How to Organize and Mobilize our Communities


Even in today's increasingly complex world, average citizens are often better equipped than professionals and academics to fight and win electoral and issue-based battles.  In the second session of Resistance School, grassroots organizer Sara El-Amine explores the ineffective emphasis recent elections have placed on mobilizing compared to organizing and how organizing now will allow us to better mobilize in the future.  Sara then dives into the key components of successful issue-based and electoral campaigns, focusing on the importance of the people involved in those efforts.  Finally, the session ends with ways every one of us can try to persuade fellow voters, not simply in attempt to win elections, but as a more fundamental exercise in strengthening the fabric of our democracy.


Mobilizing vs. Organizing

Mobilizing and organizing are distinct theories of change that are employed by campaigns and organizations.  Mobilizing involves an action: dispersing a petition for others to sign, sending an email, calling a congressperson. With mobilizing, the 'technical knowledge' lies at the top of the organization; causing many different people to perform one actionable thing then causes a ripple effect.  On the other hand, organizing is broadly networked, long-term, and relationship-based skill. The disaggregation inherent to organizing causes actions or ideas to be attempted in many different places in order to “see what arises organically.” This unique structure provides people with the creativity to feel empowered, build their own networks, and take action for themselves. (Resistance School is an example of an organizing strategy.)

We Have Been Over-Mobilizing and Under-Organizing

Mobilizing is an incredibly important tool when a campaign or organization needs everyone to engage in a common action simultaneously  However, mobilizing strategies can actually prohibit revolutions; due to mobilizing’s ‘top-down’ approach, it often stifles creativity and inhibits true grassroots movements.  Instead of spending time, energy, and mental space building local and effective teams, with mobilizing those efforts are instead utilized making phone calls, handing out petitions, or writing emails.

Tip: Tune in to Session Three of Resistance School (‘How to Structure and Build Capacity for Action,’ featuring Marshall Ganz) for a deep-dive into creating powerful organizing teams that are prepared to enact long-lasting change that mobilizing is unable to provide.

Issue-Based vs. Electoral Advocacy

Many activists work solely on issue advocacy campaigns or electoral campaigns -- not on both. However, truly effective change will arise when people begin cycling back and forth between both kinds of campaigns.  After all, both types of campaigns help build skills and expertise by allowing individuals to find, reach out to, and persuade voters. Additionally, in between elections, issue campaigns would allow you to speak to voters about the issues they most care about as well as commonly shared values -- regardless of who they voted for in the previous election.

Tip:  A tactic often used to build the deep relationships through organizing is called a 1:1. Learn how to use this tactic in the OFA Organizing Manual, Section 4: Building Capacity (also included on the Session Two readings).

There are Four Phases of Electoral Advocacy

There are four distinct phases to every campaign.  First, you must identify the voters.  Get a sense of who stands where and what they care about.  As an example, the Obama campaign spent hundreds of thousands of volunteer and staff hours identifying which issues people held dear in every state.  It’s important to remember that the goal of an election is more than simply to ‘win’ -- it's about providing elected officials the opportunity to better understand their base, allowing them to more effectively govern in the future.  The next phase -- register voters -- is simple in theory, yet much more difficult in practice.  Once voters have been registered, they must be persuaded.  After all, persuasion is one of the most fundamental democracy-building exercises.  (Each campaign in a U.S. Presidential race spends approximately $1.2 billion on attempts to persuade voters.)  Persuasion often begins with issue advocacy and evolves into electoral advocacy. Finally, you have to turn out voters, making that final push at the polls in order to close out a campaign.  

Tip:  Secretaries of State often track voter registration.  They may be able to help you find the political parties in your district as well as voting habits within a community so you can identify which voters you need. Your local representative’s office will also have this information.

Persuasion is a Crucial Component Within Democracy-Building

For the first time in American history, during the 2016 election neither the Hillary Clinton nor the Donald trump campaign ran on-the-ground persuasion programs.  This lack of persuasion doesn’t simply hurt a campaign -- it hurts the very fabric of our democracy.  It creates barriers between elected officials and their voters, increases partisan polarization, and leads to demonization instead of bridge-building.  We must engage with people that we disagree with, even if -- especially if -- it is uncomfortable.  After all, the future of our country depends on it.

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Shoulders Down. Smiles On. 

Who do you want to talk to when it matters?  Persuading others is at the core of what we need to do, but it is by no means easy.  As organizers, we try to convince others when instead, our goal should be to listen in order to better understand them.  We need to seek out people who live in our communities to engage in real discussions.  Calling our representatives and going to city hall in order to gather information about voter registration can help us identify those who find themselves ‘in the middle’ of our districts. It is these people that we should attempt to reach out to and connect with.

Inquire. Relate. Share.

To be effective at persuading voters, remember to “I.R.S.” – Inquire, Relate, and Share.  First, you must inquire.  Resist the urge to tell people facts and instead ask them why they care about certain issues (or why the issue resonates with their values).  Next, relate -- find common values between the two of you.  Admittedly, this can involve a significant amount of strength and patience.  Yet you should try and demonstrate to the other person that you understand their history and maybe even share common values.  If you don’t share values, at least show them that you respect theirs.  Finally, share.  You must be vulnerable and share your own story; or, share an aspect of their story that resonated with you.  The complex secret to persuasion is actually simpler than people realize -- it is about sharing stories, empathetic listening, and active questions -- and it is the only way that we can create a vibrant, strong, and working democracy.

Tip:  Your own personal narrative is one way you can relate and share with others. Check out Resistance School Session One: “Sharing Your Story” for guidance from Professor Timothy McCarthy on the best ways to communicate your values through narrative.