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.

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