We started, well, let’s see… only about 45 minutes late (and henceforth we were constantly playing catch-up)… with a story-telling circle. There were about 20 diverse participants, and we invited them all to gather in a large circle. We prompted people to step into the center if they were activated during certain eras or around certain issues: the 60’s, the 70’s, the 80’s, the 90’s, the 00’s, the 10’s… civil rights, anti-war movement, anti-globalization movement, GMO’s and food, immigrant rights… there was at least one person present to answer yes to every question (of course some answered yes multiple times). And for each group that stepped into the center, we asked for 2-3 concise stories. This was a great start – casually introducing folks to each other, encouraging participation, displaying diversity in the room, and giving facilitators a good feel for the group dynamics.
After this we asked folks to be seated, in a 3-row semi-circle facing a board containing all of our notes. Before we began our fast-paced agenda, we asked folks to help us elaborate our goals for the training. My co-facilitator (and member of the sponsoring group, Tucson Water Protectors) listed these ones; participants could not think of any additional.
This is our agenda, and we followed it more-or-less. Which was challenging; it is a lot of content! Anything with a + next to it was a participatory exercise.
I am very pleased with the little logo I designed as a symbol of organizing for power – a triangle of sticks ready to receive a spark kindled into a tiny flame. The triangle is not only one of the best ways to build a stable & oxygen-rich campfire (thanks Boy Scouts!), but it also represents a delta sign, used in chemistry equations to indicate heat or change.
“Organizing for Power” is an excellent, compelling, flexible, politically non-aligned and ideologically unburdened framework within which we can talk about many issues and empower many different people and groups. The group was diverse, and our nuts-and-bolts approach to understanding power evoked numerous interesting and respectfully disagreeing conversations throughout the session. One participant annoyingly interrupted like every 2 minutes to try to force us to pledge our allegiance to strict Gandhian-style nonviolence (we did so at the beginning, in fact our session was advertised as “Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigns,” but he was not satisfied unless we echoed his sentiment that “anyone who advocates violent means, like ‘black bloc anarchists,’ should be immediately kicked out of this training” after every sentence, a clear indication that there was some kind of historical rift between some participants) – this was disruptive and challenging but I think that we navigated the tension well.
We started with the basics:
“People ORGANIZE because of solutions, not problems.”
“To organize, we must be able to tell a story which is credible, has a plan, can succeed, and understands why people obey.”
“The primary role of the organizer is to build a container in which people can experience & move through fear, and experience & build their power.” This one is critical – this is essentially what we are doing with the training.
“Principles to build Power, Participation, & Community: one-on-one communication & relationships, ownership (recruit/create leaders), message & vision, plan & strategy.”
We asked participants to list other qualities of an organizer (“that means you, folks!”). They easily spun out over 20. My favorites include “be a good role model,” and “ask questions.”
We dug deeper with a little mini-lecture about power & violence. I do not recall the details of the excellent little essay, written by Starhawk, which my co-facilitator used as the backbone of her spiel. But the essential points are contained here.
Power is the ability to act, it is the ability to consciously manifest outcomes. Power is not fundamentally good or bad, it depends on how it is used and toward what ends. There are different types of power:
“Power Over” is the variety that we are most familiar with. It is coercive, often violent, it is the structure of any hierarchical arrangement. Examples include police, military, prisons, bosses, sexism, racism, agriculture, pharmaceutical medicine… our current systems mostly run on Power Over.
“Power With” is the kind of power we find in unions, in direct-action campaigns, mass demonstrations, neighborhood associations & volunteer work parties. This is the kind of power that organizers must cultivate, so that together we can combat the oppressive forces of Power Over.
“Power Within” is what keeps us going every day, even in the face of violence, hatred, despair & failure. We all have Power Within – more than we know.
Sometimes we also imagine “Power Under” – this is the power of the bureaucrat, the petty power of someone with a badge and a title that permits them to withhold resources and services to which another person should be entitled. The thing about Power Under is that people who believe they possess it do not actually have any power at all; they are willingly denying their own power, handing it over to those who have Power Over them.
Again we asked for participation. The list of “Sources of Power” rapidly became so extensive that we moved over to another piece of paper. Some of the critical ones included: “money, resources, laws, culture, knowledge, credentials, identities.”
This was a strong start, already at this early point many participants were very excited and engaged. The next section about violence is an essential segue.
