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At this stage of history, either one of two things is possible. Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests guided by values of solidarity and sympathy and concern for others, or, alternatively, there will be no destiny for anyone to control. – Noam Chomsky

People are the basis of democracy, so if you want democracy, you need people. You can write a touching poem or book, know every fact in the world about who is suffering under which system of oppression, and have an encyclopedia of proposed policy solutions and theories of justice. But none of those is meaningful unless there are people behind it. An idea without a body to occupy it is nothing; it couldn’t even exist. But once it enters the body it begins to impact time and space in potentially revolutionary ways. If it’s the right idea, it will not only be correct in theory, but will replicate itself and spread. Organizing is not an exact science; lots can go wrong, and things can always be done differently. But folks who are keen and passionate do not need road signs when there are paths that have been formed by others who have already traveled. What follows are some general insights, observations, and suggestions that can be helpful in transforming isolated individuals into an empowered community capable of fighting for social change.

Organizing vs. Activism

Although the terms “organizing” and “activism” are often considered synonymous, there are important distinctions. Organizing is about developing a large number of individuals with aligned (although not necessarily identical) goals, and enabling the various types of individuals and motivations to act as a unified front for social change.

Organizing can begin with as little as one person, but usually, it is a few motivated, brave, and forward-thinking individuals. From this nucleus, an infrastructure is built that will recruit more and more people, and, hopefully, over time, the organization that you are building will take on a life of its own.

Organizing is the necessary prelude to large-scale activism. Activism is the campaign to win a long-term battle, but organizing builds the means to fight it. The use of “battle” may seem like a militant analogy, but it is important to understand that all justice work that is effective inevitably has an opposition. And, most likely, that opposition is causing significant suffering and inequality. Rallying for better schools means colliding with those who do not want to reallocate funds for schools.

Organizing an anti-war protest means facing down the war machine. Marching against racism means confronting racists. And so on and so on. Activism and organizing imply battles and struggles. These battles do not have to be violent, but they are oppositional and confrontational.

Understanding People, Power, and Psychology

The same knowledge required of an activist in order to understand persuasion on an individual level is required of an organizer in order to persuade a larger constituency or a general demographic. You are often applying that knowledge at a broad, long-term level to “types” of individuals as you shape your plan for organizing. For instance, individuals tend to have a bias toward the status quo, meaning that you should attempt to shape your message in a way that appeals to your target’s perception of what’s socially normal. This should come through not only in your message, but in how you present yourself.

At the very least, this means dressing in attire that’s similar to your target audience; if you are ever in doubt, then dress more conservatively than your target audience, as this makes you look more professional to a wider variety of people. Try to use words, phrases, or signs that already carry weight with those people you seek to have on your side. For example, the American flag as a symbol is often used to justify a great number of social and political actions precisely because of its power in appealing to nationalist sentiments. If your campaign centers around a school tuition increase, for example, you might consider utilizing the school’s mascot, or re-writing of a popular sports chant, to connect with students. This will make people in your community identify with the problem, which is the key to persuading them to attend protests or sit-ins, write letters, or attend sign-making parties. Obviously, you cannot appeal to every segment of the population in every way — if you could, you probably wouldn’t need to be organizing in the first place. Ideally, you want to market your message and your organization in a way that is appealing to your target audience and is minimally hostile to segments of the population you don’t intend to win over. For example, if you are a student attempting to get more vegan options in your school cafeteria, then appealing to students will be ideal. That’s because they can potentially identify with you, and they are the largest demographic within this population (as opposed to, say, teachers or administrators).

Your organization/group should also have a public face of that demographic (i.e., a student that others can relate to). You should also try to avoid appearing too “anti-tradition,” which might offend and alienate the school’s administration and staff, who are likely older and more conservative.

From the chapter "Organizing Your Community"
 Education for Action: Strategies to Ignite Social Justice 
by Jason Del Gandio and Anthony J. Nocella,
New Society Publishers, 2014.
But realize that there are some differences between institutions and individuals. Although institutions comprise individuals who respond to rhetorical and emotional tactics, their behaviors are bound by external forces that require more than simple persuasion and charm to overcome. But the good news is that institutions do respond to blunt, sustained pressure, whereas individuals usually feel alienated and shut you out. Institutions cannot simply walk away from you and throw your leaflet in the garbage; they exist, by definition, in a fixed position within society and hence must face the waves of public opposition head on. Whether their office walls will fend off your demands will depend on the force and pressure you can muster.

The trick is to find and then repeatedly pressure the weak point(s). Hopefully, you will be able to use some of the institution’s own assets and tools against itself. If the institution is a school administration, you may be able to persuade alumni (donors to the school) that the administration’s position makes the school look bad, so they will pressure the administration themselves; alumni have both social and financial capital for the school, so their opinion matters to administration.

You could look for contradictions in the institution’s own policies, whether they are codes of conduct or municipal ordinances. You could also give former employees a chance to speak out about wrongdoing they witnessed — many campaigns start because of testimonies from former employees who were fired for reporting abuses to their bosses. But never underestimate the opposition — they probably have much experience in dealing with activists, and organizers must be able to think on their feet in order to outmaneuver and stay one step ahead.

Like all battle plans, yours must be flexible enough to adapt to frequent, rapid changes as the campaign unfolds, but be strong and clear enough that people never forget who you are and what you are fighting for.

Drew Robert Winter is the director of publications at the Institute for Critical Animal Studies and a PhD student at Rice University in the Anthropology department. Named one of the “Top 20 activists under 30” by Veg-News magazine for his leadership and organizing for nonhuman animals, he works at the grassroots level toward a holistic, intersectional approach to social justice. Winter works with many advocacy- and research-oriented groups, including Food Not Bombs, Vegan Outreach, the Animals and Society Institute, and the Humane Research Council. He also cohosted and coproduced the online show Radical Radio.

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