Social Movements Classes as Sites for Organizer Training

By Brian K. Obach

An alternative approach to teaching social movements classes is to do so in a way that imparts practical skills designed to prepare students for careers in organizing.  While higher education institutions offer training and professional development for a wide range of careers, this important career trajectory is almost completely neglected.  The dearth of higher education offerings in this area is so great that labor unions and private non-profit centers have had to develop their own training and education programs to meet their own demand.  With some modification, most social movements classes could be designed to develop that skill set and to better prepare students for careers as professional organizers.

There are thousands of non-profit community organizations and labor unions throughout the United States that employ social movement organizers.  A visit to a web-based employment clearinghouse for non-profit organizations yielded a list of over 600 jobs available under the designation “activism.”  The list included postings from organizations working on a wide range of issues including consumer protection, affordable housing, poverty, environmental issues, and civil rights.  A union specific employment page had over 100 help wanted advertisements seeking organizers for labor unions.  While demand for graduates with such skills is significant, there are few places where such training is available.  Aside from those who enroll in union training academies or similar privately sponsored programs, organizer positions are often filled by people who have worked on various causes as volunteers and who pick up the necessary skills through informal observation, ad hoc advice from more experienced activists and simple trial and error.  Social movements classes could significantly improve the quality of prospective employees available for this work.

In general sociology programs provide students with many of the analytical abilities necessary for careers as organizers.  Sociological study enables students to understand social structures, power, inequality, organizations and other social phenomena, all of which is relevant to work as an organizer.  Courses centered on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion and other social categories also provide students with knowledge and understanding crucially important to any organizer in the field.   In addition, sociology faculty often encourage their students to think critically and to become agents of social change. Sociology programs thus provide students with the tools to recognize, measure and analyze social injustice and they foster a social change orientation, yet they often provide few if any applicable skills for advancing societal reform.  We are missing out on significant opportunities to prepare students for careers in which they can challenge the injustices about which we teach.

In unsystematic, informal conversations with social movement instructors I have encountered two impediments to adopting this approach.  Some social movement scholars like the idea of including at least some kind of a “vocational” component to their classes, but feel that they lack the experience or knowledge to do so effectively.  It is true that there is a difference between “knowing about” and “knowing how.”  Yet much of what is commonly taught in social movements classes can be made more obviously applicable with subtle modifications or simply with additional exercises that foster an applied approach.  For example, lessons about the role of identity among social movement participants can be supplemented with exercises about how organizers can foster a sense of identity among prospective recruits.  Units on framing can include participatory exercises in which students must develop their own persuasive speech or “rap” about an issue, much like what canvassers or union organizers must do.  To the extent that instructors do not feel qualified to judge performance in these areas, the class can be made into a living laboratory where students evaluate one another and discuss the effectiveness of various techniques.

Many social scientists lament the fact that much scholarly knowledge is never actually utilized.  Indeed, much of what we know as social movement scholars is never made available in a usable way to practitioners in the field.  With relatively minor modifications to lesson plans and the addition of participatory exercises, much of what academics have learned about social movements can be made directly applicable by movement organizers.

In-class exercises that are designed to develop organizing skills can also be supplemented with out-of-the-classroom projects that foster these abilities.  For example, students can be assigned to organize an educational event on campus about an issue in which they are interested.  In doing so they would be required to carry out a number of tasks which, while not typically part of academic study, are crucially important organizing skills.  Booking a meeting space, mobilizing resources, recruiting participants, framing the issue, writing a press release, addressing an audience etc. are all fundamental to movement organizing, yet rarely are such skills taught in a social movement context.  Evaluation could again be based on the success of the event or on student reflections on the experience.

Some of the tasks associated with organizing may appear too rudimentary or intuitive, and not worth including in a college level assignment.  Yet almost three decades of experience with student activism on college campuses has demonstrated to me that such abilities are far from intuitive.  I have been to countless events (speakers, film showings, protests etc.) organized by students on college campuses, or even community-based events coordinated by adult volunteers or professional organizers, at which few if any participants show up, failings that could have been easily corrected by organizers with appropriate training.

Scholars who feel uncertain about their applied movement knowledge can certainly learn much from any number of books dedicated to this subject written by experienced activists and movement leaders.  These texts can also be assigned for use in social movements courses to supplement traditional scholarly readings.  The terminology is often different, but in many cases parallels can be drawn between movement advice presented in lay terms and academic research.  Saul Alinsky’s classic Rules for Radicals can be assigned both as a focus for analysis of key movement concepts and as a practical guidebook.  There are however, a number of other organizing manuals written by experience movement leaders.  Among them are Renku Sen’s Stir It Up, Randy Shaw’s The Activist’s Handbook, A Playbook for Progressives by Eric Mann and Doing Democracy by Bill Moyer.  My favorite is Organizing for Social Change by Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall and Steve Max, a very accessible step-by-step Alinsky-based organizing manual.  In short, movement scholars may know more than they think about applying the concepts utilized within the discipline.  Organizing manuals can be easily integrated with traditional reading assignments and participatory classroom exercises and out-of-class projects can provide students with a great advantage when seeking paid organizing work.

A second basis for hesitation that I have encountered among some social movement faculty is rooted in concern that this approach is inappropriate for the academy, either because it is too vocational or because it is too subversive.  During an economic period when students are particularly sensitive to the employment opportunities associated with their fields of study, the risk of offering too many directly applicable skills does not seem great.  In my role as advisor, the most common question that I hear is, “What can I do with a sociology degree?”  Many are pleased to learn about organizing careers, opportunities that are often left off of sociology employment guides.  I have also invited professional organizers, some of them former students, to speak in my classes.  For most sociology students, the prospect of a clear career path in which sociological knowledge can be directly applied is very welcome.

In regard to the “subversive” nature of applied skills training, it would seems disingenuous to neglect practical applications when so much of the material taught in sociology classes demonstrates the urgent need for social reform.  We must overcome the intellectual misconception that it is okay to analyze social problems and to even encourage a social change orientation, but that there is something inappropriate about actually providing the skills to fundamentally challenge social injustice.  Yet, in deference to that sentiment, I have never required participation in any particular movement group.  Some of my assignments require observation of movement activity, including meetings and actions, and students are allowed and encouraged to directly participate, but that is not part of their grade.  Yet it is direct experience (including separate internships if they can be arranged) combined with practical classroom training that can provide students with expanded career opportunities in legitimate lines of work with labor unions, community groups and any number of non-profit or political organizations that are in desperate need of skilled organizers.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Pedagogy of Social Movements

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