Violence is the well-spring of all Power Over. It underlies every system of domination & control. Even where overt violence is not visible, the threat of it being exerted on those who disobey is always unspoken yet known to all. Violence is the capacity to inflict physical pain, harm, death; it is the capacity to punish by restricting freedom & choice; it is the capacity to withhold vital resources or rewards; it is the capacity to inflict emotional & psychological damage, to shame & humiliate. Defined thusly, in our world we are surrounded by violence. It permeates our cultures & institutions, it is a defining element of the hegemonic dominant culture. Nonviolence is more than just a rejection of violent means, and it does not necessarily mean “Love thy enemy” either. Nonviolence is an approach that seeks to build Power With & Power Within, as a means of empowering and emboldening ourselves so that we have the courage and the fortitude to dismantle systems of oppression without also perpetuating more oppression (all forms of oppression are violent, but not all methods of opposing oppression are nonviolent).
It is crucial to understand that all systems of domination, no matter how powerful they seem, are unstable. Inherently so, because in order to be stable, a system or organism must be based on balanced, cycling flows of energy & resources. A system in which all resources inevitably flow up to a concentrated minority and all pollution, degradation, and abuses constantly rain down on powerless masses is incredibly unstable. Immense violence is required to maintain it. Every day it is on the verge of unraveling. This is the first critical conclusion of Organizing for Power: to combat an unbalanced system, we do not need a bigger badder army, we need a lever engaged at the right place at the right time – power jiu-jitsu.
We followed this mini-lecture with a great spectrogram activity. We posed a series of scenarios, and asked folks to align themselves along two axes: Is the action EFFECTIVE or INEFFECTIVE? Is the action VIOLENT or NONVIOLENT? These are the scenarios I remember: “Peaceful demonstration against racist immigration policy takes over the street, blocking traffic for hours.” “During said demo, some masked protesters throw bricks through a bank window.” “Neighbors prevent an ICE raid by blockading the street with burning tires.” “During any of these scenarios, one individual takes it upon themselves to try to negotiate with the police.” Every participant thought hard, took a variety of positions, defended their reasoning and sometimes changed their mind based on others’ responses, and there was much vibrant discussion. This was an exceptionally successful exercise.
After returning to the seats, we asked participants to turn to a neighbor and answer these essential questions: “What are your hopes?” “What are your fears?” Remember, a good organizer is always asking questions, and these are two of the most powerful. We discussed responses to these questions briefly as a full group. We all have a lot of fears…
Violence is an effective means of control primarily because of fear. Most of the time, when Power Over forces us to choose to do or not do a certain thing, it is not the presence of violence which compels us, and rarely is it even the present threat of violence. Only our fear of violent consequences is necessary to compel us to obey. “Where there is fear, there is power.”
In order to build our power, we must recognize, confront, experience, and move through fear. We talked at length about a variety of ways to work with fear. The following are progressively more engaged, but it is not necessarily a step-by-step list: “Notice it, express it, make it visible.” “Experience it. What is real? What is imaginary?” “Ask ‘dumb’ questions – understand in dialogue.” “Make it HUGE! What is the worst that could happen? Then what? Agitate to anger.” “Make a plan – break it into small simple steps, identify needed support.” “Get commitment – easy immediate tasks, focus on action.” “Provide support, build confidence.” “Follow up, debrief, learn.”
There are a couple of self-reinforcing cycles that we can use to support new leadership and to build confidence by following-up, debriefing, and learning. Every good organizer should know and utilize these.
The first cycle of continuous movement building: ACT (direct action! make it effective, make it dramatic!) – from this act, RECRUIT (be sure to include an invitation implicit in every action) – now that you have new recruits, TRAIN (start simple, overcome fears, easy immediate tasks) – then ACT bigger and better!
The second cycle of “praxis,” learning by doing: ACT (based on what you know) – after the action REFLECT (always debrief, always learn from your successes and failures) – and THEORIZE (know better, even if it is only a baby step) – but do not get stuck in endless circling theory, you must continuously test your theories – so get out there and ACT!
The next section about self-interest is a crucial pivot in the arc of the training. Think of it as the fulcrum on which we can position our lever. Self-Interest is something that benefits a person or institution. Not everyone has the same interests, and our interests may change over time. We experience problems because of our interests. I gave a silly example of this: “Suppose there is a shortage of peanuts, and therefore no peanut butter. I love peanut butter and I eat it every day; it is a vital source of healthy fats and protein. To me, this peanut shortage is a catastrophe. You do not care for peanut butter; you eat avocados every day. You do not even notice that there is a peanut shortage.” This simple example helps us to understand why people in positions of great privilege (like many straight white males) really truly believe that nothing is wrong – their interests are being served perfectly well and therefore they literally cannot see the problems that others face. The final important lesson about self-interests is that our problems are often the result of our opponents’ interests. This is where we most urgently need to make change.
At this point we worked together to create two lists of “Our Interests” and “Their Interests.” Never mind defining “Us” and “Them,” vagueness & diversity in the lists is a good thing. Once our lists filled up, we started to notice both opposing interests like “ecosystems v. exploitation” or “decolonization v. domination” and common interests like “wealth,” “water,” or “future.” This set us up to understand the following concepts.
