Organizing means many different things to different people. Some associate it with unfurling banners and occupying parks. Others think it’s about mobilizing as many people as possible to marches and protests. Still others believe that it’s about knocking on doors and gathering signatures. While these tactics can be a part of a successful organizing strategy, they all point to something more basic: the need for competent, trustworthy people who can do the work of bringing in ever greater numbers of working people, organizing them around a shared goal and shared vision of class struggle, and compelling them to take concrete collective action.
We can think of organizing as the project of growing our numbers, building our shared sense of solidarity, orienting each other around a common goal, giving people a sense of their own power to improve society, and leading the working class into conflict with capital — in this case, the private health insurance industry.
Organizing can be compared to another term: mobilizing. If organizing brings together ever greater numbers of ordinary people to act together as one force, develop their capacities, and systematically grow their power, mobilizing (or activism) is about engaging people already politically inclined to participate in short-term actions that, while occasionally appearing powerful by their numbers or size, do little to sustain a long term project, appeal to a base with real social force, or develop the capacities of those involved.
Organizing, unlike mobilizing, engages people who would not ordinarily consider themselves political actors, people who might have thought that politics only means voting. Organizing shows people that they can effect change on issues that are materially relevant to their day-to-day lives, develops their abilities and confidence, and helps them engage and develop others.
If our goal is to build a mass political movement that can win Medicare for All and continue to fight for transformative change, then organizing is the path forward. In order to both expand DSA and embed our goals in a mass social base, and in order to strengthen our own internal capabilities, every project we carry out, every event we hold, and every conversation we have should engage, develop, and support the capacities and confidence of our comrades. Our work should not be aimed at the small group of people who already identify as political activists; it should be aimed at the vast majority of ordinary, working-class people. This is the social base that can be activated by a knock on the door or a conversation that shows them that they can and should be involved in the shared struggle for a better society.
Unfortunately, though most organizers see leadership development and the recruitment of unorganized people as their goal, they sometimes fail to prioritize this goal because it is no easy task. As a result, they find themselves in situations where work is piling up, and the same individuals take on more and more tasks. They make hundreds of phone calls, put together countless events, and very rapidly burn themselves out.
An organizer’s success should not be measured by the number of hours they personally put in, but rather by the number of ordinary people they are able to bring in, develop, train, and support to further extend the work of organizing themselves. Of course, there are some tasks that are more suited to experienced socialist organizers: tasks that require expertise, confidentiality, and the ability to delegate. Nonetheless, keep in mind that every task you do personally is a leadership development opportunity missed, a member left unorganized, and a loss of potential valuable time for our collective project.
Many people believe that good organizers are people who are charismatic, extroverted, and great public speakers. While these qualities might be to a person’s benefit as an organizer, two simple qualities are key to their success as an organizer: 1) commitment and 2) curiosity.
People who have one of these traits but lack the other make poor leaders. The combination of the two is essential. If a person is committed to fighting for socialism, always willing to do the work, even if it’s seemingly menial tasks like making calls or picking up snacks, and is also constantly approaching their activism with curiosity, asking questions and learning from their mistakes, they can be great organizers.
When you’re trying to figure out who is a leader in your own Medicare for All campaign, keep in mind that the people who self-identify as leaders aren’t always actual leaders. Leaders show their commitment and curiosity in their work, not in their words.
Someone’s leadership capacity can only be demonstrated through experience. That’s why the biggest tool we have as organizers is to repeat a simple process that most of us probably do naturally. There are four simple steps to what can be called the “organizing cycle”:
- Making the Ask
- Building In Support
1. Making the Ask:
Ideally, you should begin the organizing cycle after having a one-on-one conversation with a person where you begin to develop a trusting relationship and learn what their self-interest is, i.e., their personal stake in the fight to win Medicare for All. This isn’t always possible, as you may have to make an ask of someone out of the blue, having just met them.
Once you’re ready to make an ask of a person and begin the cycle, here are things to keep in mind:
- Only make an ask of a person if you think they can successfully complete it.
- Never take back an ask once you’ve made it.
- Make sure the person knows that you are there to support them and that they can reach out to you for support when they need it.
You should always strive to make an ask that is appropriate to the person. Some asks will be simple, like “Come to this event.” Others will be more involved or complicated, like “Organize the next event.”
2. Building In Support:
For projects that are not very involved, you can simply schedule an intermediate check-in, if that’s appropriate. (For example, you could say, “Let’s get on the phone after you make the first round of calls to make sure you’re ready to make the second round”). If you have communicated to the person that you are there if and when they need further support, they should reach out if they encounter problems.
For more involved projects, you’ll need to go a little further to support the person and set them up to succeed. Agree upon goals and a timeline collaboratively with the person. You can do this immediately after making the ask, or, if time doesn’t allow for it, schedule another meeting to do so.
- Setting Goals:
- Precisely describe the project to them and ask if they understand it. Clarify if they don’t.
- Ask them what they think the goals of the project are. Get them to throw out as many relevant goals as possible and share any that you have.
- Once you’ve stated all the goals, have the person repeat them back to you so that you know you’re on the same page.
- Setting a Timeline:
- Make a detailed timeline for the project that lays out every task involved in completing it. Be as granular as possible without being redundant.
- With a project that culminates in a big event or goal, it can be helpful to start from the end date and work backwards. For instance, if you’re planning a phonebank on January 1st, put “Phonebank on January 1st” as the last item and write down all the things that need to happen before then to pull it off, like “Create a script,” “Distribute call lists,” etc.
