Monthly Archives: September 2017

Organizing for Social Change: the Role of the Organizer

I was recently asked to write about the role of an organizer. I was excited for the opportunity as I think it’s really important to have a strong understanding of social movement knowledge and strategy.

An organizer is someone who organizes other people to engage them in their agency to oppose injustice through intentional steps of collective action by identifying a social problem, making demands to address the problem and often advocating long term for those demands.

What is agency? Is it the power, resources, hard work and ingenuity that people utilize to “do something” about their circumstances. Community is the petri dish for agency to grow. When are cut of and disparate from each other, we tend to feel helpless to change the conditions of our world. But in community we are emboldened by each other and the potential collective impact of our collective action.

What is collective action? Collective action is when people take individual action in chorus with others in a coordinated way, resulting in the building of grassroots political power.

What are we talking about when we say building political power?

The Momentum Training teaches two main views of power in social change, the monolithic view and the social view of power. In the monolithic view, the organizing targets the law makers who have the power to change the legislation and can be very successful if the law makers comply. However, if the law makers won’t comply, the social view of power relies on a base of active popular support that can utilize their collective voice to put pressure on law makers and if necessary escalate the social costs of business as usual. Engler and Lasoff state, “The difference between an issue that moves and one that does not is active popular support. This refers to the base of people who not only approve, but are willing to take action on behalf of a social movement.” (Engler/Lasoff, p. 60)

The four roles of social change are a helpful tool in understanding the role of the organizer. I first encountered this at a training in Philadelphia called Training for Change. The four roles are represented by a quadrant, the first of which is the helper. These are the people who are in the trenches of direct services and support. The second in the quadrant is the advocate, these people are not directly impacted but advocate on behalf of the directly impacted. The third is the organizer who works with people directly impacted to organize their community and speak out directly for themselves. And the fourth is the rebel who stands outside of the institutions and make their demands by protesting and disrupting oppression as they see it.

I want to be clear that organizing happens all four of these quadrants, so don’t get hung up on the name of the organizer quadrant. Sometimes it is called “change agent” It’s also possible to inhabit multiple quadrants. Someone might be a helper at church and an advocate at work. It’s possible to change quadrants over time. I identified as a rebel and came to age as an activist in anarchist, anti-capitalist and anti-racist organizing in San Francisco. But the anti-racism work that I’ve done has led me into more of the organizer quadrant. But I often find myself identifying as an advocate in relationship to that work and advocating on issues that I am not directly impacted by,  but stand as an accomplice with people who are.

The organizer has to be willing to be with people and to take part of the “multitude.” For faith-rooted organizers in the Christian tradition, Joerg Rieger’s “theology of the multitude” in his book “Occupy Religion” is a beautiful view of what God is doing through the spirit and force of people power. He views Christianity as a religion that needs to decolonize itself from empire and reposition itself with the poorest people. Rieger says, “God in Christ is a different kind of lord who is not in solidarity with the powerful but in solidarity with the lowly…. This position—at the heart of the new world proclaimed by Paul—directly contradicts the logic of the Roman Empire.”

It is one thing to be a leader and quite another to be an organizer. Organizing is a mantle that is taken up by everyday people around the world, most often who do not get paid, who take on challenging the injustices in our world.

Charlotte Uprising & the Church that Broke My Heart

One year ago Charlotte, NC lit up in a blaze of social unrest. A literal uprising, “Charlotte Uprising” was a whirlwind of engagement in mass protests of communities rising up, grieving and healing together after the police shooting of Mr. Keith Lamont Scott.

I will never forget the call that came late that night from my fiancé, a pastor who was down at the protests when shots were fired and a protester was killed. I was two hours away in Asheville but I could tell by the sound of his voice that I needed to get there. He had witnessed the shooting, but didn’t see the shooter. At the time of the incident, his immediate perception was that the shots fired had come from the police. He had been very close to the victim at the time of the shooting. Other people we talked to also perceived the shots as coming from the police line.

The next morning we went into Charlotte for an organizing meeting. We offered the use of his church at the time where he was an associate pastor. I met with a representative of local Black Lives Matter and handed over the keys to them.  What happened next was my dream of church. To me, it was like watching the kingdom of God inhabit a church. There was a full scale mobilization happening out of the church within 6 hours. Supplies were dropped off en mass, medic and first aid trainings were happening a few times a day, mass trainings and meetings, clergy events, a press conference, plus food and sleeping places for anyone who needed it.

Mobilization spaces are beautiful expressions of beloved humanity and community. It’s one of those rare times in life where we are a part of a crowd (the multitude) and have an experience of connection in community, in that liminal space that happens in trauma, when we are good to each other.

Don’t get me wrong, we can be very not good to each other at mobilizations too. We bring the pathologies and poison of the culture with us into movement spaces.  It is why we have to be so vigilant in employing de-colonizing practices in our movement spaces.

