalitions they built for power, what methods they used. Same goes for the women's movement, the gay rights movement, the disability rights movement, and the antinuclear movement. Check out contemporary movements for democracy in other countries—Serbia, Iran, China, and countries in Eastern Europe. What makes them tick? The information is available, but you have to dig. If you can't find what you need, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll point you in the right direction.
You'll have to read actual books. Movies are less useful because they only show the results of organizing, the marches and rallies, and the civil-disobedience actions, but not the underlying strategy and methods, which are the models you need. Talking with veterans of these movements is important, too—but hurry, because a lot of us are dying off.
Talk with other young people. Sit in a room, face to physical face, drink a cup of tea or coffee, and get to know one another and why you're all interested in the movement. Exchange ideas, build trust, and decide together what is to be done.
You have available to you communication technologies that are infinitely more powerful than the ones we had 50 years ago, which were home telephones (without answering machines) and typed mimeo leaflets handed out on a street corner. Still, certain fundamentals—the need for strategy and organizing as interpersonal communication—remain.
Just remember Brown Bear's message: We're in this together, and we don't have much time! Learn fast and move quickly.
FLOWER AND FLOURISH
By Sister Simone Campbell, Sisters of Social Service, executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice and leader of Nuns on the Bus
As I look around at our nation and world, I notice a lot of situations to worry about. I notice the struggle embedded in income and wealth disparity. I see the continuing manifestations of our nation's original sin of racism. I see some, for political reasons, refusing to engage the exploitation of our people and our planet. It is enough on some days to make me weep.
But as I travel the country, I also see a springtime of hope in the youth of our day. Maybe youth always bring hope, but in the midst of today's polarization and worry, I find it more refreshing than usual. So my advice to you is: Flower and flourish!
We need your creativity. We need your vision of justice. We need your awareness of the dignity of all, not just those who look and act like me. We need your commitment to the long haul.
When I was a youngster in California, I had a passion for justice, especially in civil rights and anti-poverty work. When President Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," I thought he was speaking directly to me. Because of that, I've spent my life in this work. It has been a great joy to engage in this quest for justice. But it has not been easy. In fact, a few months ago, I was wondering if it was worth it! Then a friend said to me, "Imagine what a state we would be in if you hadn't dedicated your life to the work!" It made me pause and renew my commitment. I continue this work today in my advocacy on Capitol Hill and around the country. But I know we need a fresh breath of imagination.
Please wade into these muddy waters of today with us older folk and share your creativity and new ideas that you bring. At the heart of this new work, I urge you to bring a revolutionary love that can really change hearts and minds. Imagination grounded in love is what actually builds something new. Such daring can mend the gaps and re-weave the fabric of our society. Your willingness to engage in the challenging work of justice making is what our world is hungry for.
So, don't hang back! Leap into this critical work with vision, imagination, and engagement. You are who we have been waiting for! You are the gift we need. In this moment, step up for the hard work ahead. We the People can flourish if you lead in love and challenge us with your creativity and imagination. You can lead us into a new springtime that is inclusive and caring for one another and our earth. Then we can know a flourishing of justice in our midst. You are the springtime of this promise!
BE PERSISTENT AND FIND YOUR ALLIES
By Rosalyn Koo, activist, philanthropist, and founder of the All-China Women's Federation's 1990 Institute Spring Bud Project
To me, passion is the fuel that drives the engine of life. To sustain this passion, you need to be willing to fail and try again. The end product is always much more impactful than one individual.
In the 80s, I volunteered to take charge of constructing Lady Shaw Senior Housing, a low-income development in San Francisco's Chinatown. The first attempt was a total disaster—I was blindsided by a false sense of confidence. My immediate reaction was to quit, but no fool would take it over. Then I thought: Who do you think you are? Just because you failed, doesn't mean the sky will fall. Just be smarter next time. (I talked to myself a lot in my early years.) Soon I began looking for another plot of land to build the housing, and one day, a wealthy Caucasian said to me, "You people should get back into Chinatown—you don't belong here!" That did it! I would not rest until I defeated her!
So I asked for help in political and technical circles, outside the Chinese community. First we needed a really mean "take no prisoners" type of land-use attorney to help us navigate the roadblocks in city hall. We found one who traded us her services for unlimited dinners at her favorite Chinese restaurant, and she led us through 11 public hearings as we secured air rights above a neighborhood tunnel to build Lady Shaw without knocking down any other buildings in the area.
When that wealthy white lady put together a petition, gathering signatures at $2 apiece, our project was put to a vote. Our opponents threatened to destroy us with their political and financial power, but we turned to a seasoned consultant who showed us how to fight them—and he worked in exchange for freshly made pots of coffee, teaching us to summon our "people's power." The night before the vote, we printed 100,000 bilingual flyers, and all the able-bodied seniors we knew distributed them in bus and BART stations from 6 AM to 9 PM. In the end, we triumphed. It took six years to get approval and build 70 units above the tunnel. When Lady Shaw opened, 4,000 low-income seniors competed for a decent place to spend their remaining years.
