20 Principles for Successful Community Organizing
20 Principles for Successful Community Organizing
By Si Kahn / alternet.org
May 9, 2015

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.

6. You need to believe that human beings, no matter how much they may hate each other, can somehow find some common connection. To do that, leave your stereotypes at the door.

7. In real life and in actual campaigns for justice, the people are always partly united, partly divided. It’s up to you to reinforce unity and to compensate for the divisions among the people with whom you work.

8. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that demonstrations were only effective in the 1960s--that in the twenty-first century, we need to find other, less confrontational ways to make our voices heard.

9. Be absolutely certain that the people you work with truly understand the risks they’re taking, the things that could go wrong, the losses they might suffer, before they make the decision to act, individually or together.

10. One of the greatest skills an organizer can have is the ability to frame and ask questions in ways that make people not only want to answer them, but also to think deeply, and in unexpected ways, about what the answers might be.

11. Laughter really is therapeutic, and hope does heal. Be cheerful in the face of adversity, and help others feel that way.

12. The more sure you are of yourself, of your experiences in other communities and campaigns, the more you have to struggle to avoid the arrogance of thinking you know what’s right for other people.

13. When an institution that has a responsibility to everyday people fails to do its job, one option is to build another organization to challenge the first one and force it to do the right thing. The other option is not only to build an alternative organization, but to use it as the base for a campaign to take over the original one.

14. When those who have been without power gain it, there is no guarantee that they will exercise it more democratically than those who have had it before.

15. The power of culture can be an antidote to people’s inability to see beyond their “own people” or situation. Culture can transform consciousness and make social change transformative rather than merely instrumental.

16. Organizers are often unjustly accused by those in power of inciting violence. That’s a lie, and it needs to be put to rest. It’s just a tactic the opposition uses to discredit your organization. To shut down a prison; to drive an exploitative enterprise out of business; to make sure a sexual harasser is fired--that is not violence. It’s justice.

17. Go not only with what you know, but with whom you know. Even in the Internet age, personal relationships still count, especially when you’re asking people to do something. When recruiting volunteers, give them a specific list of campaign needs from which they can choose.

18. It’s quite easy to slide from helping organize a community to becoming its leader and spokesperson--even though you’re not really a member of that community.

19. We can never truly predict what human beings working together can accomplish, and therefore we can never compromise with injustice.

20. The beloved community of which Dr. King spoke, rather than something we reach some day in the future, may be something we experience a little bit every day while, as creative community organizers, we walk and work towards it.


About Si Kahn

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.

3.8 ·
1
Trending Today
Why It's Crucial for Women to Heal the Mother Wound
Bethany Webster · 16,873 views today · The issue at the core of women’s empowerment is the mother wound
Before He Was Assassinated, MLK Jr. Was Advocating For An End To Income Inequality
10 min · 12,948 views today · We can honor MLK Jr. by pursuing the causes he was advocating for before he was killed.  ​​ Part 2: The Basic Income, A New Human Right (3 minutes) MLK's idea of a basic...
Watch How Europeans Carved Up African Land They Never Owned
56 min · 7,395 views today · Watch how Europeans gave away African land they never owned, then expressed anger when Africans resisted. The film is called Africa: A Voyage of Discovery, Episode 6: The...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 7,383 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
One "Piece of the Oppressor" That I Have Discovered Within Myself
Tim Hjersted · 3,439 views today · One "piece of the oppressor" that I have found in myself during my inner activist journeys is my use of shame as a method of engaging with the world's problems. Having learned...
The Corporation (2003)
145 min · 3,115 views today · The Corporation is today's dominant institution, creating great wealth but also great harm. This 26 award-winning documentary examines the nature, evolution, impacts and future...
#ReclaimMLK Seeks to Combat the Sanitizing of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy
Danielle C. Belton · 2,321 views today · Martin Luther King Jr. had more than “a dream,” but you might not notice that on Monday during observances for his birthday. Somewhere between his assassination and today...
What Martin Luther King Jr. Can Teach Us about Nonviolence
John Dear · 2,108 views today · I've been reflecting on the principles of nonviolence that Martin Luther King Jr. learned during the historic yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. After Rosa Parks refused...
Coping With Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the White House
N Ziehl · 1,422 views today · I want to talk a little about narcissistic personality disorder. I’ve unfortunately had a great deal of experience with it, and I’m feeling badly for those of you who are...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 1,120 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,020 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Comprehensive Activist Guide to Dismantling Neoliberalism
Drew Serres · 445 views today · “The creation of today’s market society was not the result of a sequence of spontaneous events but rather of state interference and violence.” – Naomi Klein in The Shock...
22 Documentaries That Tell the Truth About How Government Really Works
Tim Hjersted · 404 views today · And 6 that show how people are responding.
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 395 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
The Invention of Capitalism: How a Self-Sufficient Peasantry was Whipped Into Industrial Wage Slaves
Yasha Levine · 343 views today · “…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” —Arthur Young; 1771 Our popular economic wisdom says that...
Positive Thinking in a Dark Age: A Guide to Gracefully Losing Faith in a Collapsing Dominant Culture
Jim Tull · 334 views today · I recall a Buddhist parable involving a stick that appears from a distance to be a snake, causing fear to rise in the perceiver. As the perception shifts upon closer...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 312 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
This Woman Gets No Applause...Why? They Are Too Creeped Out...
7 min · 299 views today · Think you aren't being fooled by advertising tricks? Take a look at this so-called expert revealing food marketing's secret weapon. No amount of marketing makes factory farming...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 290 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Live Before You Die
6 min · 271 views today · Travelling the length of the country and back again with a pair of horses and gypsy caravan, Live Before You Die is the ultimate horse-drawn road movie, following a band of...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
20 Principles for Successful Community Organizing