I made a mistake that week. I had been told not to allow media into the building and we had passed that along. Well, one morning I had just arrived on site at the church and was trying to make coffee happen when I was introduced to a beautiful black woman who said she was doing a story on our support mechanisms and wondered if she could see the triage area where we do medic and first aid support for the protests. I got kind of lost in the yumminess of the interaction and ended up showing her around. Just then we got a call from the BLM activists who we were working for. They heard there was a reporter in the building and they were pissed. I was able to kill her story. She deleted the photos off her phone. I did the clean up work that needed to fix my mistake. I realized how my sense of safety isn’t everyone’s experience and that a reporter, however sympathetic to the uprising, can release information publicly that can compromise movement work. Again this work pushed me up against my own privilege and assumptions about life.  I’m sorry I embraced that journalist when I agreed not to. My sense of safety and being accustoming to having the power and making decisions led me to making the wrong call in that moment.

SO what happened next was the senior leadership of my finance’s church flew back in town and showed up. The next day was, for me, the unraveling of the dream and the breaking of my heart. The senior leadership systematically shut down the church as a resource for Charlotte Uprising. The senior pastor maintained that having the Uprising at his church had hurt the reputation of the church. While this is going on, my fiancé was given an award for his work at Uprising, was included in a museum show for the same reason and was invited to be one of the grand marshalls of the MLK parade. Clearly there was a plurality of views on Uprising and how it impacted the church. It was difficult to believe that a progressive church was not fairing well post Uprising when he was receiving all this acknowledgement from the community.

But to me it’s not about how Uprising impacted the church. To me that’s the wrong question. How did the church serve the Uprising? That is the question I wish we would really rise to in Christianity. God is doing beautiful things for justice in and through the “multitude” and I really wish the church would honor that work as a divine expression and support it.

Meet the New (Black, Female) Democratic Mayoral Candidate for Charlotte, NC!

This fall I have had the pleasure of volunteering on Vi’s campaign and watching this political star rise! Vi Lyles just won the primary, unseating the current mayor of Charlotte, Jennifer Roberts, as the Democratic candidate for mayor in the general election in November. Vi would be the first black female mayor in the city of Charlotte, NC.

Charlotte is facing a lot of challenges:

-A city council that has failed to maintain anti-discrimination laws for transgendered people in the face of NC State Legislature’s HB2. 

-A police force that has a steady track record of shooting unarmed people of color which resulted in Charlotte Uprising one year ago.

-People who work in Charlotte very often cannot afford to live in Charlotte.

-Charlotte has had major redistricting and redlining issues that have created poor and under-serviced areas of primarily black communities of Charlotte in the name of “urban renewal.” This has been such an issue there is a current effort to create a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission to look at systemic racism in Charlotte.

I believe Vi Lyles, former assistant city manager and current mayor pro team can tackle these and a host of other challenges face.

Here is Vi’s 7 point plan from Vi Lyles.com:

Charlotte is a tale of two cities where the opportunities and tremendous growth we’ve seen have not benefitted all. Unfortunately, in many instances, a heavy burden is placed on our most vulnerable residents. We need to do better for a more equitable, just, and fair Queen City. If we truly value all of our people then we must provide opportunities for all Charlotteans to fully participate and flourish here.

I am committed to advancing the following seven proposals, more an Equitable Charlotte:

  1. Build upon a culture of trust, respect, and cooperation between CMPD and Charlotte citizens by creating community advisory groups within each Police response area.
  2. Examine the structure and procedures of the current Citizens Review Board with community members to ensure its purpose and results are building community trust. The analysis should focus on increased visibility of how citizens can become members of the board as well as complaints and board findings. The board must also better reflect the Charlotte citizenry.
  3. Explore requiring contractors that seek to do business with the City of Charlotte “Ban the Box” on employment applications.
  4. Establish a program to promote the hiring of low-income residents in projects funded with public dollars.
  5. Adopt a meaningful apprenticeship program that focuses on training and development for people with multiple barriers to employment, with a focus on a diversion program for adjudicated youth.
  6. Accelerate the Council goal to provide 5,000 units of affordable housing from five years to three years.
  7. Continue the policy to progressively increase the minimum wage for City employees to $15 an hour.

Defend DACA: Dreamers Are Our Neighbors

On Tuesday, after the announcement that DACA would be discontinued by the Trump administration, I joined hundreds others in a demonstration at Marshall Park in Charlotte, NC.  I wanted to photo document some of the signs that the many Dreamers made and displayed at the demo. Before I took each photo, I asked each person if it would be ok to take the picture. Every time the answer was yes and every time I was struck by the courageous behind their answer. The kids we call Dreamers are facing deportation, being separated from their families and being dropped into a nation and a culture that, in most cases, they have never encountered directly.  The level of heartbreak was palpable. The courage that it took to even sign up for DACA, to be on record with the federal government as having entered the US illegally, is incredible to me. But then to make a sign, to be visible and to have their photos taken to be posted at random on the internet by a stranger? It was difficult to choke back the tears that kept arising when these kids consented to their photograph being taken. I told them they were beautiful and that they were speaking a powerful truth. If they can take the risk to stand up and speak for themselves, shouldn’t we as legal citizens be willing to risk speaking up, sacrificing our comfort, our money and our spare bedrooms to be there for the Dreamers. Perhaps we can intentionally go out of our way to support these kids.

I encourage you to view the images below mindfully. Do so in silence and take the time to really see and absorb their messages. Make it a meditation, feel the pain and the fear they are facing. Let it move you to take action. The time is now.