Thinking back, I was very restless as a girl growing up in Shanghai. I didn't have to learn about poverty—it was all around me. One day, I told my mother, "When I grow up, I will go to the countryside to help the poor!" She replied, "What do you have to offer to make their lives better? You don't even know how to pick up after yourself at home." I felt put down by her, but not willing to admit defeat, and so I told her, "These are inconsequential details. I will find a way."
Finding a way has been my MO as a social activist, and it can be yours, too, if you persist and ask for help.
BE DIFFERENT AND HAVE FUN
By Srdja Popovic, Serbian political activist and author of Blueprint for Revolution
In everyday life, we witness the world transforming and changing rapidly, and we have people who refuse to compromise or conform to thank for that. When you try to challenge a system, the people who hold the power, especially those who always have, will tell you that there are processes, issues, and ideas that you cannot understand. They will tell you that you're too young or that there are others who know the "issues" better. If everyone succumbed to those persuasions, the world would never change. Just think of how many people you've heard of who did something great for their community or the world. They, surely, were also told that it's not up to them to change things.
If you believe that you can change things in your community, and that the "issues" don't exist independently from you, then you are different from many people. If you believe in a better tomorrow and that all people can and should contribute to the important goal of changing the status quo, then you are different from many people. It's easier to follow the popular culture or to have contempt for things that are conventional, right? But doing that makes you part of the crowd. But if you reject that, you are different, and you are also already an activist. You know that when you are young there is no more useful activity than working to make and see change.
Through activism, you can meet a diverse and inspiring group of people. This is the place where you'll connect with creative individuals who will force you to upgrade your thinking every day. You will do the same to them: This is a two-way street. Activism and thinking differently will open many doors for you, but it is up to you what you will take away from it. Become an activist because activism is meant to be fun!
LEAD WITH YOUR DEEPEST VALUES
By George Gresham, president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest healthcare union in America
I'm honored to have the opportunity to contribute to this forum because I believe strongly that the younger generation will lead us to a more tolerant, progressive, compassionate, inclusive, and economically just society.
When I was young, I never thought I'd end up being a union president. As a child, I attended segregated schools in Virginia before my family moved to the Bronx. My father was a truck driver, and my mother was a homemaker. I started out in a hospital's housekeeping department and then went back to school to become an MRI technologist through a training fund offered by my union.
From that experience, I started to get more involved in the union as a member, and my understanding of the connection between the labor, civil rights, and social-justice movements began to grow. Eventually, I was hired with the union full time and rose through the ranks over four decades. The whole time, what impelled me forward was a belief in the basic dignity of every individual, the value of all types of work, and the conviction that we are all connected to one another.
For those of us who are trying to create positive social change and uplift people's lives, it is important to lead with and communicate our deepest shared values. Progressive American values include fairness and honesty; equal opportunity and rights for all; responsibility and caring for ourselves, our families, our communities, our country, and our planet; protection from harm; and the freedom to live a fulfilling, secure, and meaningful life.
We need to knock down barriers and facilitate coalitions across communities and causes.
Being a leader of a union with members from all different backgrounds has also taught me it is crucial to widen your audience and understand who you're speaking to. Often in the social-justice movement, we tend to use lingo and messages that speak solely to our base of supporters but don't bring others along to our side.
Of course, there will always be hard-right ideologues who are impossible to convince, and we shouldn't waste our time trying to change their entrenched beliefs. But in my experience, usually about half the people lie somewhere in the middle of a debate, and their minds are not initially made up. It's our job to bring them along rather than alienate them and use language, messages, and tactics that pull them over to our progressive values. We need to knock down barriers and facilitate coalitions across communities and causes.
One of the best recent examples is the Fight for $15. Unions and community groups have been making the case that people who work hard and contribute to society—including home-care workers, childcare workers, adjunct professors, food-service workers, retail clerks, janitors, and airport workers—should have the dignity of a living wage to support their families and build a better future. Just a few years ago, the idea of a $15 minimum wage was derided as impossible. Now, more and more cities and states are increasing their minimum wages, raising pay for millions of workers and showing that social change can happen very rapidly.
Finally, building our social-justice movement should be fun, and we need to celebrate our victories, especially in difficult times. We try to have a live band at most of our big union events, and it gets our members and their kids dancing. Parties, music, art, singing, and culture of all kinds are vital.
By communicating our core values, and opening up our organizing to the widest swath of people, we can create a sustainable and lasting movement for a better world.
