We began the second half of our training with an activity that got everyone’s tired bodies moving and over-full brains processing. We had placed a number of titles representing a variety of “pathways to change” around the room. These were “elections,” “legislation & regulation,” “media,” “demonstration/protest,” “direct action & civil disobedience,” and “uprising.” Then we named a few issues, such as “borders & immigration,” “corporate colonization,” and “pipeline projects” (actually, I cannot remember exactly which issues we named, but these seem like obvious ones), and we asked folks to stand next to the pathway to change that they thought was most effective, and then to discuss their differences. It appeared that folks separated based mostly on their demographics/scene (eg, all the younger punky folks wanted an “uprising” in response to everything), but what was really valuable was the conversation that came out of it. Many folks were happy to share why they made their choice and to discuss the pros and cons of each option.
Then we sat down again, and began moving into the more complex concepts with a definition of strategy. Strategy is a plan to win; it is a path to take what you have and to make it into what you need. The word “strategy” originates from “stratego,” the Greek word for general, indicating that it requires long-range, over-arching vision (“tactics,” the methods employed while engaging directly in battle, comes from “tacticas,” foot soldier). The basic elements critical to forming effective strategy include “big picture vision, seeing future threats & opportunities;” “concentrating resources in the right places;” “knowing when, how, and what kinds of resources to use;” “knowing who has the power to make decisions;” and “knowing your story, sympathetic voices, framing, and how to create moments of drama & happy endings.”
We spoke in a little more depth about strategic planning methodologies. This list is progressive, yet one does not always follow in this order, or engage in all of them. But as a starting point, organizers are highly encouraged to ask themselves if they have considered each of these points before embarking on a plan. “Identify the problem. What are assumptions, facts, root causes, sources? Seek clarity.” “Establish a strategic objective or goal (the solution to the problem).” “Assess resources & situation. What are opponents’ strengths, weaknesses, history, interests, resources, plans? What are supporters’ strengths, weaknesses, history, interests, resources, plans? Map allies and political environment.” “Engagement and public participation – something, anything!” “Dilemma actions – make opponent look bad if they try to stop you.” “Containment – self-awareness of internal threats, disunity, violence.”
During the shorter, partial training that was a part of the SURJ Leadership Institute, I added another exercise here – the Spectrum of Allies. This exercise involves drawing a half circle divided into 5 wedges. As a group we determined which actors were the group’s “active allies,” “passive allies,” “neutral,” “passive opposition,” “active opposition,” and then which were the most strategic to pressure into shifting. The crucial concept here is that it is strategic to move a group or individual one wedge closer to “active allies,” but may not be necessary to move them all the way over. We use this tool to help us see where our work can yield significant results with minimal effort. It compliments and follows naturally from the power-mapping in the previous section.
In “Key Organizing Concepts,” the tactical rubber hits the strategic road. By this point in the training, time was running short, and we hurried through these. In the future, I would like to spend time discussing in depth, asking participants for examples, debating the merits and challenges of each.
“Create Crisis.” Do not ask nicely, that will get you nowhere. Force action. Dilemma actions are effective here – couple actions with demands that will make your opponent look like a total jerk if they refuse your demand, and an idiot if they try to ignore you.
“Escalation: start within the experience of supporters, take steps increasing intensity and moving outside of the experience of opponents.” Fithian is a master. It was easy to point at the successful Justice for Janitors campaign as a great example of well-planned and effective escalation.
“Credible threat: we do not always have to do what we say, but our opponents must know that we can do what we say.” If they think that they can ignore you, they will. The Gandhian objected to the use of the word “threat.” As a group, we came to agreement that “credible consequence” was a good alternative. I still like to use “threat,” assuming that to our opponents, a potential “consequence” of disrupting business or tarnishing their image will most definitely be seen as a “threat” to their profits.
“Mix it up! Crazy/reasonable/crazy again. Surprise!” There must be a method to the madness, and a plan which foresees the consequences, but conducting stale, predictable actions will only lead to wasted energy and repeated defeat. We must show up when & where they are not expecting us, convince them that we cannot be calmed down or bought off, that our convictions and inspiration will drive us to extremes. Only then will they begin to fear the consequences of not taking our demands seriously.