- Once you’ve listed all of the tasks, put them into chronological order, and, again working backwards, decide on a deadline for each one.
- Then assign each task to a person (if multiple people are working on the project).
- Finally, build check-ins into your timeline, especially before critical deadlines. This way, the person will expect that you will check in with them, and you can make sure everything is on track without micromanaging.
Your goal should be to debrief with every person you are working with after every project and task they take on. This won’t always be possible, but debriefing is where much of your work in the prior steps will come to fruition. Taking the time to talk through how a project went will give you valuable information about the person that helps you determine if they embody the two core traits of a successful leader, how the process went, what was learned, and what an appropriate next ask would be.
- Once the project is complete, schedule a debrief with everyone involved to talk about what went well and what people want to do differently the next time.
- Pay special attention to signs that the person is committed and/or curious. Are they asking lots of good questions? Do they seem to have learned from mistakes they made or solved problems that arose over the course of the project? Do they seem excited to take on another substantial project?
Repeat steps 1-3 with as many people as possible. Your goals should always be to 1) identify/test leaders and 2) accomplish the work that is most important for the organization.
As potential leaders succeed with asks, you can increase the commitment and difficulty of the asks you make. For instance, someone might start out as a canvasser, be asked to be a canvass captain, and, after demonstrating skill as a captain, be asked to help lead campaign activities like organizing trainings, canvasses, or educational events. Always be thinking about what level of ask is right for the person at that point in time, taking into consideration their capacity, skill set/expertise, and your goals in developing them as a leader.
And since we want to be developing ourselves and others into capable socialist organizers, it is important that leadership development always be paired with political education. Encourage your leaders to attend reading groups and socialist night school sessions. If they go, ask them how the events went before you get into your conversations about organizing work. Share socialist readings about Medicare for All (see here for a list of relevant readings) and ask them what they thought. By tying an organizer’s everyday work to a larger critique of capitalism, they will learn to think about their organizing work within the broader framework of anti-capitalist struggle.
Application of the above steps will secure people committed to our fight for socialism and willing to put the needs of the collective before their own. As your testing brings these people to the surface, it is essential that you focus your energy on them, especially to help them develop others. Here’s how to do it.
- Approach one of your leaders and tell them why you think they would be good at developing other leaders. Ask them if they would like to work with you to learn how to do so. If they say yes, set a meeting.
- During this meeting:
- Go through the above content of this document, using your own experience as much as possible to illustrate the steps involved and soliciting feedback to make sure they understand what the steps are and why they are important.
- Have them talk about people they have encountered in their organizing that they want to test and develop, then encourage them to set up meetings with the people they identify.
- Set a recurring meeting for the two of you (every 1-2 weeks) during which you talk about their leadership development work, solve problems that arise, and decide on next steps for the people they are developing.
- Throughout this process, be sure to offer support and to encourage your leader to solicit support when needed.
Personally developing pathways to leadership for each new person is an extremely labor-intensive process, and your work will always benefit from designing systems to facilitate this process for as many people as possible. We can call such systems leadership development engines.
These are repeatable, mass organizing programs that can bring in a number of people with no political or organizing experience whatsoever, increase the organizing capacities and political confidence of all of them, and also identify and develop as organizers those who stand out. In other words, leadership development engines are tools to systematize all of the above leadership development steps, taking out much of the intellectual labor an organizer is required to do when developing new people. By systematizing a process, an organizer no longer has to think “What is the next ask?” or “How do I support the person in accomplishing it?”
A good example here is a canvassing program composed of organizers, canvass captains, and canvassers. The organizers are the people who put together the entire event, train the captains, and support them as they do their work. The captains are responsible for recruiting, training, and supporting canvassers. And the canvassers are responsible for knocking on doors.
Another good example is a membership drive that’s organized through similar roles. For instance, if you want to call every member of your chapter and ask them to renew their dues, you could identify a few organizers who are responsible for producing materials, figuring out the logistics of the drive, and recruiting initial membership captains. These captains would then be tasked with holding phonebanks and recruiting phonebankers who would make renewal calls.
Such a structure does a few things:
- It creates a series of roles, each with a different level of difficulty/commitment but all of which can be held by multiple people simultaneously. While you may have just one or two organizers for a membership drive, you could have many more membership captains and even more phonebankers.
- It builds in opportunities for new organizers to be identified, tested, and developed at every level. Canvassers can get one-on-one time with canvass captains, who can assess their commitment and curiosity; organizers can do the same with canvass captains, and each role can identify people who should be asked to take on a more substantial role at the next canvass. In other words, with each canvass you do, canvass captains can identify canvassers who will be good future canvass captains, and organizers can identify canvass captains who can organize the next canvass.
- It lays out a clear structure of asks, complete with defined responsibilities and training requirements. That means fifteen phonebankers can go on to be membership captains for not much more effort than it would take to train one phonebanker to do so.
These examples are specific, but you can design all sorts of other organizing programs that accomplish the same goals. The best part about leadership development engines is that they typically produce much more than they require. For instance, people who are trained as canvass captains will often jump at the opportunity to do all kinds of other projects and fill other important roles, from planning fundraisers to holding phonebanks, dramatically increasing the capacity of the organization.
In addition to producing organizers and leaders, they also produce more active members. It is only by growing our ranks by bringing ordinary people into the struggle for Medicare for All that we can build a mass movement capable of challenging the rule of capital over our health and our entire lives.