“We protect our interests by building organizations that have the power to do so.” But we will never have billions of dollars or massive armies or space age technology. Therefore, this is where our lever comes in handy – because when we are trying to exert our relatively small power to compel action by an individual or institution with massive power, the most effective way of achieving our interests is by making their interests reflect our interests. But remember, our problems are often the result of their interests. Therefore, put in more pragmatic terms, “The process of achieving solutions to our problems is by making our problems into their problems.”
Ah yes, this is where it really starts to get interesting. When I said that, I heard a few laughs, and everyone who thought they already knew all this stuff finally perked their ears up. How do we make our problems into their problems?
This chart uses examples common in union campaigns. If their interest is money, and our interest is specifically higher wages, then we can engage in actions that cost them so much money that they would be better off giving us higher wages. If their interest is a sparkly public image, and our interest is specifically respect, we can destroy their public image so that they too know the feeling of shame and disrespectful treatment (no one likes that, no matter how callous). If their interest is doing business as usual, and our interest is specifically job security, then workers threatened by layoffs can cause massive disruptions so that a lower profit margin is a far better outcome than not being able to conduct business at all.
It is worth noting that some of these actions might arguably inch across the line into our relatively broad definition of violence (and at this point we did have repeated interruptions from the Gandhian guy, until finally another participant told him firmly that we all fully understood his opinion because he had stated it more than 20 times, thank you). This is exactly the reason that I refused to acquiesce to his strict purity – it may be that “destroying a company’s public image” sounds similar to “shaming & humiliating.” But let’s be real – shaming a huge corporation (which is not a person, no matter what the law says) for destroying rainforests or employing sweatshop labor will never be violent in the same way as shaming a woman for choosing an abortion or humiliating a person of color, queer, or refugee simply because of their identity. Our definition of violence is fuzzy, consequently our methods of nonviolence sometimes are too. Remember that power is neither good nor bad, it depends on how it is used and toward what ends. Always stay critical, and make your choices based on consideration of all the facts and nuances, not inflexible dogmas.
We briefly listed key points of intervention, fulcrums where our lever becomes most powerful, and discussed a few examples of each. These include “Point of Production – where harmful items are created” (factories), “Point of Destruction – pollution, extraction” (mines), “Point of Consumption – where products reach consumers” (shops), “Point of Decision – where plans for the future are crafted” (universities), “Point of Assumption – where social norms are developed & held” (tv), “Point of Potential – cultural & historic moments” (inauguration).
Continuing with our introductory overview of foundational strategy concepts, we began a great full-group power-mapping discussion. Originally this paper was turned 90 degrees, and we made a list of “Pillars of Power,” the biggest institutions and concepts that held up “The System” (capitalism or colonialism or patriarchy or hegemony or whatever you want to call it – in general, it worked best to stay pretty vague with this diverse group). Then turning it this way, it was easy to demonstrate, metaphorically, that if we were to completely pulverize only one column, the structure would remain standing. In fact, we would probably need to attack at least half of these columns in some way, if we wanted to truly shake the seats of power.
This power-map helped all participants to better understand where our “Levers of Change” can be most effective. We began by analyzing Wells Fargo, the target of a boycott campaign initiated by Tucson Water Protectors. I asked elicitive questions such as, “Who are the stakeholders? Who benefits? Who suffers? Who cares? Whose opinion matters? Who else is involved?” Once the map was populated with a good number of characters/institutions, then we focused on critical connections, using colored arrows to indicate “Who wields social or moral influence? Who possesses physical or financial power? Who can we access?” Thereby we found the places where our power could be most effective, ideally starting a cascade of reactions that reproduces and amplifies effects like dominoes.
We kept the mapping exercise brief, less than 20 minutes in total, because it was only a demonstration of the tool. In a different setting, we could spend several hours pondering the intricate interconnections of power-holders, employ a variety of different mind-mapping techniques to consider the issues from multiple angles and really exercise our hive-mind’s ability to consider every possible perspective, and then perhaps we would find that most of our strategic planning was worked out in the course of this mapping. “Web-mapping,” “mind-mapping,” “bubble-mapping,” whatever you call this incredibly powerful tool, messy in appearance but sublimely organized in experience, it is especially analytical in the hands of a group experienced in creative connection-making and patient digging deep into the unseen aspects of the world. But for our purposes, 20 minutes with 4 different colors made a great demo! And we had so much more to cover…
Whew! All this before lunch! After the power-map we took a break to eat. During the lunch break we showed a slide-show of effective and creative direct action campaigns, including the historic, nation-wide immigrant rights marches of May 1st, 2006 and the dramatic Justice for Janitors campaign in Houston, 2006. This was good because it got people psyched up for the second half, or at least kept them from dozing off.