“Risk: every threat is an opportunity, and sometimes we must sacrifice what we have to get more.” If you want to take the cake, you cannot spend all your time guarding your crumbs.
“Unity, Fun, Discipline.” I drew a flag here, because Fithian loves flags. I do too. They combine perfectly these three disparate but complimentary elements necessary to good actions. Flags at the front of a march or rally keep everyone moving together in the right direction, they add color and buoyant energy, and at just the right moment, they can give coded directions to initiate specific, perhaps secret, coordinated disruptions. Unity, fun, and discipline round out the end of the list, but they are not minor elements. Indeed, a lengthy campaign will eventually founder in boredom and apathy without them.
The partial training I conducted for SURJ ended here. The following topics are much more advanced.
Here we see a diagram demonstrating systematic campaign escalation. Fithian sometimes calls this pyramid “The Set-Up,” because it is a step-by-step approach to building power & numbers & momentum which will help us to acquire a position from which we can ultimately achieve our goals.
As we move up the steps, it is important to note that each of the previous steps continue. Each underlying step is necessary to inform and to strengthen the step above it. Planning a campaign that steadily progresses up this pyramid does not guarantee victory, but it does ensure that you will incrementally build the knowledge, support, negotiating power, experience, and courage that are necessary to win . It is also very important to note that in a lengthy and dedicated campaign, there is room for all kinds of tactics – a lock-down is not “better” than a petition, they serve different purposes and ought to be employed at different points in the process or with different audiences.
Investigate: This first step falls under the “Prepare” category. Before you begin anything, you must understand the nature and extent of the problem. Know who is responsible, and what people want to do. You need a clear and concrete statement of the problem, the solution, and evidence to support both.
Negotiate: The next two steps form the early “Launch” stage of the campaign. Give your opponent clear, fair, documented & publicized opportunities to resolve the problem. In most situations, in order to ensure widespread support for your planned escalation, you must first exhaust all possibilities within the “Arena of Acceptable Solutions,” the expertly designed quicksand-pit in which every attempt to make change becomes transformed into impotent spectacle (think environmental impact statements, public commentary, bureaucratic regulatory agencies, voting).
Educate: In order to effectively “Launch” your campaign, you must engage in massive-scale recruitment. Get the word out! Canvassing, petitions, teach-ins, etc. You will need both active participants willing to take leadership and risk, and passive supporters who will share favorable comments with their friends, make you lunch once in a while, vote on a favorable referendum, or just get out of the way at the right moment. Do not take this very important group for granted – imagine that if you need 10 active participants to reach your goal, then you also need at least 1000 passive supporters, and figure out how to get them.
Demonstrate: Here, entering the “Battle” stage of the campaign, escalation becomes really visible. Build support, steadily increase pressure with marches, pickets, etc. Plan ahead to ensure that each one is bigger and louder than the last. If you hold a rally which is attended by 1000 people every month, consistently, it eventually becomes stale and unimpressive. On the other hand, if you hold a rally with 100 people, and then next month 200, and then 300, then 500, then 800 – now that is a threat!
Direct Action: When you are ready, take the “Battle” to their doorstep. Create crisis. Dilemma actions and dramatizations are best. Use story-telling, metaphor, sympathetic characters, courage & risk to spark other groups to action as well. Practice taking risks. Build confidence & daring incrementally. Participants may need a lot of support and encouragement at this stage. Keep working at the “learning edge,” straddling the utmost boundary of one’s comfort zone (one foot planted in known experience, one reaching out into new territory).
Protracted Struggle / Parallel Institution: The final stage of a successful campaign is “Settlement.” Sometimes complete victory never comes within reach (at least not in this generation!). For some struggles, building institutions and cultures that support ever-increasing numbers to fight like hell, to thrive and to protect our families and communities in spite of relentless assault, quite simply to always continue to struggle, is victory in itself.
Victory: The ideal “Settlement,” where you finally reach your goal. Remember to define a clear goal, or you will never reach this stage! In many cases, reaching your goal is not truly the end of the struggle. It only encourages us to set another, more ambitious goal.