By Ned Ryun, founder and CEO of American Majority, a training institute with a mission to identify and mold the next wave of liberty-minded community leaders and grassroots activists
National politics have been consuming a great deal of any political conversation. In the media, online, and in person, people just can't stop talking about what's happening in Washington, DC. But is that really the most important part of our political lives? Don't get me wrong, there are crucial issues that can only be tackled on a national scale, such as foreign policy, healthcare, and the $20 trillion in debt our country faces, just to name a few. But ultimately the part of government that impacts your life the most on a daily basis isn't decided in DC. It's city councilors, mayors, state delegates, and school-board members who are making the decisions that will affect you the most. Public transportation, the quality of school districts, zoning regulations, property taxes, and so much more decide what the community around you will be like. If you want to have an outsized impact on your community, getting involved in local politics is the way to do it.
So what can you do? First, start attending meetings. Learn when and where these boards, councils, and commissions meet and physically show up. Don't just log into the livestream. Be physically present and in the room. The digital world is great for a lot of things, but politics is still a contact sport; nothing beats being in the room where it happens.
Learn about the issues, the players, and the consequences, and then start bringing in your like-minded friends. A group of five to ten people working together toward the same goal can create a very large splash, especially at the local level. Work with your group to organize for action, bringing in other community leaders, like business people, religious leaders, and others, to advocate to elected officials on behalf of the issue you care about. Show the politicians why your preferred outcome is not only good for but also very important to the community. Work with those politicians by volunteering on their campaigns, inviting them into community events and forums that could be valuable, and thanking them for their sincere efforts working on your issues.
Don't just log into the livestream. Be physically present and in the room.
Seek out and work with the local media, helping reporters understand the issues and ramifications. Many local outlets have folded entirely or are seriously cutting back coverage on these small, local issues. Since 1996, the newspaper workforce has contracted by more than 20,000 jobs, about 39 percent. They might not have the staff to pay attention to your local political scene, so become a source for them. Do the groundwork, introduce them to helpful contacts, and lead them to stories you think your community should hear.
Finally, consider running for office yourself. Small local elections aren't won with huge advertising budgets, super PACs, and big-time campaign spending. They are won by pounding the pavement, knocking on doors, and having genuine conversations with voters about their concerns. Become a part of those commissions and boards making the decisions that will make your neighborhood and your state a better place. If you want to be serious about political change, it's time to get off the sideline and get in the game.
TAKE THE MAIN STAGE
By Jonathan Matthew Smucker, co-founder of Beyond the Choir and author of Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals
What comes to mind when we think of "activism" or "activists"? Is it an inspirational picture of everyday people joining together to take collective action on issues that impact their lives? Or is it a caricature of a small band of naïve and self-righteous young people passing through an "activist phase" of their lives that they'll grow out of soon enough?
In my grassroots organizing work over the past two decades, I have aspired to the former option. But I have had to continually navigate the latter as a negative cultural script. And, unfortunately, my fellow activists and I all too often unintentionally reinforced the negative perceptions of activism and activists—to the detriment of the causes we cared about so deeply.
When we're not careful, this thing called activism can become a repelling mechanism to the very people whom we need to be organizing into a grassroots political force. Activism can become an exclusive enclave—a kind of enlightened clubhouse—where self-selecting activists cluster together, expressing our idealistic values but never developing into a big enough force to make a real dent in the problems we protest.
We know that we have to expand the number of people who are taking collective action. The political task at hand is much bigger than what could ever be accomplished by those who presently identify as activists. Over the past four decades, the rich and powerful have steadily grown richer and more powerful, rigging our political system and our economy to further their own narrow interests. It is now commonplace for corporate lobbyists to literally write our nation's legislation. Today's out-of-touch political class lacks the will to take on towering problems like growing poverty, persistent structural racism, decaying infrastructure, the opioid epidemic, and climate change. The status quo it's attached to has left so many behind.
It's been able to achieve this in part because everyday people have been pushed out of the political process. For several decades now, Americans' participation in conventional civic organizations, including labor unions, has declined. In broad strokes, entrenched power has been able to get its way because we have lacked the organization to push back.
To take on entrenched power, we need people power.
With insufficient organization and political power, activism too often contents itself with the futile exercise of "speaking truth to power." The hard truth is, the powerful are not overly concerned about our truth. They are perfectly OK with us standing on the sidelines protesting them, holding a righteous flame in the wind, shouting our truth until we are blue in the face. What they really do not want is for us to arm our moral protest with political power.
Frederick Douglass famously said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand." That is precisely why people band together, form organizations, and participate in grassroots movements and campaigns: to construct the collective power needed to make righteous demands politically potent. To take on entrenched power, we need people power.
The good news is that we're building it now. In the wake of the 2016 election, an unprecedented number of Americans have joined together to take collective action to fight back and to right social wrongs. So much is at stake right now, but in this crisis, we also have a huge opportunity to break out of our boxes and step out of our enclaves. In the years ahead, we have to go big. Our historical task is to mount a popular opposition—one that takes to the streets to protest, to be sure, but that also aims to take political power. If we are to have a real democracy, then We the People belong center stage.
It will be hard, and it will take a lot of us. But that is where we belong. That is where you belong. Not a character in an entertaining sideshow but a protagonist on the main stage of politics.