What Is Community Organizing & How Does It Change Things?

According to Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz,

Organizing is a form of leadership that enables a constituency to turn its resources into the power to make change based on the recruitment, training, and development of leadership. In short, organizing is about equipping people (constituency) with the power (story and strategy) to make change (real outcomes).

While in graduate school, I had just started supporting young adults in Africa and Latin America with college scholarships through an organization I started in college called All Nations Education (ANE).

Up to that point, I had primarily focused on raising money from high-end donors. I wanted, however, to start mobilizing college students in the United States to support our scholarship recipients in developing countries. But I didn’t know how to build a grassroots movement. So I decided to take a course with Professor Ganz called “Organizing: People, Power, Change.” Throughout the semester, we were required to work on an organizing project.

I thought it was a perfect opportunity to garner more support for ANE’s students. Six extraordinary and committed classmates agreed to join the team. Throughout the next three months, we mobilized 27 students to knock on 765 college dorm doors to connect with 270 people to get 214 donations to raise over $6,000 to help a Rwandan genocide survivor attend college for three years. (Click here to see a highlight video created by Eddie Lee.)

This experience taught me that real change doesn’t come from marketing or money alone; rather it happens when people with common values and beliefs come together with a common purpose that is greater than themselves.

Ganz elaborates on the three elements involved in building a social movement:

1. PEOPLE: Organizing A Constituency

The first question an organizer asks is not “what is my issue” but “who are my people”—who is my constituency. A constituency is a group of people who are “standing together” to assert their own goals. Organizing is not only about solving problems. It is about the people with the problem mobilizing their own resources to solve it . . . and keep it solved.

Above is a short clip from the Academy-Award-winning film Gandhi that recounts the famous Salt March during the Indian Independence MovementClick here for original footage.

2. POWER: What Is It, Where Does It Come From, How Does It Work?

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., described power as the “ability to achieve purpose.” It is the capacity we can create if your interest in my resources and my interest in your resources gives us an interest in combining resources to achieve a common purpose (power with).

But if your interest in my resources is greater than my interest in your resources, I can influence our exchange more than you (power over). So power is not a thing, quality, or trait. It is the influence created by the relationship between interests and resources. You can “track down the power” asking–and getting the answers to–four questions:

1. What are the interests of your constituency?

2. Who holds the resources needed to address these interests?

3. What are the interests of the actors who hold these resources?

4. What resources does your constituency hold which the other actors require to address their interests?

Our power comes from people–the same people who need change can organize their resources into the power they need to create change. The unique role of organizing is to enable the people who need/want the change to be the authors of the change, because that changes the causes of the problem (powerlessness in one form or another), not only the problem.

So organizing is not only a commitment to identify more leaders, but a commitment to engage those leaders in a particular type of fight building the power to create the change we need in our lives.

Organizing power begins with commitment by the first person who wants to make it happen. Without this commitment, there are no resources with which to begin. Commitment is as observable as action. The work of organizers begins with their acceptance of the respon­sibility to challenge others to do the same.

3. CHANGE: What Kind Of Change Can Organizing Make? 

Change is specific, concrete and significant. It requires focus on a goal that will make a real difference that we can see. It is not about “creating awareness,” having a meaningful conversation, or giving a great speech.

It is about specifying a clearly visible goal, explaining why achieving that goal can make a real difference in meeting the challenge that your constituency has to face.

The excerpts above come from a workshop guide developed by Professor Ganz and many of the fellows and colleagues who have worked with him. 

JOIN THE CONVERSATION & SHARE: Who are the people you feel called to mobilize to build a better world together? I would love to hear from you. Please share your comments below. And if you find this helpful or valuable, please share on your social media. 

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