This section had to be relatively brief (we were really running out of time at the end). But even a quick overview was greatly appreciated. Many participants told me that this section was the most eye-opening, and directly & immediately useful to their work. I remember feeling profoundly impacted the first time I heard Fithian explain it; it is really powerful knowledge, and I consider it one of the most important critical conclusions of the Organizing for Power framework.
The penultimate sections were chock-full of nitty-gritty details. This part defines different means of enacting change and further clarifies what we mean by “direct action” and the many purposes that it can serve. The triangle is a delta sign, used in chemistry equations to indicate heat or change. It is such a great symbol – one of my favorite moments was painting stenciled triangles onto flags for a march and multi-faceted action (conceptualized by Fithian, of course) which took place at the end of a weekend-long training and strategic escalation process in St Louis, 2010 (organized primarily by Rising Tide and MORE, we were intervening in the broader movements, bringing diverse people together and guiding them through a process which demonstrated both that we are all stronger together and that we need to get bold & brave and step up our game). Anyway…
Mechanisms of change include “Conversion – convince them to change,” “Acquiescence – they go along because they do not want to fight,” “Accommodation – compromise,” “Coercion – force them to give up,” “Disintegration – opponent incapacitated.” These can be defined as “strategic choices” – and though these details may seem a little boring, developing our vocabulary helps us to communicate more clearly when we are making choices, so it was important to squeeze this in there.
Defining Direct Action. In my opinion, the term “direct action” is used too often nowadays, too often for things that are neither truly direct nor adequately active. However, this is nit-picking, and it is informed by the historic use of the term by syndicalists (ie, “Direct action gets the goods!”); words change over time and this term has come to represent a rather broad approach to making change, synonymous with nonviolence and community organizing. So be it. For the purposes of this training, I put aside my little quibble and used the term as Fithian does, encompassing nearly any kind of strategically intentional activity.
Types of Direct Action include “Protest – registering dissent, rallies, marches, teach-ins, pickets;” “Non-cooperation – withdrawing your power, boycott, strike, walk-out, tax resistance;” “Intervention – directly intervene in the functioning of the system or infrastructure;” “Creative Solutions – developing alternative community systems.” All of these are potentially good options, depending on your strategy. A very robust direct action campaign could conceivably employ all of them!
I listed the top three outcomes of every effective direct action campaign: 1. Win concrete improvements in people’s lives; 2. Make people aware of their own power (by winning); 3. Alter relationships of power. Then we discussed together to list many other things that a direct action campaign may achieve. Some noteworthy ones are “point a spotlight,” “directly support front-line struggles,” “inspire,” and “protect places or rights.”
The Art of Actions! This section ought to have its very own 4 hour workshop, there is just so much content here. At this very late point in our session, all I could do was note that fact, then read rapidly down the list and then ask for questions. We had a brief discussion on some of these points, and then agreed that it would be great to have a follow-up session to really dig into it. Wisely, we did not leave it at this big, overwhelming list; we finished with an excellent activity that applied some of these ideas, much more concrete and useful.
The quote at the top is another one of the key conclusions of the Organizing for Power framework: “The power of the action is in the reaction,” Saul Alinsky. When it comes to the Art of Actions, we see that when the right tactics are used strategically, even small groups can achieve big results.
Every effective action needs these basic elements: “beginning, middle, end;” “engaging qualities – colorful, inspiring, affirming, fun, strong, dramatic;” “intention – vision counts, details matter;” “strong visuals;” “cover basic needs – food, water, toilets, transportation;” “ensure support – emotional, physical, mental, spiritual;” “goal/outcome, symbolic or direct;” “fit into context, understood as part of an ongoing campaign.”
Other important considerations: “Publicity – flyers, advertisements, PSAs, emails, facebook, etc;” “Program – speakers, performers, diversity, culture, participation;” “Schedule – where, what, when, every step from pack-up to clean-up;” “Logistics – all the stuff you need, like props, also mapping, communications;” “Security/traffic plan;” “Legal/police – do we inform them or not? apply for a permit or not? liaisons;” “Civil Disobedience Support – plan, recruit, jail support including bail & court dates;” “Media – press releases, packets, spokespeople;” “Staffing – who is doing all of these things? get commitment!” “Communications – tech, protocols;” “Coordination/Prep – meetings, trainings, communications, maps, unity;” “Accessibility – not just wheelchair access, how are we welcoming?”
Whew! That is a lot of stuff. And every word of it is vitally important. If you want to pull off successful actions, then consult those lists and check off every part, every time.
More immediately meaningful to participants was the follow-up activity, an action planning group exercise. We began by providing an action planning template [I seem to have lost the photo of that, which is unfortunate. You will have to imagine – it looked like a scroll, with the following headings and questions, or something very similar, because I do not have the photo I basically just copied these directly from organizingforpower.org. There was also one with only the headings, and blank space we could fill in].
Goals: What are we trying to accomplish? Goals must be concrete, tangible, winnable. What does victory look like? What do we want the headline to read the next day?
Target: Who has the power to decide? Who are we trying to impact/move? What is the strategic reason for this choice? If there are multiple sites, which is best suited for an action?
Messaging & Demands: What do we want our target to do? What do we want them to know? Are there other audiences besides the target?
Messenger: Who is delivering our message? An impacted person or community leader working on a particular issue is always more powerful and credible than a talking head spokesperson. Is there a process for getting feedback/response from the target?
Mobilization: How many people are needed? What are our turnout goals? Who will we reach out to—people, groups etc? What are the plans for recruitment, commitment, reminder and follow-up?
Scenario: What will happen, what does it look like? What are the beginning, middle and end? How will our message/story be told – visuals, words, props, and signs?
Exit: How will we leave gracefully? How will we ensure everyone gets home safely, especially in the case of excessively aggressive police? What if we are unable to completely enact our plan? It never hurts to have a plan b in case something goes wrong.
We discussed these questions, then with group participation, my co-facilitator went through the template and explained the action plan for one of the successful Justice for Janitors actions. She was very didactic and engaging, participants asked a lot of clarifying questions, and all of this helped to make the concepts more concrete. It really felt like everything we had covered in the last 3.5 hours was coming together, gelling into true understanding.
After this quick demonstration, we split the participants into 4 groups and we very briefly and pretty vaguely explained the concept of “affinity groups.” Basically, they were to imagine that they were a tight and trusting crew who were getting together to pull off a creative and impactful direct action. We then gave them a mere 20 minutes to work out their own prospective action plans. At the end we brought everyone back together and each group took a turn sharing their action plan. The results were diverse, creative, and compelling – I thought that all of the ideas were carefully considered, strategically motivated, and potentially effective at meeting their goals (all of the goals were very modest – it was just a first try, after all!). Unfortunately I cannot remember the details and do not currently have the notes, so you will just have to take my word for it!
This was an excellent way to end the training. We were slightly disappointed that we did not get to include the approximately 40 minutes of Street Mobile Tactics, which would have been a big change into totally kinesthetic learning – fast, fun, energetic, and inspiring (we wanted the grand finale to be a brief takeover of a busy intersection nearby – experiencing our fear & power!). But participants were very pleased with this ending, and they were indeed very energetic & inspired.
We closed by making this list of future trainings that participants would like to receive. Note that the two that received lots of votes were “Discussion of Nonviolence” (this was definitely related to beef between people with differing ideological bents, as I hinted at earlier) and “Story-telling: Messaging & Framing” (this is my jam, of course – I said as much and there were numerous points during the training where we mentioned these concepts but did not have time to elaborate – I wish I had gotten a chance to do more of this!).
We thanked our hosts and all the participants. They thanked us in return. And now that I am finished, I would like to thank Lisa Fithian greatly, for all she has taught me and inspired me to do. Once again, her website is chock full of excellent training resources and countless gems of wisdom: organizingforpower.org Please check it out, you will be happy that you did!
And please comment on this text! I would really appreciate any feedback, suggestions or criticisms are welcome. I am hoping to incorporate a lot of stuff like this into a future tour, where I will be promoting Mutual Aid Disaster Relief and offering “Community Organizing as Disaster Preparedness” trainings. So, as always, it is a work in progress. I put it on this blog so that you can help me improve it.
Thanks for reading!